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Thinking Matters Forum at Auckland University

This March, Thinking Matters is coordinating two events at Auckland University with the Tertiary Student Christian Fellowship. We’re excited about the speakers that we’ve organized and are really looking forward to the discussion over two great nights. The events are open to both university students and the public, so if you’re in Auckland, come and join us.

Here are the details. We’ll announce the theatre locations this week.

The Thinking Matters Forum

Has Science Disproved God?

Time: 7pm, Thursday March 11
Location: OGGB4
Owen G Glenn Building, 12 Grafton Road, The University of Auckland

Have the discoveries of modern science proved that belief in God is irrational and untenable? Does faith hinder or inspire scientific research? In this public Q and A event, several of New Zealand’s top scientists and Christian thinkers come together to examine the claims of popular atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, and explore the the credibility of God in the context of cosmology, biology, and physics.

Speakers:

  • Neil Broom (PhD) is Professor and Head of the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering at The University of Auckland. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2008 and is the author of the book How Blind Is the Watchmaker?: Nature’s Design & the Limits of Naturalistic Science.
  • Jeff Tallon (PhD) is Distinguished Scientist at Industrial Research Ltd and a former Professor of Physics at Victoria University. He is internationally known for his research in high-temperature superconductors, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and in 2002 was awarded the Rutherford Medal, New Zealand’s highest science award.
  • Robert Mann (PhD) previously taught biochemistry and environmental studies at the UoA and and has been on the council of the NZ Association of Scientists.
  • Matthew Flannagan (PhD) lectures in the History of Philosophy at Laidlaw College and specializes in applied ethics and the interface between philosophy and theology. He is a prominent New Zealand Christian thinker, debater and blogger.

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Christianity On Trial

Time: 7pm, Tuesday March 16
Location: 260 – 098
Owen G Glenn Building, 12 Grafton Road, The University of Auckland

Today, many best-selling atheists argue that belief in God is delusional and a roadblock to political, moral, and scientific progress. In this public Q and A event, several of New Zealand’s top Christian thinkers come together to consider popular arguments against Christianity and whether belief in God is merely a consequence of superstition and credulity.

Speakers:

  • Jeff Tallon (PhD) is Distinguished Scientist at Industrial Research Ltd and a former Professor of Physics at Victoria University. He is internationally known for his research in high-temperature superconductors, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and in 2002 was awarded the Rutherford Medal, New Zealand’s highest science award.
  • Matthew Flannagan (PhD) lectures in the History of Philosophy at Laidlaw College and specializes in applied ethics and the interface between philosophy and theology. He is a prominent New Zealand Christian thinker, debater and blogger.
  • Michael Drake (DipTeach) is the principal of Carey College in Panmure and a pastor of the Tamaki Reformed Baptist Church. He has been involved in advocacy for Christian schools and in raising issues about race, education, and Christianity before Parliament. He is also a TSCF Associate Chaplain at the Manukau Institute of Technology.
  • Joe Fleener (MDiv) lectures in Old Testament, Church History, Christian Worldview, Apologetics, and Christian Ethics at The Shepherd’s Bible College.

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The Thinking Matters Forums are organised by an interdenominational group of Christians dedicated to addressing the difficult questions about faith, truth and life. Our website can be viewed at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz

UPDATE (1/03/2010): The location for the second lecture has been confirmed.

Atheist philosopher slammed for endorsing Meyer's book on Intelligent Design

Thomas Nagel’s recent endorsement of Stephen Meyer’s latest book, Signature in the Cell (2009), has generated a firestorm of debate. In the Times Literary Supplement, the atheist philosopher and professor at New York University, wrote:

“Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperCollins) is a detailed account of the problem of how life came into existence from lifeless matter – something that had to happen before the process of biological evolution could begin. The controversy over Intelligent Design has so far focused mainly on whether the evolution of life since its beginnings can be explained entirely by natural selection and other non-purposive causes. Meyer takes up the prior question of how the immensely complex and exquisitely functional chemical structure of DNA, which cannot be explained by natural selection because it makes natural selection possible, could have originated without an intentional cause. He examines the history and present state of research on non-purposive chemical explanations of the origin of life, and argues that the available evidence offers no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative to the hypothesis of an intentional cause. Meyer is a Christian, but atheists, and theists who believe God never intervenes in the natural world, will be instructed by his careful presentation of this fiendishly difficult problem.”

Nagel’s positive review provoked instant outrage from his fellow atheists. While Nagel has been critical of scientific naturalism in the past, the recommendation of Meyer’s book as one of the years’ best brought fierce condemnation in the blogosphere and beyond. Brian Leiter has described him as a disgrace and more, while Stephen Fletcher, a chemist and professor at Loughborough University, is simply incredulous:

“The belief that we share this planet with supernatural beings is an old one. Students of magic and religion have identified innumerable varieties of them – gods, devils, pixies, fairies, you name it. A familiar motif is that they operate at the very fringes of perception. While the scullery maid sleeps, they are busy in the kitchen making the milk go sour. For a society with no concept of bacteria, this is, perhaps, a forgivable conceit. But for a modern university professor to take this idea seriously is, I think, mind-blowing.”

Thomas Nagel has responded to Fletcher, in a letter to the Times,

Sir, – Stephen Fletcher objects to my recommending Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell in Books of the Year. Fletcher’s statement that “It is hard to imagine a worse book” suggests that he has read it. If he has, he knows that it includes a chapter on “The RNA World” which describes that hypothesis for the origin of DNA at least as fully as the Wikipedia article that Fletcher recommends. Meyer discusses this and other proposals about the chemical precursors of DNA, and argues that they all pose similar problems about how the process could have got started.

The tone of Fletcher’s letter exemplifies the widespread intolerance of any challenge to the dogma that everything in the world must be ultimately explainable by chemistry and physics. There are reasons to doubt this that have nothing to do with theism, beginning with the apparent physical irreducibility of consciousness. Doubts about reductive explanations of the origin of life also do not depend on theism. Since I am not tempted to believe in God, I do not draw Meyer’s conclusions, but the problems he poses lend support to the view that physics is not the theory of everything, and that more attention should be given to the possibility of an expanded conception of the natural order.

THOMAS NAGEL
29 Washington Square, New York 10011.

But not all are critical of Nagel. Bradley Morton disagrees with Leiter and has more sympathy for Nagel’s comments. John Walton, a chemist and professor at the University of St Andrews has come to Nagel’s (and Meyer’s) defense. Walton, also writing to the Times:

Sir, – The resilience of the “prebiotic soup” myth, in spite of torrents of counter-evidence, is truly astonishing. Even professionals such as Stephen Fletcher (Letters, December 4), criticizing Thomas Nagel’s recommendation of Signature in the Cell by Stephen C. Meyer (Books of the Year, November 27), apparently still believe in it. Fletcher asserts that “Natural selection is in fact a chemical process as well as a biological process, and it was operating for about half a billion years before the earliest cellular life forms appear in the fossil record”.

Actually the operation of neoDarwinian natural selection depends on the prior existence of entities capable of self-replication. Variants are produced in their genetic material by mutations, the variants are copied by the organism’s biochemical machinery, and then natural selection ensures the most “fit” survive. Before the arrival of organisms capable of reproduction, this process could not operate. In the words of the renowned evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky: “Prebiological natural selection is a contradiction in terms”. It follows that, even in principle, some quite different explanation is required to account for the origin of life. Fletcher is pinning his hopes on a supposed RNA world. He tells us: “Indeed, before DNA there was another hereditary system at work, less biologically fit than DNA, most likely RNA (ribonucleic acid)”.

It is an amusing irony that while castigating students of religion for believing in the supernatural, he offers in its place an entirely imaginary “RNA world” the only support for which is speculation! Intense laboratory research has failed to produce even one nucleotide (RNA component) under geologically plausible conditions. As for the chains of nucleotides required for the RNA world, there are insuperable problems associated with their information content, as well as the chemical selectivity needed for their assembly. Furthermore, the earth’s oldest Precambrian rocks show very good evidence that life was present from the start, so the half-billion years Fletcher counts on were actually not available for chemical evolution.

Rather than just kowtowing to the creaky naturalist “prebiotic soup” scenario, Meyer engages with the whole range of origin of life problems. Anyone interested in discovering where the evidence leads will find this a fascinating book.

JOHN C. WALTON
School of Chemistry, University of St Andrews, North Haugh, St Andrews.

Evolutionary Biologist Argues for the Scientific Accuracy of Genesis

GenesisZoologist and Royal Society University Research Fellow at Oxford University, Andrew Parker has written a new book arguing that there are significant parallels between the Genesis account of creation and discoveries in contemporary science. Parker specializes in the evolution of vision and is one of the eight “Scientists for a New Century” selected by the Royal Institution.  His previous book,  In the Blink Of An Eye: How Vision Sparked the Big Bang Of Evolution, defended the idea that the Cambrian explosion was triggered by the evolution of vision in simple organisms. Parker is no friend of either special creationism or intelligent design but has come to recognise the limits of science and even reject agnosticism. In his latest book, The Genesis Enigma, Parker grapples with the dilemma that the Genesis account has no right to be correct. Because the author or authors could not have known the sequence of evolutionary stages that science has come to recognize, Parker argues that Genesis must be the product of divine inspiration.

Here is what Ray Olson, reviewer at Booklist, says of The Genesis Enigma:

“Raised without religion, biologist Parker had his curiosity piqued by responses to his book, In the Blink of an Eye, about his major scientific contribution, the light-switch theory, which contends that the evolution of vision spurred the explosion of life-forms in the Cambrian period, 520 million years ago. His correspondents suggested that his theory put the final link in place between the account contemporary science gives of the world’s development and that related by the first chapter of Genesis. This book is considered his response to that suggestion. Chapter by chapter, he relates the stages of cosmological development and evolution to the seven stages of Creation in Genesis 1, from “Let there be light” – the concretion of the sun – to the debut of birds, which defied the rule (i.e., the reign) of vision over the cycle of predation on which all life depends (birds are uniquely able to flee predators). Read metaphorically, Genesis 1 is a scientifically sound outline. Each of Parker’s chapters, though sprung from a biblical statement, proceeds to chronicle two processes, that of how science thinks the earth and life developed and that of the scientists who forged the theories and obtained the facts that enable and confirm science’s account of creation and evolution. Parker, a popular science writer second to none in clarity and congeniality, has given us the single Darwinian bicentenary publication most liable to reconcile religion and science.”

The Genesis Enigma: Why the Bible Is Scientifically Accurate, Dutton Adult, 294 pages.

Christian Pioneers of Modern Science

W. R. Miller has complied a fine list of quotes and resources in an Appendix over at Tektonics to emphasize the point that many of the greatest scientists in history were Christians or had Biblical presuppositions. Miller also points out that;

  • For most of these, their faith was the driving force behind their discoveries.
  • True self-sustaining modern science (not just engineering, logic or mathematics) was born within a Christian society.

Here’s the relevant section (read the whole thing here) :

Daniel Graves, author of Scientists of Faith and Doctors Who Followed Christ, writes: “Many of the sciences derive directly from the work of a Christian or were greatly influenced at their inception by a Christian. … It may seem an outrageous claim that Christians were seminal to much of what dominates modern scientific thinking, but it is true. There is hardly a science or scientific idea which cannot trace its inception as a viable theory to some Christian.”  A careful study of history reveals that technology and modern science was, in fact, pioneered by Christians.  The case is made by Dr. Ian Hutchison and Dr. Loren Eiseley (below) and at the essays found at the subsequent links.

Ian H.Hutchinson, Head of Department of Nuclear Energy.  Plasma Science and Fusion Center and Department of Nuclear Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA. ASA Conference, 4 August 2002.  “Science: Christian and Natural,” http://hutchinson.belmont.ma.us/asa2002/.

“Going further, though, I believe there is a constructive case to be made for the phrase Christian Science.

First, as represented by the theme of this conference “Christian Pioneers”, we should recognize that modern science is built upon the foundational work of people who more than anything else were Christians. Christians were the pioneers of the revolution of thought that brought about our modern understanding of the world. MIT, my home institution, the high-temple of science and technology in the United States, has a pseudo-Greek temple architecture about its main buildings. The fluted columns are topped not with baccanalian freizes, but with the names of the historical heroes of science (not to mention William Barton Rogers, the founder). A rough assessment was carried out by a few of us some years ago of the fraction of the people listed there who were Christians. The estimate we arrived at was about 60%.

Any list of the giants of physical science would include Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Boyle, Pascal, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, all of whom, despite denominational and doctrinal differences among them, and opposition that some experienced from church authorities, were deeply committed to Jesus Christ.

Second, I observed over the years in my interactions with Christians in academia, that far from scientists being weakly represented in the ranks of the faithful, as one would expect if science and faith are incompatible, they are strongly overrepresented. The sociological evidence has been studied systematically for example by Robert Wuthnow [Robert Wuthnow, The Struggle for America’s Soul, Eerdmanns, Grand Rapids, (1989), p146.], who established that while academics undoubtedly tend to be believers in lower proportion than the US population as a whole, among academics, scientists were proportionally more likely to be Christians that those in the non-science disciplines. The common misconception that scientists were or are inevitably sundered from the Christian faith by their science is simply false.

Third, the question arises, why did modern science grow up almost entirely in the West, where Christian thinking held sway? There were civilizations of comparable stability, prosperity, and in many cases technology, in China, Japan, and India. Why did they not develop science? It is acknowledged that arabic countries around the end of the first millenium were more advanced in mathematics, and their libraries kept safe eventually for Christendom much of the Greek wisdom of the ancients. Why did not their learning blossom into the science we now know? More particularly, if Andrew White’s portrait of history, that the church dogmatically opposed all the “dangerous innovations” of science, and thereby stunted scientific development for hundreds of years, why didn’t science rapidly evolve in these other cultures?

A case that has been made cogently by Stanley Jaki [Stanley L. Jaki, The road of science and the ways to God, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, (1978).], amongst others, is that far from being an atmosphere stifling to science, the Christian world view of the West was the fertile cultural and philosophical soil in which science grew and flourished. He argues that it was precisely the theology of Christianity which created that fertile intellectual environment. The teaching that the world is the free but contingent creation of a rational Creator, worthy of study on its own merits because it is “good”, and the belief that because our rationality is in the image of the creator, we are capable of understanding the creation: these are theological encouragements to the work of empirical science. Intermingled with the desire to benefit humankind for Christian charity’s sake, and enabled by the printing press to record and communicate results for posterity, the work of science became a force that gathered momentum despite any of the strictures of a threatened religious hierarchy.

So I suggest that there is a deeper reason why scientists are puzzled about how one might pursue a Christian Science distinguished from what has been the approach developed over the past half millenium. It is that modern science is already in a very serious sense Christian. It germinated in and was nurtured by the Christian philosophy of creation, it was developed and established through the work of largely Christian pioneers, and it continues to draw Christians to its endeavours today.”

Dr. Loren Eiseley (1907-1977), a Professor of anthropology, a science history writer and evolutionist, concluded that the birth of modern science was mainly due to the creationist convictions of its founders.

“It is the CHRISTIAN world which finally gave birth in a clear articulated fashion to the experimental method of science itself … It began its discoveries and made use of its method in the faith, not the knowledge, that it was dealing with a rational universe controlled by a Creator who did not act upon whim nor inference with the forces He had set in operation. The experimental method succeeded beyond man’s wildest dreams but the faith that brought it into being owes something to the Christian conception of the nature of God. It is surely one of the curious paradoxes of history that science, which professionally has little to do with faith, owes its origins to an act of faith that the universe can be rationally interpreted, and that science today is sustained by that assumption.” [Loren Eiseley, Darwin’s Centenary: Evolution and the Men who Discovered it, Doubleday: New York, 1961 p:62]

Kenneth Scott Latourette, Sterling Professor at Yale University, wrote,

“Across the centuries Christianity has been the means of reducing more languages to writing than have all other factors combined. It has created more schools, more theories of education, and more systems than has any other one force. More than any other power in history it has impelled men to fight suffering, whether that suffering has come from disease, war or natural disasters. It has built thousands of hospitals, inspired the emergence of the nursing and medical professions, and furthered movement for public health and the relief and prevention of famine. Although explorations and conquests which were in part its outgrowth led to the enslavement of Africans for the plantations of the Americas, men and women whose consciences were awakened by Christianity and whose wills it nerved brought about the abolition of slavery (in England and America). Men and women similarly moved and sustained wrote into the laws of Spain and Portugal provisions to alleviate the ruthless exploitation of the Indians of the New World.

… By its name and symbol, the most extensive organization ever created for the relief of the suffering caused by war, the Red Cross, bears witness to its Christian origin. The list might go on indefinitely. It includes many another humanitarian projects and movements, ideals in government, the reform of prisons and the emergence of criminology, great art and architecture, and outstanding literature.”

[A History of Christianity, Vol. II, originally published by HarperCollins Publishers 1953, revised 1975, pp.1470,1471].

Other links (provided by Miller) for further reading:

Eric V. Snow. Christianity, A Cause of Modern Science? Explains the historical research of Duhem, Jaki, and Merton. http://www.icr.org/pubs/imp/imp-298.htm or http://www.rae.org/jaki.html

David F. Coppedge.   The World’s Greatest Creation Scientists from Y1K to Y2K, http://creationsafaris.com/wgcs.htm

Christianity and the Birth of Science: Why modern science arose in Christian Europe and not in other cultures.  Dr. Michael Bumbulis proposes four evidences and anticipates objections. http://www.ldolphin.org/bumbulis/

Luther and Science: An essay on relation of Protestant thought to the advancement of science, and an important refutation of the claim that Luther and his followers ridiculed and repressed Copernicanism: http://www.leaderu.com/science/kobe.html

T. V. Varughese, Ph.D. Christianity and Technological Advance: The Astonishing Connection, http://www.icr.org/pubs/imp/imp-245.htm

Ben Clausen on the origin of science, and examples of believers, with bibliography: Christianity Aiding the Development of Science, http://www.grisda.org/bclausen/papers/aid.htm

Colin Russell, Professor of History of Science and Technology, The Open University, England; Chairman – Vice President, Christians in Science.  “Without a Memory,” http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1993/PSCF12-93Russell.html. From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 45 (March 1993): 219-221.

Christianity is for Weak, Stupid People? – The Role of Reason for Christians http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/reason.html

Conflict for the Darwinian Dispute

Charles Darwin (1809–1882) is often portrayed as a believer struggling with doubt, reluctantly yielding to rational thinking in light of the evidence he found while journeying on the HMS Beagle in the Galapagos Islands. Wiker[1] points out that while Darwin’s ideas are well known, much of the story of his life is either unknown or mythical. To summarize just a few of his more relevant points;

First, evolution was less innovation and more popularization, having been believed by his father before him and his grandfather Erasmus Darwin. During Erasmus’ time there was a resurgence of interest in the philosophy of the ancient Epicurean philosopher Lucrecius, who propounded evolutionary ideas. Evolutionary thinking was already a part of the ethos of the age we call Modernism and Charles Darwin was a man who set out on the Beagle to find proof of evolution, rather than someone who reluctantly came to accept the idea because of the weight of the evidence.

Second, Darwin’s brief tenure studying theology was less from conviction or faith in God, and more to maintain a social acceptability by conforming to what was then considered to be stabilizing cultural norm – the church. His departure from that institution was less from lack of belief, and more to follow his true interest – the study of nature.

Third, Darwin’s thesis was not the bombshell it has been made out to be.[2] Many Christian’s of the day, including Charles Lyell (1797–1875)[3] easily accepted evolutionary ideas and yet remained critical of the Darwinian posturing toward God no longer being necessary to explain the origin and diversity of life. Darwin’s associate and co-discoverer of evolutionary theory Alfred Russell Wallace (1823–1913) became convinced that natural selection alone – without God – would not suffice. The beauty and intricateness of such a process, he thought, was too grand and astounding, and still could not explain human morality, rationality and even physical nature.[4]

Fourth, the idea that there was a thoughtless rejection of evolutionary theory on behalf of the church when Origin of Species (1859) and the Decent of Man (1871) were published is mainly rhetoric. Christian thinkers, both scientists and theologians, were for the most part civil and maintained friendly dialogue. Asa Gray (1810-1888), the American botanist at Harvard and Evangelical was one of these: a friend and long-time correspondent of Darwin who saw design and order in the natural world of evolution progress. Moore writes,

“There was not a polarization of “science” and “religion” as the idea of opposed armies implies but a large number of learned men, some scientists, some theologians, some indistinguishable, and almost all of them very religious, who experienced various differences among themselves. There was not organization apparent on either “side” as the idea of rank and command implies but deep divisions among men of science, the majority of whom were at first hostile to Darwin’s theory, and a corresponding and derivative division among Christians who were scientifically untrained, with a large proportion of leading theologians quite prepared to come to terms peacefully with Darwin. Nor, finally, was there the kind of antagonism pictured in the discharge of weaponry but rather a much more subdued overall reaction to the Origin of Species than is generally supposed and a genuine amiability in the relations of those who are customarily believed to have been at battle.”[5]

In order to understand the avid rejection of evolutionary theory by some Christians one needs to understand that another science appeared in the nineteenth century. Higher criticism leveled its gaze on the orthodox view of scripture and with the philosophical assumptions of the Enlightenment and Modernism challenged much of Christian belief. There was no official response given by the church on Higher criticism, Evolutionary theory or Darwinism, however individuals within the church did deem to respond to these intellectual challenges. Responses were indeed inevitable if merely by virtue that these ideas became engrained in the culture. These responses can be categorized into four distinct groups: the Liberal response, the Neo-Orthodox response, the Evangelical response and the Fundamentalist response.

The Liberal response to Higher criticism was acceptance. Liberals rejected the authority of the Bible and traditional Christian orthodoxy and therefore did not consider conflict with science possible[6] – science and religion were non-overlapping magisteria. The Neo-orthodox response was dialectical, and so to a lesser extent did the same as the Liberals and accepted the insights.

The Evangelical response was that of accommodation. This was in the tradition of Calvin and in-line with Augustine who advocated perceived conflicts could be reconciled with better interpretation of either the Bible or of nature. John Calvin (1509–1564) the French theologian gave to science two gifts. First, he encouraged the study of nature. Nature demonstrated the wisdom of God and provided proofs of his glory.[7] Second, he removed the need to interpret the bible literally. By offering people a hermeneutic of “accommodation” he made the emergence of the natural sciences possible[8] and firmly grounded a tradition within evangelicalism allowing science to be integrated with the scripture.[9]

Evangelicals therefore attempted harmonization with the insights of Higher criticism, which would eventually yield new insights in theology, and breakthroughs in historical Jesus research. For evolutionary biology harmonization meant a variety of differing positions like Theistic Evolution[10] and Progressive Creationism.[11]

It was the reaction of Fundamentalism that was to have the most profound influence on the way the relationship between science and Christianity were perceived. Higher criticism and Darwin’s popularization of evolutionary theory elicited a negative reaction by some who felt that society was becoming more and more depraved in their thinking. Fundamentalism, distinguished by cultural isolationism and a dogmatic biblical literalism, decided to judge science by the Bible. Evolution is therefore a fraud. This response represents a “circling of the wagons” and as evolutionary theory gained prominence it created a siege mentality. This is why many describe Fundamentalism as obscurantist, insular and militaristic.

Essentially Fundamentalism is Evangelicalism on the defensive, though there is a range of responses to both sciences encapsulated by the term.[12] All refuse the Grand Evolution story for its atheistic implications, but there are a great variety of opinions to the extent which evolution has played a role in the development of the diversity of life. Some criticize evolution on the basis of flaws in theory, others dogmatically refuse in principle and offer no more explanation. Some in the twentieth century sought to re-interpret the evidence without the Rationalist and Materialistic presuppositions and developed Creation Science, which for the most part that militantly rejects evolution in favor of a young earth and a literal 24-hr/six-day creation period.

It is Fundamentalism that fueled the Creation/Evolution controversy in the twentieth century, and this is nowhere more typified by the Scopes Trial (referred to now as “The Monkey Trial”) in 1926. John Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution, and backed by the ACLU,[13] lost when the Tennessee law was upheld, but the fall-out from media sensationalism at the time lent credit to the Conflict Thesis. The influence of that media storm made it the subject of a play Inherit the Wind (1955) later adapted to a movie in 1960. The idea that science and religion are at war is still very much a part of the general public’s consciousness, even though it is not “religion” as such, but one specific branch of Christian belief that insists on literal interpretations.[14]

Today the relationship between science and Christianity is very healthy. It is believed the renaissance of Christian philosophy over the last fifty years has been so successful the effect has been the resurrection of Natural Theology, including powerful refurbishment of the teleological arguments.[15] The increasingly powerful Intelligent Design movement can be viewed as an effect of this renaissance in Christian thinking. The so-called “New Atheism” is an aberration to the general trend (perhaps also a reaction to it) and represents a movement out of touch with the higher echelons in academia that rejects the Conflict Thesis.[16] There are many other models that are used to describe the relationship between science and religion, but as Brooke says “general theses are difficult to maintain.”[17]

Alvin Plantinga views Christian belief as fundamentally congruent with science and only peripherally hostile.[18] Gary Ferngren summarizes,

“While some historians had always regarded the Draper-White thesis as oversimplifying and distorting a complex relationship, in the late twentieth century it underwent a more systematic reevaluation. The result is the growing recognition among historians of science that the relationship of religion and science has been much more positive than is sometimes thought. Although popular images of controversy continue to exemplify the supposed hostility of Christianity to new scientific theories, studies have shown that Christianity has often nurtured and encouraged scientific endeavour, while at other times the two have co-existed without either tension or attempts at harmonization. If Galileo and the Scopes trial come to mind as examples of conflict, they were the exceptions rather than the rule”[19]

Concluding then, Christianity has been an overwhelming boon to the scientific endeavor.[20] Kenneth Samples writes:

“Conflicts between scientific theories and the Christian faith have arisen through the centuries, to be sure. However, the level of conflict has often been exaggerated, and Christianity’s positive influence on scientific progress is seldom acknowledged.”[21]

Christianity provides a philosophical foundation for the success of science and today enjoys a fruitful conversation that has endured since the seventeenth century. Although many people presuppose and implicitly if not explicitly accept the Conflict Thesis, this is largely dead in academia. A particular type of Christian belief, namely Fundamentalism, remains reactionary towards a particular type of science, namely evolution. The broad mainstream accepts science as useful to theology, particularly in supporting the project of Natural Theology. When difficulties arise harmonization with a hermeneutic of “accommodation” can be attempted. The relationship is best described as a flourishing dialogue rather than with militaristic terms.

Footnotes

[1] Benjamin Wiker. The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin (2009)

[2] Dr. Matthew Flannegan argues evolutionary theory, if correct, only undermines a specific teleological argument for God’s existence and the rest of Christian theism is still on solid ground.

[3] The eminent scientist and founder of modern geology

[4] Talk with Greg Koukl and Dr. Benjamin Wiker, Stand to Reason.

[5] Quote found at God and Nature: p7-8, quote from Moore, Post-Darwinian Controversies

[6] David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers, God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, University of California Press (April 29, 1986) p. 14.

[7] In order than no one might be excluded from the means of obtaining happiness, God has been pleased, not only to place in our minds the seeds of religion of which we have already spoken, but to make known his perfection in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place them in our view, in such a manner that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to observe him. . . To prove his remarkable wisdom, both the heavens and the earth present us with countless proofs – not just those more advances proofs which astronomy, medicine and all the other natural sciences are designed to illustrate, but proofs which force themselves on the attention of the most illiterate peasant, who cannot open his eyes without seeing them. (Institutes I.v.1-2)

[8] Alister E. McGrath. Science and Religion, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999) p. 11

[9] “Prior to the nineteenth century there was a widespread agreement in the West, particularly in Protestant Christian circles, that resolution to these questions could be achieved by combining insights from both science and Scripture in a unified field of knowledge. If such an integrated view on the level of method and reference was established, it would become the focal point on which the understanding of life depended. Consequently, science and the Christian faith were presumed to be on the same die, mutually compatible, and dealing with the discovery of truth through a uniform epistemology.”

Diepstra, George R. and Gregory J. Laughery. “Interpreting Science and Scripture: Genesis 1-3” European Journal of Theology, 18:1, p. 6.

[10] There is a wide range of opinion encapsulated in this broad category, but generally means God created the first life and got the evolutionary ball rolling, but then left the process alone.

[11] Again, this is a broad category, but generally means God was involved and intervened in the process of creation.

[12] The term is also employed to describe a quagmire of other things, such as theological positions and hermeneutical methods, social agendas and political associations, etc., which make the title an honorific, a slur, and without context too vague for proper use.

[13] American Civil Liberties Union

[14] Alister E. McGrath. The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1998) p. 22.

[15] The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, pp. 69-85. Ed. M. Martin. Cambridge Companions to Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, 2007  also Quentin Smith, “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism” Philo 4/2(2001): 3-4.

[16] “God Is Not Dead Yet.” Christianity Today. July, 2008, pp. 22-27.

[17] John Hedley Brooke. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) p. 5

[18] He also convincingly argues that it is naturalism that is fundamentally hostile and only peripherally congruent. (Science and Religion: DVD, Naturalism ad absurdum).

[19] Gary Ferngren (editor). Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. p. ix

[20] Kenneth Samples, “The Historic Alliance Between Christianity and Science” (http://www.reasons.org/resources/apologetics/christianscience.shtml; Retrieved 27 Jan, 2009), 1998.

[21] Ibid., See also Stuart McEwing, “The Historic Alliance Between Christianity and Science” (http://talk.thinkingmatters.org.nz/2009/the-historic-alliance-between-christianity-and-science/; Retrieved 27 Nov, 2009)

The scientific community and self-criticism

Whatever your view on anthropogenic global warming, the recent hacking of private emails of the world’s top climate scientists has been a fascinating story. Over a thousand emails and documents were electronically stolen from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit in the UK, uploaded to a Russian FTP server, and made available for anyone to download.

I don’t have a stake in the debate – even apart from the question of whether global warming is the best scientific hypothesis – we should yet be firmly committed to the stewardship of the environment and practices that are sustainable and responsible. What I find interesting, however, is the way these emails give a rare insight into the behind-the-scenes efforts of scientists and the lengths some will go to shape the public perception of the claims of science. Andrew Bolt, writing for the Australian Herald Sun, argues that these emails point to:

Conspiracy, collusion in exaggerating warming data, possibly illegal destruction of embarrassing information, organised resistance to disclosure, manipulation of data, private admissions of flaws in their public claims and much more.

If legitimate, the private messages paint a damning picture of the defensiveness and insularity that can occur within the scientific community. Questions can also be raised about the frequently trumpeted guarantor of scientific truth: peer-review. Far from an impenetrable safeguard of intellectual rigor, peer-review can just as easily be captive to personal and political agenda. Bolt and others catalogue stunning examples of conflicts of interest, bullying, and other forms of manipulation that took place by the top climate change scientists to keep opponents from publishing in credible journals. The admission by realclimate.org, in their response to the hack, that scientists are “generally very competitive” is a magnificent understatement.

Indeed, the New York Times reports that “several scientists whose names appear in the e-mail messages said they merely revealed that scientists were human, and did nothing to undercut the body of research on global warming. “Science doesn’t work because we’re all nice,” said Gavin A. Schmidt, a climatologist at NASA whose e-mail exchanges with colleagues over a variety of climate studies were in the cache. “Newton may have been an ass, but the theory of gravity still works.””

I was reminded by this quote from David Berlinksi, former fellow at the Institute des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques in France and recent author of the book The Devil’s Delusion:

“The idea that science is a uniquely self-critical institution is of course preposterous. Scientists are no more self-critical than anyone else. They hate to be criticized… Look, these people are only human, they hate criticism — me too. The idea that scientists are absolutely eager to be beaten up is one of the myths put out by scientists, and it works splendidly so they can avoid criticism.

We’re asking for standards of behavior that would be wonderful to expect but that no serious man does expect. A hundred years of fraudulent drawings suggesting embryological affinities that don’t exist — that’s just what I would expect if biologists were struggling to maintain a position of power in a secular democratic society. Let’s be reasonable… the popular myth of science as a uniquely self-critical institution, and scientists as men who would rather be consumed at the stake rather than fudge their data, is okay for a PBS special, but that’s not the real world; that’s not what’s taking place…”

It will be interesting to see how this story will play out, and of course, if these correspondences are actually a fair representation of what has gone on. Our own local networks have been slow to pick up the news, but check out Peter Cresswell’s excellent summary and overview of the fall out. Glenn also offers some thoughts here.

Conflict for the Copernican Controversy

Italy, in the early decades of the seventeenth century was the centre of the Copernican controversy. Today the perception of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) is of a brilliant thinker unjustly persecuted and condemned by the church, the enemies of scientific progress. A champion of truth disgraced by those whose religious dogma is a hindrance to true knowledge of the world. But serious historians refuse to view the case as one of “science versus religion.” History is never so simplistic. It defies white-hat/black-hat renderings, as adherents of the conflict thesis try to make it out to be.

Galileo’s actions should be understood in relation to the volatile backdrop of the counter-reformation. By stridently defending the heliocentric model of the solar system with both observational and scriptural data, he embroiled himself in dispute with the Catholic Church. Catholicism had made itself the protectors of the Aristotelian philosophy and the Ptolemaic view of geocentricism,[1] and at the time was reacting against the innovations of Protestantism that were undermining the church’s traditional magisterial authority. Conceding Galileo’s new biblical interpretation was to undermine their strongest polemic that tradition was unchangeable, which would lend credibility to the Protestant movement.[2]

His major defense of the Copernican theory was initially received with sympathy within certain circles in the church, partly because Giovanni Ciampoli, who was a papal favorite, held him in high regard. Galileo lost support when Ciampoli fell from power in Rome, and this opened the door for Galileo’s condemnation.

Part of the problem was Galileo’s prickly personality, but the crux issue at stake was how the Bible should be interpreted. The official response was based on two considerations. First, by affirming the Bible should be interpreted according “to the proper meaning of the words.” In other words with a more literal approach, instead of an approach of “accommodation.”[3] Each method of interpretation had had a long history of use and was considered legitimate, but the debate now came to bear on certain passages that traditionally considered should be interpreted literally. Second, by affirming that the Bible should be interpreted “according to the common interpretation and understanding of the Holy Fathers and of learned theologians.” The argument here was that no one else of note in the past has adopted this new interpretation.[4] Thus it was dismissed as an innovation.

McGrath points out;

“Appreciation of this point is thought to have been hindered in the past on account of the failure of historians to engage with the theological (and more precisely, the hermeneutical) issues attending the debate. In part, this can be seen as reflecting the fact that many of the scholars interested in this particular controversy were scientists or historians of science, who were not familiar with the intricacies of the debates on biblical interpretation of this remarkably complex period.”[5]

The affair is one which historians and philosophers of science still debate regularly. There is now general agreement however that, though Galileo’s views were eventually vindicated, he was overstepping the line by insisting his model was the way reality really was. At the time he did not have the evidence to support that claim,[6] so the church wanted to moderate his idea as one interpretation that equally explained the phenomena.

Galileo may have been branded a heretic but his sentence was reduced to house arrest, which amounted to a comfortable retirement where he could entertain guests, carry on his scientific research and publish further works that solidified his place in the pages of history as the founder of modern physics. Not an altogether bad way for a 68 year old to spend the remaining ten years of his life.

This is no more than a brief summary of Galileo and his role in the Copernican controversy, but enough has been said to conclude that painting the affair as one battle in the war of “Science versus Religion” is inadequate. History is often a far more complicated and tangled web than is made out to be, and is not suited to oversimplifications such as those given by proponents of the conflict thesis – as Galileo might call them, Simplicio.[7]


[1] David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers, God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, University of California Press (April 29, 1986) p. 150

[2] Alister E. McGrath. Science and Religion, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999) p. 12

[3] As a nursemaid accommodates a small child by scooping him up to reach what is on the table, so the Bible accommodates with its language to speak so that every one can understand.

[4] In 1615 the Carmelite friar Paolo Antonio Foscarini published Lettra sopra l’opinione de’ Pittagorici e del Copernico (Letter on the opinion of the Pythagoreans and Copernicus) which argued that the heliocentric model of the solar system was not incompatible with the Bible. Galileo adopted a similar approach of “accommodation”

[5] Alister E. McGrath. Science and Religion, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999) p. 12

[6] (Craig, audio blog “Scientific Intolerance” 2008-02-25) William Lane Craig. “Scientific Intolerance” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5887

The Ptolemaic system explained better certain features of the observational astronomy than did the Copernican-heliocentric model of the solar system.

[7] Meaning “Simple-minded.” Galileo put the words of Pope Urban VIII into the mouth of a character of that name, a thinly veiled criticism of a very powerful supporter. His famous work Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was a attack on Aristotelian geocentricism and advocated the Heliocentric worldview.

Conflict for the Conflict Thesis

When you think of the relationship of faith and science, what images come to mind? Images of bloody battles, war and violence are conjured by the press and the sensationalism of the media. Many view faith and science as strident adversaries. Science and Christian belief are incompatible, so it is thought, and neither can live while the other survives. But is this an accurate way to view that relationship?

I want to examine an event that lies at the origin of this understanding and briefly consider how this image of conflict has developed in the history of faith and science.

The event at the heart of this understanding is the Oxford Union debate in 1860 between Samuel Wilberforce, the Lord Bishop of Oxford, and the botanist T. H. Huxley (also known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”). This debate took place one year after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. It was an exchange between congenial opponents, with polite society in attendance. Michael Ruse comments, ‘Reports from the time suggest that everybody enjoyed himself immensely, and all went cheerfully off to dinner together afterwards.’ There are mixed views on who was the winner on the day, but most seem to favor Huxley.

The event, which should have passed into obscurity, gained notoriety years later when legendary accounts were circulated. The classical example was published in 1898 (nearly thirty years later) in the form of an autobiograpghical memory from Mrs Isabella Sidgewick, published in Macmillian’s magazine;

“I was happy to pre present on the memorable occasion at Oxford when Mr Huxley bearded Bishop Wilberforece . . . The Bishop rose, and in a light scoffing tone, florid and fluent, he assured us that there was nothing in the idea of evolution; rock pigeons were what rock pigeons had always been. Then, turning to his antagonist with a smiling insolence, he begged to know, was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed decent from a monkey?”

So the image of the event that arose later is of a magnanimous Huxley condescending to Wilberforce who was shown to be an ignorant, simple, and somewhat arrogant cleric. But this is at odds with the facts. The Sidgewick statement contradicts accounts published closer to the meeting. Wilberforce’s criticisms of evolutionary theory were extensive and chiefly scientific in nature, partly developed from the criticisms of Alfred Russell Wallace (1823–1913), who was the co-discoverer of evolution through natural selection. Wilberforce was no simpleton, being a fellow of the Royal Society. Darwin, who did not attend due to illness, valued his critique and responded seriously to it.[1] Wilberforce thought he had done well in the debate, though his slur on Huxley, it must be admitted was ill considered and Huxley took the advantage that was handed to him.

What was it then that precipitated such legendary accounts thirty years later? It is important to consider a few factors offered by the sociological perspective. In nineteenth century England, the relationship between science and religion represented the struggle of two opposing classes: the church parsonage with its traditional religious conservativism and the bourgeoning parsonage of the scientists struggling for acceptance and their own place in society.[2] For centuries, clergy had been some of the most intelligent people there were. Because higher education was a requirement for most denominations, it was the clergy and ministers who were the intelligentia in all manner of fields – including the sciences. But the span of hundred years saw a complete about-face in the public perception of the clergy. By the end of the ninetieth century, with the rise of modernism and occurence of the industrial revolution, it was now the scientists who were considered the wisest.

However, it was the publication of two books that introduced the perception of conflict into public consciousness; the first by John William Draper called History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s book History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). These books were the birth of the Draper/White thesis, better known as the Conflict Thesis. Lindberg and Numbers note;

“White’s Warfare apparently did not sell as briskly as Draper’s Conflict, but in the end it proved more influential, partly, it seems, because Draper’s strident anti-Catholicism soon dated his work and because White’s impressive documentation gave the appearance of sound scholarship.” [3]

The influence of the conflict thesis that these books championed was profound. However, the scholarship of these books was soon to come under heavy criticism. In 1908 Walsh wrote a damning appraisal that stops just short of calling Draper and White outright liars. He writes;

“…the story of the supposed opposition of the Church and the Popes and the ecclesiastical authorities to science in any of its branches, is founded entirely on mistaken notions. Most of it is quite imaginary. Much of it is due to the exaggeration of the significance of the Galileo incident. Only those who know nothing about the history of medicine and of science continue to harbor it. That Dr. White’s book, contradicted as it is so directly by all serious histories of medicine and of science, should have been read by so many thousands in this country, and should have been taken seriously by educated men, physicians, teachers, and even professors of science who want to know the history of their own sciences, only shows how easily even supposedly educated men may be led to follow their prejudices rather than their mental faculties…”[4]

The conflict thesis in the earlier half of the twentieth century remained popular though not undisputed. When scientific historiography matured in the 50’s[5] new scholarship produced a barrage of research on the topic. White and Draper were utterly refuted and the conflict thesis was dead in academia by the 70’s. Its final downfall is attributed to Frank Turner’s book Between Science and Religion (1974) and James Moore’s penetrating essay “Historians and Historiography” in the book Post-Darwinian Controversies (1979).

Colin Russel notes;

“Draper takes such liberty with history, perpetuating legends as fact that he is rightly avoided today in serious historical study. The same is nearly as true of White, though his prominent apparatus of prolific footnotes may create a misleading impression of meticulous scholarship”[6]

Though images of warfare still linger – at least at the popular (non-academic) level, many people recognize today that the history of Christianity and science reveals a rich and complex interaction that has been more beneficial than detrimental.

There is, for instance, no doubt that modern science was born in a Christian milieu. Christianity furnished thinkers of the Renaissance with a worldview that permitted them to believe the universe could be understood. A rational God had created a rational universe, and given men rational minds to comprehend it. There were other factors that contributed to the birth of the scientific revolution,[7] but Christianity was a very important one.[8]


[1] There was not a polarization of “science” and “religion” as the idea of opposed armies implies but a large number of leaned men, some scientists, some theologians, some indistinguishable, and almost all of them very religious, who experienced various differences among themselves. There was not organization apparent on either “side” as the idea of rank and command implies but deep divisions among men of science, the majority of whom were at first hostile to Darwin’s theory, and a corresponding and derivative division among Christians who were scientifically untrained, with a large proportion of leading theologians quite prepared to come to terms peacefully with Darwin. Nor, finally, was there the kind of antagonism pictured in the discharge of weaponry but rather a much more subdued overall reaction to the Origin of Species than is generally supposed and a genuine amiability in the relations of those who are customarily believed to have been at battle.

God and Nature: p7-8, quote from Moore, Post-Darwinian Controversies

[2] Alister E. McGrath. The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1998) p. 21-2.

[3] David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers, God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, University of California Press (April 29, 1986) p. 3.

[4] James Joseph Walsh, The Popes and Science; the History of the Papal Relations to Science During the Middle Ages and Down to Our Own Time, Fordam University Press, New York 1908, p.19

[5] David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers, God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, University of California Press (April 29, 1986) p. 6.

[6] Colin A. Russell: The Conflict of Science and Religion in Encyclopedia of the History of Science and Religion, New York 2000, p. 15

[7] Such as the influence of Neo-Platonism, and a climate of skepticism created in part by the Protestant reformation and the erosion of political authorities.

[8] “The full historical picture is complex: science, philosophy, and theology are inextricably intertwined. To single out one factor as the sole cause is to misrepresent the actual situation. Voluntarist theology neither “caused” modern science nor acted as the simple cause of a particular kind of science. It was a rather one factor, albeit a very important one, in giving modern science its strong empirical bent.”

Mark A. Noll. Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) p. 89

Mythbusting: Historical fables about Christianity and Science

In discussing the history of science and faith, stereotypes and caricatures come easy. Michael Flynn has written a lengthy but excellent post engaging several distortions and errors about Christianity and it’s impact on the rise of science, particularly during the Middle Ages. His response is to an essay on Christianity, science and the Dark Ages and ably shows why it is important to get your facts straight.

Here are some of the myths he untangles:

  • Scientific investigation virtually stopped once Constantine established orthodox Christianity at the Council of Nicaea
  • The Christians tried to destroy all pagan and scientific literature, including the great libraries of the world.
  • The destruction of the library of Alexandra and the murder of Hypatia in 415 CE by Christians, marked the beginning of the Dark Ages.
  • Hypatia was murdered by Christians for religious reasons.
  • The priests of Christianity kept the public from education, including the study of their own Bible.
  • When Christianity took over Europe, scientific and engineering advancement virtually stopped.
  • The Church banned Greek and Roman medicine during the Black Plague and sought religious instead of medical solutions.
  • Not until the 1530s, when religious authority was finally under question, did important Roman medical texts get translated
  • Priest Giordano Bruno was executed for the charge of holding scientific opinions contrary to the Catholic faith.
  • Galileo was imprisoned for his heretical ideas of the heliocentric solar system
  • The Greek thinker, Aristarchus, developed the first heliocentric theory in 270 BCE, not Copernicus
  • Archimedes invented the concept of infinity and calculus long before the arrival of Christianity.
  • There were no Christian scientists in the Dark Ages. And they only began to appear during the Renaissance, as the influence of the church began to wane.

Read the whole post (and browse some of the books on the subject that he recommends).

Sources: Glenn at the Beretta Blog and Quodlibeta.

Public Lecture on Global Warming: a Christian response

Auckland University school of theology is hosting a public lecture on Global Warming: a Christian response with Professor Robert White, Professor of Geophysics in the Department of Earth Sciences at University of Cambridge.

Professor Robert White is Professor of Geophysics in the Department of Earth Sciences at Cambridge (since 1989) and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1994. He is a Fellow of the Geological Society, and a member of the American Geophysical Union. He leads a research group investigating the Earth’s dynamic crust. His scientific work is published in over 300 articles. Bob is Associate Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, and a director of the John Ray Initiative, an educational charity that works to develop and communicate a Christian understanding of the environment.

Thursday 12 March 2009, 6-7 pm

Theatre OGGB4, Business School, corner of Symonds Street and Grafton Road, The University of Auckland

Parking under Owen G Glenn building,
$5 flat rate

See Poster

Symposium on science and religion in the 21st Century

Auckland University School of Theology is hosting a symposium on Science and religion in the 21st Century: faith in science, science in faith with Professor Robert White FRS, Professor of Geophysics, University of Cambridge. Saturday 14 March 2009, 8.30am-6pm.

Programme;

Prof Jeff Tallon FRSNZ

Truth or true? – faith and science rubbing shoulders
 

Prof Bob White FRS

Natural disasters: acts of God or results of human folly?
 

Dr Graeme Finlay

The story in our genes
 

Rev Dr Graham O’Brien

Evolving evolution

 
Prof Gareth Jones CNZM

Manufacturing humans: the borderlands between human and divine control
 

Prof John McClure

Psychology and religion: is there a ghost in the machine?

 
Dr Stephen Garner/ Dr Nicola Hoggard-Creegan

The view from theology

 

Saturday 14 March 2009, 8.30am-6pm

Theatre 401-439, ‘Neon Foyer’, Engineering School, Symonds Street, The University of

Auckland

 

Registration is required for the symposium by Wednesday 11 March, with p.medhora@auckland.ac.nz

Cost $20, non-waged people $10 (refreshments and lunch provided)

Parking can be found under Owen G Glenn building, $5 flat rate

Sir Harry Kroto, Science and Faith

Today I had the pleasure of attending three events with Nobel prize winning chemist Sir Harry Kroto. Sir Harry is an atheist with a Jewish father, and a friend of Richard Dawkins. He is not afraid to talk about religion as evidenced during his recent interview with Kim Hill and by numerous remarks during the sessions today.

As for me, I’m not an atheist (although I was brought up as such) so it is usually with some trepidation that I attend lectures and talks such as these, just in case my faith [1] is shattered. Over the years I have been to many university-based science lectures and found this fear to rarely be justified and the challenges to Christianity to actually be incredibly weak. To be fair, I go to such lectures and talks trying to be as open-minded as I can be, and trying to consider the facts presented both in their isolated form and as part of a larger worldview. Sir Harry’s talks however appeared to present little if anything that would convince me to change my mind, although I would love to have had the opportunity to have chatted with him one-on-one (or any another scientist) and let them try to convince me.

On this point, Dawkins and Sam Harris and others have something to gain by converting me. I’m involved in a church with students, and various other activities with friends and family. If they could convince me that I am wrong and that they are right, then I would join them and become an evangelist for their side. I could make new converts within my church friends and stop pestering my family over their salvation and the “hell” word that Dawkins and Sir Harry seem so offended about.

I should spend a moment on this “hell” topic too since it keeps coming up. What I see regarding this is both a double-standard and a straw-man fallacy. Let’s take the latter first.

Dawkins and Sir Harry have both quoted instances of children being scared by such things as “hell houses” or having children scared to the point of psychological damage in some way regarding hell. Yet this seems intellectually dishonest as I think Anthony Flew has pointed out. For example, take 1,000 church kids and (somehow) determine how many of them have psychological damage from their parents talking about hell. I know numerous kids and none of them to my knowledge live in some disturbed state, and nor do my kids, yet I make it no secret that hell is a reality according to the Bible. What the new atheists and Sir Harry appear to be doing is taking the (perhaps) one or two cases per 1,000 and citing these as if they are normal.

As for the double standard, let’s consider what atheists are teaching young people. Young person: you are part of a cosmic accident, a piece of highly evolved pond-scum. But don’t worry, you are good pond scum. And life is good and has much meaning. We don’t know what it is, but fear not for you can pretend life has meaning which should make you feel better and you will have less reason to follow 500 other New Zealanders each year by committing suicide. Yes, we know that the universe began with a big bang and ultimately will end in a whimpering heat death. But don’t worry, you will be long dead before that happens, and your ashes will be part of that (cough) meaningful utopic picture.

This leads on to another point which is the trouble universities are having recruiting science students. I’m not about to suggest that atheism and post-modernism are the reasons for the disinterest in science, but I think they do play a role. Consider, if you live a life that is ultimately meaningless (born, live, reproduce, die, nothingness), then why would you choose an occupation that is hard and doesn’t pay well? Why ought I live for the good of all and work on great science that helps improve lives rather than just live for myself? Of course atheists counter this by saying that they are philanthropic and good people to which I would often agree. But my question is why ought they be like that rather than be selfish and self centered? Christians (and some other) religious people know how they ought to behave, but atheists have to take a pragmatic view on oughts, yet one persons’ ought may differ from anothers’ ought, so which do we choose and why?

I have a lot more thoughts on this topic but will finish on the question of knowledge as this is a biggie when it comes to scientists and their worldviews. As Sir harry pointed out on several occasions, he is not going to believe anything unless it is based on evidence. Yet this claim is itself self-refuting. Does he have evidence for not believing anything unless it is based on evidence? But I think it is worse that that and I should like to expand on this in another post sometime, but here is an outline.

Scientists often make the claim as Sir Harry does that we should not believe anything unless it is based on evidence. Yet it seems to me that non-religious scientists actually believe everything based on faith. For example:

  1. Do they know the world was not created 5 minutes ago? If yes, what is the evidence? If no, then it must be taken on faith.
  2. Do they use the laws of logic? If so, can they provide evidence that they are reliable? If yes, what is the evidence? If no, then it must be taken on faith.
  3. Do scientists believe in the uniformity of nature? Do they believe that the next experiment will behave as the previous one? Will some experiment behave the same in another country, on another planet, in another galaxy, or at another time? If yes, what is the evidence? If no, then it must be taken on faith.

Let me finish now with a few big words and why I believe what I believe.

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with how we know what we know, while ontology deals with the nature of existence or being. I fail to understand how the science alone can access reality in any definite way because to do so requires meta-knowledge such as: are my senses are reliable, is nature uniform, am I a brain in a vat, and is the world the creation of a cosmic trickster? Science seems unable even in principle to access such knowledge. Christianity on the other hand begins in ontology with the existence of God and His revelation through the Bible which cuts through the veil and reveals a world created with order and meaning. C.S. Lewis wrote [2]:

Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator. In most modern scientists this belief has died: it will be interesting to see how long their confidence in uniformity survives it. Two significant developments have already appeared—the hypothesis of a lawless sub-nature, and the surrender of the claim that science is true. We may be living nearer than we suppose to the end of the Scientific Age.

I think a nice way to sum this up is to say that to gain certainty, we must begin in ontology as a grounding for epistemology. The law-giving legislator provides this starting point and provides a basis for science. On the other hand, beginning with epistemology as Dawkins and Sir Harry appear to do leads ultimately to total uncertainty because nothing can really be known for sure about anything. I think Rene Descartes realized this long ago. Should someone tell the new atheists?

Footnotes:

  1. In case you are thinking that I am using “faith” as something that is disconnected from reason, I am certainly not. My faith is firmly anchored using a chain of reason to the historical claims of the Bible. These in turn are treated as other historical claims are, and weighed upon available evidence, logic, reasonableness and so on.
  2. Lewis, C.S., Miracles: a Preliminary Study, Collins, London, p. 110, 1947.

Further reading:

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, p.132 has a section “The Regularity of Nature” dealing with the problem of induction, David Hume and Bertrand Russell. Keller says that many scholars have argued in the last decades that modern science arose in its most sustained form out of Christian civilization due to belief in an all-powerful, personal God who created and sustains an orderly universe. I would add that reading for example, Homer’s Illiad, would not provide you with such a view of nature.