Faith and Science

Their Complementariness and Partnership

(Matthew 22:34-40)

During the last 150 years the relationship between science and Christianity has often been one of conflict and opposition. In this address, the tenth and final one in his series on ‘Beginnings’, given at St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 4 June 2000, Rob Yule presents a case for greater cooperation, and critiques tendencies in both science and Christianity that hinder the development of such a partnership.


Loving God with our Mind

Like today, there were conflicts between secularisers and religious hardliners in Jesus’ day. Both groups attacked Jesus. Once, when he had just worsted the secularists, the religious saw an opportunity to test his orthodoxy. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ Jesus replied, quoting the Shema, the Jewish credal statement, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Matthew 22:37). In so doing, he affirmed that there is one God, one source of truth in the universe, to be served with a total commitment of both heart and mind.

Today’s separation of science and faith is symptomatic of the divorce in our culture between these two elements, faith and reason. In fact, all genuine science - or knowledge of the universe - involves an element of faith. And all genuine theology - or knowledge of God - involves an element of reason. As Jesus recognised, real knowledge of God and the world involves loving God with our mind, as well as our heart and soul.

Rightly interpreted, the book of Nature and the book of Scripture both contribute to our knowledge of the Creator and the universe. But two tendencies hinder the partnership between science and faith needed to understand them:


Scientific Naturalism

1. Extravagant Assertions

Writing recently in New Scientist on the conflict between religion and science, Brian Appleyard points out the harm done to science by the grandiose claims of some scientists. Stephen Hawking concludes A Brief History of Time with the assertion that science can virtually ‘know the mind of God’. Stephen Weinberg ends The First Three Minutes by pronouncing the universe ‘pointless’ and human life ‘a little above the level of a farce.’ In The Selfish Gene Richard Dawkins ridicules religion, and asserts that anyone who denies evolution is either ‘ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked).’ (quoted by Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box [New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996], p. 250). John Maddox, former editor of Nature, has hinted darkly that ‘it may not be long before the practice of religion must be regarded as anti-science.’ (Nature, 368 [1994], p. 185).

Such assertions undermine science and invite an anti-science backlash. ‘These claims adopt the authority of hard science without accepting the humility and uncertainty of true science,’ says Appleyard. ‘You simply cannot make such large claims in the public realm without attracting a backlash. Attacks on religion, or crude, improperly substantiated claims about the nature of human life will diminish, not increase, the public understanding and acceptance of science.’ Appleyard pleads for scientists to exercise greater humility, urging them not to assume ‘that a causal explanation of the material realm can be a complete account of the human realm.’ (New Scientist, 22 April 2000, p. 45).


2. Metaphysical Naturalism

Theoretically science takes no position about the existence or non-existence of the supernatural; it only requires that supernatural factors not be invoked in scientific explanations. The problem comes when this operational naturalism is elevated to the status of a philosophical principle that rules out divine interaction with the universe.

The difference between methodological and metaphysical naturalism is often overlooked. Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins is a reductionist supremo who claims that ‘Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.’ Adamant that everything can be explained by the processes of physics and chemistry, he pours scorn on the creationist view of origins, using value-laden language to discredit higher purpose. ‘There is no need to think of design, purpose or directedness. . . . There is no mystery. . . . It had to happen by definition.’ (The Selfish Gene [Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1989], p. 13).

In The Blind Watchmaker (London, Norton, 1986, p. 159), Dawkins tells his readers that even if a statue of the Virgin Mary waved to them, they should not conclude that they had witnessed a miracle. Perhaps all the atoms in the statue’s arm just happened to move in the same direction simultaneously! Such a phenomenon might not persuade Dawkins to kneel at the altar rail. But my suspicion is that if people did actually witness a religious statue waving to them they would quickly tell him that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy!

3. Critiquing Reductionism

New Zealand biomechanic Neil Broom has written an incisive critique of Dawkins, accusing him of importing into his argument the very purposiveness his naturalistic theory denies. ‘Dawkins, while committed to showing that there is no purpose in nature, that there is no need to consider a nonmaterial force or influence, still resorts to the language of consciousness, intelligence and purpose to argue his case’, says Broom. ‘Such language seems to betray the reductionist cause Dawkins so powerfully advocates.’ (How Blind is the Watchmaker? 2nd ed. [Downers Grove, Illinois, InterVarsity Press, 2001], p. 79). Even while denying purpose, Dawkins invokes a more-than-material force to guide the evolutionary process. His colourful language is mere bluster, and establishes nothing about how life actually began.


Recent Creationism

Recent creationism is damaging biblical Christianity just when scientific discovery has raised issues of creation and design more powerfully than at any time in the last two hundred years since the Enlightenment.

1. The Universe an Illusion

Although they would deny it, young-Earth creationists pose a threat to orthodox Christianity and genuine science. Maintaining that the universe is only 10,000 years old - nowhere required by the text of Scripture - they deny the evidence of astronomy. Galaxies cannot be millions or billions of light years from Earth, but must be light beams created in transit, scenes painted by God on the night sky. Even recent but distant events like the enormous supernova explosion in the Large Magellanic Cloud in 1987 must be denied, since its distance from Earth, 80,000 light years, exceeds their stipulated 10,000-year age limit for the universe. Fossils, coal deposits, sedimentary rocks, ice layers, tree rings, and coral banding are merely the appearance of age, a history of cosmic, geological, meteorological or biological events that never actually happened. (See Hugh Ross, Creation and Time: A Biblical and Scientific Perspective of the Creation-Date Controversy [Colorado Springs, NavPress, 1994], pp. 122-3).

These denials render the age of the universe a mere illusion. This makes many practising scientists suspicious of genuine creationism. Orthodox Christians should also be concerned, because such beliefs deny the reality of the physical universe and its processes as effectively as modern Christian Science or ancient Gnosticism. They have more in common with the Hindu or Buddhist view that the universe and material existence is maya, ‘illusion’, than with the historic Judaeo-Christian belief in the genuineness and goodness of the created universe.

2. The Creator a Deceiver

By saying that God created the universe with an appearance of age, recent creationism makes God out to be a liar and a deceiver. This is a far more damaging obstacle to faith in God than difficulties posed by the existence of evil and suffering in the world. Christianity has many resources to overcome the problem of evil - evil is the result of the misuse of freedom by human creatures endowed with free-will, suffering is part of character formation in our brief but morally-educative life span on Earth, for example. But there is no theodicy in Christendom capable of defending the integrity and character of a God who deliberately creates a universe with a deceitful appearance of age or an illusion of physical consistency. A God who set out to deceive us would truly be unworthy of our belief and undeserving of our trust.

3. Debate a Charade

Hugh Ross came to belief in God and faith in Jesus Christ through his studies in astronomy and astrophysics. After his conversion he served as pastor of evangelism in an evangelical church, and now heads Reasons to Believe, one of the most effective apologetics organisations in the world today. Yet on his speaking tours he is often confronted by young-Earth creationists who view his belief in an old universe as a betrayal of Christianity.

Ross tells about a speaking engagement near the Oakridge Nuclear Facility in Tennessee (Creation and Time, pp. 86-7). With a room full of research physicists, he spoke on evidence from physics and astronomy for the transcendent, personal, caring Creator of the Bible. Unknown to him and the meeting’s organisers, a carload of young-universe proponents had driven four-and-a half hours to interrupt the gathering. When question time began they took over, questioning Ross’s scientific evidence. They were furious that the scientists in the room would not join them in rejecting Ross’s science. Blinded by their views, they disrupted a meeting designed to introduce professional scientists to personal faith in Jesus Christ as Creator and Saviour, all supposedly in the cause of Christian truth. Such behaviour verges on the cultic.


A Better Way

A partnership of Christianity and science offers a better way forward than the twin sterilities of unbelieving science and unthinking Christianity.

1. An Historical Perspective

Historically, Christian belief in the reality and orderliness of the created universe has made an enormous contribution to the growth and advancement of science. For example, the Swiss mathematician Joseph Balmer’s desire to reveal ‘the Divine orderliness’ led him in 1885 to discover the Balmer series of spectral lines emitted by hydrogen, a discovery which is the basis of modern spectroscopy and the study of the chemical and physical properties of the universe (C. A. Coulson, Science and Christian Belief, [Oxford, Oxford University press, 1955], p. 59).

A strong personal faith convinced many scientists that a solution was ultimately discoverable, keeping them going despite innumerable difficulties and setbacks. With 1,093 inventions to his credit, Thomas Alva Edison was the greatest inventor of all time. He was sustained through the repeated and seemingly endless failure of his experiments by a belief that God had the answer to his problems. Struggling to find a satisfactory material to make filaments for his now famous electric light bulb, he could say: ‘Somewhere in God Almighty’s workshop is a dense woody growth, with fibres almost geometrically parallel and with practically no pith, from which we can take the filament the world needs.’ (Robert E. D. Clark, Christian Belief and Science [London, English Universities Press, 1960], p. 62).

English physicist Michael Faraday believed that God not only made the universe, but made it as a single interconnected whole. It was this conviction that drove his attempts to discover a connection between magnetism and electricity. Time and again he brought wires near to magnets, with no sign of electric current. Then, returning rested from a holiday, seemingly without effort, he made the far-reaching discovery of electromagnetic induction, the basis of modern electric generators and motors (Clark, op. cit., p. 29).

2. An Experimental Contribution

An aspect of scientific progress widely ignored by reductionist science, is that often discoveries have come about not through rational thinking but because of hunches or intuitions more akin to faith.

Carl Friedrich Gauss, one of the greatest mathematicians of all time and pioneer of the application of mathematics to astronomy, tried in vain for four years to solve a mathematical problem. ‘At last I succeeded,’ he says, ‘not by dint of painful effort, but so to speak by the grace of God. As a sudden flash of light the enigma was solved. For my part I am not in a position to point to the thread which joins what I knew previously with what I succeeded in doing. . . . I have my results but I do not yet know how I arrived at them.’ (M. Monmasson, Invention and the Unconscious, [1931], p. 77, Clark, op. cit., pp. 28-9, cf. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge [London, Routledge, 1962], p. 131).

As in the case of Faraday and electromagnetism, these discoveries often come not when consciously working on them, but when taking a break from the problem. Nobel-prizewinning German physiologist Otto Loewi was woken one night by a dream, with a brilliant idea. He scribbled a note and went back to sleep. For the whole of the next day he struggled to decipher his writing, or remember his dream. The following night the same idea came to him. This time he made careful notes, and the following day performed the experiment that first demonstrated the chemical basis for the transmission of nerve impulses (W. B. Cannon, The Way of an Investigator, 1945, Clark, op. cit., pp. 30-1).

In 1869, while working on his classic textbook The Principles of Chemistry, Russian chemist Dmitry Mendeleyev was in a half-awake, half-asleep state when he had a vision of the arrangement of the chemical elements according to their atomic weights or numbers. Thus he invented the periodic table, the foundation of modern chemistry (Clark, op. cit., p. 31).

Many organic chemistry textbooks tell how the German chemist August Kekulé made his two great discoveries on which modern organic chemistry rests - the structure theory and the formula for benzene - the first when he dozed on a bus late one night, the second years later as he dozed by a fireside. In both instances he saw visions of atoms circling before his eyes and was able to watch how they arranged themselves (Clark, op. cit., p. 31).

American inventor Charles Goodyear worked tirelessly to overcome the problem of the stickiness of rubber in hot weather. One night in 1839 he dreamed that a man came and told him to add sulphur. He had tried this before without success, and given up. But now he tried again, mixing sulphur with rubber on a hot stove, and so discovered how to vulcanise rubber (R. W. Lunn, Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, 31 [1939], p. 1191, Clark, op. cit., p. 31).

Marconi, the Italian electrical engineer, was gazing one day at the distant horizon. He thought how the human mind knows no barriers but can bridge every distance, reaching even to God in prayer. In a flash the idea came to him that Hertzian waves, also, might overcome the obstacles of space. Thus he invented radio (Clark, op. cit., p. 33).

Robert Clark, who collected many such examples, concludes, ‘Unprejudiced investigation shows that in all radically new discoveries a non-rational element is supremely important. Discovery often bypasses reason and involves faith, or something akin to faith. . . .’ (op. cit., pp. 23-4).

3. A Future Possibility

Greater cooperation between Christianity and science would result in many benefits for both disciplines.

Science can help Christian faith avoid irrationalism and provide evidences for Christianity. Scientific discoveries about the beginning have provided the strongest evidence for theism and the biblical worldview since the Enlightenment two centuries ago. Science can help theology clarify which worldviews are true and which false, so helping present the truth claims of the Christian message to our increasingly pluralistic world.

Likewise, theology can point to areas of scientific research where natural processes are unable to account for complexity, quantum leaps in development, or the interaction of transcendent and immanent processes. Many elementary mistakes made by naturalistic science would have been avoided if scientists had shown more humility or demonstrated a greater willingness to learn from the biblical worldview.

Both Christianity and science can give glory to God by rediscovering the wonder of creation. Unbelieving science and unthinking Christianity rob God of honour as the Creator of this vast, intricate, and exquisitely crafted universe. A truly consummate Artist has created our universe, our home planet Earth, and human life upon it. Can science and Christianity join hands in applauding so supreme a performance?


© 2000, St Albans Presbyterian Church