Pope Benedict made headlines last week arguing for the similarity of science and religion as two quests for truth. Focusing on the Big Bang he accepted the science of an evolving cosmos while holding on to a God who devised the natural laws. This is another step in the Catholic Church’s effort to reconcile what many perceive to be a growing divide between Christianity and science. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome is home to numerous scientists who work on subjects such as biology, astronomy, and chemistry with guests like Stephen Hawking. Pope John Paul II stimulated this effort in 1992 when he declared the church’s 17th century excommunication of Galileo was a grievous error.
In the last few years, “The Clergy Letter Project” has acquired the signatures of over 11,000 clergy calling for evolution to be taught in schools as settled science. The project birthed “Evolution Sunday”, observed each year on the Sunday closest to Darwin’s birthday, in which over 800 pastors and priests educate their congregations on science and evolution from the pulpit. Meanwhile, an organization such as BioLogos – founded by Francis Collins and consisting of Christians who are professional scientists, biblical scholars, pastors, and educators – exists to bring harmony to science and faith by “promoting a perspective on the origins of life that is both theologically and scientifically sound”.
But is there truly a need to reconcile science and Christianity? What is science? At its core, science is founded on the scientific method – gather information, form hypothesis, experiment, observe, draw conclusions, and repeat. Remember that from middle school? A more precise definition from the Academic Press Dictionary of Science and Technology says science is:
The systematic observation of natural events and conditions in order to discover facts about them and to formulate laws and principles based on these facts. 2. The organized body of knowledge that is derived from such observations and that can be verified or tested by further investigation.
At the risk of oversimplifying, science is a means of discovering truth about reality. Most Christians gladly accept the truth science gives us. However, we do not believe science is the only source of truth. We believe the God who created the world which science is able to discover also revealed truth about himself and his world in his Word. The truth God has revealed through his Word is the most accurate and authoritative; but it is this truth which spurs us to discover more through means such as science. Therefore, at the foundational level, there is no divide between science and Christianity since both are made possible by the same God who reveals truth through his Word first, and his world second.
The issue is not reconciling Christianity and science but Christianity and scientists. Elaine Howard Ecklund in her book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think surveyed 1,700 elite scientists and determined 30% are atheists and only 36% “have some form of a belief in God”. While 20% were involved with a “house of worship” only 2% were evangelical Christians. The vast majority of scientists operate with a naturalistic worldview – everything is explainable by natural causes and there is no possibility of God or the supernatural. For the average scientist, science is the only source of truth and revelation from God is impossible. Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago expresses the view of the naturalistic scientist when he writes in the October 11, 2010 edition of USA Today:
Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth.
There’s the issue – revelation is a lie and science is real truth. It should come as no surprise that there is a fight on the playground of truth when scientists arrogantly call us irrational and insist their means of finding truth is the only one allowed in the game.
So what is a Christian to do? First, trust the truth revealed in the Word of God. Clergy holding “Evolution Sunday” may believe they are reconciling two equal sources of truth, but all they are doing is accommodating the one that pays the bills to the one they believe is really true. If God has spoken through His Word, then it has the final say. Sadly, most ‘Christian’ attempts to reconcile science and God demand all the concessions from God and none from science. Science is carried out by sinful human beings with prejudices, biases, opinions, and worldviews and is constantly being corrected. As James Bryant Conant said:
The stumbling way in which even the ablest of the scientists in every generation have had to fight through thickets of erroneous observations, misleading generalizations, inadequate formulations, and unconscious prejudice is rarely appreciated by those who obtain their scientific knowledge from textbooks .
Second, Christians need to do science. Instead of being afraid of science, Christians need to run full speed into it and populate the universities. What would happen if instead of a priori dismissing God, scientists had a theistic worldview and a confidence in revelation? The same God who created this world has equipped us to discover more about it. Why shouldn’t we gladly pursue science as worship of this wonderful Maker?
So can Christianity and science get along? Steven Jay Gould, biologist and atheist, writes:
I do get discouraged when some of my colleagues tout their private atheism as a panacea for human progress against an absurd caricature of “religion,” erected as a straw man for rhetorical purposes… If these colleagues wish to fight superstition, irrationalism, philistinism, ignorance, dogma, and a host of other insults to the human intellect, then God bless them – but don’t call this enemy “religion.”
Hopefully more scientists will take that advice and the church will take the pursuit of science seriously. And despite the New York Times reporting that it took the Catholic Church 359 years until 1992 to apologize to Galileo, it actually lifted the sanctions 242 years earlier in 1758. Maybe we’re all making progress.