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Discipleship Hour Notes

A Reason For Hope | Session Three

Posted by Nick Locke on

BUT I ONLY BELIEVE IN SCIENCE

Neuroscientist Steven Pinker in his book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, makes the rather bold claim that science has demonstrated that all of the belief systems of the major world religions are “factually mistaken.”[1] If this is the case, then what resource do we have to explain our world and the way we should operate within in? Atheist philosopher Alex Rosenburg suggests, “It’s called science.”[2]

But is science alone equipped to adequately explain the complex realities of life in this world? A good number of thinkers would answer that question with a firm no. For example, Jürgen Habermas, one of the world’s most prominent philosophers, argues that secular reason alone is not able to account for what he calls “the substance of the human.”[3] For quite some time, Habermas was a defender of the Enlightenment view that only secular reason has a place in the public square, but his views have changed as he has continued to examine the limits of secularism. Tim Keller summarizes his thought, writing: “He argues that science cannot provide the means by which to judge whether its technological inventions are good or bad for human beings. To do that, we must know what a good human person is, and science cannot adjudicate morality or define such a thing. Social sciences may be able to tell us what human life is but not what it ought to be.”[4] 

Science by itself is not able to establish deeply held values such as human equality. As atheist thinker John Gray writes, “There is nothing at all self-evident about the equal intrinsic worth of all human beings or the inherent preciousness of individual persons.”[5] Back to Habermas who points out, “Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom… human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love... To this day, there is no alternative to it.”[6]

In fact, when we rely on secular reason alone, we end up in dangerous territory. In an article for The New Republic, Malcom Harris reexamines the 1926 case Tennessee v. John Scopes (more widely known as the Scopes Monkey Trial). This case is often pointed to as a story of progress in which reason won the day. Harris however, based on the work of Princeton scholar Thomas C. Leonard, warns that we should take another look at this narrative. The main characters remain: substitute teacher John T. Scopes, progressive attorney Clarence Darrow, and prosecutor William Jennings Bryan. But at issue was far more than the contemporary view of evolution. Harris writes:

“Jennings Bryan railed against evolution, true, but not just evolution as we understand the theory today. His never-delivered closing statement indicted the ‘dogma of darkness and death’ as a danger to the country’s moral fabric. It sounds far out, but at the time evolution came with a social agenda that its proponents taught as fact. Jennings Bryan didn’t use its name; today, we call it eugenics.” [7]

The textbook from which scopes taught, Civic Biology by George Hunter, in addition to teaching evolution “argued that science dictated we should sterilize or even kill those classes of people who weakened the human gene pool by spreading ‘disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country.’”[8] According to Thomas Leonard’s research, in the Progressive Era, eugenics and race science weren’t pseudosciences, “They were sciences.”[9] Using the tools available, one could see how it was logical to conclude that it would be more socially and economically beneficial if those more genetically prone to certain ills and nonproductive behaviors were not allowed to pass on their genetic code. But it was the horrors of WWII and its death camps, not scientific discovery, that raised the moral intuition that eugenics is evil. “Yet,” Keller writes, “if you believe that it is, you must find support for your conviction in some source beyond science and the strictly rational cost-benefit analysis of practical reason.”[10] 

None of this should lead one to deny that science and reason are sources of tremendous good for human society. “The scientific method has enabled us to fly planes, clean water, and cure disease. Our daily lives—at least in economically privileged parts of the world—depend on it.”[11] But science by itself is not enough to serve as a guide for human society.[12] This point was well made in the conclusion of the Jennings Bryan Speech referenced above: “Science is a magnificent material force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders for the control of storm-tossed human vessels. It not only fails to supply the spiritual element needed, but some of its unproven hypotheses rob the slip of its compass and thus endanger its cargo.”[13] Therefore, Keller concludes, “Secular, scientific reason is a great good, but if taken as the sole basis for human life, it will be discovered that there are too many things we need that it is missing.”[14]

AREN’T SCIENCE AND CHRISTIANITY AT ODDS?

The perception that science and faith are diametrically opposed to one another is unfortunately common. Thankfully, however, this is a misperception. As Cambridge professor of experimental physics Russell Cowburn says, “Understanding more of science doesn’t make God smaller. It allows us to see His creative activity in more detail.”[15] John Calvin echoed a similar sentiment in his Institutes of the Christian Religion writing that those who have “quaffed or even tasted” the study of such subjects as astronomy, medicine, and the natural sciences, “penetrate with their aid far more deeply into the secrets of the divine wisdom.” Inevitably, he believes, deep study of these subjects will lead the scientist “to break forth in admiration of the Artificer.”[16]

Given the attitude of many popular atheist writers, one might be surprised to learn that modern science has Christian roots. In fact, “Two Franciscan friars, Roger Bacon (ca. 1214–ca. 1294) and William of Ockham (ca. 1285–ca. 1350) laid the empirical and methodological foundations for the scientific method.”[17] Far from going against his faith, Bacon believed himself to be “offering a genuinely Christian approach to nature…”[18] In his essay “Of Atheism,” he wrote, “It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”[19]

Hans Halvorson, Princeton professor and philosopher of science, argues that there is a natural connection between a theistic worldview and a scientific one. The first scientists assumed that the universe they were studying was ordered and consistent. This made scientific discovery possible, but this idea was founded on the belief that the universe was designed and created by God “according to a blueprint that can be discerned by rational creatures like ourselves.”[20] Far from discouraging empirical investigation, belief in God spurred early scientists on to pursue it. According to Halvorson, belief in God still provides a better philosophical foundation for science than atheism. McLaughlin comments, “Atheism per se does not offer a foundation for science at all. This does not mean that atheists cannot be outstanding scientists. Many are. But just as atheism cannot ground our ethical beliefs, so it cannot justify our science.”[21]

This point is brought home powerfully by Nobel Prize-winning physicist and Christin William Phillips, who writes:

“I see an orderly, beautiful universe in which nearly all physical phenomena can be understood from a few simple mathematical equations. I see a universe that, had it been constructed slightly differently, would never have given birth to stars and planets, let alone bacteria and people. And there is no good scientific reason for why the universe should not have been different. Many good scientists have concluded from these observations that an intelligent God must have chosen to create the universe with such beautiful, simple, and life-giving properties. Many other equally good scientists are nevertheless atheists. Both conclusions are positions of faith.”[22]

[1] Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (New York, NY: Penguin, 2019), 394.

[2] Alexander Rosenberg, The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2013), viii.

[3] Jürgen Habermas and Ciaran Cronin, An Awareness of What Is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age (Cambridge: Polity, 2016), Chapter 2, Kindle.

[4] Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: Finding God in the Modern World (New York , NY: Penguin Books, 2018), 11.

[5] John Gray, “Why the Liberal West Is a Christian Creation,” New Statesman,, September 18, 2019, https://www.newstatesman.com/dominion-making-western-mind-tom-holland-review.

[6] Jürgen Habermas, Time of Transitions (Cambridge: Polity, 2006), 150–51.

[7] Malcolm Harris, “The Dark History of Liberal Reform,” The New Republic, January 21, 2016, https://newrepublic.com/article/128144/dark-history-liberal-reform.

[8] Keller, Making Sense of God, 12-13.

[9] Thomas C. Leonard, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), 190.

[10] Keller, Making Sense of God, 13.

[11] Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World's Largest Religion (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019) Chapter 7, Kindle.

[12] McLaughlin adds, “If we are no more than the features that can be described by science, and our only story is the evolutionary story, we have no grounds for insisting on human equality, protection of the weak, equal treatment of women, or any of the other ethical beliefs we hold dear. To cite one example among thousands, female primates are routinely sexually assaulted by males. To say that this behavior is wrong for humans—that it should be vigorously resisted and rigorously punished, despite its evolutionary advantages—is to say that humans are distinct from other creatures at a fundamental level. See Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity, Chapter 7, Kindle. In an essay for the New Statesman, A.N. Wilson (himself formerly an atheist) states believes that trying to build an entire worldview on science alone “is a bit like trying to assert that music is an aberration, and that although Bach and Beethoven are very impressive, one is better off without a musical sense.” A.N. Wilson, “A.N. Wilson: Why I Believe Again,” NewStatesman, April 2, 2009, https://www.newstatesman.com/religion/2009/04/conversion-experience-atheism. In another article, he states his position more bluntly: “materialist atheism is not merely an arid creed, but totally irrational. Materialist atheism says we are just a collection of chemicals. It has no answer whatsoever to the question of how we should be capable of love or heroism or poetry if we are simply animated pieces of meat.” A.N. Wilson, “Religion of Hatred: Why We Should No Longer Be Cowed by Secular Zealots,” Daily Mail Online (Associated Newspapers, April 11, 2009), https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1169145/Religion-hatred-Why-longer-cowed-secular-zealots.html.

[13] Harris, “The Dark History of Liberal Reform.”

[14] Keller, Making Sense of God, 14.

[15] Russell Cowburn, “Nanotechnology, Creation and God,” YouTube (TEDxStHelier (video), August 27, 2015), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UepCFseK_os

[16] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1960), 1.5.2.

[17] McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity, Chapter 7, Kindle.

[18] Quoted in K. Scott Oliphint, Know Why You Believe (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 150.

[19] Francis Bacon, “Of Atheism,” The Essays (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), 107. Science was often called “philosophy” or “natural philosophy” in Bacon’s time.

[20] Hans Halvorson, “Why Methodological Naturalism,” in The Blackwell Companion to Naturalism, ed. Kelly James Clark (Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016), 142.

[21] McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity, Chapter 7, Kindle.

[22] William D. Phillips, “Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?” Fair Observer, May 5, 2014, https://www.fairobserver.com/culture/does-science-make-belief-god-obsolete/.

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