• Benjamin J. Williams

Two Mistakes in Science-Faith Dialogue



The Christian view of knowledge is not anti-science. Science shares a deep connection with Christianity. The history of modern science from Kepler to Lemaître is essentially a Christian story, and not by coincidence.


However, despite the historical evidence, Christianity is commonly perceived to be in opposition to scientific ideals and development.


A recent Pew study found that while only 16% of Christians would say that their faith often conflicts with science, as many as 56% of Americans say there generally is a conflict between science and religion [1]. If science and Christianity are so deeply attuned to one another, why do the statistics contradict this?


Bad Public Relations

The answer likely takes the form of a public relations problem more than a philosophical one. Pastor and author Timothy Keller blames a false narrative that has surrounded popular atheistic texts from Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett:


The media needs to report news events as stories with protagonists and antagonists. It gives wide publicity to battles between secular and religious people over the teaching of evolution in schools, stem-cell research, in vitro fertilization, and many other areas of medicine and science. These battles give credibility to the claims of Dawkins, Harris, and others that it is either-or – you can be either scientific and rational or religious [2].


These particular authors have a powerful anti-religious myth to tell using the popular Galileo story, an exaggerated story of a persecuted scientist standing against dogma [3]. However, the appearance of conflict reaches further back than the ‘four horsemen of modern atheism.’ There would be no Richard Dawkins without Carl Sagan [4].

While the significance of the Galileo affair is often overblown, the impact of Darwin on the faith and science relationship cannot be overstated. Darwin recognized the cultural and theological impact of his work when he wrote of his own unexpected conclusions, “It is like confessing a murder” [5]. Thus, long before Dawkins scorched the earth with his attacks on ‘creation science,’ the public sensed that a real crisis had existed between faith and science as far back as the Scopes trial of the late 1920s [6].

So, who is to blame?


Keller argues that atheistic advocates have pushed their case well, with modern media outlets as their willing accomplices. However, at least some of the blame falls on the shoulders of Christians themselves.


Overstatements & Oversimplifications

In critiquing Scientism, Christian apologetics stray close to being anti-science and anti-intellectual on the popular level. Additionally, Hugh Ross laments the destructive squabble between Young and Old-Earth Creationists who may “focus more energy on defending their respective positions than on reaching out to nonbelievers” [7].

Anecdotally, I would suggest that an even simpler explanation is available for the public relations problem faced by Christians. That is, a simplified either/or account of the science/religion relationship is easier to grasp.

My firstborn son, Lucas, at the ripe old age of eight, once asked me, “Should I believe my science teacher or my Bible class teacher?” He had not read any books by atheistic propagandists; for that matter, his father was a Christian apologist with an undergraduate degree in astrophysics. Still, in the simple terms of a child, he recognized an apparent contradiction between his Sunday school lesson from Genesis and his grade school lessons regarding natural history.

For my part, I admit that I was taken aback by my son’s direct question. It was too simple for the facts I had to offer him. I would have been better able to respond to a question about the birds and the bees than this simple question from my son in my own area of expertise. If my experience is like any other parent or pastor, then it stands to reason that the simplicity of the apparent conflict will often be easier to grasp than the nuance of the deep concord between faith and science.


NOMA

In light of these issues surveyed, many theists have sought refuge in a seductive alternative. Perhaps the most familiar and standard answer to faith-science dialogue in the late modern era has been a theory called Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA), offered by Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould.

Gould responds to the faith-science debate like a frustrated parent sending two rowdy children to their respective rooms. “I do not see how science and religion could be unified, or even synthesized, under any common scheme of explanation or analysis; but I also do not understand why the two enterprises should experience any conflict” [8]. Gould identifies two domains into which to place the rivals, the one never touching the other.

This armistice allows a modern scientist to “hold that ‘deep’ questions about ultimate meanings lie outside the realm of science … while scientific methods … apply to all potentially resolvable questions about facts of nature” [9]. Under NOMA, Christians are allowed to laud the success of science in its realm while scientists are allowed to muse on metaphysics under the umbrella of religion, just never at the same time.

This point of view aligns with the theology of Paul Tillich, among others, for whom scientific truth and the truth of faith do not belong in the same dimension of meaning.”


“Science has no right and no power to interfere with faith and faith has no power to interfere with science. … If this is understood, the previous conflicts between faith and science appear in a quite different light. The conflict was actually not between faith and science but between a faith and a science each of which was not aware of its own valid dimension” [10].


NOMA and related strategies of faith-science independence assert that science answers the ‘how’ questions of experience whereas religion answers the questions of ‘why.’ [11]


Critique of NOMA

The effort to resolve the faith-science conflict through NOMA is alluring but ultimately misguided.

First, Gould’s vision of God is largely deistic. The deistic God exists, but only at a distance and never with any immediate consequence for us. “God had indeed created nature at some inception beyond the grasp of science; but he also established invariant laws to run the universe without interference forever after.” [12]


This picture of God affirms the ‘clock winder’ account popularized in response to Newton’s mechanistic physics. While tempting, this premise is theological poison to the Christian faith. NOMA intersects far better with the radical materialism of Epicurus and Lucretius than with traditional Christianity [13]. The God of Scripture routinely interferes with the closed system of material causes, from the fields of Mamre to the cross of Golgotha.

Second, it is difficult to imagine a religion that makes no claim at all about what exists, such as ontological claims about the soul or even the reality of matter. Additionally, at least the historical religions (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) include miracle claims which are “a claim about an event in the natural world. As such, it is clearly false that religion makes claims only about ethics and meaning” [14]. In the end, to follow Abraham Kuyper’s lead, we should say that it will prove difficult to carve out a realm of knowledge over which Jesus does not say, “Mine.”

Third, epistemologically speaking, attempting to define a method of knowledge while at the same time choosing to ignore some pertinent data cannot be a sound strategy. If God exists and is the Creator, it should be self-evident that trying to understand the creation without this factor would be doomed. It is like flying a kite while ignoring the wind.


As Alvin Plantinga offers, “To think otherwise is to be like the drunk who insisted on looking for his lost car keys under the streetlight, on the grounds that the light was better there. … But why think in the first place that we would have to embrace this semideism in order to do science?” [15] That divine action is not explicitly incorporated in current science does not prove that it could never be.

Fourth, Gould’s model also depends on a willingness of both faith and science to stay in their lanes. As Joseph Shane observes:


“In short, while NOMA is useful for thinking about differences, the number of people inclined to use those tools remains very, very low. As Gould himself equivocated subtly, NOMA represented a ‘sound position of general consensus, established by a long struggle among people of goodwill in both magisteria’ (Gould 2000). As it happens, there are likely far fewer people of goodwill than what Gould would have hoped for. Understanding how people reason differently through perceived conflict between science and faith requires a mix of insights from sociology, anthropology, and psychology. Evolutionary biology and theology are not enough” [16].


I agree that there is a need for a broader account of insights, but I do not believe we will get there through NOMA.


Conclusion

More needs to be said about the connection between the Christian faith and science. For now, I think we can conclude that nothing good is accomplished by either belligerence or avoidance. Christians do not advance the gospel by dismissing or avoiding science.

Our goal is better understood in the mandate of Paul:


“We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).


We must learn better to engage with science productively and obey the instruction of Colossians 4:5-6:


“Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”


P.S. Stay tuned for this ongoing series on science and faith!

Reference Note: Some endnotes below are abbreviated. Full bibliographical information can be found in my full dissertation, "Scientific Epistemological Contextualization."


[1] David Masci, “Public Opinion on Religion and Science in the United States,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, November 5, 2009, https://www.pewforum.org/2009/11/05/public-opinion-on-religion-and-science-in-the-united-states/. As in so many opinion surveys, the terminology of the question is unsatisfactory to the philosopher. Of the group called ‘Christians,’ we can only say they are those who self-identify as Christians. As to the important term ‘religion,’ no definition was offered, and so the term carried whatever the respondent assumed it to mean. See also more recent non-Western perspectives reported in Courtney Johnson, Cary Lynne Thigpen, and Cary Funk, “On the Intersection of Science and Religion,” Pew, February 9, 2021, https://pew.org/3oljKxc.

[2]Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Penguin, 2008), 90.

[3] Smith has a pithy assessment of this myth and its inaccuracies. James K. A. Smith, “What Galileo’s Telescope Can’t See: There Are More Things in Heaven and Earth than Are Dreamt of in Contemporary Understandings of Science and Faith,” Christianity Today 56, no. 8 (September 2012): 64–67. See Guy Consolmagno and Christopher M. Graney, “The Galileo Myth,” America (America Press, Inc., October 1, 2020). Also Maurice A. Finocchiaro, “Myth 8: That Galileo Was Imprisoned and Tortured for Advocating Copernicanism,” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion, ed. Ronald L. Numbers (Cambridge, MS: Harvard University Press, 2009), 68–78.

[4] Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2011).

[5] Adrian J. Desmond, James Richard Moore, and James Moore, Darwin (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994), 314.

[6] Ronald L. Numbers, “The Creationists,” in But Is It Science?: The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy, ed. Michael Ruse (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1996), 227–56.

[7] Hugh Ross, Creation and Time: A Biblical and Scientific Perspective on the Creation-Date Controversy (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1994), 9. However, Ross can certainly be guilty of the same harshness aimed at Christians who do not share his point of view.

[8] Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (Random House Publishing Group, 2011), 4.

[9] Ibid., 84.

[10] Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (Zondervan, 2001), 93–94.

[11] Even when not explicitly stated, Gould’s view is often implicit in various texts. Ross, for example, writes, “Science is an attempt to interpret the facts of nature. Christian theology is an attempt to interpret the words of the Bible.” Ross, Creation and Time, 11.

[12] Gould, Rocks of Ages, 21.

[13] “O humankind unhappy when it ascribed / unto divinities such awesome deeds / and coupled thereto rigours of fierce wrath!” De Rerum Natura 5.1194-6 in Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, trans. W.E. Leonard (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004), 185.

[14] David Kyle Johnson, “Where and Why Science and Religion Conflict,” Skeptic 25, no. 2 (April 2020): 44.

[15] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 406.

[16] Joseph W. Shane et al., Making Sense of Science and Religion: Strategies for the Classroom and Beyond (Arlington, VA: NSTA Press, 2020), 142.




Dr. Ben Williams is the Preaching Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.





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