Religion always loses?
Whenever religion and science have a dispute about some question of fact, religion always loses. So goes a common belief. The implication is that religion should never make any factual claims, as it has no contact with reality. This claim is supported by appeals to the physics of Galileo, the geology of Hutton and Lyell, the biology of Darwin, and the psychology of Freud and others. It is claimed that religion, especially supernatural religion, has always lost in the past, and it will always lose in the future. We should either abandon it or at least adopt a liberal version that makes no testable claims.
For some religions, such an assertion is irrelevant, as these religions do not make any claims about the physical universe. But for biblical Christianity, such an assertion would be fatal. For how could it talk about the creation of the world and subsequent Fall, the Exodus, the resurrection of Jesus, and His promised second coming as matters of fact? Remove them, and biblical Christianity collapses.
However, there are several problems with the claim that “religion always loses.” First, strictly speaking, the dispute is not really between science and religion; there are scientists on the “religion” side, and theologians on the “science” side. The dispute is really between naturalism and supernaturalism, between those who believe that the universe is self-contained and never has any interference from outside, and those who believe God can, and sometimes does, change the natural course of events.
That being the case, the Galileo affair does not belong with the other examples. Both sides shared a supernaturalistic worldview. The only theological issue was whether incidental details in the Bible were to be treated as ontologically (really) accurate, or merely phenomenologically (only describing appearances) accurate, and the authority of the Catholic Church in general. It does not even involve the authority of the Pope speaking ex cathedra.
The proposition that religion does not always lose is true, but trivial. Science can never completely prove anything wrong. In science, even if a theory appears to be well ahead of another, it is always possible that more evidence will tip the scales in favor of the currently out-of-favor theory. We can argue that a theory has made accurate predictions. But we cannot scientifically know with absolute certainty that a given theory is true.
So we will rephrase the proposition to give it more empirical content: Scientific and historical hypotheses arising from and/or compatible with supernaturalistic philosophy sometimes have considerably more empirical support than hypotheses arising from and/or compatible with naturalistic philosophy. Perhaps more importantly, this support has, in some cases, increased substantially with time.
Examples from history
In the domain of history, one counterexample to the “religion always loses” argument is the reliability of the chronology of the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles. For a long time, skeptics believed a “biblical” chronology did not exist, and that what confused pieces of chronology did exist were totally incompatible with the “real,” secular chronology.1 After Thiele,2 the chronology of Kings and Chronicles was (and is) seen as coherent and capable of serving as a corrective to secular chronology.3 A biblical approach has won, or at least has shown itself to be much better at explaining the data. Religion did not lose in this case, and it appears unlikely to lose in the future here.
Another counterexample is the Book of Daniel. Skeptics originally stated that Belshazzar never existed, that the chronology was hopelessly confused, and that since the entire book was fiction, there was no point in looking for the characters in history.4
Time has forced a change in that view of history. Belshazzar not only existed, but also turned out to be the crown prince (also king in Hebrew parlance), able only to offer the third rulership in the kingdom. The chronology of Nebuchadnezzar taking captives from Jerusalem turns out to have been precisely correct. Perhaps most interesting, the names of Daniel5 and his three friends6 have been found in Babylonian documents. This does not mean that every statement in the Book of Daniel has been confirmed. The identity of Darius the Mede is still in doubt (although we have not eliminated all candidates). But the case for the historicity of Daniel is clearly better than in the past. Religion is winning here.
Examples from science
The same can be said of science. For more than a century, Adventists defended, on the basis of inspiration, the view that tobacco was “a slow, insidious, but most malignant poison.”7 At the time this was written, this view was not shared by the scientific community, but over the last 50 years, the evidence has become overwhelming that the hypothesis originally associated with religion was correct. Religion did not lose here. The same author spoke in favor of a vegetarian diet, and evidence continues to grow in its favor.
There are also cases directly relevant to the creation-evolution controversy. The first example is in cosmology. Does the universe extend backward in time indefinitely, or is there a finite limit to the age of the universe? Most scientists strongly favor the former, often with an explicit anti-supernatural bias given as the reason for their preference.8 This bias formed a major part of the objection to Big Bang cosmology. If the universe had a beginning, that at least suggests that it might require a Creator. The desire to protect an eternal universe was so great that in doing so, Einstein made what he later called his biggest blunder,9 introducing a cosmological constant into the equation for the universe to keep it roughly static. However, the weight of evidence is now solidly behind the concept that the universe did have a beginning. Religion is not losing here.
Another example is the claimed existence of vestigial organs. Since Darwin, vestigial organs have been used as an argument against design, and therefore against a designer. In the classical exposition, Wiedersheim10 listed more than 150 structures that he considered vestigial. He was careful to note that some of them, such as the thyroid and adrenal glands, probably had some function, in which case they might not be truly vestigial, and that this could be the case with other organs. But some of his followers were not so cautious, and it was not uncommon for such organs as the thymus, the pituitary, and the appendix to be written off as completely useless.11 This lack of caution was necessary if vestigial organs were to be used against believers in design, because if some function could be attributed to them, then their existence in a designed organism would not count as evidence against a designer.12 However, this lack of caution was ill-advised, as further investigation has found a reasonable function for all these structures, destroying, sometimes dramatically, the argument against design. It could be argued that in this case, anti-supernaturalist prejudice actually was detrimental to science, tending to cause scientists not to investigate possible functions for a structure because their naturalistic prejudice suggested that it had no function.
It could be further argued that anti-supernaturalistic prejudice actually killed people. Although the spleen was not on Wiedersheim’s list, when I went to medical school, it was commonly written off as a practically useless organ that we would be better off without, as it tended to bleed when injured. (It was argued that its only use was to show that humans and dogs shared a common ancestor; in dogs, the spleen stores blood for autotransfusion in case of bleeding.) As a result, when the organ did get injured, it was commonly removed, without any attempt to preserve its function. Only later did it become apparent that not having a spleen predisposed one to overwhelming pneumococcal infections. Surgical practice today is to preserve splenic function whenever possible, either by repairing the spleen or, failing that, by leaving small bits in the abdomen and hoping that they attach themselves.
It can be argued that believers in naturalism should have known better. Any truly vestigial organ should eventually be completely lost, and possibly fairly rapidly. But admitting this would deprive proponents of naturalism of a favorite argument.13 Apparently, the need to discredit creationists prevented a cool-headed evaluation of the evidence and theory.
History repeated itself with the “junk DNA” controversy. When DNA was discovered, many evolutionists assumed that there were vast quantities of totally useless DNA, dubbed “junk DNA,” in the genome of various organisms, including humans. As noted by Standish,14 they were perhaps ignoring evolutionary theory in their anti-supernaturalist bias. But the point remains that supernaturalists generally made a better prediction about the extent of “junk DNA,” and therefore anti-supernaturalist bias actually hindered research (the reverse of what is usually claimed).
Growth in understanding
This brings up an important point. One of the reasons “science” (naturalism) claims not to lose is that it embraces findings that were originally thought to favor “religion” (supernaturalism). Thus the temporality of the universe, and some other ideas such as the harmfulness of tobacco, are simply incorporated into the naturalistic model, and the modern believer in naturalism is often unaware of the religious overtones of the previous controversies. The topic is viewed as simply another example of the steady advance of science.
However, the same flexibility is not always granted to religion. For example, most theologians have incorporated a heliocentric view of the solar system into their theology. But believers in naturalism will not let them forget that at one time the majority of Christians15 disagreed with the heliocentric theory, and the Catholic Church disagreed strongly enough that it forced Galileo to recant and banned his books, an action it has been forced to repudiate. The church was in error here. But if one can hold modern Christianity accountable for the mistakes of the majority of its predecessors, one can also hold naturalism accountable for the mistakes of the majority of its predecessors.
This brings us to a final point. The reason for using the argument that “religion always loses” is to avoid having to deal with various subjects where supernaturalism is apparently winning at present, and where if it wins, naturalism is dead. Naturalism can survive the historicity of the numbers in Kings and Chronicles, or the toxicity of tobacco, or even (as deism) the Big Bang. Naturalism cannot survive without a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life. And yet there is no such explanation, not even a remotely plausible one. The more we know, the worse it looks. Naturalism implicitly recognizes this. The best evidence for this is its insistence on the monophyletic origin of life (that is, all life forms are descended from one original form). Despite evidence for the Cambrian explosion16 and different genetic codes for some organisms (e.g., Paramecium), believers in naturalism continue to insist that all organisms on Earth share a common ancestor. If they really believed that life was that easy to start, they would simply accept the hypothesis that it started a number of different times. The fact that they cling to the monophyletic origin of life testifies that they implicitly recognize the difficulty of getting life started even once, let alone multiple times.
But believers in naturalism are absolutely committed to a non-supernatural origin for life. Some idea of the strength of that commitment can be gathered from a passage in an excellent (and still accurate) book by Robert Shapiro entitled Origins: A Skeptic’s Guide to the Origin of Life on Earth.17 In it, he points out the flaws of the various theories, finally opting for a theory of short non-modern peptides as the least problematic. But on page 130 he displays his own prejudice: “Some future day may yet arrive when all reasonable chemical experiments run to discover a probable origin for life have failed unequivocally. Further, new geological evidence may indicate a sudden appearance of life on the earth. Finally, we may have explored the universe and found no trace of life, or processes leading to life, elsewhere. In such a case, some scientists might choose to turn to religion for an answer. Others, however, myself included, would attempt to sort out the surviving less probable scientific explanations in the hope of selecting one that was still more likely than the remainder.”
So naturalism requires a defense against the obvious. And the best defense is, “We have never lost yet. You always do if you wait long enough.” In the case of the origin of life, it appears that naturalism would have lost a long time ago if its adherents had not refused to recognize the loss.
The only problem with the “religion always loses” defense is that it is not true. Even in hindsight it is not true, and if current research trends continue, it will certainly not be true. Such an assertion should be recognized as what it is, a faith statement disagreeing with the apparent lessons of history and science. Religion does not always lose.18
Paul Giem (M.D., Loma Linda University) is an emergency physician practicing in California. His scholarly pursuits include the interface between science, religion, and history, and he has written a book on the subject, Scientific Theology (available at http://www.scientifictheology.com). He can be reached at email@example.com.
1. Edwin Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1983, p. 12) gives several examples, including Heinrich Ewald (The History of Israel, London, 1876), Julius Wellhausen (“Die Zeitrechnung des Buchs der Könige seit der Theilung des Reichs,” Jahrbücher für Deutsche Theologie XX:607-40, 1875), and Bernhard Stade (Geschichte des Volkes Israel, Berlin, 1889).
2. The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983.
3. Kenneth A. Strand, “Thiele’s Biblical Chronology as a Corrective for Extrabiblical Dates,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 34 (1996): 295-317.
4. Paul Giem, Scientific Theology (Riverside, Calif: La Sierra University Press, 1977), pp. 98-109, contains a discussion of the problem with references. Available at http://www.scientifictheology.com.
5. William Shea, “Bel(te)shazzar meets Belshazzar,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 26 (1988) 1:67-81.
6. “Extra-Biblical Texts and the Convocation on the Plain of Dura,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 20 (1982) 1:29-57.
7. Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1905), p. 327. See also, Spiritual Gifts (Battle Creek, Mich.: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1864 [1945 facsimile]), 4A: 36,37.
8. Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1978). Although the supernaturalists were not always on one side, or the naturalists on the other, as noted by Helge Kragh (Cosmology and Controversy [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999], pp. 251-268), there was still a tendency to line up on the side most compatible with one’s evaluation of theism.
9. Quoted, among other places, in Oxford Reference Online, avaliable at http://www.oxfordreference.com/pages/Sample_Entries__sample_01.html. The oldest reference I can find, and probably the original source, is G. Gamow, My World Line (New York: Viking Press, 1970), p. 44.
10. The Structure of Man: An Index to His Past History, H. & M. Bernard, trans.; G. B. Howes (ed. London: MacMilllan and Co., 1895).
11. For the appendix, see K. R. Miller, Finding Darwin’s God (New York: Cliff Street Books, 1999), pp. 100,101.
12. For an anti-supernaturalist argument to succeed, it is important for the structure under consideration to have no function. It is not enough simply for it to have minimal and easily compensated function. Otherwise, such structures as little fingers or toes could be considered unnecessary, as there are very few functions that cannot be performed equally well by humans who have lost their little fingers and toes, and yet it seems unreasonable to claim that they could not have been designed.
13. The attractiveness of such an argument is such that it is still used. It appears, for example, in Miller, pp. 100,101.
14. Standish, “Rushing to Judgment: Functionality in Noncoding or ‘Junk’ DNA,” Origins 53 (2002): 7-20. Available at http://www.grisda.org/origins/53007.pdf.
15. Not all; Philip Melanchthon was an exception.
16. The Cambrian Explosion is the name given to the evidence that whereas in Precambrian rocks perhaps three or four phylae (basic groups of organisms) exist, within a very short period of time, most of the modern phylae (and apparently several phylae that died out) appear, without any known intermediate forms. This is not what standard evolutionary theory would lead one to expect.
17. (New York: Summit Books, 1986).
18. An earlier version of this article was published in Origins 55 (2004): 3-8, available at http://www.grisda.org/origins/55003.pdf.