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The (Not So) Great Divide

Why the Tensions Between Science & Faith Are Misunderstood & Overblown

by William A. Dembski & Denyse O’Leary

Article originally appeared in the Salvo 26 supplemental issue on Science & Faith

Did anything exist before the Big Bang? How did life originate on earth? Is the human mind an illusion created by the activity of neurons? Is free will impossible? These questions and many more jam the intersection between science and biblical faith. Current science and biblical faith do display certain tensions, but these tensions are often misunderstood—and sometimes overrated (or fashionably hyped).

The Christian Roots of Modern Science

Trendy Bible scholars and new atheists are fond of claiming that the Bible is a collection of Bronze-Age myths that an age of science must reject. But how out of step is the Bible? Most of the founders of modern science—Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton, for example—venerated it. Even in the nineteenth century, most top scientists were persons of faith. James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879), the preeminent physicist of his day, spent every Sunday away from physics, reading theology.

It wasn't only top scientists, either. In those days, few could make a living from science, so interested clergy, who had the advantage of higher education, did much of the spadework. They did not usually think that the Bible discouraged them from doing science or adversely affected the outcome of their scientific studies.

In fact, some science historians—Templeton prize winner Stanley Jaki (1924–2009), for one—have stressed the ways in which the Bible's worldview encourages science. Many religions, past and present, do not. These teach that the whole world is God, or that God is a being (or beings) within the world, or that the world is just an illusion that we ought to see through. The Bible, by contrast, makes it clear that God created a real world that is separate from himself. Creation is a divine invention that follows fixed laws, not a divine being—a work of art, if you like, not a person. Therefore, scientists can, as Kepler put it, worship God by studying the creation ("reading God's thoughts after him"). They do not risk foolish presumption by doing so, as does the man who claims to know the future in detail or to be able to read others' minds.

But there's more. Because the world is an invention, it is contingent. God could have invented it differently. Just what he did, and possibly why, must be determined by bench research, not armchair theory.

Some think they have found a way to have science without God. A few years back, I was lecturing at the University of Toronto when a biologist on faculty confronted me about my Christian faith. To him, it was incomprehensible that any scientist could believe in God. I asked him, "What about Newton?" He instantly shot back, "Yeah, but Newton didn't know about evolution." According to this biologist, Darwinian evolution so thoroughly undermines belief in God that it inevitably leads to a mass exodus of scientists from the faith.

He had a point; the percentage of scientists who believe in God significantly decreased after the widespread acceptance of Darwin's theory of unguided, goal-free evolution. Still, many outstanding scientists today are Christians, take the Bible seriously, and question Darwin's theory. Incidentally, increasing numbers of non-Christians in science question Darwin's theory, too.1 Thus, a simple headcount of scientists who believe (or disbelieve) in the biblical God will not help us decide where science and biblical faith conflict. We can each point to our favorite believing or disbelieving champions of science; thus, we need to look at the Bible itself.

The Bible as a Non-scientific Text

The world as portrayed in the Bible is, we are told, radically different from the world portrayed by contemporary science. That's true, but insignificant. No account of reality as routinely experienced by human beings portrays the world the way contemporary science does. It isn't possible. The mid-twentieth-century Christian apologist C. S. Lewis explains:

The table I am sitting at looks simple: but ask a scientist to tell you what it is really made of—all about the atoms and how the light waves rebound from them and hit my eye and what they do to the optic nerve and what it does to my brain—and, of course, you find that what we call "seeing a table" lands you in mysteries and complications which you can hardly get to the end of.2

The Bible is (and must be) written for people who can use and build tables without having such valuable and hard-won scientific knowledge about them. Nonetheless, the Bible is less problematic on scientific subjects than it is, for instance, on much ancient literature, because it doesn't usually offer scientific accounts of things. For example, no biblical author records how many teeth humans normally have. By contrast, the philosopher Aristotle (384–322 b.c.) claimed incorrectly in his History of Animals that men have more teeth than women. Aristotle should have examined boys and girls whose permanent teeth had grown in before committing his views to writing. Similarly, Basil the Great, a preeminent theologian of his day (300 years after New Testament times), describes in Hexaemeron (his collection of sermons on the days of Genesis 1) a snake breeding with a lamprey (a jawless fish). That is an obvious impossibility that Basil assumed to be possible.

The third question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism reads, "What do the Scriptures principally teach?" The answer is, "The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man." Yes, facts about God and man, not about anatomy or interspecies hybrids. Nevertheless, many contemporary critics reject the Bible, not because they find errors in it, but because it describes a world in which demons account for mental and sometimes physical illnesses; in which miraculous events occur repeatedly and openly (such that CNN could send in a film crew if the events were happening today); in which curses and blessings come true; in which prophets foretell future events accurately; and in which writers assume that the sun revolves around the earth.

To evaluate the significance of these concerns, we should consider three things: the antiquity of the Bible (which can be a culture shock); the distinction between the way things appear and their underlying mechanics; and whether we ourselves are too committed to naturalism to evaluate a non-naturalistic viewpoint fairly.

The Antiquity of the Bible & Face-Value Meaning

The Bible is a very old book written by people who lived in starkly different cultures from our own. We must try to understand its claims on its own terms. One thing that helps is the fact that, while human cultures change a lot over time, place, and circumstance, human nature does not. Culture aside, we meet in the Bible a mix of people we could meet at school, at work, or on the street.

Theological conservatives and liberals clash over how literally the Bible should be interpreted. It helps to know that the biblical writers were not themselves strict literalists. For example, the term "forty years" is often used in the Old Testament as a nice round number to refer to events that probably took varying lengths of time, not literally 14,600 days. Likewise, it's not clear that the days of creation in Genesis must be considered precisely as 24-hour days, especially since the seventh day (the one on which God rested) is not such a day. On the other hand, when the Bible tells us something unflattering about ourselves or demands better behavior, the literal meaning is indeed the most likely one. The Bible is true, but we need to interpret and apply its truth with insight. Hence, Paul enjoins Christians to "rightly divide the word of truth" (see 1 Timothy 2:15).

The Bible's Use of Language

Biblical authors are concerned with the theological significance of lives and events. So they describe phenomena as they appeared to the actual witnesses. We would say that their view is phenomenological rather than technically accurate (realistic). Thus, Psalm 93 tells us that the world is firmly established so that it cannot be moved, because that is how we experience it. To this day, we use expressions such as "solid ground" or "down to earth" to describe things that are stable and reliable.

However, some contemporaries of Copernicus (1473–1543) interpreted Psalm 93 more literally and cited it as evidence that earth doesn't orbit the sun. Accordingly, they thought that Copernicus's proposed heliocentric solar system must be wrong. But that was because they had drafted the psalmist to answer a specific question on which he was not offering information; he was writing about something else.

Anticipating their concerns, Copernicus's publisher, Osiander, stressed in the foreword to De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium that his author represented the movements of heavenly bodies without committing himself to the literal truth of his description. That approach enabled Copernicus to keep peace with the Catholic Church in a way that Galileo could not, for Galileo claimed that the earth did not merely appear to orbit the sun but actually did so. At the time, the correct answer was hardly self-evident. Motion, as Copernicus, Galileo, and their contemporaries knew, is relative. We may think we are moving, but we may be stationary while other things move relative to us.

It's no surprise that the biblical authors used phenomenological language. We do, too. We know (and they didn't) that the earth orbits the sun, yet we still speak of sunrise and sunset. The cognitive cost of using realistic language in defiance of what we actually witness often makes it not worth the trouble. We can always switch to realistic language when our purpose requires it (if we are discussing a mission to Mars, for example).

Moreover, scientists sometimes deal in realities they cannot see, and then they must resort to phenomenological language to explain their findings. When Charles Wilson (1869–1959) conducted cloud-chamber experiments tracking electrons, he did not see electrons; rather, he saw tracks in the cloud chamber. The underlying reality—that is, the electrons tracing those tracks—was inferred from the phenomena that his experiment produced.

The distinction between phenomenological and realistic language is useful to bear in mind when the Bible tells us of physical events that have spiritual causes (demons, for instance). Some psychological conditions appear to be caused by an invisible, malevolent force that seeks to destroy the sufferer. Is the cause an evil spirit that must be exorcised? Or is it a brain imbalance that can be alleviated with medication? Or perhaps some combination of the two?

I take the accounts of demons in the New Testament to be factual. But whether they are or not, the choice of the term "demons" makes phenomenological sense. We use such terms today. A drug addict might say that he has "a monkey on his back," or a recovering alcoholic that he is wrestling with the "demon alcohol." Two years ago, a friend of mine committed suicide, as his mother had done years earlier. As a mutual acquaintance put it, his mother's suicide was "a demon that he had faced all of his life." Call it a metaphor or call it an actual demon; either way, it is experienced and witnessed as a pernicious "other" self, destroying the healthier self.

We don't view all diseases that way, of course; neither does the Bible. Jesus healed many people who were sick but not described as troubled by demons. Their diseases were deleterious, but they were not experienced (or witnessed) as a destructive "other self."

Naturalism & Miracles

Now, a skeptic might reply that the Bible attributes many other extraordinary events to supernatural agency—whether God, angels, or demons—and that he cannot, in principle, believe in such agency. Why can't he? Because extreme skeptics are typically naturalists. They hold, as a philosophical position, that supernatural powers do not exist, or at least that they can play no role in nature. This is the position known as naturalism. But it is a philosophical position, not a research finding.

Are naturalists more rational than supernaturalists (such as Christians)? They think so; they portray themselves as the smart ones, who see the world as it really is. A world not governed by unbroken natural law, they say, is a lunatic asylum in which capricious gods operate without restraint, violating rational expectations and rendering science impossible.

Yet oddly, when pushed, the naturalist turns out to favor the lunatic asylum much more than he lets on. The biggest name in naturalist atheist cosmology, Stephen Hawking, has decided that we must live in a multiverse, a universe of universes (The Grand Design, 2010), where anything at all can happen. Why? Because our universe seems finely tuned for life. Either there is a God who did the fine-tuning (but he rejects that), or there are countless uninhabitable universes out there, and ours just accidentally works. Similarly, Max Tegmark, a naturalist cosmologist, embraces enormous, indemonstrable absurdities, such as that "everyone has an exact double in another universe," simply to avoid God.

The biblical authors, by contrast, would reject both a multiverse and a capricious universe. They teach that by wisdom God created an orderly world, a cosmos that provides a window into his glory (see Romans 1:18–20).

The orthodox Christian believes that God can, if he chooses, override the laws of nature to achieve purposes that nature, left to itself, cannot. God neither violates nor suspends the laws. The powers of nature continue to operate alongside powers that he uses to communicate with his intelligent creatures. For example, the people whom Jesus healed returned to their everyday lives and later sickened and died in the course of nature, which had continuously operated within and around them. But those people and all the witnesses to the healings knew for sure that nature has neither the only say nor the last word.

Although the Bible clearly teaches that God intervenes, in the dialogue between science and theology, "intervention" has become a dirty word. It is allegedly beneath God's dignity. He should have set everything up so that he did not need to intervene. Yet while some theologians argue thus, many lay people say that they don't accept the Bible precisely because God does not intervene more often. ("God, where were you at Sandy Hook?")

It's true; the Bible portrays a God who intervenes only sometimes and only for a specific purpose. As Jesus bluntly explains, "I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah's time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon" (Luke 4:25–26).

Of course, the people who want constant divine intervention might not end up liking it as much as they think. And God could indeed have set everything up to go a certain way, just as some people set up thousands of dominos and give the first one a push. But then he could not also have created human beings who can reason and choose, wisely or otherwise. Dominoes do not need rescue, but we do.

One reason God intervenes is that the natural world has no capacity to fulfill those of his good purposes that go beyond nature (such as defeating sin and death). Why shouldn't God, who transcends nature, exercise powers in nature that nature itself doesn't have? Christ's resurrection is a case in point; bodies that have been dead three days do not naturally get up and resume living. But according to the Bible, the supernatural act required was not at all capricious; it was the intended first instance of what Christians consider the future of all human beings. The naturalist who claims that Jesus' resurrection was impossible forgets that all life was created out of non-life in the first place. Raising the dead is a particular instance of a general fact. And why should it be more difficult for God to do a second time what he has already done once?

In the fifth century, Pelagius proposed that divine intervention was not needed for salvation, that humanity already had everything it needed to be saved. By simply directing our wills aright, said Pelagius, humans can achieve salvation via their own efforts at faith and good works. But orthodox Christianity has always regarded Pelagianism as a heresy, teaching instead that we require the intervention of God's grace to be saved.

And what is grace? It is, if you like, the free gift of God's version of us—a better self than the one we have made such a mess of. That is why the Bible calls salvation "being born again" or "becoming a new man." We cannot create our better self on our own, but we can accept it as a gift.

Naturalism is best viewed as a Pelagian heresy. Just as Pelagius tried to close off us humans from effective divine action, so naturalism tries to close off the whole world. Just as humans need divine intervention to be saved, so the world sometimes needs divine intervention to fulfill God's good purposes.

When Science & the Bible Conflict

But what happens when there is a direct conflict between an event recorded in the Bible—the multiplication of the loaves and fishes perhaps (Matthew 14:13–21; Mark 6:30–44; Luke 9:10–17; John 6:1–15)—and the usual course of nature? What should we believe?

First, we must ask ourselves, "Do we believe in principle that God is the author of nature, and that he could intervene in a way consistent with his character?" We must decide this matter on principle because we don't have direct access to the events of thousands of years ago recorded in the Bible. If we think there is a God who could intervene, we cannot dismiss the account in the Bible simply because it is inconsistent with what current science says about situations in which no one claims that God has intervened.

Christians must avoid two dangers when evaluating a conflict between the Bible and current science. One is bibliolatry—turning the Bible into an idol so that our own interpretation becomes the gauge for all truth. The other is scientism—turning science into an idol, a juggernaut that relentlessly pushes back the frontiers of knowledge, a truth machine that shrinks the role of biblical faith. In our secular culture, this inflated view of science continually assaults young Christians and leads to many an unnecessary crisis of faith.

Science is an interconnected web of factual and theoretical claims about the world. It is constantly in need of revision, and changes in one portion of the web can induce far-reaching changes in another. As a result, scientists must regularly withdraw claims that were once confidently asserted.

Consider an example from geology. In the nineteenth century, the geosynclinal theory was proposed to explain how mountain ranges form. According to this theory, large trough-like depressions known as geosynclines, once filled with sediment, gradually became unstable. Then, crushed and heated by the earth, they rose to form mountain ranges. In the 1960 edition of Clark and Stearn's Geological Evolution of North America, the geosynclinal theory was said to be as well established as Darwin's theory of evolution.

But what became of the geosynclinal theory? (And, I might add, what is to become of Darwin's theory of evolution?) Within a few years, the theory of plate tectonics, which explained mountain formation through continental drift and sea-floor spreading, decisively replaced it.

The geosynclinal theory was reasonable but incorrect. Unfortunately, many research areas in which we are urged to look to science instead of the Bible for answers don't even meet that standard. For example, despite the proposal of dozens of once-promising theories, the origin of life is still, as two key researchers put it, "one of the great unsolved riddles of science."3 After centuries of research, the study of human evolution comprises a similar barrage of conflicting narratives. As a Scientific American writer admits, "The origin of our genus, Homo, is one of the biggest mysteries facing scholars of human evolution."4

And there is no science-based theory of the human mind that comes anywhere near "reasonable but incorrect." As one physicist observed, "It is not that we possess bad or imperfect theories of human awareness; we simply have no such theories at all."5 Those who would jettison the Bible in favor of science in these areas aren't replacing a Bronze-Age approach with a space-age approach; they're replacing it with dozens of competing approaches, or with no approach—or even any idea as to what happened—at all.

Christians ought never to feel intimidated by science. This is God's world. He created it. He gave us minds to try to understand it with. He tells us some things about our relationship to it, and to him, through the Bible. But our understanding, especially on scientific matters, is fallible and requires constant critical scrutiny. Thus, our first reaction to apparent conflicts between biblical faith and science should be, not to jettison the Bible or science, but rather to seek a deeper understanding of what God is saying through both the Scriptures and nature. 

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