By Terrell Clemmons
In Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith reports the results of an extensive survey of young adults ages 18 to 24. More than two-thirds of them said they believe “the teachings of science and religion often ultimately conflict.” Sadly this vague idea pervades the culture, but it isn’t true. The truth is significantly more narrow. The teachings of certain practitioners of science sit at odds with the historical teachings of religion. This is a very different situation.
This was not always so. The myth of “warfare” between science and religion is a development in more recent times. Lawrence Principe, professor of humanities at Johns Hopkins University, traces it to two aggressive academics in the late 1800s: John William Draper, author of A History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, and Andrew Dickson White, cofounder of Cornell University (the first American university to be established with no religious affiliation) and author of A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. Both were skeptics who clearly wanted the church and its bothersome ideas about metaphysical realities out of their way. Actually the Judeo-Christian religious traditions were not “anti-science.” On the contrary, they were the seedbed of modern science.
Science: A Fruit of Christendom
In The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy, Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton explain how the modern academic sciences grew out of “Christianized” Europe. This was not a matter of chance. Many of the fathers of modern science, including Isaac Newton, Copernicus, Galileo, and Johannes Kepler, were devout men who believed the natural world would be orderly and discernable to the human mind because it was the product of a rational mind. “The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order and harmony which has been imposed on it by God,” wrote Kepler. The pursuit of knowledge about creation was for them a way of honoring the Creator.
The disciplines of science and religion were generally viewed as complementary up until the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. Although Darwin didn’t identify as atheist, nor did he particularly address the subject of religion, On the Origin of Species hypothesized a way by which the diversity of life we see in nature could have freely emerged without any divine superintendence.
Very soon, religion-averse intellectuals in both Europe and America leapt to adopt the untested, unverified hypothesis, and in the ensuing years it was effectively christened the supreme organizing principle for all life. “The term accepted for this robust, integrated vision of evolution was the ‘modern evolutionary synthesis’ or neo-Darwinian theory,” wrote Michael Zimmerman in a 2009 article titled, “Why Evolution Is the Organizing Principle for Biology.”
It’s not that Darwin’s theory was necessarily bad. It was a good theory, given the knowledge of Darwin’s day. But his ideological descendants have extrapolated it into a totalizing worldview far beyond what is scientifically warranted.
Here’s what I mean. The empirical sciences operate according to a principle known as methodological naturalism, which simply means that science is limited to the study of those phenomena that can be observed by the senses. Supernatural causes rightly lie outside the realm of methodological naturalism because the natural world is all that can be observed, measured, or quantified.
From that legitimate principle of science, some take a leap of logic and say that the natural world is all there is. This belief, that physically detectable nature—essentially matter and energy—is all that exists, is called metaphysical naturalism or materialism. For a materialist, all supernatural causes are excluded from the outset. But note this: materialism is not a conclusion drawn from any empirical science. It is, rather, a philosophical presupposition made prior to any scientific reasoning.
Honest atheists acknowledge this. Ernst Mayr, one of the twentieth century’s leading evolutionary biologists, observed reasons for disbelief among his Harvard colleagues and noted, “We were all atheists. I found that there were two sources.” One group “just couldn’t believe all that supernatural stuff.” The other “couldn’t believe that there could be a God with all this evil in the world.” He summarized, “Most atheists combine the two. The combination makes it impossible to believe in God.”
Impossible? For them, perhaps, but the question that needs to be asked is, what does this have to do with science? This is neither a reasoned argument nor a scientific case for the nonexistence of God. It’s merely an expression of their personal preference for unbelief.
Advancements in science since Darwin have delivered fatal blows to the Darwinian paradigm. Among the three origins theories, it is losing ground evidentially.
Creationism holds that the universe and life were created by God as narrated in the opening chapters of Genesis. Creation scientists may interpret the age of the universe differently, but all accept the Bible as reliable evidence for the existence of God. This was the prevailing view in Western civilization until about 1860.
Darwinian (materialistic) evolution, still the reigning narrative for institutionalized science, science education, and the American court system, holds that unguided processes, primarily natural selection operating on random genetic mutations, have been the sole driving force in the evolution of life. Supernatural causes are excluded from consideration.
Intelligent Design (ID), a relatively recent development, holds that many features of the universe and life are best explained by an intelligent cause. ID differs from creationism in that it begins with observations in nature and limits its claims to what can be learned through the scientific method. ID allows for the possibility of supernatural causes, but stops short of claims concerning its identity.
ID theory relies heavily (though not solely) on the discovery since Darwin of complex information in nature—most notably as seen in DNA, but also in other realms such as cosmology and physics. In a nutshell, the logic of ID, as articulated by Dr. Stephen Meyer, one of its prominent trailblazers, goes like this:
Premise 1: Despite a thorough search, no material causes have been discovered that demonstrate the power to produce large amounts of specified information.
Premise 2: Intelligent causes have demonstrated the power to produce large amounts of specified information.
Conclusion: Intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate, explanation for the information in the cell.
Intuitively, we use this kind of logic every day. Any beachcomber stumbling upon “Johnny loves Susie” in the sand will infer an intelligent author or source, whether or not he sees another person in sight.
Convinced by Science
A little science may nudge a person into atheism. But more science can turn a deep thinker into a believer. Dennis Garvin, author of Case Files of an Angel, was a successful physician and lifelong atheist and science buff. Late in his 30s, he realized to his shame that he had long parroted the phrase “science disproves religion” without questioning it. So he set out to read the Bible.
As he read, Garvin became increasingly astonished to find that the book he’d dismissed out of hand as a stupid fairy tale was a remarkable text of quantum physics. He’d long been fascinated with the study of light, and to him, the quantum physics of light precisely explained the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. That brought him to his knees. Soon thereafter Garvin committed his life to Christ, and he now writes and teaches on quantum physics and the Bible.
Douglas Ell, who holds two degrees (math and physics) from MIT, wrestled with what he’d been taught was a conflict between science and belief in God. But after 30 years of study, he now says that science and mathematics are the foundation of his faith. His book, Counting to God, lays out the evidence from modern science that led him to belief in God. “The arrow of scientific discovery points directly to God,” he wrote.
Indeed it does. There is a great divide, but it isn’t a conflict between science and religion. The divide is philosophical, and it hinges on the worldview presupposition from which one begins scientific and rational thought. Ultimately it’s a personal faith choice to believe or to disbelieve in God.
Terrell Clemmons is a full-time wife, mom, and freelance writer on apologetics and matters of faith (terrellclemmons.wordpress.com).
SIDEBAR: Test Your Science Knowledge
Take this quiz to see where you stand in terms of science knowledge: www.csmonitor.com/Science/2011/1209/Are-you-scientifically-literate-Take-our-quiz
If there’s an answer you don’t agree with, use this as a chance to do some research. Find several sources for and against the information and let yourself be challenged by the complexity of the issue. If a question piques your interest in a topic, seek out resources so you can learn more.
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