Religious People Like Science

Religious people do not like science – or so many people, especially in the University, seem to think. The new book by Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher P. Scheitle, Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think, explores the myth and reality in this impression. Not surprising to most Christians, Ecklund and Scheitle find this statement to be a myth – reinforced, however, by some elements of reality.

Scientifically (Il)literate? First, the statement that “Religious people do not like science” could mean a number of different things. It could mean “religious people actively dislike science and view it as the enemy” or “they are not interested in science relative to other activities” or “religious people are not knowledgeable about or competent in science.” (p. 14)

Surveys that test these questions need some nuance. While it is true that religious people will provide different answers to some questions – especially questions involving evolution – this is not tied to knowledge or competence. The religious people probably understand the scientific consensus as well as the general public. However these questions are considered contested – religious people are less likely to take the scientists word for it. In contrast, religious people give answers indistinguishable from the general public on questions that are not contested – such as “antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.” Religious people are not especially illiterate or incompetent when it comes to science.

Science and Religion are in Conflict? Ecklund and Scheitle find that the religiously unaffiliated (including atheists and agnostics) are more likely (52.4%) than religious people of all persuasions (evangelical protestants, mainline protestants, Catholics, Jews, or non-Western religions) to consider religion and science to be in conflict. Evangelicals run second (30.7%). (Note: Ecklund and Scheitle report both unadjusted percentages and adjusted percentages that account for other factors to isolate the influence of religion from factors such as education and other social differences, I will quote the unadjusted percentages unless otherwise indicated.) Although Ecklund and Scheitle don’t bring this up, the reason for the difference may well relate to the way the options are presented. Conflict, Independence (they refer to different aspects of reality) and Collaboration (each can be used to help and support each other). A more neutral expression of “independence” that didn’t implicitly define religion as a description of reality might have drawn more of the atheists or agnostics away from the conflict motif.

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The Case for a Designer

The final essay in the new book Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design was written by Stephen C. Meyer, Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute. In this essay he summarizes a history of the design argument and many of the specific arguments for design discussed in much greater detail in his books Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt.

First, Meyer’s description of Intelligent Design.

As it applies to biology (the focus of this essay), intelligent design is an evidence-based scientific theory about life’s origin and development that challenges strictly materialistic views of evolution. (p. 179)

The theory of intelligent design holds that there are telltale features of living systems and the universe … that are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected material process. The theory does not challenge the idea of evolution defined as either change over time or common ancestry, but it does dispute the Darwinian idea that the cause of biological change is wholly blind and undirected. Either life arose as the result of purely undirected material processes or a guiding intelligence played a role. Design theorists affirm the latter option and argue that living organisms look designed because they really were designed. (p. 180)

The specificity of the genetic code, the complexity of the cell, the improbability of random mutation producing beneficial change, and origin of life are all introduced as arguments for the existence of an intelligent designer – something that transcends merely material processes. Intelligent design is not an argument based on biblical interpretation or any specific religious commitment although most proponents do have a religious commitment. This may well be because most people without any religious commitment are by consequence committed to purely materialistic explanations for the origin and complexity of life.

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Ordinary Presence Rather Than Ordinary Absence

The next chapter in the recent book Old-Earth or Evolutionary Creation? Discussing Origins with Reasons to Believe and BioLogos addresses the question of divine action. As with the question of natural evil, J.B. (Jim) Stump from BioLogos and Jeff Zweerink from Reasons to Believe agree substantially on this question. John Laing (Southwestern Baptist Seminary) moderates the chapter. Both Jim and Jeff emphasize that it is a serious theological mistake to separate ‘natural’ processes from divine action, as though these are opposites – one or the other.

John Laing begins the chapter with a definition: “The doctrine of providence refers to God’s governance, sustainment, and preservation of the created order.” (p. 85) This starts the discussion on the right foot by emphasizing the full range of divine action.

Jim Stump emphasizes the fact that BioLogos accepts God’s omnipotence and capacity for miraculous action.

But no matter how many miracles a Christian accepts, if it is assumed that when God isn’t performing miracles he’s not acting at all, the difference from deism is only a matter of degree. Aubrey Moore saw the problem with that approach more than one hundred years ago, saying, “a theory of occasional intervention implies as its correlative a theory of ordinary absence.”

At BioLogos we think that attempting to preserve a role for God by denying scientific explanations is going about things the wrong way. We see God’s hand throughout the created order not because science can’t explain nature but because it can. …

God created the world but did not leave it on its own. At BioLogos we hold that the ordinary functioning of the world is describable by science, and that God is continuously involved in sustaining and governing it. (p. 87-88)

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Before Nature

I have started reading a new book recommended by John Walton: Before Nature: Cuniform Knowledge and the History of Science by Francesca Rochberg. The book is quite academic and rather expensive (not light reading by any stretch of the imagination). However, it is interesting and very relevant to our ongoing discussions of the interaction between science and scripture. The Old Testament was written into an ancient Near Eastern culture where the identification of “natural” and the division between supernatural and natural was quite different from our modern western understanding.  The title, Before Nature, reflects the fact that it is an anachronism to assign our understanding of ‘nature’ to the cultures that gave rise to the cuneiform texts through which we know ancient Mesopotamian culture from Sumeria to Babylon.

John Walton has argued at length (see Lost World of Genesis One, Lost World of Adam and Eve, and, on a more academic level, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology) that Genesis is written for us, but it isn’t written to us. The context of the original audience and author can and should help inform our understanding of the message.

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Through the Eyes of Its Creator

Tom McLeish focuses on the book of Job in his excursion through Faith & Wisdom in Science. This is not the whole focus – or even the conclusion – but it is the summit. ‘Nature’ plays an important role in the book. Both Job and his friends have an incomplete and/or incorrect view of God’s creation. The friends are sure that creation operates according to God’s justice and the retribution principle. God gives rain to the righteous and drought to the wicked. In this view Job’s troubles are a sure sign of his failings. Job, on the other hand, agrees that creation should be ruled by justice, but in light of his own situation suggests instead that it is ruled by uncontrolled chaos.

McLeish sees six themes that govern the relationship between humans and nature as revealed through the speeches of Job and his friends. (p. 139-141)

  1. Simple moral pendulum – the story of nature as both anthropocentric and driven by a moral law of retribution. Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.
  2. Eternal mystery – humans are kept in the dark. Job and his friends all express this at times.
  3. Nature reveals God – Elihu especially gives this view, but all three friends express the sentiment at times: “nature constitutes a giant message board from its maker for those who have eyes to read it.” (p. 140)
  4. Uncontrolled chaos – Job in his suffering sees nature as chaotic. “Humanity is swept up in the storm and flood, which God might have held at bay, but chooses not to.” (p. 140)
  5. Nature worship – this is dismissed, but nonetheless given voice to as one alluring possibility. Certainly the surrounding cultures did worship “natural” phenomena assigning divinity to sun, moon, and stars.
  6. A sixth storyline is hinted at, but not spoken with clarity. It has something to do with the centrality of the created physical world over any claim by humanity to a pivotal place within it.” (p. 141) Given the role played by humans in the Mesopotamian creation stories – slaves to perform work for the gods – it is not a stretch to think that such a theme may lie in the background of some of the dialogue in Job. The physical world is not anthropocentric.

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Is it the Science?

The third essay in the new book Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design was written by Deborah Haarsma, President of BioLogos. Unlike the first two essays (by Ken Ham, Answers in Genesis, and Hugh Ross, Reasons to Believe) this essay focuses on science. While Deborah Haarsma and BioLogos have a high view of Scripture the interpretation is different. In general I am skeptical when a statement of faith (What We Believe) starts with Scripture rather than God, it is probably important for BioLogos. The list of beliefs begin “We believe the Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God. By the Holy Spirit it is the “living and active” means through which God speaks to the church today, bearing witness to God’s Son, Jesus, as the divine Logos, or Word of God.” I know from experience that this is correct. No one affiliated with BioLogos approaches Scripture with a liberal skepticism or with the attitude of separating truth from error. There is a sincere desire to read Scripture in a manner that is faithful to the intent of the original human authors through whom God revealed himself. Among others, John Walton (The Lost World of Genesis One), Tremper Longman III (Science, Creation, and the Bible), have dug into the Old Testament; Scot McKnight (Adam and the Genome) and N.T. Wright (One chapter in The Lost World of Adam and Eve as well as other places) have looked hard at the New Testament teachings that relate to origins. Scripture must be taken seriously as authoritative revelation of God’s actions and involvement in the world.

In addition to a commitment to Scripture, BioLogos is also committed to the idea that God reveals himself in Scripture and in his creation. This means that we can approach the study of creation with curiosity and awe, moving in the direction that the evidence leads. The metaphysical interpretation of the science espoused by some atheist scientists can and must be separated from the science. Evolution isn’t a doctrine of the faith to be defended at all costs. We believe that evolutionary Creation is the best integration of science and Christian faith based on the current base of scientific knowledge.

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The Incarnation Grounds the Christian Faith

The book of essays by Dorothy Sayers Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World reprinted as The Whimsical Christian contains an essay entitled “A Vote of Thanks to Cyrus.” In this essay Sayers reflects on the way we classify different kinds of literature – in particular the implicit, even unconscious, distinctions we make between the bible, classics, and history.

I owe a certain debt to Cyrus the Persian. I made his acquaintance fairly early, for he lived between the pages of a children’s magazine, in a series entitled Tales from Herodotus, or something of that kind. … Cyrus was pigeon-holed in my mind with the Greeks and the Romans.

So for a long time he remained. And then, one day, I realized with a shock as of sacrilege, that on that famous expedition he had marched clear out of Herodotus and slap into the Bible. Mene, mene, tekel upharsin – the palace wall had blazed with the exploits of Cyrus, and Belshazzar’s feast had broken up under the stern and warning eye of the prophet Daniel. (p. 49)

The image to the left, obtained from wikipedia where you can find it with better resolution, is the purported tomb of Cyrus located in modern day Iran. For Sayers the connection between history and the Bible resulted in a reordering in thinking about scripture and the nature of the Bible in the text we have. It became a real book not a magic book separated from real life.

The book of Esther and the identification of King Ahasuerus with Xerxes provided another example where Sayers that she could not neatly separate “Bible” from “classics.” The Bible is not something special and separate. History is all of a piece and the Bible is grounded in the same soil as the classics. This is not to eliminate God from the picture by any means – but to realize that God interacted with the real world, their world and our world.

Most children, I suppose, begin by keeping different bits of history in watertight compartments, of which “Bible” is the tightest and most impenetrable. But some people never seem to grow out of this habit – possibly because of having never having really met Cyrus and Ahasuerus (or Xerxes). Bible critics in particular appear to be persons of very leisurely mental growth. Take, for example, the notorious dispute about the Gospel according to St. John. (pp. 50-51)

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