The Jesus Quest And Bad Science vs True Religion

The best one-sentence summary of the Catholic position on the issue of science and religion is “If you see a conflict between science and religion, you’re either dealing with bad science or bad religion.”

But it seems to me that if we’re hyper-aware of the problem with the latter (bad religion), we are less well-aware of the problem with the former (bad science).

And it’s very easy to produce bad science. This is intrinsic to the scientific process. The scientific process produces contingent truths (even, I would argue, as Popper wrote, not even truths, but presumptions) through controlled experiment. This is fundamental, because once you elevate scientific findings to the status of capital-T Truth, you foreswear the possibility of falsifying the findings through experiment, which is the basis of the scientific method. Setting up science against religion may or may not be bad for some forms of religion, but it’s certainly bad for science.

There’s a further problem, which is that we call “science” things which are not, properly speaking, according to the previous definition (which is what the Scientific Revolution was about) science, and so erect even sub-scientific truth (scientific truth itself being a lower order of truth) against religion.

For example, today, much of economics, psychology, and so on is not based on experiment (or, in the case of psychology, repeatable experiment) and so is not, properly speaking, scientific.

Within this context, it stands to reason that we should expect that many science-religion conflicts are due to bad science, rather than bad religion.

To me, nothing makes this more obvious than Historical Jesus scholarship.

The first thing to note is that Historical Jesus scholarship, like all historical scholarship, is, properly speaking, not scientific. You can’t repeat Julius Cesar’s invasion of Gaul in a lab. It is sapiential, i.e. it involves the use of reason leading to wisdom. This is why an informed, scrupulous layman can have opinions on history as legitimate as any professional historian’s, while I wouldn’t trust your cousin Bob’s opinion on vaccination.

The second is that, as Albert Schweitzer noted more than a century ago, almost all Historical Jesus scholarship (down to Reza Aslan today) is basically a form of navel gazing. Somehow, the Jesus of history is always a better (better-looking?) version of the author (hi, Crossan!), or one who lines up with the author’s agenda (hi, Renan! Hi, Maccoby!).

But the third is that Historical Jesus scholarship is bad. I mean, bad. I loved N.T. Wright’s line of “endless epicycles of Religionsgeschichte” The almost universal assumption that the Gospels as we have them are based on disparate “traditions” coming from different “schools” accreted over decades responding to political factors is based on nothing at all. It is assumed, like a can-opener. Almost all Historical Jesus scholarship works according to the following principle: (1) decide on a hypothesis about Jesus; (2) pick out all the passages that support your hypothesis, junk the ones that don’t as later additions and corruptions from history; (3) hey, whaddaya know, the Jesus picture that emerges matches your hypothesis!

The tragedy is that so many earnest, intelligent Christians let themselves be taken by this scam. They either left orthodoxy, with Schweitzer reducing Christianity to a vague humanism, or Bultmann (a self-professed Christian!) asserting that the only thing that could be known about Jesus was that he existed, or saved it only at the price of a schizophrenic fideism (bonus question: does Barth’s Nein! to natural theology count, here?).

In fact, it turns out that good historical research vindicates the claims of orthodoxy. As Bauckham has shown (not proved, no, but shown), honest historical analysis compels us to agree that the Gospels are exactly what they purport to be: historical accounts based on eyewitness testimony. As Wright has shown, Jesus was not a Jewish rebel in a militaristic sense, or a flower child, or an aphoristic cynic philosopher, but a Jewish prophet, who believed himself to be the Mashiach, and not only the Mashiach, but to be acting as the very presence of the God of Israel; and the only plausible historical explanation for the fact of the early Church is the bodily Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (or, at the very least, an unshakeable belief of such in purported eyewitnesses who had every cultural reason for disbelieving it).

And it turns out that the 19th century Catholic Church, stubbornly reaffirming every verity of faith against the repeated assaults of so-called scholars, was in fact acting as a redoubt of reason.

The problem of “the Jesus of History”, then, is not a problem of a conflict between science and religion, it is the much more pedestrian problem of junk science.

And we know of many other examples.

What of the so-called “scientific racism” of the 19th century? Those who held up the Biblical teaching of the unity of the human family were derided as know-nothing fundamentalists.

When Margaret Sanger wrote that “there is no doubt in the minds of all thinking people that the procreation of this group [i.e., poor, religious people] should be stopped,” she was not being too sophistic. In fact, for a very long time, eugenics was the position of all so-called “thinking people”, and in their mind it was modern science that, through the science of genetics, had made the case for that abominable practice.

It is also worth remembering the combination of insanity and purported scientificness–and the sheer extent–of the overpopulation fears of the ’60s and ’70s (which never really died). Within the day’s context, Humanae Vitae‘s reaffirmation of the historic Church teaching against contraception appeared not only fuddy-duddily conservative, but positively obscurantist: here was humanity, driving towards the brink, with “all thinking people” trying to hit the brakes, and here was religious obscurantism, pressing down on the accelerator. Now, of course, it appears that not only were such fears unwarranted, but that the main challenge facing humanity, particularly in the West and China, is underpopulation.

This is an aspect of the “science and religion” thing which is all-too-often obscured. Yes, science-religion conflicts can and do occur because of bad religion. But they also very often occur because of bad science. And this is something we should all keep in mind.



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  • Thank you, I am posting a link to this in a completely unrelated discussion.

    • Glad to be of service!

      • I’m also reposting to my blog. Somehow, I’ve never seen a critique of bad science quite put this way before, and it affects so much of US Politics that it is scary.

        Trickle Down Economics, Global Warming, Eugenics are the big three “bad science treated as faith” right now.

  • captcrisis

    “Somehow, the Jesus of history is always a better (better-looking?) version of the author (hi, Crossan!), or one who lines up with the author’s agenda (hi, Renan! Hi, Maccoby!).”

    No. It is possible to search this question objectively. Unfortunately you are committed to certain conclusions. If you’re committed to certain conclusions, you can do neither good history nor good science.

    I recommend you go to one of the many Patheos channels that actually allows free thought, the Evangelical Channel, and read Ben Witherington’s four-part interview with Bart Ehrman, who is as objective a scholar as exists, on his book “Did Jesus Exist?”

    • Jim Dailey

      Can you restate? Are you faulting the author for being committed to certain conclusions or are you sayng you need to committed to certain conclusions?

      • captcrisis

        Pascal is starting from the conclusion that the Church is right about certain things. One simply can’t do that with either science or history. If you start with the conclusion that the Sun revolves around the Earth, you will conduct bad science, because you will be forced to ignore all the evidence to the contrary. Or (if you’re Pascal) you start with a Church position as a conclusion (say, that Jesus was an only child), you will have to ignore all the New Testament evidence to the contrary, and you will be conducting bad historical research.

    • “Bart Ehrman, who is as objective a scholar as exists”

      Excuse me while I roll on the floor laughing.

      • captcrisis

        All you have to do is go a paragraph or two into Witherington’s interview and you will see clarity of thought and fairness when dealing with apparently contradictory historical documents.

        Take his treatment of Josephus, and his mention of Christ. He notes that Josephus was not Christian, so his mention of Jesus is important. It is one of several things he notes that shows that Jesus did in fact exist, even though there are no non-Christian references to him for a hundred years after he died.

    • “I recommend you go to one of the many Patheos channels that actually allows free thought”

      There is no human being more bigoted than that which claims to be a free thinker.

  • Robert Landbeck

    “But the third is that Historical Jesus scholarship is bad.” I would suggest that the other two thirds are equally as bad and the first third! The ‘church’ remains a wholly and all too human theological construct. The Bible a selection scriptural material to enforce theological uniformity. Theology only exists because nothing has, as yet, been revealed by God. And one of the main challenge facing humanity as a whole remains population however the West and China are struggling with low replacement figures. And what continues to differentiate science and religion is that science is not only is self correcting and forced to confront it’s own error, while all theologically derived dogma is no more than institutionalized wishful thinking. Whether theology, and thus the foundations of the ‘church’, is even a valid human intellectual endeavor remains a wide open question? One that history looks increasingly prepared to answer. And I doubt our species will be happy confronting the unholy truth of human nature itself!

    • Lulz. Thank you for demonstrating the dangers of fideism.

      • Robert Landbeck

        The danger is with the corrupted, arrogance and pretensions of natural reason that has come to believe itself capable of comprehending the mind of God without that mind being revealed by God!

    • “The Bible a selection scriptural material to enforce theological uniformity.”?

      If so, I think it failed.

      “And what continues to differentiate science and religion is that science is not only is self correcting and forced to confront it’s own error”

      And this too, is a failure.

      • Robert Landbeck

        The entire theological project is indeed a failure. And whatever the limitations of science may be, because hard science demands both direct evidence and results to demonstrate the efficacy of it’s claim to insight, this method will always offer a foundation to understanding which religion can never provide. Just by using a computer to enjoy the opportunity of this discussion, you have already accepted that principle. And that principle can observed at this very moment by the search for an Ebola vaccine. It has to work!

        • Direct evidence like made up computer models that are worth no more than scripture and yet are taken as truth, you mean?

          The method is never followed properly, and can never lead to certainty. Like with quantum mechanics or driving a Ferrari 459 where the speedometer shares a screen with the GPS, you can know your velocity or your position, never both.

          Your faith that the scientific method “has to work” is no different than the religious faith in God, and is based on the same level of evidence.

          Oh, and I read your website. I find it interesting that you seek a more rational, kinder world while rejecting the only form of science that can produce a more rational, kinder world.

          • Robert Landbeck

            Now your’re being disingenuous at best .

            Climate computer models are an ongoing work in progress and only represent the current state of accumulation of evidence for probably the most complex question our species has ever had to face. They are always in a state of correction as new field data comes in.

            You have self evidently and badly misunderstood the weblink I provided. And My faith is simply that an omniscient omnipotent God can offer that direct evidence religious tradition has failed to provide and there in much in the scriptural record to suggest that. And I TESTING a new moral teaching at this very moment that will both demonstrate and prove that the goalposts of what is possible have been moved.

          • “Climate computer models are an ongoing work in progress and only represent the current state of accumulation of evidence for probably the most complex question our species has ever had to face. They are always in a state of correction as new field data comes in.”

            That isn’t the way they are used in politics. Those who question the models are called “deniers” and silenced, their field data suppressed, their scientific papers censored.

            There is plenty of direct evidence for God, but those who deny history will miss it.

      • Bob

        Do you believe the bible is perfectly uniform in thought?

        • No, I do not. It is a collection of works, inspired by the divine, written by the hand of man, in the languages of man, over several thousand years and by several different authors. The only way it has uniformity is by accepting the theology and authority of the editor- the Roman Catholic Church. Without that theology and authority, there are at least 30,000 mutually incompatible interpretations of the work, or at least, 30,000 interpretations of the work that yield mutually incompatible organized religions.

          There are even a few other Catholic Churches with significantly different Bibles than the Roman Catholic one, and the Protestants edited it as well during the reformation.

          If the purpose of the Bible was to create theological uniformity, then it is an utter, utter failure.

          Instead, I think the process is exactly the other way around- the theological unity of the Catholic Church, expressed in the Synod of Hippo and the Council of Carthage, created the Bible.

          That is the direction that it makes sense.

          • Bob

            LOL, it’s 100% perfectly uniform in thought. Your problem is lack of equity in judgment and therefore ignoring Psalms 119.160 to it’s fullest.

            Psalms 78.35 And they remembered that Elohim was their rock, and El Elyon their redeemer.

            Got to know the story line. Every word of scripture was given By God and can be found in the first three books of Genesis… how do I know, I’ve seen it.

          • And I have seen the fruit of proof texting scripture and claiming that The Word is someone other than Jesus Christ. So did the Apostle Paul. The divisions over scripture did not wait for the Bible to be compiled, they existed in the first 40 years of the Church.

            God’s law is true and eternal, as the Psalm states. Man’s interpretation of God’s law, including writing it down in a human language, is neither true nor eternal, for we are a fallen and flawed species.

          • Bob

            The whole bible is Gods word – go study his laws, statutes, judgments and they will verify everything and the whole will become apparent if done in equity.

            Psalms 119.160 Thy word is true from the beginning: and every one of thy righteous judgments endureth for ever.

          • According to the Gospel of John Chapter 1, the Word is Jesus Christ, so therefore if the Bible is the truth of God, Jesus Christ is His Word, not the Bible.

            Or in the words of St. Augustine- the truth is a person, not a book.

          • Bob

            Using a pretext to make thy own doctrine.

  • Mike Blackadder

    Well done! This is a difficult point to articulate and you did very well.

    My only disagreement is what seems to be a blanket dismissal of some fields (such as history) as non-scientific. I think that you were right in the he first place of identifying the characteristic that the fruit of science is contingent truth and that any actual scientific question is falsifiable. While many people practice junk science, which meets neither criteria, an objective researcher can present perhaps quasi-scientific assertions when NEW historical insight is made available, and sometimes this does not necessarily follow from new found material! but from existing material that had not yet been considered together or under a new framework.

    Thanks very much for this.

    • To say that history is not a science in the specific sense I mentioned is not to say that it is valueless, far to the contrary.

  • mochalite

    I think conflicts between science and religion should be an opportunity for deeply humble joy and excitement. Any rational mind realizes that there’s much more that we don’t know than what we do know. Faith is required for both religion and science, and I don’t get people who need to prove the one in terms of the other, or trash the one in favor of the other. Both bad science and bad religion seem to flow from an arrogant one-ups-man-ship that is unworthy of the serious pursuit of either.

    I believe utterly that “All things were made by him [the Word, Jesus, who was with God, and was God, and was the physical incarnation of God on earth] and without him nothing was made that is” (John 1), and “In him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17). This makes me not hostile to science, but thrilled by it, because it keeps expanding our understanding of the amazing cosmos in which we live and the amazing micro-cosmos that lives inside us. I believe in rockets landing on moving comets, in the potential for other forms of life in distant galaxies, etc. This makes me not hostile to religion, but completely grateful for it, knowing that God gave us our curious brains, our creative desire, and that “it is the glory of kings to search out a matter.” (Prov. 25)

    • Exactly right.

    • TomH

      Deeply humble joy and excitement. I guess at a superficial level this is true. When there are breakthroughs between them. Pope Benedict
      Did so much to show there is no conflict between faith and reason. But all conflict is a tragedy since it comes from the wound of original sin. This is as true of science as the strive between husband and wife, etc.

  • PSdan

    Well said. It seems that the aims of eugenics didn’t entirely go away, however. Look at the efforts to spread “reproductive health” technology throughout Africa and India. It’s clothed in feminist gender equality rhetoric but it’s the same sordid impulse.

  • Jon Moles

    There’s no need to qualify either science or religion as bad or good, the conflicts occur because science asks questions and then uses the best method we’ve come up with to date to answer them; meanwhile, religion starts with answers it asserts dogmatically and then continues to attempt to rationalize them in the face of scientific discoveries that makes religious dogma look foolish. It reminds me of one of my favorite sayings, “Science doesn’t know everything, religion doesn’t know anything.”

    • TomH

      This reminds me of one of the poisonous fruits of original sin – stupidity. And not knowing one is stupid. You have no idea why u believe this dogmatic nonsense. Your irrational convictions are more fundamentalist bigotry than Christianity or even good science. Bluster is not science. Get a life Jon!!

      • Jon Moles

        ROFL, that is hilarious! Way to represent, no ad hominems or anger in that response.

        • TomH

          It only looks ad hominem because u reject god. It’s true that my anger shows. but Is my anger worse than your superior attitude. I said stupid because u appear blind to your fault. And actually I meant stupid universally. it’s me too. It’s just that my faith in Christ enables me to some of my weaknesses. thus, I often shoot first and then ask questions. So I can’t take back the doctrine of original sin, but I apologize for reacting so bluntly. Btw Jon, your first comment re science/religion is ad hominem.

  • ortcutt

    “For example, today, much of economics, psychology, and so on is not based on experiment (or, in the case of psychology, repeatable experiment) and so is not, properly speaking, scientific.”

    So, you’re denying that there is observational science? Then, I guess you think that astronomy isn’t a science? It’s much easier to do experiments in economics and psychology than in astronomy.

  • Sven2547

    I was with you for most of this… and then you went off the rails and claimed China has an under-population problem. Wow. Just wow.

    • Look at their age ratios.

      • Sven2547

        An overabundance of seniors to juniors is not an “underpopulation” problem, though.

        Your solution resembles a pyramid scheme. Unsustainable exponential growth until it all falls apart. “We need more youths to support the seniors” is a shortsighted approach, because then they grow up and you have an even bigger problem than you had before. Where is the stopping point?

        China has serious pollution problems, and is experiencing a booming increase in demand for oil and other resources. Do you think doubling, tripling, quadrupling China’s population will improve the situation? It can only make it far worse. Have you seen the air around Beijing?

        I guess the overarching question is, what would it take for you to acknowledge a country has an overpopulation problem? Mass starvation? Millions of fatalities? A drastic decrease in life expectancy?

        • Pollution, while influenced by population, is more strongly coordinated with technology.

          Triple the population, replace the coal plants with treadmills, and you will solve the pollution problems of China. And likely the unemployment problem, and thanks to the creation of useful jobs, the starvation problem.

          Hey, that’s a neat idea for a business- a health gym with treadmills and bikes selling energy to the grid that pays you to exercise.

        • ortcutt

          Don’t bother. There’s no point in arguing with a dogmatic hypernatalist.