Christianity and Science


Religious belief vs rationality & science

Science vs religion as a source of truth & scientific progress

Religion once had total power and authority over culture, life and truth itself. This led to an uneasy relationship with science, especially during the enlightenment period when science really began to emerge as a source of truth. The source of the tension was twofold. Science had its own method for discovering truths which was independent of religious authority. Secondly, science began to make discoveries which contradicted religious beliefs. This motivated religious leaders to try and impede scientific progress.

The idea that the earth was the centre of the universe was important to Christians as it fit with their belief that humans are a special part of creation made in God’s image for a unique purpose. Galileo discovered that actually the earth orbits the Sun. The Church imprisoned Galileo and forced him to state publicly that he was wrong.

“In questions of science, the authority of thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual” – Galileo.

Darwin’s theory of evolution contradicted the Christian view that were directly created by God and are not like other animals due to being made in the ‘image of God’. Evolution showed that in fact we evolved gradually over millions of years and that actually there was no clear line when human beings emerged and the ancestor species that we evolved from ended.

Scientific understanding of the universe works without the need for God. Laplace wrote a book on the workings of the universe, claiming to have ‘no need’ of the hypothesis that there is a God. More recently, Stephen Hawking made the same claim

Dawkins argues that science has shown religion to be pointless as a means of discovering truth. Not only is religion pointless, it actively stands in the way of scientific progress. It teaches people to be satisfied with God as an explanation rather than search for the true scientific explanation. It is against important areas of research like stem cell research. It convinces people to not believe in evolution.

Response to Dawkins: McGrath, Collins & Polkinghorne: only fundamentalist literalists have unreasonable unscientific faith

Karl Rahner: Evolution is simply how God designed us, so it’s still true that God designed and created us. In 1950, Pope Pius XII declared that there is no inconsistency between evolution and Christian belief.

McGrath points out that even back in medieval Christianity there was an appreciation that the Bible involved not just literal language but also allegorical and analogical language as well as parables for moral teaching.

Collins agrees, arguing that Genesis was not “intended as a science text book” but a “description of who God was, who we are and what our relationship is supposed to be with God” – Collins.

“Augustine explicitly warns against a very narrow perspective that will put our faith at risk of looking ridiculous. If you step back from that one narrow interpretation, what the Bible describes is very consistent with the Big Bang.” – Collins

Polkinghorne also rejects literalism and the type of creationism that is opposed to evolution and therefore opposed to science

“I am certainly not a creationist in that curious North American sense, which implies interpreting Genesis 1 in a flat-footed literal way and supposing that evolution is wrong.” – Polkinghorne. 

Polkinghorne argues that this approach is not only scientifically wrong but also theologically. It fails to appreciate that the Bible contains many different genres of which stating facts literally is only one.

“Reading Genesis 1 as if it were a divinely dictated scientific text, intended to save us the trouble of actually doing science, is to make a similar kind of error.” – Polkinghorne

Polkinghorne: religious belief is strengthened by science and reason (natural theology)

“Science [studies] the processes of the world, while religion is concerned with the deeper issue of whether there is a divine meaning and purpose behind what is going on. I believe that I need the binocular approach of science and religion, if I am to do any sort of justice to the deep and rich reality of the world in which we live.” – Polkinghorne

Particular Christian doctrines such as the incarnation cannot be supported by natural theology, but some generic idea of a supreme being can.

Polkinghorne disagrees with Karl Barth’s rejection of natural theology and insistence that knowledge of God can only be based on faith.

He agrees that natural theology will not tell us everything we could know about God, but ‘the world is not just a neutral theatre in which these individual revelatory acts take place’. The world is the creation of God and so ‘potentially a vehicle also for His self-disclosure’.

Polkinghorne admits that natural theology can at most get us to something like a supreme being, not to the Christian God and Christ, but says that is certainly not nothing, as Barth claimed.

Polkinghorne argues that natural theology can be a starting point for faith, or help for those whose faith is seeking coherence in reason (Anselm would say faith seeking understanding).

Collins also claims that faith can be based on reason.

These arguments show influence from Aquinas, who argued that reason could play a role in supporting faith. McGrath and Polkinghorne agree that modern science has a role to play in natural theology.

God of the gaps 

This is an argument which claims that religion is irrational and unscientific.

Many atheists, including Dawkins, make this argument. It claims that religion is irrational because it is the result of scientific ignorance. Science is replacing religion and one day will completely replace it. People used to explain all sorts of natural phenomena by attributing them to God. Diseases, thunder and lightning, rainbows, volcanic eruptions, the success of harvests and so on, were all explained by divine providence or punishment in ancient times. As scientific knowledge develops, these natural processes became explained, thereby progressively filling in the gaps where the God explanation had existed. Dawkins criticises “the worship of gaps”.

McGrath responds that Dawkins is attacking a method of arguing for God that is no longer popular amongst sophisticated theologians. Arguing for God on the basis of filling in gaps in scientific knowledge was a method that rose to prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries. McGrath accepts that Dawkins is correct to criticise the “gaps” approach and Mcgrath himself rejects it as “a foolish move”. However, McGrath claims it was “increasingly abandoned” in the 20th century, though he admits there are unfortunately some varieties of it still around such as the intelligent design movement.

McGrath claims that contemporary Christian philosophers have much better approaches, such as that of Richard Swinburne. McGrath is echoing a point he makes elsewhere, that modern Christian philosophers (e.g. Swinburne & Polkinghorne) have argued that science is limited and cannot answer all questions. It can tell us the what but not the why. Science can tell us what the universe is like, but it cannot tell us why it is this way, nor why it exists. It cannot answer questions about purpose.

Swinburne’s argument is a variety of the teleological (design) argument.

Dawkins responds that the ‘why’ question is valid regarding scientific explanation, but when we ask ‘why’ about purpose it becomes ‘a silly question’. Just because a question can be phrased using the English language, that doesn’t make it valid. Dawkins makes an analogy: ‘what is the color of jealousy?’ That question is assuming that jealousy has a color. Dawkins seems to be claiming that questions of purpose also assume that existence or human life has a purpose over and above scientific explanation, but there’s no evidence for that.

Dawkins accepts there may be limits to science and that where the laws of physics came from may be one of them. However he points out that scientists may one day actually solve that problem, but if they don’t, that doesn’t justify a non-scientific explanation of purpose. It just means we cannot know and should suspend judgement. It is still irrational

Max Tegmark agrees with Dawkins, pointing out that physicists are trying to figure out why the laws of physics are the way they are. It could be that there is some deeper reasons why the laws are the way they are and that this could be discovered by a more advanced understanding of the laws themselves. Swinburne seems to be unjustifiably claiming that is impossible.