I was raised in a Christian home and learned much about the Creator of the universe long before learning about the universe itself. Throughout my K-16 schooling, I focused on biology; this remains my primary interest today. Sadly, during my middle and high school years, my growing understanding of the natural world collided with the teachings from my religious leaders. I encountered a supposed contradiction between the teachings of science and those of the church. It was implied (and later asserted) that I should choose which knowledge path I would pursue: that of faith, or of science. I wish my experience was uncommon during this modern age in which we live; sadly, I cannot. There is a wedge that continues to force such a choice and strives to encourage future generation to reject scientific teachings in favor of supernatural causes (Discovery Institute, 1998). The Discovery Institute is not alone in this cause (see Answers in Genesis, the Institute for Creation Research, and the Creation Research Society). While the primary focus of such organizations centers on questions of origins, their implications can extend far beyond this focus of scientific investigation. Instead, their efforts erode their followers’ confidence in science and create unhealthy skepticism about scientific claims. A major motivation for my involvement in this blog is to counter the effect of this wedge between science and religion. My primary reason to participate in this blog is to help future scientific innovators recognize how they can be BOTH people of science and people of faith. I justify my position for working against this wedge with three major propositions.
Proposition #1 – The wedge stifles inquiry and discovery
I clearly remember a Sunday morning service (when in my 20’s) as the senior pastor clearly stated, “You cannot be a Christian, and have any integrity, and believe evolution.” This unequivocal ‘line in the sand’ that he so emphatically drew stunned me. During this same time, I was pursuing my Master of Science in biology from a prominent Baptist university. My professors there, with equal emphasis, echoed the famous essay by Russian Orthodox Christian, Theodosius Dobzhansky (1973) that, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” I felt like I was facing an ultimatum: to accept the teachings of my university professors or those of my pastor. I wondered how life would look today if other now-famous scientists had faced a similar ultimatum and chose to turn away from science for fear of its materialistic ends. If Alexander Fleming (discoverer of penicillin) had made such a choice, we might still face the ravaging effects of bacterial disease epidemics (e.g. bubonic plague). If Gregor Mendel (father of genetics) had made such a choice, we might lack genetic testing and gene therapy, which contribute to the prevention and treatment of heritable diseases (e.g. cancer). If Edward Jenner (pioneer of vaccinations) turned from science and, instead, relied on supernatural explanations to account for patterns of disease transmission, we might still lack defense against smallpox, measles, and polio (among many others). The thought of how much future knowledge could be jeopardized by such wedge-induced ultimatums justifies my mission to oppose the wedge.
Proposition #2 – The wedge is dangerous for humans and our environment
As stated, the wedge extends far beyond origins debates. Many members/followers of anti-science organizations adopt an unhealthy skepticism for science and begin to doubt the veracity of scientific claims; a condition so common it now has been given a name: “denialism”. While reputable science educators (and scientists) should wholeheartedly admit that science is a tentative endeavor, this caveat should be balanced with the understanding that scientific knowledge is by-and-large quite reliable and continues to improve. A prime example of the negative effect of denialism is the growing skepticism over vaccinations. Consider the data from 2011, which revealed that;
…a Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll found that 18% of Americans think vaccines cause autism—a theory that has no basis in scientific reality, doesn’t even have a plausible biological basis, and has been knocked down more times than a metal duck in a shooting gallery. (Nearly a third aren’t sure if there’s any connection, while just over half think none exists) (Gross, 2011).
Denialism puts people at risk: not just those who choose not to be vaccinated, but those who cannot due to age or health-related issues. A friend’s one-year-old daughter has battled cancer since birth; this child cannot yet receive most vaccinations and is at great risk of exposure to myriad diseases (e.g. measles, mumps, rubella) by unvaccinated individuals. Such diseases were once almost unseen in the US due to vaccination programs, but are now occurring more often due to the growing number of vaccine skeptics.
I am continually surprised at such denialism regarding major scientific issues. It is astonishing, that so many listen to discredited claims by non-scientists (e.g. comedian Rob Schneider and ex-Playboy playmate Jenny McCarthy) when making decisions about the health and safety of their children. Instead, people should recognize the inherent strength of the scientific process and have confidence (within reason) in the evidence-based, peer-reviewed claims of the scientific community.
Similarly, scientific skepticism contributes to neglect of our natural world. Despite the consensus view of the anthropogenic source of climate change, many science-skeptics continue to believe that current shifts in climate are natural occurrences, in no way influenced by human activities. Clearly anti-science wedge can have a remarkable effect on public opinion. Targeted education (although not enough by itself) is needed to combat such anti-science propaganda; I hope this blog is a step towards such education.
Proposition #3 – Scientific Inquiry is a form of Holy Work
In Genesis 1:26 of the Christian Bible, God establishes the role of mankind on our planet:
Let us make man in our image, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth and over all the creatures that move along the ground.
We have been given a great responsibility; one that requires much knowledge to carry out successfully. With this perspective, I tend to view science as a form of holy work. The best way to honor and care for the work of our Creator is to understand it better; science is the process by which we gain such understanding. Noted seminarian Cornelius Platinga communicates my perspective on the role of science in the life of a Christian (and, by extension, any other faith tradition):
… the study of creation is a classic opportunity to read Scripture and the natural world together. Scripture tells us who created the wonders of the world, and why. Study of these wonders tells us, at least in part, how God did his wonders, and when. Both scripture and science reveal God’s nature and interests (Platinga, 2002, p. 23-24).
My understanding of our role as stewards to our environment, along with my thirst to better understand the nature of God himself, fuels my desire to learn more about the natural world. I wish to encourage this desire in the readers of this blog. Since science is the tool by which such goals are attained, there is no room in my worldview for a wedge between science and faith.
For the sake of transparency, I’ll briefly explain where I stand with regards to naturalism/materialism. I believe that science is the process by which we explore and attempt to explain the natural phenomena in the world around us. With that said, I believe it imperative to restrict science to building explanations that utilize natural processes that have already been documented in nature (or use theoretical processes which scientists expect to encounter in nature with better technology and exploration). As such, science proceeds with the basic assumption that every phenomenon is explainable with natural causes. Before accusing me of being a materialist, remember that I stressed this is the basic assumption of scientists as they seek explanations of the natural world. In no way does this imply that a scientist should hold such a belief. Indeed, with this working understanding of science, it becomes clear that science can make no claims about supernatural acts (in favor or in denial of them). I can honestly say that in my worldview there exists the possibility (and I believe examples) of supernatural events occurring throughout human history (how fitting that I am writing this on Easter Sunday!). Such supernatural events, while falling outside of the realm of science, do not, by default fall into the realm of nonsense! Science is a wonderful tool for exploring the natural world, discovering patterns that provide predictive power, and constructing explanations of such phenomena that prove eminently useful in navigating the world in which we live. However, science does not (and cannot) answer all questions; nor does it explain all phenomena. Science has led to remarkable discoveries that have cured diseases, put satellites in space, and led to the development of the very devices on which you are reading these words. Science has the potential to lead to unimaginable new advances if we continue to recruit more young bright minds to pursue careers in science. Science gives us understanding about our world that enables us to prevent harm to ourselves and the environment on which we depend. Science is not the enemy of faith; instead, it is the very process by which we can most effectively act out our faith. I hope that this blog will be a part of a larger, global conversation about the role of science and faith. I hope it will be useful to others who are struggling, like I once did, with discerning the truth, despite all of the chatter, regarding science and religion.
Discovery Institute (1998). The Wedge Document. Retrieved online at http://ncse.com/creationism/general/wedge-document.
Dobzhansky, T. (1973). Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. The American Biology Teacher, 35(3), pp. 125-129.
Gross, L. (2012). Doubt and Denialism: Vaccine Myths Persist in the Face of Science. QUEST Northern California. Retrieved online at http://science.kqed.org/quest/2012/08/08/doubt-and-denialism-vaccine-myths-persist-in-the-face-of-science/
Platinga, C. (2002). Engaging God’s Word: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, MI.