Can faith and science be divorced?
Gary B. Swanson
In the first segment of The Triangle, a three-part made-for-TV miniseries about the so-called Bermuda Triangle, a character asks an engineer with four post-graduate degrees, “Why does it always seem the more education a person has, the more unwilling they are to accept new ideas?”
Notwithstanding the poor grammar – and at the risk of sounding anti-intellectual – he has a point. In a later exchange, after a discussion has ensued about the causes of unexplained phenomena, the same character observes, “Everyone uses supernatural like it’s a dirty word!”
What he is talking about is the conflict that has arisen between those of faith and those who have elected themselves as spokespersons for science.
In recent times, some outspoken proponents of evolution, for example, have become increasingly aggressive in their denunciation of religion. The in-your-face arguments of many thinkers and writers who seek to represent science have at times taken on all the characteristics of intellectual trash-talk.
Richard Dawkins contemptuously – and publicly – describes the religious as “dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads [who are] immune to argument.”1 Christopher Hitchens titles one of his books God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Sam Harris levels criticism at all faiths – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, even Mormon – and asserts: “It’s time we expose the religions of this world as the fakes they are and their founders as the liars and opportunists they were.”2
But science, however it is represented today, has not always been at odds with religion. In fact, in the Western tradition, science got its start from the Christian search for a greater understanding of God.
“Science took root and flourished in the soil of Christian thought,” says Alvin Plantinga. “It was nourished by the Christian idea that both we and our world were created by the same personal God, the same living God, the same conscious being with intellect, understanding, and reason. And not only were we created by God, we were created in His image. And a most important part of the divine image in us is our ability to resemble God in having knowledge, knowledge of our world around us, knowledge of ourselves, knowledge, even, of God Himself.”3
Out of this kind of thinking arose the beginnings of what we in the West today call science. It was originally a tool that was intended to bring us closer to our Creator by focusing on and learning more about ourselves and the world we live in.
Scripture, of course, presupposes God’s existence. Without a belief in God, the study of the Bible is no more than an intellectual exercise in literary scholarship.
But the Bible even asserts God’s temporal pre-existence: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:1-3, NKJV).
An artist must exist before she touches her brush to the canvas. A musician must exist before he creates a cantata. To create the world, God had to exist before its creation.
And humankind can learn more about God through His creation. The psalmist sang, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 19:1-4, NIV).
To which the Apostle Paul added: “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1:20, NIV).
God created humankind with the capacity to learn ever more about Him through the ways in which He reveals Himself, one of the most remarkable of which is His creation, the natural world.
Ellen White asserts that “nature is full of lessons of the love of God. Rightly understood, these lessons lead to the Creator. They point from nature to nature’s God, teaching those simple, holy truths which cleanse the mind, bringing it into close touch with God. These lessons emphasize the truth that science and religion cannot be divorced.”4 Elsewhere, she writes of what she calls “the harmony of science and Bible religion.”5
Yet, most of those who claim to represent science today have indeed sued for separation from faith. They have, in fact, even sought to prevent those of faith from expressing themselves in the open discourse of learning. This is much like demanding a divorce … and a gag order.
The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a consortium of scientists and environmentalists, for example, have protested the U.S. National Park Service’s persistence in offering for sale a Creationist account of the Grand Canyon’s formation in the visitors’ center there. This consortium bills itself as “assisting federal and state public employees … to work as ‘anonymous activists’ so that agencies must confront the message, rather than the messenger.”6 This group demands that the public must be protected from the message that there is an alternative to science’s explanation for the formation of the Grand Canyon.
Curiously, in the historical battle between faith and science, the two have reversed roles. The Inquisition of the Dark Ages is a matter of sound, well-documented historical fact, and those who questioned the orthodoxies of faith were dealt with in cruel and inhuman ways.
But without in any way affirming the atrocious methods of the Inquisition of the church that lasted for six appalling centuries, at least it was being operated “ideally” from a concern for the eternal salvation of the heretics and of the wider society who could be negatively affected by them.
There is, however, no concern over the eternal in the scientific inquisition to which our culture is being subjected today. And with every bit as much enmity and intolerance as the Inquisition of old, those who represent science are seeking to root out what they consider to be heresy.
Proponents of evolution even become militant in their attempts to prevent any alternative explanations of origins from being represented in school curricula. “Atheist fundamentalism,” as Alister McGrath describes it,7 has declared all-out war on the transcendent.
Yet, on close examination, science is not truly antagonistic to faith. Neither are scientists as unanimous in their disavowal of the supernatural as some would have the public believe. To be sure, the majority, those to whom the media seem to be featuring most intently, may have denied belief in the existence of God, but this position is by no means undisputed.
Research by Rice University sociologist of religion Elaine Howard Ecklund reported in 2005 that only 41 percent of biologists and 27 percent of political scientists declare disbelief in God.8 Though, of course, the remaining majority would include agnostics and an array of beliefs in the transcendent, atheism is clearly not universal in science.
In October 1992, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration embarked upon a 10-year search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Before that, there had been 50 such attempts by various scientific groups since 1960. When NASA became involved, however, utilizing a worldwide array of massive radio-telescopes, it provided 10,000 more frequencies at 300 times the sensitivity of previous such attempts.
Essentially, the SETI project sent out to the cosmos the message: “Is there anybody out there?” And then it listened for documented answers. It all sounds very much like science fiction. Science it is; fiction it isn’t.
Interestingly, however, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is at the center of the plot of Carl Sagan’s science fiction book Contact, which was made into a film in 1997. Among other provocative themes, the film version explores the relationship between faith and science.
Central character Dr. Ellie Arrington, a lead researcher in a SETI-like project and ardent believer in the religion that science has become, is transported in a scientific research experiment somewhere far distant in the cosmos. There she communicates extensively with other beings in a world that has been constructed to simulate Earth so she will be made to feel comfortable. When she returns to Earth, however, according to the scientific instrumentation that has recorded the data from the experiment, she has been gone only a matter of seconds. The data show clearly that she has not had nearly enough time to account for her experience as she describes it. So, ironically, Dr. Arrington, a fervent believer in science, now finds herself testifying before a kind of inquisition, in which she is trying to defend her personal experience, even though it flies in the face of what appears in the instrumentation.
The panel before which Dr. Arrington is interrogated ultimately rejects her “Damascus road” experience because there is no empirical evidence for it other than her word, but the film leaves wide open the idea of the transcendent.
The gulf that isn’t
At the end of the day, the gulf between faith and reason isn’t between religion and science. True scientists will admit that their basis for belief can no more be proven than that of believers in the transcendent. It is just that the majority of the most influential self-appointed spokespersons for science in today’s culture believe in naturalism: the idea that all phenomena can be explained by natural (as opposed to supernatural) causes. The word believe is used here because they cannot prove naturalism scientifically. They have faith that it is true.
Alvin Plantinga reminds us that “naturalism and evolution together really undermine science … because their combination makes it impossible to see how there could arise human beings like us who have a real capacity to understand the world around us in a deep and profound way. Naturalism and evolution together make that impossible to understand.”9
Those who believe in the inspiration and validity of Scripture as a revelation of God’s character will see their belief confirmed in their observations of nature. In the shimmering glow of the northern lights, the delicate fragrance of a gardenia, the cheering trill of a meadowlark, the astonishing workings of the human body, they can perceive the unmistakable intent of a loving God.
“But the Bible passages take us a step further. They also suggest that the nonbeliever, by looking at nature, will somehow catch a glimpse of a divine Power that designed and made all that is. In today’s world many close their eyes to this aspect. They have imbibed evolutionary thinking and want to explain all that exists in terms of chance and necessity. But, increasingly, scholars are admitting that there is so much evidence of intelligent design that this can be ignored only by those who stubbornly close their eyes to it.”10
More and more, world-renowned scientists and philosophers are opening their minds to the possibility, at least, that science and philosophy need not be mutually exclusive of religion. In 2004, an Associated Press article reported: “A British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half century has changed his mind.”11 The story goes on to account Anthony Flew’s newly-stated belief that scientific evidence has to allow for more than mere materialist answers.
True science isn’t God’s enemy. He initiated it as a valid, affirming means of revealing Himself to us. To the true scientist, supernatural isn’t a dirty word. Nor has the divorce of faith and science ever been consummated.
Gary B. Swanson (M.A., Loma Linda University), is the associate director of the Department of Sabbath School and Personal Ministries at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.
1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006), p. 28.
2. http://www.youtube.com/user/AntiChrist67, accessed December 6, 2008.
3. Alvin Plantinga, http://www.calvin.edu/january/2000/plant.htm, accessed December 3, 2008.
4. Ellen G. White, Manuscript 67, 1901.
5. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1948), vol. 4, p. 274.
6. http://www.peer.org, accessed February 5, 2007.
7. Alister E. and Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion? (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2007), p. 11.
8. http://media.rice.edu/media/NewsBot.asp?MODE=VIEW&ID=7583&SnID=895062746, accessed January 12, 2007.
9. Plantinga, op cit., italics supplied.
10. Reinder Bruinsma, Walking the Walk: The Christian Life, Adult Bible Study Guide, April 26, 2009.
11. Anthony Flew, There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), p. vii.