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Science and Christianity
by Hieronymus


Part One - Atheists against Religion

Part Two - Christians against Science

Bibliography and Sources

Part One - Atheists against Religion

Canadian radio personality Peter Gzowski was interviewing two neuroscientist-philosophers, the Churchlands - Paul and Patricia. During their dialogue, the inextricable connection between mind and brain was explained. Sounding startled, Gzowski said: "Does that mean I have no soul?" Their answer, in short, was unfortunately not. The assumption was plain: they had proved traditional religion totally false. Paul offhandedly mentioned that this showed that there was no God. "I like to go on long walks outdoors as my way of spirituality," said Patricia. Gzowski accepted this without much fuss and they moved on to more important matters.

Had a thinking person who valued faith pursued this, they would have found that religion was not so easily silenced. Theologians, philosophers and scientists have long been considering the implications of contemporary neuroscience for Christianity and have produced a number of totally orthodox views on the matter. A major strand has been the re-discovery of the Hebraic notion of psychosomatic unity, which is expressed in the Bible, and a questioning of the Hellenistic and Cartesian dualities that have marked some Christian thought. Jesus, after all, did not speak of some incorporeal soul, but rather, the resurrection of the body. Man is not given a soul in Genesis - he becomes one. Nevertheless, these scientists were sure they knew what Christians believed, and they knew it was false. No questions asked.

The lesson is this: Scientists are often lousy philosophers. While totally competent, even brilliant, within their field, they can display astonishing ignorance and prejudice about other disciplines. Further, a lifetime of specialization often leads on to apply the insights of one's field as rules for all other areas of inquiry. While this can yield interesting results, there is an imperial tendency among some scientists. This is why we have scientists attempting to collapse biology into chemistry, chemistry into physics, and sociology, anthropology and psychology into biology. As for theology, well, as E. O. Wilson, sociobiologist extraordinaire, wrote in his book Consilience: "Theology is not likely to survive as a separate discipline." This expert in insect biology contends that, like ants or bees, humans are almost completely controlled by their genes. Religion's truth-claims are elaborate illusions used to maximize reproductive fitness. John Polkinghorne, ex-physicist and Anglican priest, quotes Jeffery Wicken in his Science and Christian Belief: "Although scientists may officially eschew metaphysics, they love it dearly and practice it in popularized books whenever they get the chance," and goes on to comment : "If we are going to be metaphysicians willy-nilly, let us at least be consciously self-critical about it."

I recall coming across an essay in which Carl Sagan, science populizer and atheist, questioned the Golden Rule. (I'm afraid I don't remember the book this was in.) He showed an incredible lack of knowledge of what that rule was. He contended that, while everyone admired the Golden Rule, no one actually practiced it. However, the principle he mocked was actually "Do good to others at expense to your own well-being," not "Do unto others as you would have them do to you," which takes into account the enlightened self-interest he was recommending! After all, Jesus did not say: "Love others more than yourself, " but rather, "Love others as you love yourself." As Holmes Rolston III, professor of biology and of philosophy states: "After all, the Second Great Commandment urges us to love others as we do ourselves, and that presumes self-love as an unquestioned principle of human behavior and urges us to combine this with loving others."

In many cases, hostility to religion can cause and otherwise brilliant person to wear blinders. This is glaringly obvious in the case of Richard Dawkins, British evolutionary biologist and God's own atheist. An excellent writer and accomplished scientist, his unremitting hatred of all things religious colours all of his writings. His well-known "selfish gene" metaphor/theory is exceedingly interesting but is ultimately damaged by its muddled metaphysics, which seem to have been devised for no other reason than to make the idea repugnant to religious folk. In the end, his fulminations become somewhat baffling and a tad embarrassing because they are so angry. Like a bull charging a red flag, much dust is raised, but not much is accomplished - at least not on the part of the bull. In fact, Dawkins' attacks have done a great deal to encourage the dialogue of serious Christian thought with serious scientific philosophy. Paraphrasing Voltaire, it has been said that "If Richard Dawkins did not exist, the Christian community would have been forced to invent him." See thinkers like Michael Poole's exchange with him and Holmes Rolston's Genes, Genesis and God for excellent critiques of Dawkin's anti-religious arguments.

As with the Churchlands, what Sagan and Dawkins attack is not genuine Christianity, but a straw man: a flawed representation of Christianity constructed out of their own imaginations, so that they might have the pleasure of kicking the stuffing out of it. Let us be sure we do not fall into the same trap. No Christian should use the examples of a few hostile scientists to bash science or scientists in general. A religious person who uses Dawkins' hostility to Christianity to attack often-maligned (in conservative Christian circles) evolutionary theory is unwittingly allying with him, since he claims that science and religion are undying enemies. Nothing could be further for the truth. It is the duty of every committed Christian to be aware of what contemporary science has to say to religion and vice versa. In my next part of this article, I will consider the other side of the story - the mistakes and bungles which Christians have made which contribute to the perceived conflict between science and Christianity.

Part Two - Christians against Science

Christians believe in "God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth", whom, they assert, brought all things into being out of nothingness.

This means, then, that for Christians the universe is readable. It may be terrifyingly vast. It may be incredibly complex. It may even be subject to a large degree of chance and random circumstance. It will however, be intelligible, and rational minds, given enough time and information, will be able to discern its patterns. These patterns will not be figments of the perceiving minds. These are present in the universe itself, because it is the creation of a rational intelligence, and because it has existence independent of perceiving minds. (If a tree falls in the forest and there's no-one around, does it make a sound? Yes.) Further, God (Christians assert) is not the universe. The universe is not God. While God's sustaining power is necessary for its existence, it is distinct and separate from Him.

These beliefs constitute one of Christianity's great intellectual strengths - its cosmology and philosophy of nature. Modern science was born and raised primarily in Western Christendom precisely because of these ideas. Other cultures and systems of thought certainly contributed to the emergence of science, and had their own discoveries in mathematics or astronomy, but it was only in the intellectual matrix of Christianity that empirical and experimental science as we know it was established.

At this point someone invariably says: What about the Greeks? The ancient Greeks had a highly developed mathematical knowledge but did not go far in experimental science. Edward Gibbon claimed this was due to Christianity's repressive rise. A closer reading reveals that the Greek beliefs in Fate and in a myriad of fickle gods who altered reality at a whim partly undermined their ability to study the natural world. Some philosophers emphasized intangible spirit as perfection and matter as corrupt. Not only did Aristotle's natural philosophy state that a heavy object will fall faster than a light one, a vacuum is impossible, the universe is eternal and the earth is at its centre, but he went so far as to claim that these things had to be so. In fact, Aristotelianism (highly influential on the medieval scholastics) proved to be a hindrance to the development of experimental science in the West. The medieval debates about God's ability to create alternate worlds (Aristotle's teachings said no, the Church said yes) were not pointless theological nit-picking but in fact were highly significant to the birth of science.

So Christianity and science should be, theoretically at least, fairly compatible. However, there is a price to be paid. The corollary of believing in an intelligible universe, a rational Creator, and claiming to love truth is this: we must accept the results of unbiased scientific investigation, whether or not they fit our prejudices and particular theological presuppositions. This is where the problems begin.

All too often, Christians act as if we have a "get-out-of-jail-free card" when it comes to the natural sciences. We refuse to accept findings that perturb our neat and tidy interpretations of scripture and wave away things that make us uncomfortable. Ideas that would force us to return to the sources and develop a new understanding are pushed away with a "No, I don't believe in that, I believe in the Bible." This conveniently ignores the fact that scripture doesn't pretend to be a science textbook. "I believe in the Bible", in this context, often means things like "I believe in Milton's interpretations of scripture", "I believe in nineteenth century popular theology" or "I don't feel like thinking about this."

To be fair, all worldviews find certain facts difficult to work into their system. All belief systems encourage people to sweep things that don't fit under the carpet. However, Christians believe in one God who has created the entire universe. All truth is thus God's truth, and any honestly gotten information will somehow reconcile with all the rest. If it doesn't, this does not mean that it is false, but that our theology is not broad enough. Christianity includes within itself a self-critical truth-seeking imperative.

These issues are not new. Augustine had to counsel some of his fellow Christians about their attitude to natural science (what there was of it in those days). It seems that some uneducated Christians were speaking as if their faith and their knowledge of scripture made them experts in every field of knowledge. This caused their educated hearers to sneer and scoff at what they saw as Christianity's fairy tales. Augustine himself had left the Manichean religion because, as he writes in his Confessions: "I had read a great many scientific books which were still alive in my memory. When I compared them with the tedious tales of the Manichees, it seemed to me that of the two, the theories of the scientists were more likely to be true." He thus taught that scripture's primary purpose is to teach us about our relationship to God, not to explain the natural world. As Alister McGrath writes, he "argued for a twofold sense - a literal-fleshly-historical approach and an allegorical-mystical-spiritual sense, although Augustine allows that some passages can possess both senses. 'The sayings of the prophets are found to have a threefold meaning, in that some have in mind the earthly Jerusalem, others the heavenly city, and others refer to both.'"

Nevertheless, throughout Christianity's history, many believers have tenaciously taught theological ideas as scientific facts - turning many away from "the tedious tales" of the Christians! Luther, for example, had a very dim view of science. The contemporary Christian philosopher Peter van Iwagen writes in his section of God and the Philosophers: "A fundamentalist-turned-logical-positivist once called me a wishy-washy theological liberal because I read the book of Genesis in a way that was compatible with modern cosmology. I asked him whether he thought that Augustine was a wishy-washy theological liberal. "Yes," he said."

One reason that there are militantly atheistic scientists and "fundamentalists-turned-logical-positivists" is that sometimes Christians are massively, bone headedly, and dogmatically wrong in their claims to have absolute knowledge of the world. The condemnation of Galileo was a complex struggle that had more to do with politics than with religion. So was the Scopes trial. In both, a close reading of the historical context is necessary. Regardless, these were cases in which the church and large numbers of Christians used dogma and obscurantism to suppress scientifically gained truth.

Prince Charles spoke out in his Reith Lecture against the hazards of genetically engineered foods, an issue which, to be sure, is a legitimate concern. However, he based his arguments on a hazy theology of nature that had more to do with Platonism than Christianity. Scientists (especially Richard Dawkins in this reply) were not impressed and gave the impression that the two sides can only talk past one another.

One of the major causes of Christian misunderstanding of science is the God of the Gaps. This is a term coined by the devout Christian and chemist Charles A. Coulson to describe the way some believers mix science and theology. Anything which is currently unexplained or poorly understood by science is explained by saying "God must have done it." While this supposed proof of God's activity makes some people feel comfortable, it never lasts. Time and again, the sciences advance in their understandings and the gaps are squeezed shut, usually incurring emotional pain on the believers in question. They feel that their faith is under assault by an aggressively atheistic science. This attitude is based on an 'either/or' view of science and religion, wherein anything explained by science can have nothing to do with God.

One symptom of this are the 'urban legends' that circulate through the Christian community. A common theme of such stories is "science defeated or confounded by religion." They include "deep drilling operation breaks into Hell", "NASA discovers Joshua's missing day", "man swallowed by whale/shark survives for three days", "soul photographed leaving the body", and the popular and remarkably stupid sermon illustration "science unable to explain the flight of bees - only God's power can do that." On closer inspection these are all nonsense, but they are still circulated by those Christians who feel that science and religion are at war.

There are atheists and skeptics dedicated to a vision of science as hostile to religion - and there are fundamentalist and dogmatic Christians who share that vision. These two extremist groups feed off of each other and, strangely enough, reinforce each other's paranoia. Is there a balanced middle ground to be found? Certainly, and a great many Christians are already there. They see theology and science as different ways of exploring and describing the same reality. Each field can shed light on the other. Science must respect its limits and function, and so must theology, and yet both have insights to share. This is essentially the view promoted by Pope John Paul II. As one Jewish writer (and lawyer) recently counselled, believers who are confronted with new scientific discoveries should take several deep breaths and then calmly think about the theological implications. Most often they are minimal.

It is also important that Christians keep themselves educated about science and its impact on the world and their worldview. In our time, when some postmodernists aggressively deny the existence of an objective reality, scientists and Christians have a great deal in common. There are many brilliant theologians and scientists writing on the relationship between science and Christianity who deserve to be read and discussed (as I hope my bibliography will demonstrate). In this way we can support both faith and reason - remaining faithful both to God and to the truth.

Bibliography and Sources


One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology - John Polkinghorne

An enjoyable little book on the basic philosophical and theological ideas to be found in the relationship between science and Christianity. Polkinghorne is an Anglican priest and retired theoretical physicist. His books are always quite accessible, reasonable, and avuncular, but he doesn't shy away from hard questions. He's one of the famous trinity of "scientists turned theologians", who (all in their seventies) are still hard at work in this field. The two others are Arthur Peacocke (molecular biologist) and Ian G. Barbour (physicist).

Science & Religion: An Introduction - Alister E. McGrath

A capable, technical, though still popular, introduction to the issues. A prolific younger (40-something) writer, McGrath is better known for his popular books on theology and Christian belief. However, his first doctorate was in molecular biophysics and he maintains a keen interest in the dialogue between science and religion. An Anglican, he splits his time between Oxford and the University of British Columbia. Being a popular writer and working at Oxford, he has been groomed as something of an antidote to Richard Dawkins, whose writings also issue from Oxford.

The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion - Alister E. McGrath

When the rector of my church visited McGrath's Oxford office, he found two computers running word processor programs side-by-side. This led him to speculate on McGrath's prolific output - does he write his academic and popular books simultaneously?. A comparison of this book and the above one will reveal that they are very similar - in fact, there are patches that are identical. However, this book is more technical and is aimed at an academic audience of students in theology, philosophy, and the natural sciences. It is meant to develop "the agenda set out by Thomas F. Torrance in his 1969 work Theological Science. Like Torrance, McGrath sees the need to examine the relation between Christian theology and the natural sciences at the level of method…"

God, Humanity and the Cosmos: A Textbook in Science and Religion - Christopher Southgate, et al

Written by an impressive group of experts (including the redoubtable Michael Poole), this is a very accessible and clearly written introductory text for beginners. Designed for first year university courses, it's quite comprehensive and wide-ranging. It includes sections on physics, evolutionary biology, psychology, ecology, education, divine action, technology, and bioethics. A chapter on Islam's interaction with science (by Michael Robert Negus) is particularly fascinating. As with Polkinghorne, McGrath, Peacocke and Alexander, the authors of this book are all British. Why are there so many more Brits writing in the field of science and Christianity than there are North Americans? The British seem to have a far more balanced view of science's relationship to religion (Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins notwithstanding). Biblical literalism and Christian fundamentalism are not as widespread, and special creationists are few. This is in contrast to America, where at least 40% of the general population refuse to accept evolutionary biology of any sort, thanks to a literal reading of Genesis. (Perhaps the Anglican tradition can be thanked for England's attitude?)

Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist - Guy Consolmagno

This is an engaging, friendly book - part autobiography, part popular science, part apologetic. Consolmagno is an American Jesuit with a Ph.D. in Planetary Science who now spends much of his time working at the Vatican Observatory. One of the first scientists to postulate the existence of fossilized evidence of single-celled life forms in meteorites from Mars, he recounts his trip to Antarctica to retrieve and study such meteorites. He also examines the politics and context of the Galileo debacle, discusses what led him to become a Jesuit scientist, and firmly defends the compatibility of Christianity and science.

Science and Christian Belief : Theological Reflections of a Bottom-up Thinker - John Polkinghorne

The material in this book derives from Polkinghorne's Gifford Lectures (1993 - 1994). A deep and fascinating theological survey, Polkinghorne provides a line-by-line analysis of the Nicene Creed, to examine how Christianity relates to the universe described by the natural sciences.

Bede's Library

"Bede" is the pseudonym of a British man, who, while working on a physics degree at Oxford, abandoned his atheism and converted to Catholicism. Bede's Library, which is hosting this article, deals extensively with the relationship between theology, philosophy and science. His essays and reviews are flavoured by an understated British wit. One of his major themes is the way in which, historically speaking, Christianity encouraged the birth and growth of science.

Counterbalance Organization

"Here you will find a host of materials offering new views on such complex issues as the evolution/creation controversy, biomedical ethical challenges, new insights from neuroscience, and much more." This site contains an almost endless wealth of valuable (and totally free!) information on science/Christianity issues. Very high levels of scholarship are evident, making this the best site of its kind. An excellent resource for those who already have some knowledge of the nexus between theology, philosophy, and science. It also offers many excerpts from God, Humanity and the Cosmos (check out the debate between Steven Weinberg and John Polkinghorne, a confrontation I had always hoped would happen). The Counterbalance Organization is based in Seattle.

Biology and Evolution:

Does Evolution have any Religious Significance? - Denis Alexander

Alexander is a British biologist and a Christian, and his essay on evolution serves as an excellent introduction to the topic of evolutionary biology's theological implications. He writes: "…the religious significance of evolutionary theory is in fact rather limited, and … as a biological theory it can readily be accommodated within a robust version of Christian theism." His straight-forward explanation of what evolution is and how it works is quite helpful. (His article Science - friend or foe? - is also quite good.)

Finding Darwin's God : a Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution - Kenneth R. Miller

Miller is an American biologist, and a Christian. His book is an absolute necessity for any Christian who wonders if they should take evolutionary biology seriously. While his philosophical and theological perspectives are quite ordinary, his explanation of the scientific principles involved is excellent. With a scathing brilliance, he devastates three concepts that are common among those Christians and Jews who do not accept Darwinian evolution: Young-earth creationism (Henry Morris), special creation (Philip Johnson), and Intelligent Design (Michael Behe). After this he goes on to explore the philosophical and social reasons behind these ideas, and then turns his guns on those who claim that evolution somehow disproves Christianity - militant atheists and polemicists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and E.O. Wilson. While Miller's theological reasoning is surpassed by authors like Holmes Rolston III and John Polkinghorne, this book is a valuable, up-to-date resource for anyone interested in Christianity's relationship with biology.

Evolutionary and Molecular Biology: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action - edited by Robert John Russell, William R. Stoeger and Francisco J. Ayala

A massive tome packed with single-spaced small print, this book gathers together a great many esteemed thinkers in the science/religion conversation. Not for the beginner, this is aimed at a more academic audience. Ayala is a well-known evolutionary biologist, while Russell is one of the leading experts on Christianity's relationship with the sciences.

Genes, Genesis and God: Values and their Origins in Natural and Human History - Holmes Rolston III

Another must-read for those interested in religious faith and evolutionary biology. This book constituted the Gifford Lectures for 1997. Rolston is a philosopher with a background in both biology and religion. Here he shatters the reductionist arguments of those, like Dennett and Wilson, who claim that evolution has "disproved religion." In a series of interlocking arguments, he examines culture, science, ethics and religion and devastates the claims of reductionistic sociobiology. What emerges is a beautiful vision of a created, fruitful universe that generates real values. Not for beginners, but readily accessible to those who have already learned a bit about evolutionary biology and the philosophical views that stem from it.

God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution - John F. Haught

A theological perspective on evolutionary biology which offers ways of thinking of God's creative acts in ways that go beyond a simple concept of design. Drawing on process thought and ideas of kenosis and emergent novelty, Haught challenges Christians to incorporate the long-term view of life's history that evolutionary biology gives us into a mature theology of creation. He also exposes the philosophical viewpoint of reductionists and militant atheists as narrow and self-limiting. Some knowledge of biology and theology is required.

Is God a Creationist? The Religious Case Against Creation-Science - edited by Roland Mushat Frye

A collection of essays and source materials on the theological and hermeneutical errors of "scientific" creationism, which was, at the time, experiencing a resurgence. With contributions by both Jewish and Christian authors, including Owen Gingerich and Langdon Gilkey. Also included are "Natural science and religion" by Darwin's colleague (and friend) Asa Grey, and "Science and Christianity" by Pope John Paul II. Use it to irritate your fundamentalist friends!

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© Hieronymus 2001.
Last revised: 27 October, 2001.