Rev Dr Ian Robinson, August 2013, Chaplain, University of Western Australia
I just walked past the same biology lab where once the lights went on for me. I was a young Christian and science undergraduate. I was being hammered by the atheistic science-lecturers (yes, they were proselytizing for atheism). On the balcony before the lab opened I was reading the theologian Francis Schaeffer. A superb critical thinker, he was able to describe the integrity of Christian thought within the western tradition. Faith and science were able to interleave very well for me. Just lately, the very opposite is being shouted from the rooftops. Students entering this university have almost all sucked up the vibe from secondary school that science and faith are immiscible liquids. My reading, viewing, public debates, many articles and some corridor conversations on campus have started to keep me awake at night. I want to reach beyond the carp and appeal to the best instincts of church people and science people. I am irritated by the low quality of the debates, but even more, I fear for science if it clears Christianity from its corridors. I fear for the church if it becomes anti-intellectual and anti-science. Here is why.
THE METHODS OF SOME CURRENT ATHEIST SCIENTISTS
Reason without reason
Atheist scientists often claim to be speaking on behalf of “reason” and “humanity” against “belief” and “the church”. In historical perspective, they are simply speaking Humean philosophy (that’s David Hume the Scottish sceptic) in the frame of mid twentieth century Positivism. That is, without realising it, they speak from an identifiable philosophical frame with its own beliefs. For example, one of these oft-stated beliefs is ‘everything can be known by the scientific method’. Can it? Try finding a thought, love, truth, space, value, morality, beauty, etc.. in fact anything that makes life worthwhile really. I respect their choice to hold such a belief but the fact is – a ‘belief’ is all it is. Last night on Catalyst, they spoke of multiverses existing in an infinite time loop, and were able to hold an exciting belief in the intelligence behind the universe, though not of course having anything to do with God. And they have the cheek to say that theists have no evidence! They glory in ‘scientific method’ but they show by this that they themselves do not know what it is. Their take on Rationalism is not an absolute but they act as though it deserves to be. Given that they have heard alternatives from intelligent scientists who hold to faith, the hubris in this is breath-taking.
Probability is not possibility
One particular problem with Humean scepticism is that their definition of Reason deals only with probabilities, the most reasonable probable explanation is the true one. Like a microscope in a macro world, probability can therefore only focus on repeated events, can only look at normality. It means therefore that no singularity or unique event or object is able to be processed. So a singular God or an anomalous event like a miracle simply cannot fit the starting criteria, and so it appears through the Humean microscope like a great blur. In science, say with a supernova, they move to indirect lines of evidence and inductive reasoning, but try to do that in regards to God and they use their microscope to say that the evidence is too indistinct. It does not ‘prove’ that God cannot exist or miracle don’t happen but simply that they have used the wrong intellectual instrument for the task. The many repeated events that show forth an act of God, according to a faith tradition, repeated and shared experiences, are each discounted as a single experience. Science is a mechanics workshop in a street where people know they need also to find what they need in the artist’s studio, the bakery, the kindergarten and the church. The answer to a question for the mechanic can never be “cobalt blue” – he simply wants the right spanner. Next door, the cobalt blue they are using sends peace through everyone who sees it. Meanwhile next door in the bakery, chemistry is being practised by a dob of butter stirred in with love not by spectrometric analysis and algebraic formulae. Christianity addresses the people in their depth and variety, the whole street. Humans are not Humean.
So I am troubled by the lack of self-awareness of their own methods and annoyed at the dismissal of critical lines of evidence that it precipitates. My third worry is the way that tertiary level arguments are levelled against high school perceptions of Christianity. To spin the blame around, it is like intellectual Christians comparing their best message with science as seen in homeopathy or alien abduction or “Popular Science” magazine. I wince when I hear science being described by young-earth creationists as though they own both the theories of science and the doctrine of Creation. Further, I actually struggle to recognise my faith in the cavalier protests of the atheists, though I too have heard the rumours that there are Christians somewhere who say such things as they quote. They routinely show that they know next to nothing about philosophy, church history, or theology, every bit as bad as the Creationists’ ignorance of science. Yet with more impatience than I want to admit, I sit there while they speak with arm-waving authority and school-room humour that they have proved something. Simply, please be fair, or ask yourself instead why you prefer to use scorn. What would happen to science if you employed such myopic dismissals?
Science deserves some mistrust
My fourth criticism is less philosophical. There are reasons why large parts of the population have turned away from science in recent generations. We have watched the lab-coat authority of eugenics otherwise known as genetic modification, the accidental holocaust of DDT, unmitigated pollution, run-away climate change, the use and threat of nuclear weapons and invasion of privacy through technologies. Some science has created fear and destruction. Some science has overturned nature in all its fragility, beauty, balance and restorative power. No scientist meant to do that, but they did. Such destruction is not new to science when stripped from theology. In an earlier generation we saw (not biological evolution, a brilliant conception) the theory of social evolution, wherein one race assumed its superiority over another race, used as an absolute reason to subjugate them or wipe them out – ‘the stronger shall supplant the weaker’, as one white man explorer said, and he even called it a ‘divine fiat’. As a theology it is simply appalling, but it was written as science – the evolution-law of ‘advantage enhancing survival’. See how a scientific description of survivalism became a prescription and prerogative to dominate. As a result we witnessed historically the destruction of peoples, environments, cultures, languages and families, and we now see a legacy which Aboriginal persons still live with daily. Most scientists did not want that to happen, but it did.
The scientific method or the institution of science is no great white angel and lost the trust that all other institutions have lost in the recent generation. No wonder that parts of society revert to creation-science in theology, dubious alternative therapies in medicine, horoscopes in our magazines, New Age in pursuit of social wellbeing, the rejection of immunisation by parents, and so on. You may say that science did its proper thing and went on to correct those erroneous beliefs. Maybe, but it would not have gone there in the first place if science had a way to hold more closely to the humanist values that it now wants to claim. The Humeans burned that bond. The legacy of the scientific method is therefore every bit as flawed as any other historic institution, including the church. A more intellectually-anchored humility such as I have hint at here might reassure the populace that more accidental destruction was not being let loose from behind laboratory doors. Unfettered science is just another fundamentalism.
How will science anchor its humility and secure its gifts? Science needs Christianity. I will come back to the way that Christianity needs science as a bulwark against the anti-intellectual fringe but go with me for now.
SCIENCE NEEDS CHRISTIANITY
Love of the truth
All science values the pursuit of truth just as Christians do. We both reject superstition, syncretism, and anecdotal explanations. But there are three reasons why science should support and not ridicule faith stances – in the fields of ethics, epistemology and wholism.
Where are your ethics from?
Firstly, everyone has ethics. All persons have a conscience except psychopaths and news editors. 😉 The church is not the sole possessor or arbiter of morality, never was, and I apologise for those bishops who try to claim that privilege. However, Christians struggle to see in the lab where scientists get their ethics from. There are new philosophical arguments about this and in a recent trend agnostics have started ‘somethings without borders’ or other NGO’s as though it is a new idea. They deserve every kind of support. But, pardon me, the churches have been doing that sort of thing quite selflessly for two thousand years. – clinics, hospitals, schools, community empowerment, cross cultural communication, and a long list more. Surprisingly long actually, so I wonder if it is embarrassment that has motivated the atheists to get up and be counted at long last. Welcome to the dark side of reality, that is, the coal face. All help appreciated, but please don’t leave early and don’t just do it to get a line on your CV.
How strong are your ethics?
That plea leads me to my main problem. The main problem is that science does not believe their own ethics strongly enough. For example, recently in scientific journals more and more articles are being retracted. Discussion has focussed on a culture of unethical pursuit of research grants. Other examples I have given above. The boldness of science – ‘Follow the evidence wherever it leads’ – has veered towards ‘follow the grant money wherever it leads’. I actually believe that it has always been the compass – the driver for aligning with Humean rationalism rather than other positions that were available at the time, is that it was more God-free and value-free, and allowed imperial colonialism to do its worst without serious question. We are still on that course.
I bring another light to this point. Christians hold similar ethical frameworks as everyone else, as research shows, but they hold it more strongly, generously and with high emphasis on equality, community and restorative justice. That track record is there to see around the globe. Not perfect, not even close to being heaven on earth, so not immune from corruption and hypocrisy. We are also so open to the community that sometimes our God-given compassion is predated upon by manipulative persons. Ask at any neighbourhood church. At another level, ask at some trials of priests and others. I think one of the best arguments for the existence of God may be the continued existence of the church, despite its own internally-directed incompetence. But the church, like science, can reform, renew, heal ourselves and get back out there where angels fear to tread. (I am pleased to say there are stellar examples of atheists who also get out there but my point is still valid.)
Christian faith generally makes persons to be generous, hospitable and committed – beyond reasonable cost and beyond death – to make a difference with their life. The current global challenges require no less. Do you want that source to be stopped?
God does not pull strings
Secondly, science needs faith for their thinking, that is, epistemology. Theism provided historically a view of the world as stable and knowable. God had established the world to run by itself and sustained it by his power. In Theism, God was not pulling the strings. Theism is therefore the bedrock upon which science could be built. If the world was seen as capricious and unstable to the whims of the gods, no thinker would bother investigating. Not only Christianity but also Taoism and Islam provided this stable basis for the growth of science. Without theism or something very like it, there would have been no scientific endeavour.
Hooked up to the fashions of science?
What about the famous periods of history where the well-established church opposed scientific advance – the Galileo effect? A coupler of points should lay that one to rest, First, the academic establishment at the time also opposed Galileo’s new ideas. They were defending, against Galileo’s ‘determination’ (ahem!), Aristotle’s cosmology not the biblical ones. Christians today who hook up their theology to their culture, to the Big Bang, to a God-of-the-gaps, are making the same error. Just as lots of ‘advances’ need to be resisted on humanist or biblical grounds, so too we must resist some cheap alternatives and some third-rate but earnest theologies.
Science hooked up to theistic ethics
Let me take another step. To pursue scientific knowledge like this is ‘to think God s thoughts after him’. Such science is full of genius, gratitude and humility. It is generous in a plentiful universe , creative about the Creator and humble about our achievements. It is wondrous, endlessly curious, and often feels at awe at what we are discovering, privileged with the knowledge with which we are entrusted. People of faith are not the only ones who can feel these things, but we feel them strongly and that experience is widespread. So I wouldn’t go about destroying such a seed bed of excellence. To destroy these is to risk being led by an even greater hubris, power-plays and some other forms of tribalism.
Generous with the gift of technology
And another point was made recently at this University by Vishal Mangalwadi (p99), an Indian Christian and social activist. While great inventions and great science have arisen in other cultures and empires, it is in the Christian West that the technology has spread most widely. The benefits of scientific inventions are spread not by science but by those with a wide view of human dignity and community.
‘In most cultures, the ruling elite patronize technology if it made them stronger than their enemies, internal or external. They welcomed technology for war, pleasure, prestigious monuments and the oppression of their people. Only one culture has promoted technology for general welfare and for liberating and empowering the weak – slaves, women, children, the handicapped and the poor…the humanizing technology that came out of biblical theology.’
He gives many examples and his theory reflects many similar recent works.
More senses more data better outcome
As well as ethics (sense of morality) and epistemology (coherence, congruence), Christianity contributes a wide range of intuitive senses to build wholistic outcomes. Sense of justice, sense of connection, sense of community, sense of beauty and the ring of truth. Because of Jesus’ achievements, we interpret in the machinations of the world that Love matters more than power, Truth is something that is embodied not just thought, and ‘critique’ must result in communitarian action. Since Christianity first emerged from persecution, it has adopted a policy of shared thinking across global cultures and languages , which resulted in a creative knowledge of humanity, counter-intuitive intellectual thought, and occasionally some inter-cultural battles. Chaplains like me work against the silo-mentality of different schools of thought, attempting to find bridges in experience, reason, and history. Christians also work across the silos of the political schools in order to build alliances that will actually pursue justice for all and therefore peace through truth healing and reconciliation. Jesus spoke of ‘life in all its fullness’ and ‘the truth shall you free’ and those two things are definitely our collective experience. A wholistic vision can lead to a thoroughly wholesome life.
If a person is gifted in intellectual analysis to work in one of those myriad, small, like-minded scientific teams which focus like a laser onto specific outcomes for the health of the planet, I rejoice. Perhaps they are not well placed or well suited to look across the courtyard and see what happens to their inventions in a tawdry world. So please don’t tell me that science is all we need for a good life. We all need builders and restorers of wholeness and, I hope this is not just my bias, this is Christianity’s special task. I do hope there are other allies. To put it a little simplistically but to make my point, if the lab finds a cure for malaria, who do you think will take it to the jungles of Africa and stay there long enough at risk to themselves to see through the implementation of the solution? Science needs Christianity.
CHRISTIANITY NEEDS SCIENCE
My last point leads straight on to assert the reverse, Christianity needs science. To bring relief to malaria sufferers we obviously need people who will fund research and build labs, do the research well and manufacture the solution at a reasonable cost. Usually these are not church activities. Church is more likely to be running the clinic that delivers the jab, running the parenting course that empowers the women and men, the playgroup that promotes support systems, and so on.
Further, a world bent on superstition does dreadful things to human dignity. A world where reason does not matter produces sloppy syncretistic nonsense in the lower registers of common denominators. Let’s all think well, critique well, educate one another to think below surface impressions. Christians have been conspicuous in the education role in both east and west since the idea of education emerged. Judging from the many casualties of some church schools that I have counselled, churches and church agencies have sometimes perverted their own values by an abuse of positional power. So, let me close with how Christianity needs science – for its theology, its structures and its ethics.
Against sloppy thinking
Like science, Theology needs to be able to defend its methods, define its critique and be able to state where it is reading into the data and not reading out from it. We learn thus from the scientific method but are not restricted to it. Data in theology is not simply ‘matter’, as I said above, but it is data nonetheless and subject to the same powers of reason as science. Analysis and critique are not enough because faith means finding a basis of trust in action, usually a creative and constructive exercise. Nevertheless, like building the wall of a house that eventually needs other pictures and patterns to become a home, Theology needs the simple straight edge of scientific method to measure part of their task. In Europe they even call it ‘scientific theology’. Without it, theological thinkers have been captured in the web of the ambiguities and abstractions of language.
Address cultural assumptions
Like science, church life needs to be sure that we are addressing our own cultural assumptions. While science looks globally for its journal referees, and academic theology does the same, local church leaders do not do it enough, despite Jesus’ ‘Great Commission’ that the church addresses all cultural groups.
My participation in a lifelong conversation with science, illustrated by this article, has helped to highlight the captivity of the church to western rationalist assumptions. Such captivity has restricted the church from their proper roles to follow Jesus into living up the kingdom of God – in other words, to be a global community in the service of wonder, wholeness and worship which Jesus defined and achieved.
Keep the big picture
Finally, the church’s ethics need to be challenged by science’s big picture thinking. In the current environment the trend is for faith to be privatised. Therefore, in public life it allows other monsters to dominate and predate. On the flip side the retreat into privatisation fosters judgementalism.
For instance, free enterprise economics can (unexamined) be allowed to run and ruin the world to the advantage of very few but meanwhile some parts of the church treat private sexual behaviours with vehemence. Jesus targeted that sort of hypocrisy for special attention. Mind you, if we swing to neoliberalism we are not going to change anything soon, either. The church needs to escape the traps, in a New Testament typology, of Pharisaism (privately good and endlessly nit picking) and Sadduceeism (publically powerful and bent on accommodation). The public practise of Grace, understood Christianly, is a barrier to both those tendencies. It is Science’s call to remind the church that what they believe must matter more widely than their own bubble, must be transferable to someone else who tries it. Jesus would agree.
If you have a headache by now you know why I have lain awake at night. You might also see what I have seen and what at present I only glimpse – a future in a better partnership, and one that is not tame. Where scientists who believe in Jesus walk with those who don’t, and produce great inventions in the service of humanity which deliver even greater real world outcomes. And Christians will not claim privileges for being the only ones who know anything, and start listening, questioning their assumptions and become the global community that they were always called by Jesus to be. Let’s stay awake to that.
Mangalwadi, Vishal (2011) The Book that Made Your World – how the bible created the soul of western civilization, Thomas nelson, Nashville isbn978-1-5955-5322-5
Schmidt, Alvin J (2001,2004) How Christianity changed the World – if Jesus had never lived, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, isbn 978-0-310-26449-1