Science and Religion – an Interfaith Encounter.

Yesterday I was one of three speakers at a forum on science and religion. Speaking as unelected representative of all Christians I basically made a single point: that the orthodox Christian tradition teaches that God reveals God’s self in two ways: through the created order (natural revelation) and through particular moments in which God speaks through humans to humans (special revelation, in particular Jesus Christ and the Bible)

Thus for Christians there can be no contradiction between what we learn through the study of nature and what we learn through the study of scripture, since both have the same author. If there is an apparent contradiction it must be because we have misinterpreted either nature or scripture or both.

It turns out Jews and Muslims agree on this. Not surprising given the continual intellectual interplay of the three religious traditions.

Yet there were still some pretty serious (but not unpleasant) disagreements in the subsequent discussion. I found myself on the outs with both my Muslim colleague (which I expected knowing that their magazine is a bastion of creation-science) and most of the Christians in the audience. Let me explain.

1. There clearly are contradictions between what scientists say about the lessons drawn from the study of nature and what many Christians say about the lessons drawn from the study of scripture. The one that was immediately raised in discussion was over whether darwinian evolution or divine creation explained the presence of humanity on earth.
2. Resolving this contradiction would require one of two things
a. Asserting that scientists have misinterpreted nature.
b. Asserting that (some) Christians have misinterpreted their scripture.

At this point both the Muslims and Christians in the audience firmly asserted that it is scientists that have misinterpreted nature, while religious people have accurately interpreted their scriptures. I tend to think that Christians have misinterpreted their scripture. Anyway . . .

The first argument offered was that the second law of thermodynamics disproves the possibility of evolution. (This law states: “the entropy of an isolated system never decreases, because isolated systems spontaneously evolve towards thermodynamic equilibrium—the state of maximum entropy.”) Evolution posits a decrease in entropy (increase in complexity) so, the argument goes, evolution is incompatible with the 2nd law.

This is totally bogus, because the earth is not an isolated system. Energy is constantly poured in from the sun and this drives systems toward greater complexity. The universe as a whole is an isolated system so far as we know, and all evidence is that entropy is continually increasing overall in the universe. (I’m happy to discuss with doubters the rules of quantum physics and Stephen Hawking and “energy out of nothing” in black hole boundary events. But that isn’t an argument about darwinian evolution, that is an argument about cosmology.)

The second argument offered is that one can show through complex mathematical analysis that the probabilities of events posited by evolution taking place are so low that the presence of an intelligent designer is a more credible explanation than pure evolution.

The problem with this argument is that the equations that characterize many physical and almost all biological processes are non-linear equations. I did a study of this class of equations in relation to reading satellite data back when I was 18 year old. A characteristic of these equations is that small changes in input can lead to sudden and large changes in output. They are not probabilistic and probability theory cannot be used predict the future of systems which they govern. Nor can it be used to trace back to the origins of present systems. This is why there will never be a capacity to to predict the weather for more than a week or two in the future. To use the example from Glick’s excellent book “Chaos,” a butterfly’s wings can actually make a change in the weather that will create a hurricane. And this is the reason that the weather we experience today cannot be traced back to any particular set of initiating events.

(Don’t even bring up climate change. Climate isn’t weather.)

Of course this means that mathematical modeling can never prove evolution either. This whole class of arguments is irrelevant one way or the other.

Of course one could go on. There are disputes about the interpretation of the fossil record, and so on. And all of them, like the arguments above, miss the point.

They are arguments for God based on science. They are arguments that seek to demonstrate that the object of Christian faith can be proven by human argument, or at least cannot be dis-proven by human argument.

And for the Christian this is unnecessary. Our faith is neither built on nor justified by human argument. (I Corinithians 1:22 – 24: “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”)

Christian faith is built on our encounter with the living Christ. And that encounter is self-justifying. It doesn’t need anything else to make it valid, and no other “fact” in the world can invalidate it. It takes place in the realm of human being that isn’t available for scientific scrutiny.

Faith as a way of knowing is in a completely different class of knowing than the application of human reason to the data provided by the human senses. It can articulate itself coherently and consistently and thus rationally. But it isn’t built on science and doesn’t depend on science.

Thus the reason I don’t think Christians have accurately interpreted our scripture isn’t because those interpretations are inconsistent with science. I don’t care what scientists think. I think Christians have misinterpreted our scriptures because these interpretations are inconsistent with the fundamental Christian experience of encounter with God in Christ.

(I note, from an inter religious perspective, that Muslims have also wrestled with these issues. Specifically in the Mutazilte controversy of the 11th and 12 centuries, and more recently as writers such as Tariq Ramadan discuss how a nation can be governed by the shared revelation found by natural law while also being consistent with the Qur’anic revelation of divine law.)

So, to reiterate what I told the group. I think every aspect of the theory of Darwinian evolution accurately describes nature from within the framework of reason applied to the data at hand. And I know on the basis of faith that everything I see in the natural world is alive with the glory of God, and feel God’s presence everything I take a deep breath. Indeed, I find evolutionary theory to be infused with a tremendous and subtle glory and majesty.

These are not incompatible, and indeed cannot be. For God is the author of both the book of nature and the Book, but they are written in different languages, and we read them with different eyes.

  • roberthunt

    I’ll add to my own post: This argument is really about power in a social context, not truth – although often people think that possessing the latter will help them possess the former. Christians in the West, like Muslims under colonialism, have keenly felt their loss of social power. And they wrongly think that this loss is based on the rise of science in opposition to religion. Thus it seems reasonable to assert, on the basis of science, that Christian or Muslim truth should be taken seriously. But the real power brokers in modern society aren’t scientists. Those who actually possess power don’t care about arguments over religious and scientific truth, or indeed over whether evolution or creationism accurately characterizes the way in which our world came into being. They are interested in determining the future to their own advantage, and are quite happy if religious people and scientists flail away at each other about dawinian evolution.

  • anon

    I think that while there may be “creationist” type muslims—-the majority of muslims have no problem with evolution—with the exception of direct human evolution from apes/primates.
    however, general evolution would be acceptable since the Quran itself says that all animals originated from water (a view science agrees with—right?) and humans also originated from water (surah 25:54 and surah 24:45)

    Muslims have generally prefer to be neutral whenever scientific theory seems to conflict with the Quran because over time—-generally science aligns with the Quran… least so far it seems to have been the case……

    • roberthunt

      Please excuse the mis-understanding. The Muslim group of which I was speaking holds that evolutionary theory in general is correct, if one accepts that God can and does offer a guide. As you say, they would draw the line at the creation of humanity, which they see as a unique work of God.

  • Moruti Lutz

    I find it stranege that so many (both believers and non-believers) seem to think that as a Christian one has got to reject or at least twist science (till it fits the bible). I think, there are at least two underlying misinderstandings.

    The one is about the nature of the bible. If anyone came along, complaining that the bible is not a very good substitute for a phonebook, cookbook or car manual we would laugh at him/her. If I what to find out someones number, I use the phonebook, not the bible. If I want a recipe for a nice stew, I use a cookbook, not the bible. If I need to replace a fuse in my car, I use the manual, not the bible. Why, then, is it so difficult to accept, that the bible is not a very good substitute for a science textbook, either?

    After all, it was written many centuries before this thing which we call “modern science” was first invented.
    [that does not make it useless, either: while the phonebook gives me a number, it does not tell me how to speak to someone with compassion and gentleness, determination etc. While the cookbook gives me nice recipes, it does not tell me, that food cannot only be consumed, but also be shared; while my car manual is useful for technical information, it does not help me to remain patient, if after an hour my car still doesn't start. We NEED more! The bible has got that "more"!]

    The other missunderstanding has to do with the nature of science. Some would love it, if one could show “the bible” and “science” to somehow agree. But wich science? Had the bible been written in the 17th century, no doubt it would agree with the science of Newton; or, if written towards the end of the 19 C. with the science of Maxwell / 20th – Einstein. And so on. The point is simply: science is not static, it keeps refining (somtimes revolving – TS Kuhn) its ideas, theories and paradigms. More than ever we are aware that even the latest scientific insight might look slightly differnt in 5 years time, may be smiled upon in 50 years and will be seriously frowned upon in 500 years.
    No, one of the strengths of the bible is that it has something to say even beyond the “weltbild” (“worldview”) of its original authors – which, no doubt, wa a pre-scientific one.

  • Richard Greydanus

    Where does one begin? Well, begin in the beginning. If we are going to start giving an account of what Christianity is, we might open the Bible to the first chapter of the first book, which would be the well-trod and oft-maligned ways of Genesis 1. Here we encounter our first major difficulty. The Bible itself doesn’t begin with the first words or the first pages in the volume we call the Bible. It can’t. The text itself is quite inanimate; which is to say, lifeless. It’s not going anywhere or doing anything. I would argue, in fact, the writers of Genesis 1 recognized a book could never begin with a book: not the Bible, not a history of the Judeo-Christian tradition, nor even a riveting novel by Robert Ludlum. Other examples could be offered, but I won’t labour the point. Every book ever written has to begin with you, or with someone like you, the reader. And more specifically, not with you, the reader, as an object of study; but with you, the reader, reading…reading anything you want, though here we should read the beginning of the Bible.

    Genesis 1 contains, in highly structured, poetic narrative, the account of how, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. In short: the creation of everything that exists, including you, the reader. We can set aside the apparent archaism of the text. Genesis 1 may not easily yield up a neo-Darwinian account of biological evolution, harmonizing genetic theory with natural selection; but it is nevertheless very contemporary. In certain respects, it is more contemporary than a neo-Darwinian evolutionary account; though not that it is contemporary with the current scientific consensus, but because it is contemporary with you and I, as living breathing persons, in a world populated by many things.

    Once you step over the stumbling block of a ‘rigorous scientific methodology’ and the need to compare and contrast everything with the latest papers being published in journal Nature, the message of Genesis 1 is fairly explicable. Except for the bit of God creating at the beginning, and the human being created in the image of God at the end, everything described in between is exceedingly mundane. Here’s a link to the text so you can read for yourself: Genesis 1.

    The pairings of light and darkness are held up alongside the pairings of day and night. Land is divided from sea and sky. Fish go in the sea, mammals on the land, and birds in the sky. Way up high are the sun, moon, and stars. Some of the ways these things are talked about seem counterintuitive, I grant you that. Calling the sky a ‘vault’, for example, and dividing waters above the sky from waters below does sound a little strange. But from where I am standing, that’s a pretty good attempt to describe the water cycle without knowing too much about evaporation and the molecular construction of clouds. Tilt your head back the next time you are in an open field and look up: the sky does look like one big vault stretching from horizon to horizon to horizon.

    This is the world that you were born into, minus the agricultural, commercial, industrial, and technological development that attends a rapidly developing urban civilization. That is to say, minus both the creative ingenuity, and also the stupidity, of humans beings. It’s a perfectly pristine, natural world, ready for the human being to cultivate, dig up, and build in, which, in good time, humanity does get around to doing.

    The two bookends of the poetic narrative, i.e. how in the beginning God creates and when, on the sixth day, God creates a creature in his own image, require a little more mental dexterity. On the one hand, human beings are obviously created, just like everything else. On the other hand, human beings seem to be set apart from the rest of created things in some way deserving of the title ‘the image of God’. More specifically, something ‘godlike’ sets the human race apart from everything other thing on the face of the earth.

    The answer is ready to hand; I already touched upon it a couple of paragraphs earlier. Humanity is creative. Granted, humanity not calling stuff into existence out of thin air, but it is working with already existent natural materials in unexpected, sometimes wonderful, and at other times not-so-wonderful ways. And if the human races is responsible for all that artificial stuff that clutters the spaces we live in and the skylines we look at, a question might quite justly, one might even say naturally, be raised about who or what created all the natural stuff.