cut on the bias

keeping an eye on the spins and weirdness of media, crime and everyday life

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Blinding me with science

Science and religion continue to have an uneasy relationship in our society. Many people of faith feel as though scientists are working hard to undermine belief in God. Many scientists believe people of faith are hanging on to outmoded beliefs in the face of clear scientific evidence that those beliefs are at best misguided and at worst bizarre and dangerous fantasies.

They're both right - kind of.

You don't have to look far to find the scientific skepticism. A good example of its tone is this column in Scientific American; I don't endorse Stein's film, but the debunking of it exposes a lot of anger and condescension on the part of the columnist. The scientists' concerns typically fall into two related categories.

First, they believe that saying "God created it that way" in response to any natural evidence or occurence closes the opportunity for close, detailed investigation. They are concerned - with some justification - that people who believe in God will see some scientific findings as in direct conflict with God's teachings. Ultimately, their fear is that believers will try to shut down scientific exploration because it can be seen as a challenge to God's Word and thus His sovereignty.

Second, they think it's stupid. They are trained to see the universe as a naturally occurring physical environment that is completely knowable given enough time and proper instrumentation. By definition, a belief system that posits a supernatural role in this environment is in conflict. Only people unwilling to or incapable of understanding the wholly natural origin, development and future of the universe would be true believers in God and the Bible as His Word. (By "true believers", I'm making a distinction between those who believe the Bible is literal, and those who call themselves religious while also saying the current scientific interpretations of our knowledge of the universe are also correct.)

Christians tend to be stung by the condescension, and angered that their intelligence is summarily impugned. Some Christians also think that certain scientific findings directly contradict the Bible, and thus must be incorrect. And there is a considerable degree of frustration that they do not usually have the expertise to directly dispute the conclusions scientists place on their findings. Those Christians with scientific expertise can and do make strong cases against apparently anti-God conclusions, but they can't cover everything.

It's been a struggle for me at times too. As a Christian, I believe in God, and in the Bible as His Word. I also believe it is a reliable historical document, not a collection of legends, folk sayings and fairytales. The scientific things that we are capable of measuring that the Bible speaks on have proven true. But every day science is learning new things, which are presented as further proof of the solely physical nature of our universe.

I have worried and fretted and thought about this a lot. As a trained social scientist, I understand about empirical research, about probability, about action and reaction and cause and effect and preponderance of evidence. But I believe the Bible. What's an intelligent, unintimidated, non-fearful true Christian to do?

My answer is simple but really really difficult: Learn to live with confident uncertainty.

When we look at science over its history, we find many instances where findings at the time felt very threatening to believers, but are now fully integrated into our daily lives with no threat at all to faith. Two examples will show what I mean.

In his excellent book, Against The Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, author Peter Bernstein explores how the principles of probability were discovered and understood. When theorists began to point out that future events could be predicted with some accuracy using the theories of probability, the religious at the time were furious and rejecting. They felt that life was guided by God, and any effort to predict something was using magic, trying to limit God or second-guessing Him. Now, risk assessment - wholly dependent on probability analysis - is a fixture in our society, from weather forecasts to using SATs as a basis for college admission to planning a church's annual budget for a new year based on contributions from the previous year.

And those of us who paid attention in history and science classes know that Galileo was tried for his belief that the Sun was the center of the universe rather than the earth. The idea was popularized by Copernicus some 60 years earlier without significant uproar, but the Roman Catholic Church was seriously up in arms about it by 1600 because it was supposedly "against Holy Scripture". At least one man was even executed for believing it. Now it raises no eyebrows at all to believe that the earth rotates around the Sun rather than vice versa - although we also don't believe the sun is the center of the universe, just our solar system.

From my studying and thinking about this, I've come to the conclusion that it's not in any way "against God" to believe in the findings of science. They are what they are: descriptions of how the universe works to the extent we're able to discover it now. If you believe in God, how can any knowledge about His creation be threatening? It is, rather, a fascinating window into the complexity and wonder of His amazing mind. Every bit of scientific knowledge strengthens my faith in God and my belief in His ability to do anything He chooses.

It also deepens my desire to know more, and to figure out how the intricacies of our universe work together to accomplish... something. Did God create this complexity for a practical reason? Does human life in some manner depend on the existence of twirling galaxies millions of light years away? Or did God put all this complexity in place for social and aethetic reasons - to give us something to see, something to experience and admire and explore, to learn more about Him and His majesty?

Science has made certain conclusions about what they find, and that's a necessary part of the scientific process. A conclusion leads you to a theory of causation or effect, and that leads you to more questions that you can test in scientific ways. The theories of Charles Darwin gave the scientific revolution of the 1800s the power to break the shackles of religious limitations on their work, and they did just that. And they fear that any crack in their denial of a supernatural involvement will lead to those shackles being reimposed. It's a valid concern in that some religious people do feel threatened by science. But it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because science does not wish to be limited by religious beliefs, its practitioners shun and deride religious belief in scientific contexts. Because religious people see that derision and shunning, some suspect there is ill intent on the part of the scientists. That suspicion and frustration lead them to loudly denounce scientists. That makes scientists in turn say, "See? We were right to be concerned!" and, their theory supported, they become even more philosophically opposed to any possible relationship between God and science. Thus, religious people who are concerned about the philosophical intent of scientists become suspicious even of the scientific findings themselves.

And that's a mistake. If it exists in this world, then God had a hand in it. Therefore, anything we learn about it cannot be a threat to God and His authority. We as Christians should not shun science; we should embrace it in all its confusing complexities as continuing information about the mind and purpose of God, revelations about His power and might. We don't have to understand why, or how, or when.

One major struggle I have is with the timing of the origin of the earth. Some Bible scholars say that based on genealogies and other Bible-based tools, the earth cannot be older than about 8,000 years. However, scientists have tests that indicate the earth is many millions, if not billions, of years old. Some of that is based on the estimated amount of time evolution would take to progress from non-life to a single-celled life to a diversity and complexity of life as we have it today. However, some of it is based on known values of degradation of various chemicals or minerals, and their relative presence in various places in the world. How do you reconcile the two views?

I don't. That's my answer. I heard a sermon once by Aude McKee advising against "whittling on God's end of the stick". There are many applications for that advice, but in this instance I take it to mean that I don't have to reconcile every scientific finding with my understanding of God's Word. Just as we understand now that probability analysis and a sun-centric system of orbiting planets are not threats to God's sovereignity, at some point in the future humans will understand the role of current discoveries in God's created universe. I see enough in today's world, and in God's Word, to know my belief is justified and appropriate. I don't have to explain how everything in the physical world works to feel that confidence, just as I don't have to see heaven to know it's there.

As for scientists? Well, in a world where exploration of the physical world is neutral, there's no need for traumatic fear on anyone's side. It is what it is. Now, go try to figure it out. Just keep me posted. I want to know more about how great my God is.

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At 14/10/08 9:17 PM, Blogger rchstar said...

Welcome back Susanna...!! I was over at Tony Woodlief and it occurred to me that I had not checked on the bias for a long time...and here you are. I hope you and your family are well.

Rob H.

At 17/10/08 11:01 AM, Blogger susanna in alabama said...

Thanks, Rob! It's great to be back. My family is excellent, and I'm still loving life in Atlanta. I hope you'll come back to the Bias often!


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