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ss nucleus - summer 1995,  Science and Religion

Science and Religion

James May takes on Dawkins, Hawking and other scientific gurus, and argues that the Christian world-view is both reasonable and true.

The Twentieth Century is, more than any before it, an age of science, where intricate theories of maths and physics are used in practice daily by all members of society. Paradoxically though, it is also increasingly an age of mysticism, of the search for hidden meanings, and of a subjective experience of truth. Obvious but fundamental questions about the nature of reality and about apparent contradictions between science and faith arise from this observation, some of which I hope to address here.

The death of a rational God

Since the middle of the last century, at the time of Darwin, a view of the nature of truth has developed which has become known as logical positivism. The central idea is that the only valid source of knowledge is direct observation with the senses (ie science) and that all other sources of knowledge are redundant because they are uncertain.

Today, this view is forcefully promoted by Richard Dawkins, Reader in Zoology at Oxford University. He is perhaps most well known for his vigorous attacks on religion which he considers to be unscientific and therefore irrational. He has said that, 'If you ask people why they are convinced of the truth of their religion, they don't appeal to evidence. There isn't any.'[1] Again he has passed sentence on all faiths by saying, 'I will respect your views if you can justify them. But if you justify your views only by saying you have faith in them, I shall not respect them.'[2] Lay people, who everyday see and use a million products of scientific processes are easily seduced by this view, that religion is unjustifiable, often without realising it. For many, religion has retreated to an irrational 'faith' in the pejorative sense used by Dawkins. It has become a personal experience, purely subjective, safe from the humiliation of scientific disproof.

Therefore two mutually exclusive subsets now exist within the universal set of 'knowledge' or 'reality'. One is the 'objective' realm of scientific proof, the other is the 'subjective' realm of transcendental religious experience. Is there a place for a religion (Christianity) which claims to be based in objective historical reality (the Cross and Resurrection of Christ)? The world famous physicist, Stephen Hawking, has argued that, 'You don't need to appeal to God to set the initial conditions for the universe. . .'[3], whilst Richard Dawkins, is intent on demonstrating that evolution not only explains the origin of life, but that it also explains human behaviour up to and including mankind's genetic predisposition to religious belief. The gaps are closing and a rational God is being squeezed out.

The problem with positivism

Positivism is by no means universally accepted by scientists. Karl Popper has been the leading mind in the development of a now more widely accepted understanding of science:

'The old scientific ideal of episteme - of absolutely certain demonstrable knowledge - has proved to be an idol. The demand for scientific objectivity makes it inevitable that every scientific statement must remain tentative forever. It may indeed be corroborated, but every corroboration is relative to other statements which, again, are tentative. Only in our subjective experiences of conviction, in our subjective faith, can we be absolutely certain.[4]

If scientific statements are indeed tentative for ever, then the positivists rejection of all that is uncertain now includes science! The physicist Werner Heisenberg recognises this:

'The positivists have a simple solution. The world must be divided into that which we can say clearly and the rest, which we had better pass over in silence. But can anyone conceive of a more pointless philosophy, seeing that what we can say clearly amounts to next to nothing?'[5]

An alternative view of science (science is about faith)

How then should we understand science? Einstein suggests that science itself is a religion:

'To the sphere of religion belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.'[6]

Karl Popper continues to explain his approach to science:

'The wrong view of science betrays itself on the craving to be right; for it is not the possession of knowledge, of irrefutable proof, that makes the man of science, but his persistent and recklessly critical quest for truth.'[7]

I think that there is a lesson here for Christians also, that the subjective experience of 'absolute certainty' is not necessarily dependent on the actual reality. We should be able to 'appeal to evidence' and 'justify' our views to Richard Dawkins, and we also should maintain a 'persistent and recklessly critical quest for truth'. In view of our tentative statements of what we know to be true in Christianity, we must be prepared to listen to evidence which seems to refute our beliefs. No harm can come of this: if we are indeed right, then our position would tend to be strengthened by the weakness of the arguments against us. However, if we are wrong, we can only thank our Muslim or atheist friend for showing us the true way. We have no right to expect respect for our beliefs if we do not listen in sincerity to those of others. That is not to encourage syncretism, but rather to recognise that, in the weakness of human wisdom, two people may be equally convinced of their respective contradictory world-views whilst neither of them have good reason for believing either.

An alternative view of religion (religion is about truth)

Stephen Hawking accepts the reasonable possibility of the existence of God. To complete his earlier quote:

'You don't need to appeal to God to set the initial conditions for the universe, but that doesn't prove that there is no God - only that he acts through the laws of physics.'[8]

So religion is feasible, but a world without religion is terminally hopeless as Bertrand Russell eloquently expresses:

'No fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man 's achievements must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.'[9]

A purely scientific world-view leads to the desperate thought of Jean-Paul Sartre, that, 'Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance'. Not only does science offer no hope, but it cannot even answer all the questions raised by our existence, 'For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain, value judgments of all kinds remain necessary'.[10]

A combined world-view

Science and Christianity are both concerned with absolute truth, and it comes as no surprise that many have linked the birth of modern science in the sixteenth century with the Christian Reformation of the same time. The study of God and the study of God's universe go hand in hand as complimentary explanations of our experience as human beings. Whilst we should not be surprised to see remarkable evidence of God's handiwork as we study creation, God's supreme revelation of himself is Jesus Christ as revealed to us in the Bible. We can stand on the hills gazing at creation for a lifetime but only Christ can convict us of sin.

This is not a game with irrelevant concepts; our understanding of the God who is there and of the creation we live in depends entirely on how we understand truth. Christianity is nothing if it is not a truth relevant to everybody, and if it is that, then it must be the underlying motivation behind everything we think and do.

To summarise so far, it seems that humans are intrinsically rational creatures and that the world of our existence is ultimately reasonable. In humility we must accept that our knowledge is imperfect (a simple matter of experience), whilst reasonably accepting that it is sufficient for our needs. We should therefore encourage both Christians and non-Christians alike to pursue a persistent and recklessly critical quest for truth, given that there is truth to be had. We can never have faith in the God who claims to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life, if we don't have faith in truth itself.

Religious claims

We are left then to decide between conflicting religious claims and to establish the truth of one or other world-view at the exclusion of others. Thus a Christian exclusivist would contend that where the central claims of Christian faith are incompatible with those of other religious traditions the latter are to be rejected as false. We therefore require an effective method for evaluating the relative merits of the various religions in order to decide which is true. In his excellent book 'Dissonant Voices', Harold Netland suggests four independent criteria for evaluating competing world-views. They may be summarised as follows:

  1. Is it consistent with the me I know?
  2. Is it consistent with the world I know?
  3. Is it consistent within itself?
  4. Is it livable?

These are independent because they require no previous religious commitments.

Why Christianity?

Answering the above criteria for any religion is a long and arduous process, so we must give good reasons to demonstrate that Christianity is worth investigating. Here are some very basic considerations:

1. Is the existence of God possible?

There is no proof that God doesn't exist. It must at least be a theoretical possibility that there is an infinite reference point who transcends the universe and who created and sustains everything in it. Indeed such a God would explain our consciousness, our appreciation of beauty, our consciences, our need for justice and our innate feeling that we transcend ourselves, that we have a value and significance greater than the sum of our constituent parts. These are areas which science alone finds notoriously difficult to explain. (Romans 1:20)

2. Could an infinite creator reveal himself to his finite creation in a comprehensible form if he did exist?

Certainly, if he couldn't he wouldn't be infinite. Our knowledge, limited by our finiteness, can not be exhaustive, but it may be sufficient for our needs. Indeed this is exactly the claim of Christianity, that God progressively revealed himself to the nation of Israel and through them to the world, ultimately being known in human history as the person of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1,2). We can therefore know God and know his purpose for us.

3. Are the claims of Jesus Christ credible?

The historical literature concerning Jesus, from both Christian and non-Christian sources is far more substantial than for any other figure in his time. He is without doubt the most respected. The morals he taught are widely accepted to be the greatest moral teachings ever given and his behaviour was seen to be consistent with this. Bertrand Russell, in his book, 'Why I am not a Christian' said that if everyone lived like Jesus did, the world would be paradise. He never asked how he thought Jesus lived like that. Jesus taught with an absolute authority which only God could have had and he repeatedly performed miracles which demonstrated a mastery over all creation, even over death. He also makes the greatest offer of hope which humans have, at the cost of his life, that we can live life to the full now because we have a meaning and purpose in him, and that we can have eternal life with no more pain or suffering (Revelation 21:4). We were created by God, to love and serve him now, and to enjoy him forever.

Surely we have a sound basis in truth and reason for giving away our faith (Acts 25 :26). The assumption that God doesn't exist is unreasonable. In fact, there is very strong evidence to suggest that he does.

The bottom line

Ultimately the reason people are not Christians is not because there is not enough 'evidence' of God's existence, but rather that people suppress the truth that is self-evident because of sin (Romans 1:18). Our faith is submission to the reality of who God is, not a substitute for conclusive evidence. We know God the person, not god the scientific deduction, for no-one can point to a box and say 'look I've found God'. God finds us. This is our sure foundation and not our feeble attempt to find him. (Only by God's Spirit can people's eyes be opened, but we can at least point towards the light and pray.)

  1. Richard Dawkin's speech at Edinburgh International Science Festival.
  2. See 1.
  3. Stephen Hawking's 'B1ack Holes & Baby Universes'. Book Review. Time Magazine Sept 20 1993 p67.
  4. Karl Popper. 'The Logic of Scientific Discovery', 1959. see 'The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics' edited by Timothy Ferns 1991.
  5. Werner Heisenberg. 'Physics and beyond: Encounters & Conversations of W H'. see 'The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics' edited by Timothy Ferns 1991.
  6. Albert Einstein 'Out of my later years' see 'The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics' edited by Timothy Ferns 1991.
  7. See 4.
  8. See 3.
  9. Bertrand Russell 'A Free Man's Worship' pp 10-17.
  10. See 6.
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