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Science + Tech
Science and Religion: Why Our Beliefs Matter
Religion in America is on the defensive.
, professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago, and author of
Why Evolution is True
, in an
opinion piece at USA Today
that appeared last week.
Coyne’s argument is that religion (and he speaks mostly of Christianity) is being eaten away at two ends. In his view, the New Atheists are unmasking the pretentious and unwarranted authority of religion by exposing its dark soul of violence and oppression. At the other end, he says, scientists are relentlessly chewing away at the fanciful claims religion makes about reality (the existence of a soul, a six-day creation, the efficacy of prayer).
”Atheist books such as
The God Delusion
The End of Faith
have, by exposing the dangers of faith and the lack of evidence for the God of Abraham, become best-sellers. Science nibbles at religion from the other end, relentlessly consuming divine explanations and replacing them with material ones," Coyne says. "Evolution took a huge bite a while back, and recent work on the brain has shown no evidence for souls, spirits, or any part of our personality or behavior distinct from the lump of jelly in our head. We now know that the universe did not require a creator.”
The column is worth reading. It’s also worth pondering how much of Coyne’s venom has been supplied by Christians themselves.
The New Atheist challenge has been debated and redebated endlessly. Readers of Q Ideas will be familiar with these. Gabe Lyons’s book
The Next Christians
helps to explain how some of the objections of the New Atheists are being countered by the resurgent interest in the common good. But a casual familiarity with world history would reveal that religion is, at worst, a mixed bag, and not the simple source of woes that the New Atheists imply. Even the mental categories that permit someone to assess religion as a “danger” are derived from a moral sensibility that did not arise in a secular context, but in a religious one.
New Atheism aside, Coyne believes the main challenge to the continued credibility of religion is from science, and in that realm Christians have given him plenty of ammunition. Many Christians spend a fair amount of time constructing and maintaining a rickety nature / supernature divide that can hardly be seen as one of the main themes of Scripture as it describes the natural world.
[For more on this, see
Joe Carter's thoughts at
The Psalms in particular are enlightening—everything in creation speaks of the glory of God, whether explicable in materialist terms or not. Psalm 19, as one example, there is huge gulf between the revelation of God in the natural world and the revelation of God in the scriptures. “The heavens declare the glory of God” and “The law of the LORD is perfect.” If we were more willing to see modern science as a gift revealing knowledge about God to us, we might have a better relationship with scientists. We would better understand that “explaining” something scientifically isn’t “explaining away” its spiritual significance.
[For small group material that explores this theme, check out the
Q Society Room study on “The Spirituality of Science."
The challenges presented by developments in brain science are not proof that souls don’t exist, or that human behavior, thought, or inspiration are unmediated by neurons and chemistry. Wouldn’t we be surprised to discover that the software of spirituality had no hardware to run on? Yet we often fear discovering the material dimensions of human thought and behavior. We shouldn’t be.
We should be much more afraid of how our framing of the issue (science versus religion, nature versus supernature) give anti-religionists exactly the ammunition they need to “debunk” our apologetics.
The strategy of the intelligent design movement revolves around finding puzzles not yet explained by evolutionary biology, and then assigning responsibility to an intelligent agent for having created some item of “irreducible complexity.” But to evolutionary biologists, those puzzles are, well, just puzzles—and explaining them in terms of material causes is the stock-in-trade of scientific effort. As Coyne argues, “religious claims retreat into the ever-shrinking gaps not yet filled by science.”
It seems then, that intelligent design may be a much worse apologetic strategy than young-earth creationism, which rejects almost the entire scientific consensus on biology and earth history. Why? Because a focus on puzzles of irreducible complexity hands over to militant materialists and atheists the list of oddities that we’ve decided are evidence for God. When scientists discover plausible mechanisms that might explain each of those phenomena, the response can only be a managed retreat to a smaller and smaller set of evidences.
[For a discussion on whether Christian arguments have fueled attacks from scientists, watch physicist Stephen M. Barr and Intelligent Design supporter Michael Behe in
a debate at Wheaton College
. In addition, see Barr's column penned by for
“How God and Science Mix."
Instead of retreating into defending a God-of-the-gaps, orthodox Christians ought instead embrace science as a means of understanding the Creator God. We must resolve for ourselves that the wonders of Creation we CAN explain glorify God as much as the oddities we CAN’T explain. Until we create space for a theological understanding of what is an overwhelming scientific consensus, we’ll be vulnerable to the depredations of militant anti-religionists trumpeting each brick of “irreducible complexity” that they manage to pry loose from the Intelligent Design house.
When the church is more willing to embrace what we learn from the study of the natural world and to pair it with the special revelation of Scriptures we’ve inherited from our forebears we’ll be able to pray with the poet: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).
Is religion in America indeed on the defensive? Do you agree that intelligent design is ammunition for anti-religion scientists?
Editor's Note: The artwork above is a digital illustration by
john van sloten
Can't agree more. I just finished typing the last of a series of sermons on Faith and Science. Inspired by my involvement with Regent Seminary's, Templeton funded, Cosmos cohort I've discovered that God's scientific truth preaches powerfully. A former Oakridge National Laboratory molecular geneticist helped me write a message on "Wound Healing"... an emeritus physics prof helped me craft a talk on the Large Hadron Collider... and a local neuroscientist co-wrote a sermon on neurons that I preached yesterday. To me God's creation book co-illumines his bible book. The synergy is amazing. (If you're interested in watching the talks -
It is quite true that Christian writers too often rely on "gaps" in scientific explanations to posit proof of supernatural origins for what we observe in the universe. It is also true that materialists seem to enjoy filling in the gaps with explanations of one sort or another. Whether or not the explanations are substantive or speculative is perhaps moot. All that is necessary to tip the balance towards a materialistic (deemed "scientific") explanation is to show that it could be possible - Other possibilities, by definition, are then "unscientific."
Take for example, Coyne's statement that "recent work on the brain has shown no evidence for souls, spirits, or any part of our personality or behavior distinct from the lump of jelly in our head." Coyne apparently considers it unnecessary to reference the 2007 publication, The Spiritual Brain - A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul, by Universite de Montreal's Maurice Beauregard and science writer Denyse O'Leary. Their careful study of the history of relevant areas of neuroscience, combined with Beauregard's recent empirical work, strongly suggests the inadequacy of materialism to explain all the relevant data. This is not "god-of-the-gaps" thinking, but rather a plea to follow the evidence regardless of where it goes.
The true "scientific quest" should heartily endorse, indeed insist on, such a methodology. Sadly, extremists at both ends of the science/religion debate refuse to do so, presumably, and on both ends, to preserve their apologetic. Just as sadly, the materialist seems to have the upper hand, not necessarily because of better evidence or arguments, but simply by dint of numbers and, at times, media collusion.
As your column suggests, the Christian ought to view science as a God-blessed thrill ride unveiling ever more knowledge of the Creator's methodology. I suspect God is much less concerned than some Christians about "proofs" for supernaturalism. At the same time, both sides of the debate need to admit that in the end, neither God's existence or non-existence is susceptible of scientific demonstration.
To the believer, "the heavens declare the glory of God." They don't prove God, but they certainly cannot disprove God, at least not the God of the Judaeo-Christian scriptures. Thus the exploration of the universe is to the believer a discovery of the Creator's methods, generating humility, awe and wonder. For the unbeliever, it is simply discovery – at times accompanied by heroic resistance to urges of humility, awe and wonder.
From the unbeliever's side, only rarely does one hear the honest conclusion of the materialist apologetic - specifically, that if what they believe is true, neither they nor anyone else, nor the environment, nor anything imaginable, has any meaning whatsoever, despite laughable protestations to the contrary (why “on earth” does Stephen Hawking insist that, Ark-like, we must depart Earth for some yet-to-be-discovered planet to ensure humans survive?).
"Their careful study of the history of relevant areas of neuroscience, combined with Beauregard's recent empirical work, strongly suggests the inadequacy of materialism to explain all the relevant data. This is not "god-of-the-gaps" thinking, but rather a plea to follow the evidence regardless of where it goes."
If "...strongly suggests the inadequacy of materialism to explain all the relevant data." is not "god-of -the gaps" thinking, then what is? Any argument based on the failure of science (as of yet) to predict or explain is indeed "god-of-the-gaps" thinking; that is in fact the definition of the phrase.
"From the unbeliever's side, only rarely does one hear the honest conclusion of the materialist apologetic - specifically, that if what they believe is true, neither they nor anyone else, nor the environment, nor anything imaginable, has any meaning whatsoever, despite laughable protestations to the contrary..."
Indeed. All materialist worldviews conclude in nihilism. It just isn't often admitted.
(with apologies for a lengthy two-part post....)
Though I believe Coyne is hung up on a false dichotomy, I concur with him that science contributes immeasurably to society in ways that religion cannot hope to -- for example, by helping us to avoid living "short, miserable and disease-ridden lives."
We humans, whether of materialist persuasion, theist persuasion, or otherwise, long for certainty. We want to know the answer; we want to be right. This is admirable, but I believe it causes us to overstep the bounds of what is knowable, especially that which is knowable with complete certainty. If there is a realm beyond the physical (call it the preterphysical), physical science, limited as it is to physical world exploration, cannot prove or disprove anything about it. If a scientific method exists to investigate preterphysical questions, please someone make it known so we can have a look at it. Instead, investigation of the preterphysical (including debate about its existence) proceeds along philosophical lines toward compelling models for living this human life, with perhaps occasional non-normative reference to the physical realm.
We theists ignore the physical/preterphysical distinction, crafting intricate arguments, often based in physical world observations, attempting to prove that God exists, acting as if such arguments prove God's existence with complete certainty. It doesn't work that way. The standard is not provability, but rather a compelling model for living one's life. God's existence is simply not provable in the way that tomorrow's sunrise is provable. Worse, we extend our prideful certainty to ourselves: In concluding that God is perfect we, at many times in many ways, operate as if our
of God is also perfect, which leads to many evils (a topic for another day), including sometimes ostracizing those that do not hold the faith. My call is for us theists to (1) abandon any hint of the notion that there is some direct, rational, irrefutable path from the physical realm to the existence of a preterphysical realm and (2) embrace science, and also pursue greater understanding of the mechanisms for and degree of certainty we may or may not achieve in both physical and preterphysical realms.
We scientists also ignore the physical/preterphysical distinction, as demonstrated by Coyne's conclusion that "science nibbles at religion" showing "no evidence for souls [and] spirits." Because Coyne can't see it, he is quite certain it's not there. Such prideful certainty shows also in (what I take as) Coyne's treatment of acceptance of the whole of evolutionary science as a litmus test "for the incompatibility of science and faith." According to Coyne's criterion of a scientific truth being "repeated and verified by others," micro-evolution (change within species) has been demonstrated and thus can be spoken of as true, yet macro-evolution (creation of clearly new species) has, to my knowledge, not been demonstrated through experimentation or direct observation of actual evolution -- at least not on a scale above the simplest of creatures. For macro-evolution, we observe the paleontological record and place our faith in what strike us as compelling models to make theoretical sense of the data. And the theory may well be true, yet upon the "compelling model" basis, the theory stands at some level below that of "certainly true." But we scientists like to have the answer, so the continuum that runs from "compelling theoretical model" to "experimentally demonstrated" is lost, the corpus of evolution science is deemed simply "true," and those that question this faith are ostracized. My call is for us scientists to (1) hold true to the demonstrated degree of certainty in our work and (2) pursue greater understanding of the mechanisms for and degree of certainty we may or may not achieve in both physical and preterphysical realms.
In the end, my biggest dismay with the likes of Coyne's article is that it frames the science-religion discussion as a competition to see which is the best means to arrive at a singular realm of truth. This framing creates a false dichotomy, because the two pursue different realms of insight. Science does incredible work in the physical/natural realm of "what is and how it works" -- but that's all science can do. The fact that black widow spiders eat their mates says nothing about whether human females should do likewise -- there is no direct path from "is" to "ought." To investigate the realm of "what should be and how should we live our lives" requires something other than physical science. The existence of the Bible, the Upanishads, the Qu'ran, etc. is physical fact yet, in the final analysis, it is only by compelling philosophy, not physical science, that we decide what to do with them.
Atheistic and theistic beliefs are fundamentally of the same type: They are religious in nature (see
" target="_blank">definition 4), grounded in preterphysical/preternatural discourse. Based such discourse, theists conclude that the preterphysical exists, atheists that it (or at least God within it) does not. There are no scientific beliefs, pro or con, about the preterphysical. Every scientist, indeed every human, lives according to religious beliefs about the preterphysical. The divide is not properly between "atheists and scientists" on the one side and "theists and religion" on the other. There is properly
divide, but rather only the two realms of "knowing what we can about the world" (science as done by theists and atheists) and "deciding what to do about it" (religion as done by theists and atheists).
"...there is no direct path from "is" to "ought." To investigate the realm of "what should be and how should we live our lives" requires something other than physical science."
Interesting discussion. Excellent forum.
I post this respectfully and with a great deal of trepidation.
Disclaimer - materialist, scientist.
Something jumped out at me...
Steven Males states...
"From the unbeliever's side, only rarely does one hear the honest conclusion of the materialist apologetic - specifically, that if what they believe is true, neither they nor anyone else, nor the environment, nor anything imaginable, has any meaning whatsoever, despite laughable protestations to the contrary"
and jweaks concurs...
"Indeed. All materialist worldviews conclude in nihilism. It just isn't often admitted."
Perhaps I'm being hyper-sensitive, and I absolutely take Mr. Males and jweaks thoughtfulness, good intentions and sincerity as the null hypothesis. But as an outsider, these comments come across as just a wee bit arrogant.
Probably, we just disagree on the definition of "meaning" in this context, but "...laughable protestations to the contrary..." is hardly conducive to constructive dialog. I hope you can see how such wholesale dismissal of someone else's philosophical worldview could be taken amiss, even if (as I assume) the underlying intentions were benign.
If a counter-example disproves a hypothesis, then consider the hypothesis "...All materialist worldviews conclude in nihilism.." to be disproven. Or I suppose you can take it as yet another laughable protestation to the contrary.
Let me reiterate. I mean no disrespect. I don't want to disrupt this excellent forum. I'll go away now.
Proof of God, in the theological sense, is of course a misnomer, a philosophical contrivance to avoid accepting our ignorance of such a reality. As a humanity, we have all been conditioned or indoctrinated, for all of history by 'theological' exegesis, particularly by those with their own religious claims and agendas, to accept that a literal proof of God is not possible for faith. And thus all discussion and apologists 'theodicy' is contained within this self limiting intellectual paradigm and bubble of presumption, especially evident in the frictions between science and religion. It would now appear that all sides squabbling over the God question, religious, atheist and history itself have it wrong! That bubble could now burst at any time!
The first wholly new interpretation for two thousand years of the moral teachings of Christ is published on the web. Radically different from anything else we know of from history, this new teaching is predicated upon a precise and predefined experience, a direct individual intervention into the natural world by omnipotent power to confirm divine will, command and covenant, "correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries." So like it or no, a new religious claim testable by faith, meeting all Enlightenment criteria of evidence based causation now exists. Nothing short of a religious revolution is getting under way. More info at
Tom, I am confused about the counter-example that disproves the hypothesis. What is it? I do not see it from your comments. I am probably missing something.
Also, is anyone monitoring this discussion? If so, can you please remove the RPG gold farmers? They are annoying.
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