Saturday, April 20, 2013

Don't Blame Science

A "Journeys Home" post from 2009.... Recently I read a news story from a Midwestern community. The high school band had designed tee shirts that featured an image of a primate moving through stages until it becomes human: that famous illustration of evolutionary development. Each figure held a brass instrument. It seemed a clever way to encourage band spirit for their fall program. The tee shirts were banned, however, because of parents’ complaints that the shirts promoted evolution. The article reported that an assistant superintendent said that the school district must remain neutral about religion.(1)

I'm religious and I love science, so this kind of story distresses me. But I want to respect the people in this story and think a bit about the issues involved. The school official and the complaining parents apparently consider evolutionary theory a “religion” or, at least, a philosophy that competes with traditional religious belief.

If one understands certain distinctions, aspects of this issue may fall into place. A hypothesis is an assumption that something is true, but that assumption is still undergoing experiments, discussion, and testing. A theory is a “model” of reality that has stood up under many experiments over many years, has been discussed in peer-reviewed journals, is compatible with other theories, and can potentially anticipate other observations and theories.

Evolutionary science is a theory in this respect: it is a sound scientific model that explains data in many different fields like biology, paleontology, and others. Evolutionary theory is science. There are no alternative theories that are accepted by a majority of those in scientific community; this is not because scientists are closed-minded to other theories but because this model has been studied and refined for years and is viable. No other scientific models make as much sense and explain as many phenomena, from an empirical standpoint.

Science concerns the observation and explanation of physical phenomena. Although science does address questions of cognition and behavior, science does not answer questions of theology and spirituality. Science is “methodologically materialistic,” that is, its procedures and methods are aimed at physical phenomena.

But at this point you can take at least three philosophical positions. The first, which I hold, ais that science and religion are complementary sources of truth. The invisible world exists but it is approached through religion, faith, faith-encouraged reason, certain kinds of experience, and tradition rather than empirical examination. Science can describe phenomena according to empirical methods, while religion can declare truthfully that "God created the heavens and the earth."

The second position is “epistemological materialism”; there may be a spiritual world, but since we cannot know it through science, we cannot know anything meaningful about it. Religious belief is a matter of faith but not reason.

The third is “metaphysical materialism”: we cannot know the spiritual world through science, therefore the former does not exist. We can explain everything meaningfully through science, including the reasons why we’re religious, moral, etc.

I think many people become upset about evolutionary theory because they believe it necessarily falls under the third position and, therefore, is an atheistic philosophy which is being taught to our children. No, evolutionary theory, properly speaking, is a scientific theory that explains physical phenomena. But among scientific theories, evolutionary theory seems the very threatening to theological doctrines like the image of God in humanity, sin, redemption, and the inspiration of the Bible. Somehow even the antiquity and vastness of the universe do not make people as theologically anxious, even though astronomical science could equally threaten a literal reading of the Bible.

Public schools should offer traditional science as proper science but also find ways to introduce some kind of non-sectarian religion courses for students--and then students can get a more full religious instruction in other settings. There are suitable ways in which religion can be brought into public schools without violating church-state separation. My daughter’s schools in Kentucky and Ohio did a good job of striking these tricky balances.

Shameless commerce: I discuss these issues in a study book that I wrote for the United Methodist Publishing House: What about Religion and Science: A Study of Reason and Faith, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007. But I’ve also been re-reading Huston Smith’s Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World’s Religions (New York: HarperOne, 1992, originally published in 1976), where he comments:

“With science itself there can be no quarrel. Scientism is another matter. Whereas science is positive, contenting itself with reporting what it discovers, scientism is negative. It goes beyond the actual findings of science to deny that other approaches to knowledge are valid and other truths are true. In doing so it deserts science in favor of metaphysics--bad metaphysics, as it happens, for as the contention that there are no truths save those of science is not itself a scientific truth, in affirming it scientism contradicts itself. It also carries marks of a religion--a secular religion, resulting from overextrapolation from science, that has seldom numbered great scientists among its votaries” (p. 16-17).

Smith's words shed light upon some the issues raised by the critics of the band tee shirts. These folks were concerned about a secular religion being promoted (scientism, or metaphysical materialism). But they confused scientism with science. Science is a wonderful, vitally important thing that should be taught in public schools and more widely appreciated and understood by the general public. (In fact, the tee shirts don't even represent current science, which no longer posits such a linear progress of species development.)

1. Although the article now requires a subscription to read it, I first accessed the then-free and -current article at:


A few more thoughts concerning science and religion. My aim of these thoughts is to give assurance and some ideas to people who struggle with the tension between religious belief and scientific discoveries, notably evolutionary theory.

People who worry about the contradiction between science and the Bible usually focus upon Genesis 1. But actually the Bible has numerous “unscientific” words about the nature of reality. Exodus 20:4, for instance, depicts a three-tiered cosmos; Ps. 24:2 and Ps. 136:6 depicts the earth as founded upon seas; 2 Samuel 22:8 says that the earth is set upon foundations; 1 Samuel 2:8 talk about the pillars on which the earth is set. Leviticus 11:13 and 19 lists bats among kinds of birds. Must we assume all these images are literal truth? If we defend them as metaphorical, well … we’ve immediately acknowledged that the Bible contains passages that are not literal but metaphorical and poetic truth.

Scoffers at biblical truth would zero in passages such as these in order to discredit religious belief. But religious people, too, must defend the truth of the scriptures in spite of the ancient world view that the Bible reflects.

Both defenders of biblical inerrancy and scoffers at biblical truth make a similar mistake in reasoning: if the Bible has errors, then the whole Bible is discredited. But God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18, Titus 1:2) and the whole Bible is true.

That is a false choice. We don’t typically make such distinctions. For instance, I made an unintentional error in a history book that I wrote back in the 1980s. I made an informed conclusion but new information emerged later. I made the mistake because my human knowledge is incomplete, but that doesn’t mean my whole book was a lie, or that I’m a liar, or that I need to explain my error through artificial arguments.

The Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer argues that we shouldn‘t confuse error in the sense of incorrect knowledge, and error in the sense of deception and sin. Limited as they were by their historical and cultural circumstances, the biblical authors has far less knowledge of science than we do. But we cannot thereby call them "liars" or deny that the Holy Spirit inspired them. As Berkouwer notes, when the definition of “error” is so formalized, “the relationship of the organic, God-breathed character to the organic unity and scope of the total testimony of Scripture is almost totally ignored.”(1)

Berkouwer, a conservative and very biblically-based Calvinist theologian, writes that we can safely recognize the historical development and time-bound character of the Bible writers. Therefore, when we encounter in the Bible ancient and “outdated” views of the cosmos, we shouldn’t worry that we’re “selling out” the Bible to science when we recognize the Bible’s ancient cultural origins, nor do we have to declare the Bible wholly false if the scientific discoveries do not conform to biblical details. What is needed, he believes, is a “naturalness” on our parts to witness to the reliability and authority of the Bible in its overall purpose as a God-breathed witness to God—not a science book.

Berkouwer cautions that ideas of biblical inerrancy shouldn’t be ridiculed, only that its application be examined so that the sincere desire to uphold scriptural authority should not damage that authority rather than advancing it.

See my site, chapter 6, where I get into these and related issues more fully.

1. G. C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: Holy Scripture, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1975), pp. 181-183 (quote on p. 182).

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