Science and Christianity–How Should They Relate?

An acquaintance asked me an interesting question the other day:

“How should we respond when someone says they are skeptical of Christianity because of its low view of science?”

It isn’t surprising to me that such accusations are still being made towards Christianity. Historical myth and misconceptions that support such an idea run rampant in our society. For instance, there are high school teachers and college-level instructors that still use the film Inherit the Wind to teach students about the so-called “war” between science and the Christian faith. (Very little of the film is historically accurate. Scopes was never oppressed, mistreated, or imprisoned. He volunteered to be prosecuted in a test case for a new organization–the ACLU–to help them, his economically troubled town, and a spotlight-hungry defense attorney gain publicity.)

At any rate, members of the general public rarely question what they’re fed through pop culture, and as a result, there is this common perception (among believers and non-believers alike) that in order to be an orthodox Christian, you must take a low view of science. This is categorically false. I’m a Christian with an education and career background in biology and genetics–I love science! Few human pursuits are as awe-inspiring as discovering the complexity, elegance, and harmony of God’s magnificent creation.

Consider Romans 1:20-

For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. (NLT)

Observing qualities of God through our study of the natural world sounds like a very high view of science, don’t you think? My view is that when science and theology are each properly employed, they will be in agreement. This is sometimes referred to as “Two Books Theology,” in which Scripture is our Special Revelation and the Creation is our Natural Revelation–both from God, existing in perfect harmony.

Both science and theology are subject to human fallibility, of course, so there should be a mutual humility among practitioners. As Christians, we should not idolize our pet theological views to the point that we turn a blind eye to what natural revelation is showing us. In the same vein, scientists should not artificially exclude any hypothesis simply because they dislike its metaphysical implications, nor should they support an ad hoc hypothesis because they favor its metaphysical implications.

Over the next several weeks, I plan to profile Christians with high degrees in a variety of scientific fields who are doing amazing work in their endeavor to elucidate our wondrous natural world. Stay tuned!

12 thoughts on “Science and Christianity–How Should They Relate?

  1. Hi Melissa–

    Can you expand upon how you think “metaphysical implications” (regardless of whose they are) have any place within scientific hypotheses? It would seem to me that the assumption of metaphysical implications in a hypothesis would be a principal reason to discard the hypothesis as invalid, at least in relation to scientific methodology.

    So while I agree that hypotheses should not *necessarily* be accepted or rejected out of hand because of the metaphysical agendas of some of its proponents (although, in the current milieu, I think the separation between hypothesis and metaphysical agenda is becoming increasingly difficult to separate), we must also be careful to remember that the potential success or failure of any hypothesis does not actually lend support to any particular metaphysical evaluation of the phenomenon.

    That is, a history of unending cosmic evolution does not say anything about the existence of God, just as an account of a young universe (or any other creationist/ID/whatever) also does not say anything about the existence of God. In any scientific hypothesis, one will necessarily have to transgress the boundaries of scientific methodology in making assertions–positive, negative, or otherwise–about the metaphysical implications of the phenomenon under investigation.

    • I don’t think they have a place “within” scientific hypotheses in the sense I think you mean. I think some hypotheses naturally have metaphysical implications, and some pursue the hypothesis for the implication’s sake, not the data’s sake. Consider M-Theory, for instance. Some (not all) physicists working on that theory favor it because they wish to use it as a naturalistic explanation for the existence of everything. It will prop up their atheism, and they love that. Nevermind that there is a huge lack of concrete evidence–it’s completely theoretical. Brian Greene (who I believe is agnostic) talks about this in his book, Elegant Universe; he says that some feel that a successful M-Theory will answer Leibniz’s famous question about why there is something rather than nothing. I agree that whether theories, such as M-Theory, pan out or not, that doesn’t imply anything about creation ex nihilo.

      This happens in the case of neo-Darwinism, too. Ken Miller (evolutionist) talked about this in his book, Finding Darwin’s God.

      I think you and I have disagreed before on my view that science can offer epistemic support for theism in the form of abductive reasoning, but it cannot give deductive proof.

    • Hi Henry– Just a note to let you know I’m stewing on this a bit. I’m not ignoring the question! Hopefully I’ll be able to fully respond by tomorrow.

    • Okay, I’m back. 🙂

      When it comes to Two Books Theology, I should specify that I believe Scripture must take precedence. Always. I think General Revelation should be a tempering force in textual interpretation, and Christians should be willing to revisit their theology when apparent discrepancies arise between Scripture and rigorous science.

      I believe the two main problems that prevent resolution are:

      1) Over-rigidity with hermeneutics
      2) Too much faith in the absolute accuracy of historical and theoretical sciences

      The bottom line is, it’s tricky. However, I believe there can be harmony when 1) we recognize potential human fallibility in the formulation of theologies and scientific theory, and 2) we work to accept the true scope and intent of Scripture and the true limitations of science.

      What do you think?

    • A two-books approach can be dangerous where modern scientific theory is allowed to overrule revelation, as seen in BioLogos’ articles. Science can be useful. Properly understood it will never contradict biblical revelation, although it can correct misinterpretations of it. Good hermeneutics is important here, to tell the difference between good and mistaken interpretations.

      I would not refer to the Bible and creation as two-books because it sounds like this places them on equal or near equal footing, although that may or may not not be the intention of a given theologian or apologist (in the case of BioLogos, however, modern scientific theory takes precedence over biblical revelation).

      Among conservative theologians/apologists, who have you encountered who uses a two-books approach?

      By the way, James White has been providing some good commentary on the W. L. Craig / Sam Harris debate. You may enjoy it.

    • Probably the most high-profile organization that takes this approach is Reasons to Believe (www.reasons.org). One of their speakers, Kenneth Samples, was my professor for Authority, Canon, and Criticism. I would say he definitely keeps Scripture elevated above natural revelation. He teaches the Chicago Statement, etc.

  2. “I think some hypotheses naturally have metaphysical implications”

    Just curious…which ones do you think *naturally* have metaphysical implications? From a methodological perspective, it would seem that any metaphysical implications associated with this or that hypothesis would necessarily have to be the result of some imposition by the one crafting the hypothesis…and in such a case (for which I see no exceptions), it would seem more reasonable to conclude that the metaphysical imposition is only forcibly related to the phenomenon which the hypothesis seeks to understand.

    I do agree with you re: Elegant–it’s one of my favorite books, but I do think Greene (and those of sympathetic persuasions) has overstated the philosophical meaningfulness of M (or any other theory).

    RE: abductive reasoning, I’m not entirely sure how that helps in regards to epistemological support for theism (at least the non-pantheistic kind), as any causal link between “what is” and “God” is ultimately a materializing of the divine.

    • Any hypothesis that seeks to circumvent theism in the ultimate origins problem or one that doesn’t exclude the option of transcendent intelligence would fit the bill. It doesn’t matter that the metaphysical implications are imposed. Human beings impose their preferences, especially the ones related to the big questions. There’s simply no escaping it, so talking about them independently seems rather futile.

      Science and theology sometimes address the same questions (first causes, power of naturalism, etc). I know that is a matter of debate, but that’s the view I take.

      If you rule out using abductive reasoning to make an inference to the best explanation where epistemic support of theism is concerned, you’re only left with two alternatives: fideism or skepticism. I reject both. I feel that the ultimate origins problem and the specified complexity problem are both best explained by theism. [This is not to be confused with a God-of-the-gaps argument; inference to the best explanation entails knowing, from experience, a cause (such as intelligence) for an effect being observed (specified complexity).] After establishing the explanation of a transcendent mind/cause, I move on to the evidential support for Judeo-Christianity. Kind of a chain-link argument, I guess you could say.

  3. “Any hypothesis that seeks to circumvent theism in the ultimate origins problem or one that doesn’t exclude the option of transcendent intelligence would fit the bill. It doesn’t matter that the metaphysical implications are imposed. Human beings impose their preferences, especially the ones related to the big questions. There’s simply no escaping it, so talking about them independently seems rather futile.”

    I actually agree that the imposition of preferences is unavoidable: objectivity in anything–religious thinking, scientific knowledge, whatever–is a vaporous notion and perhaps the most devastating flaw of Western thinking. However, if these impositions cannot be avoided, upon what grounds can any particular hypothesis be characterized as overly-motivated by the same?

    Re: the two alternatives, I personally think a form of fideism is the only manageable form of religious knowledge, and I’d also argue that the modern Western mind craves a much overdue dose of skepticism to wake itself up from the fantasy of objectivism to which it has been enslaved for the last 400 years.

    The appeal to “reason” is so intertwined with and dependent upon the philosophical hegemonies of the given day that I cannot see a scenario in which a consistent “inference of the divine” will be made in every possible (or any particular) philosophical milieu. So then, does one make the inference of the divine from the natural because the natural itself exhibits some causal relationship to the divine (and how, exactly, does one demonstrate this…), or because one lives within a philosophical landscape in which the divine is presumed to be among the constellation of “options” for describing the origin of the creation? My assumption is that the latter is more accurate.

  4. Yes, Greene’s book was great! One of the things I’ve always appreciated about him is how he’s able to find really useful metaphors for the concepts he’s describing that are capable of carrying the complexity of the concept without over-simplifying and ruining the idea.

    Did you ever catch the mini-series they did on Nova? If you have 3 hours to burn, they have all 3 parts available online. Here’s part 1: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/physics/elegant-universe-einstein.html

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