What Religious People Really Think

Are all scientists sharks out to eat religious people for lunch? Do many religious people really believe this? Are religious Americans scientifically ignorant, uninterested or or hostile toward science?

Several years ago I read and posted on a fascinating book by Elaine Howard Ecklund, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. Elaine Ecklund is sociologist at Rice University. The work reported in this book drew on an extensive survey of nearly 1700 professors at twenty one “elite” universities, in seven core disciplines (chemistry, physics, biology, sociology, economics, political science, and psychology), augmented by detailed interviews with 275 of them. I have spent all but three of the last 36 years, as graduate student, postdoc, and professor, at Universities included in Ecklund’s study. This book hit the target. I found nothing surprising, but much that provoked thought. Now Elaine, with coauthor Christopher P. Scheitle (Sociology, West Virginia University) has a new book looking at the other side of the equation: Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think. Like the first book, this one draws on extensive survey and interview data to analyze the range of views among Christians, Jews, and Muslims and fleshes out the dry data with personal stories and anecdotes. As in the first book, I find nothing especially surprising – but much that provokes thought, and should stimulate some good conversation.

From the introduction:

The way religious Americans approach science is shaped by two fundamental questions. First, what does science mean for the existence and activity of God? Second, what does science mean for the sacredness of humanity? How these questions – questions with profound moral implications – play out as individual believers think about science both challenge stereotypes and highlight the real tensions between religion and science. (p. 2, emphasis added)

Ecklund and Scheitle hit the nail on the head here. For some the issue is Biblical authority, or the impact on some favored theological construction but the most significant questions on this blog over the years, and I’ve been at this for ten years now, have dealt with human uniqueness – what does it mean to say humans are created in the image of God – and room for divine action (miracles anyone?). This means that evolution and common descent raise significant questions that must be addressed. It also means that moral questions surrounding life and death – abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, genetic manipulation, cloning – are significant. A religious worldview does impact our views on some significant “scientific” questions.

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A Virgin Shall Conceive

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. Isaiah 7:14

Taken up again in the Gospel of Matthew

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). (1:22-23)

Most Christians have a deep appreciation for the scriptures, both the Old Testament and the New Testament. For those who were not raised in the church however, or who have for any one of a number of reasons become distrustful of the reliability of the scriptures, the questions are quite different. Scripture relates some pretty incredible events and stories – from Exodus with the story of parting of the Red Sea to the Gospels with the virgin birth and the resurrection – to name just a few. Why should intelligent educated person in secular, modern or postmodern, enlightened, Western society take these seriously on any level?

Dr. John Polkinghorne’s book Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible can provide some useful insights here – whether one agrees with him across the board or disagrees with some of his conclusions. Dr. Polkinghorne was a very successful scientist, an expert and creative theoretical physicist involved in the discovery of quarks. He was Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University before he resigned to study for the Anglican priesthood. He has since been a parish priest, Dean of the Chapel at Trinity Hall Cambridge and President of Queen’s College, Cambridge. After retirement he continues to write, think, and lecture about the interface between science and faith.

In Testing Scripture Polkinghorne isn’t dogmatic or defensive about about scripture, rather he is explaining why he, as a scientist, scholar, and Christian, takes scripture seriously. Both faith and reason play a role in his approach to scripture.

Chapters five and six of Testing Scripture look at Israel’s Bible and at the Gospels. Israel’s Bible consists of many forms of literature. Dr. Polkinghorne mentions myth telling deep truth in the form of symbolic story, history, law, wisdom writings, apocalypse, and more. Most of the text was edited and shaped in post-exilic Israel. But this does not mean that it was fabricated with no roots or history. In fact Dr. Polkinghorne finds it difficult to believe that most of the material is not rooted in sources that date far earlier. He sees this in Genesis 14 with Melchizedek of Salem (not a text that would be constructed in a post-exilic history) and in the book of Judges to give just two examples. The origins of these passages must lie in very ancient texts. Within the historical conventions of the time Israel’s Bible records the history of God’s revelation of himself through his particular relationship with his chosen nation.

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God’s Redemptive Purpose

Hugh Ross provides a clear description of his view of old-earth progressive creation in Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design. He has a high regard for the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, but this takes him in a direction quite different from that described by Ken Ham in the opening chapter. Ken Ham’s understanding of Scripture is shaped by his view of creation (perfect creation), fall, redemption and new creation. The manner in which he views this narrative and his emphasis on a young earth interpretation are internally coherent for the most part. There are some inconsistencies in Scripture (internal “problems” to be resolved), but the biggest challenge comes from modern science – physics, geology, archaeology, chemistry, biology, cosmology and linguistics for starters.

Hugh Ross’s view of the biblical narrative is slightly different … he sees the overarching narrative as one of preparation. God is preparing his people for the age to come. Human beings with free will, including the freedom to choose to follow God are the pinnacle and purpose of this creation. This view finds ample support in the New Testament. For example:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. (Eph. 1:3-4)

He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. (2 Tim. 1:9-10)

Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness— in the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time. Titus 1:1-2

Ross explains:

This message implies God created the universe and all it contains for the express purpose of providing for the eternal redemption of billions of humans. Consequently day-age creationists interpret all the Bible’s creation content in the context of God’s salvific goal. We also interpret science in the context of this goal. We see every component of the universe, Earth, and life as a contributor to making possible the salvation of billions of humans. (p. 93)

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Both Will Die in the End

I have been studying the book of Ecclesiastes recently – not a book for the faint of heart.

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.” (1:2)

The book is worth studying though, both for the meandering search for meaning conducted by the Teacher and for the overall message of the narrator who introduces the Teacher and then wraps up the book at the end with his own conclusion. The Teacher is a wise man, yet he has come to view everything, including wisdom as meaningless.

I thought, “Wisdom is better than foolishness, just as light is better than darkness. For the wise can see where they are going, but fools walk in the dark.” Yet I saw that the wise and the foolish share the same fate. Both will die. So I said to myself, “Since I will end up the same as the fool, what’s the value of all my wisdom? This is all so meaningless!” (2:13-15)

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Theology is Much More

The Rev. Dr. Polkinghorne has written a number of short books thinking through the relationship between Science and Christian faith. Theology in the Context of Science is one of these. This is a rather academic book – but the kind of book that someone who wants to move beyond the culture war issues of young earth, old earth, and evolution should find useful. The premise of this book is that science and theology are in a very real sense complementary. To view them as in competition misunderstands the nature of science and the nature of religion, especially the Christian religion.

Competition occurs when science is taken as competent and sufficient to answer metaphysical questions … or when theology is taken as required to answer mechanistic questions about the nature of the universe, from supernovas, to the diversity of life, to the progression of seasons and development of storms, to the reason why the Mississippi flows from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico rather than vice versa.

Science gives an account of the nature and history of the universe; theology asserts the universe to be God’s creation. Science offers its understanding of the processes of the world; theology affirms its belief that God is providentially active within that world’s history. These statements are not in immediate competition with each other, since they operate at different categorical levels. (p. 97)

For the Christian science is the exploration of the nature of God’s creation.

The true relationship between science and theology is therefore complementary rather than competitive. … A positive dialog is necessary, not least because the way each subject answers its own questions must bear some fitting relationship to the answers offered by the other, if it is indeed the one world of reality that both are seeking to speak about. (p. 98)

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Is “Natural Evil” Evil?

The next chapter in the recent book Old-Earth or Evolutionary Creation? Discussing Origins with Reasons to Believe and BioLogos addresses the question of so-called natural evil, the presence of death and suffering, or natural disasters and predation before the Fall. While the views of these two groups differ on many issues involving creation and evolution on this question both Hugh Ross and Jim Stump are in substantial agreement (James Dew is the SBC moderator for the chapter – an easy task in this case). The bottom line is that so-called “natural evil” isn’t really evil. It is, for some reason that we will never completely understand this side of eternity, a necessary element of God’s good creation. As King James English translates Paul: For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. The humility of Job’s final response to God must reflect our position to an extent as well “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know”. This doesn’t mean we cannot profitably explore the issues however.

Jim Stump suggests “that God delights in the process of transformation itself.” Rather than a finished world his good creation involves process. This alone isn’t enough, however. To this idea he adds moral maturity as an end product of God’s process of creating.

I’d suggest that moral maturity is a quality that can be developed only by making moral decisions. God can no more create morally mature creatures than he could create free persons incapable of sin. So to achieve moral maturity, agents must be involved in their own moral formation by making decisions with moral implications. But in order to have genuine moral decisions, there must be a challenging environment in which beings are subjected to the kinds of natural evil that force difficult decisions. When faced with such situations, will creatures opt for their own selfish preservation over doing what is right and good? (p. 72)

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Pros and Cons

In the final chapter of The Adam Quest Tim Stafford provides a summary of the pros and cons of each of the young earth, intelligent design, and evolutionary creationist positions. He also adds some thoughts of his own from his research for the book. He interviewed scientists who fall into three broad camps.

  1. Young earth creationists. The earth is ca. 6000 to 10000 years old, Noah’s flood was a critical world-wide catastrophe, “kinds” created separately.
  2. Intelligent design creationists. Although Intelligent Design as a movement makes no claim about the age of the earth, many advocates, including the two interviewed in the book agree that the earth is ancient but also hold that evolution cannot explain the development and diversity of life on earth. There was direct involvement of an intelligence. Both Behe and Rana believe that this intelligence is the personal God revealed in Scripture.
  3. Evolutionary creationists.God created life using evolution – much like he creates children using natural processes from egg and sperm to embryo to infant.

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