Hostile Science

A wide range of scholars recognise that in history, Christianity in many ways inspired the birth of modern science by providing both the intellectual presuppositions and moral sanction required for such a development. It was in this Christian environment that science continued to flourish. How is it then, that today this close connection between Christianity and science has come to suffer such significant damage? In this essay, I will examine some of the factors from within the biological sciences which have contributed to the separation of science and Christianity.

The influence of biology has come relatively recently in the history of science. Initially the scientific revolution seemed to bypass biology and instead be confined to physics, mathematics and astronomy, and to the work of scientists such as Galileo, Copernicus and Newton. Our first glimpses of the biological revolution came with the "Ages of Exploration and Classification" when biologists began to travel the world in search of new species of plants and animals. In order to handle this influx of new information, biologists developed new classification systems with an emphasis on describing form and function largely based on the ideas of Aristotle. The biological revolution may have begun, but scientists such as the botanists John Ray and Carl Linnaeus and the zoologist Georges Cuvier all continued to integrate their science with their belief in God. There was a rich interaction between the study of theology and the study of living things. For Linnaeus, this meant that rational inquiry must inevitably lead to the acknowledgement of and respect for an omniscient and omnipotent Creator. However, in later "Ages" – the "Age of Evolution" and the "Age of DNA", the close interaction between science and Christianity has diminished. And in many ways, the negative impact of these scientific revolutions has mirrored the influences of earlier philosophical revolutions which have also promoted a conversion away from God.

Emerging Hostility

The Age of Evolution, beginning in the late nineteenth century, has become a rallying point for many who are opposed to Christianity and the Church. And today this hostility continues. Along with the evolutionary theory, features such as mechanistic biology also came to dominate this area of science. The mechanistic movement, made popular by the physical sciences, brought with it the assumption that life is reducible to the laws of chemistry and physics – that life could be explained in purely mechanical terms. Charles Darwin was firmly rooted in this mechanistic tradition and his theories were used to help promote this scientific world view. Darwin’s theory of natural selection was an attempt to explain how the appearance of design might come from random changes – a situation where adaptation to the environment could take the place of purposive design (ie. God). Previously, biologists in the mould of Aristotle explained adaptation in terms of ultimate purpose. Then, Darwin argued that purpose itself was not real, rather it was a product of natural selection. Mechanistic forces were being promoted as the only causes admissible in science and competing theories soon came to be viewed as unscientific.

The impact of this mechanistic tradition, with its appeal to reductionism, continues to be a dominant force in our current age – the Age of DNA. This period began in earnest with Watson and Crick’s discovery of the double helical structure of DNA. Both Watson and Crick are strong adherents of a mechanistic view of biology in which scientists are committed to reducing life to a product of physical/chemical forces. In his autobiography What Mad Pursuit, Francis Crick tells of how he even switched his scientific studies from physics to biology because he was interested to find the molecular structure of genes. He also claims that he is an atheist who believes that biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see is not designed, but rather evolved. That life is mere chemistry has now become the catch-cry of many of today’s scientists who are strong adherents of the mechanistic view. This view also appears as a foundational principle in many school science departments and textbooks.

The science of today has also come to be characterised by another force which is best described by the words objective and subjective. These words, and the dichotomy which they represent, have become so integral to our ways of speaking about science that it is almost impossible to think in a way that is not controlled by them. We have become accustomed to the idea that claims about truth can be divided only into those which communicate objective knowledge and those which speak about subjective experiences. Descriptions of beauty and goodness are relegated to the subjective realm since they are only feelings, whereas the findings of science are offered as objective facts that are universally true. The full person, fully capable of two poles of knowing, both the subjective and the objective, has been removed from science. Our scientific literature today is rarely written in the first person. It rarely indicates that a person has been directly involved in the work, and even more rarely do journal editors permit the scientific facts to be enriched with words such as amazing, beautiful or stunning - for that would be to allow personal feelings to influence the facts.

How then, should a Christian working in science respond? Two attempts at response have created confusion and disintegration: The Creation Science movement has attempted to use the opening chapters of Genesis as prescriptive filter for all science, and more generally, many Christians who pursue science have failed to think fully and Christianly about the work that do.

Failed Responses to Hostility

Creation Science:

Mark Noll, author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, claims that any unity of thought that may once have existed between Christians and science has been further eroded during the twentieth century by Christian fundamentalism, and by the Creation Science movement in particular. Although largely centered in North America, the influence of Creation Science has stretched far beyond these shores. The positive influences of this movement have come from their critique of the contention that science itself is a better path toward ultimate truth than that offered by Christianity. There has also been a useful critique of how science has been funded, practised, preached and promoted in our societies. However, the science that this movement promotes appears not to be well grounded; for them a philosophy influences the interpretation of the facts. Creation Science’s tenuous use of Scripture and their apparent limiting of science to only that which is found in the Bible often results in a rejection of the claims of this movement by others with an interest in science.

Creationism, when properly defined, means "all who discern a divine mind at work in, with or under the phenomena of the natural world" (Mark Noll). However, others have unfortunately narrowed this meaning to that which implies that God created the world 10,000 or fewer years ago, and in doing this they push the interactions between Christianity and science to, and beyond, the brink of battle. While it is clearly possible for an omnipotent God to have created the universe a very short time ago, if this is so, why would God leave many pieces of evidence which would suggest that the universe is considerably older? The tension built up around issues such as this, means that other critical issues at the interface of science and Christianity become hard to isolate and discuss. The roar of the battle drowns out more careful thinking and communication and as a result the Christian intellect within science has become severely restricted.

Vocational Science:

Our culture today exhibits an all-pervasive dichotomy between the public realm of facts where our allegiance is commanded, and a private realm of values, opinions and feelings where our expressions are clearly optional. In Foolishness to the Greeks, Lesslie Newbigin claims that the dual realms of life in modern Western culture are a further development of the Enlightenment’s conversion away from God that saw new concepts of thought appear in science and philosophy. As a result, today the world is no longer explained by reference to a Divine purpose, rather reason is to be subject only to the facts – all knowledge is to be objective. This separation into private and public worlds is clearly seen in the Western education system, where every schoolchild is expected to know the facts about DNA, but not that humans are created in God’s image and are intended to glorify God. This latter information is considered merely a religious expression that is values-based and therefore should be kept private. God has been omitted from the public realm of our world and Christians have too easily accepted this position. As a consequence, Christian thinking within the public sphere of life is being lost.

This dichotomy extends within the scientific community, where being a Christian working in science has been to hold a vocational rather than an intellectual position. For, if a scientist were to talk of God as the Bible does, as the Creator and Governor of all things, whose purpose is the requirement for everything human, in both the public and private sectors of life, there would inevitably be conflict. Christians in the sciences have therefore retreated, with their thoughts and beliefs, into a private silence. Consequently, Christians are missing an important opportunity to develop and communicate a Christian mind set about the world and the Creator. Christians may even be ignoring the scriptural mandate that calls us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2).

Time to Re-evaluate

A central premise of this essay has been that the deficient thinking of Christians working in science today needs correction. The need for correct thinking is seen in the pathologies of our actions – either we argue or battle from a flawed basis, as seen in the Creation Science movement, or we retreat with our thoughts and beliefs into a private realm. As Christians working in science, there is a need to come to terms with the cultural baggage that we carry. There is a need to re-evaluate the extent to which a purely objectivist or mechanistic world view has come to dominate our thinking, and ultimately our view of God.

Christopher Downs


Recommended Reading

Blamires, H. The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? (Servant Books, Ann Arbor MI, 1963)

Crick, F. What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery (HarperCollins, 1988)

Newbigin, L. Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids MI, 1986)

Newbigin, L. Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids MI, 1995)

Noll, M. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

(Eerdmans, Grand Rapids MI, 1994)

Pearcey, N., Thaxton, C. The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy (Crossway Books, Wheaton Il, 1994)

Pollack, R. Signs of Life: The Language and Meaning of DNA (Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1994)

© 1999 Christopher Downs, Palmerston North, New Zealand