As a Liberal Christian who has been a vocal opponent of young-earth creationists, cdesign proponentsists and other pseudoscientific movements both on my blog and in the classroom, I can only respond to Jason Rosenhouse’s recent post on the incompatibility of science and religion as follows: “Huh?!”
The point of emphasizing the compatibility of religious beliefs and science doesn’t have anything to do with Liberal Christians, except to the extent that Liberal Christians are usually people who already embrace the findings of the natural sciences. We are well aware that there is a lot of traditional Christian theology that has to be revised in light of our contemporary scientific understanding, and that there are things that must simply be discarded. That’s what being a Liberal Christian is about. We completely accept the point that modern science makes some religious views untenable, and if we do not consistently follow through in abandoning outmoded ways of thinking, it is because of our human shortcomings and not because we are not committed to doing so.
What concerns Christians like me when the rhetoric of incompatibility is used is the effect it has on those who are not (yet) committed to a form of faith that will allow them to embrace science and reject theological ideas incompatible with the current state of human knowledge. Such people frequently accept of reject things on the basis of an emotional reaction and core moral values rather than evidence (as do we all, at times, for better or worse). Those who use language that suggests “Evolution shows that our existence is meaningless and everything is random, humans are bundles of chemicals and all our apparent choices and artistic creation is determined by the laws of physics” (a caricature, to be sure, but a recognizable one) are giving the impression to Christians who are not Liberal that they must choose between valuing human beings and leading meaningful lives on the one hand, or the acceptance of modern scientific findings on the other. Who can be surprised that they choose the former? But they choose the former instead of science because they have been led to believe that they must choose between science and value, between science and love, between science and meaning, and a key emphasis of Liberal Christianity, as well as those scientists who aren’t religious believers but nonetheless agree with us on this point, is that this is a false antithesis: this isn’t a choice one has to make.
I don’t see how Ken Miller and others are doing what Rosenhouse accuses them of. Does Miller mention God in his articles in biology journals? Of course not. He is not imposing his religious views or forcing anyone in the realm of biology to accept them. His role is an apologist for science and an educator. And he’s learned (as have many educators) that learning is a process. Those who suggest that revising one’s theology has to happen from the outset, rather than after many years of first coming to grips with the relevant scientific (not to mention theological) arguments and evidence, are making a claim that seems to be not only false, but poor pedagogy.
Clearly their religious beliefs are not preventing Ken Miller, Francisco Ayala, Francis Collins and many others from doing top notch scientific work. And so why is there so much objection to their self-identification as Christians? I can only conclude that the reason for this opposition to those who emphasize the compatibility of religious beliefs (of a certain sort, it goes without saying) and the natural sciences is the following: there are atheist scientists who love the simplicity of the position that “science disproves God” every bit as much as their fundamentalist counterparts on the other end of the spectrum love to claim that “science proves God”. Neither of these extremes wants to have to muddle through the difficult and uncertain waters of theology, philosophy and metaphysics. And so both find the views in the middle threatening, because they provide evidence that such simplistic answers are inadequate.