March 6, 2018

I recently received, courtesy of the publisher, a copy of a new book due for release in a week: Mere Science and Christian Faith by Greg Cootsona. Greg has BA from Berkely (overlapping with my years on campus as a Ph.D. student), an MDiv from Princeton, a Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union, and decades of experience working with emerging adults (defined as 18 to 30 year-old) at a number of different churches.  Currently Greg leads STEAM, (i.e. Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries) and teaches in Religious Studies at California State Chico, courses such as Introduction to Religion and Science and Religion.

Greg went to Berkeley from a non-Christian background and found God. Not the usual scenario. I went to Berkeley as a Christian and emerged as a Christian, but with a lot of soul searching and wrestling in the process. The tools for dealing effectively with the questions raised at the interface of science and Christian faith did not exist (at least I didn’t find them). The local church (First Presbyterian, Berkeley) was good, but not much help on this front. Bracketing the questions away for a time was the only way forward. Today there are many resources available. Mere Science and Christian Faith is a nice addition to the mix and comes from a fresh perspective.

Greg is convinced from his experience working with emerging adults that questions surrounding science and Christian faith are often in play, either overtly – leading to explicit conflict and questions, or under the surface. His book is aimed at pastors and ministry leaders as well as 18-30 year-old emerging adults. It is designed to help people think through the issues involved and to develop the tools for interaction and engagement as new challenges arise. He calls it both a manifesto (“it’s designed to convince you that the church must embrace mainstream science for its future“) and a field guide (“[it] presents a  picture of what it looks like to pursue this kind of work“).

Greg’s approach to science and Christian faith is well summarized by the following:

Whatever human knowledge discovers in nature, we are bound to listen, to learn, and to engage with it. Why? Because God has spoken and continues to speak through Scripture and through the natural world – through both words and works – albeit in different modes. Faith and science are not in a wrestling match where one will be the victor. In fact, Christians throughout the ages have celebrated that the same God who is visible in science is revealed in the pages of the Bible. (p. 8)

He suggests that the church must work at integrating science and faith for several reasons. One reason is evangelism, spreading the good news. Science is such a significant force in our culture that the Christian message must engage science. But this isn’t the only reason. We should also continue to build on the “legacy of Christian’s contributions to natural science.” (p. 10) Creation is from God and as Christians we are compelled to study it. Science has had a long and fruitful relationship with Christianity. While conflict gets most of the press, conflict has not been the rule. For many Christians, past and present, scientific study is a form of worship. There is a practical reason for engagement as well – it is only through Christian engagement with science that we can be an effective moral and ethical voice in the world. Ignorance and dismissal of science leads to contempt and disregard in society. Francis Collins (current head of the National Institutes of Health) has emphasized this often … the ethical issues raised by scientific discoveries need Christian voices in the mix.

Engaging with science doesn’t mean wholesale acceptance of every scientific claim – but thinking critically, taking Scripture seriously, and engaging with the data honestly. In a section laying the groundwork Greg defines terms and concepts – faith, Christianity, theology, science. He concludes with a very helpful summary:

All this adds up to the conviction that, before we seek to integrate science and faith, we have to grasp their inherent differences. Theology at its core focuses on God who is supernatural – that is, above or beyond nature (super means “above” in Latin, as in “not defined or limited by”). Science, on the other hand is limited in scope to the natural world and its interactions and laws. This is the meaning of methodological naturalism (an often misunderstood term, especially in the Christian world): the methods of science are designed to find what the natural causes are. (pp. 16-17)

From a Christian perspective, God is not limited in scope by the natural world. Rather he stands above or over it. But he also provides meaning and purpose, a basis for value judgments like good and evil, and for concepts like beauty. At the end of chapter 2, Greg looks at addressing New Atheism (i.e. science as a worldview often termed scientism). Science as a worldview sees the natural cause and effect as the whole story. The universe is a physical system and there is no meaning or purpose in the physical laws of cause and effect, electromagnetic fields, gravity, entropy, energy. These are simply brute facts governing the workings of the machine. Science explores the natural world revealing the mechanisms of cause and effect. Methodological naturalism doesn’t remove God from the picture – confined to some non-overlapping realm, but it does limit science to the study of nature.

We will dig into more of Mere Science and Christian Faith in future posts.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

March 1, 2012

Oftentimes when discussing issues of science and faith, or other issues that challenge the conventional thinking of the Christian faith, someone will up and quote or paraphrase Paul from his letters to the Corinthians.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? (1 Cor. 1:18-20)

Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” (1 Cor. 3:18-20)

The implication when this is brought into the conversation is, implicitly or explicitly, that we should forsake the wisdom of this world – the questions raised by philosophy, psychology, science, archaeology – and have faith in the wisdom of God and in his Holy Word, the “plain” reading of scripture. To accept an old earth and evolution or to question the historicity of Adam, Noah, Babel, Job, or Jonah is to succumb to the wisdom of the world, forsaking the wisdom of God (it is usually fine to turn the Song of Songs into an allegory though). To question the reality of Hell, eternal conscious torment,  or the exclusivity of salvation is to succumb to the wisdom of this world.

In the 1 Cor. 23  Paul notes that Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks” (1. Cor. 1:23). I have at times heard people claim that this view of Christ crucified as “foolishness” explains the resistance to so-called “biblical” views of creation be they young earth, old earth progressive creation, or intelligent design.

Does this stumbling block have anything to do with our approach to science?

Without discussing the specifics of the age of the earth, evolution, the historicity of Adam or the concept of Hell, I would like to look at this more closely today and pose a more fundamental question as well.

What is the wisdom of the world?

By the way – there is a link to an intriguing new “scientific” study of greed and entitlement below. One that merely confirms, perhaps, the wisdom of God.


April 23, 2019

James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky, in their new book called Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality, sketch the results of 500 years of the “scientific” study of morality.

Science can achieve Level One but is it overreaching to claim Level Two and Three ?

Level One results would provide specific moral commands or claims about what is genuinely valuable. They would demonstrate with empirical confidence what, in fact, is good and bad, right and wrong, or how we should live.

“Level Two” findings, while falling short of demonstrating some moral doctrine, would still give evidence for or against some moral claim or theory.

“Level Three” findings would provide scientifically based descriptions of, say, the origins of morality, or the specific way our capacity for moral judgment is physically embodied in our neural architecture, or whether human beings tend to behave in ways we consider moral. Evidence for these sorts of views doesn’t tell us anything about the content of morality—what is right and wrong—but they speak to the human capacity for morality and in that sense are interesting.

Here is one such claim they quote:

As we come to a scientific understanding of morality, society is not going to descend into anarchy. Instead, we maybe able to shape our moral thinking towards nobler ends. Which norms of fairness foster economic prosperity? What are the appropriate limits on assisting a patient’s end-of-life decisions? By recognizing morality as a property of the mind, we gain a magical power of control over its future.

They, the authors claim, is overreach. They probe three areas: (1) Philosophical and methodological limitations, (2) pop science’s “moral molecule,” and (3) a blurred boundary.

They take aim at Joshua Greene’s well-known and highly-acclaimed study with these words:

He presents these as universal claims about human moral thought. But the experimental subjects whose brain activity is taken to be representative of all human moral thought are in fact just a handful of college students at elite, northeastern American universities. … Yet the moral impulses of these few Ivy League students are meant to tell us about the nature of moral thought for all of humanity: for elderly female Muslim subsistence farmers in northern India, indigenous hunter-gatherers in Papua New Guinea, and ambitious young atheistic businessmen in Shanghai. We have no good reason to think Greene has told us much about the moral thought of humanity, when all he has studied is the moral thought of a few Princeton students, especially given the likely influence of factors such as age, culture, and class on moral thought.

Nedelisky gets into the weeds with some of Greene’s theories and claims and then concludes he has overreached the evidence. Much of what Greene argues was already known. They turn then to primatology and the sympathy and empathy of monkeys (Frans de Waal).

De Waal is right that human morality often involves feelings of sympathy and empathy, and the actions that these feelings motivate. He may also be right that the development of this sort of altruistic behavior in nonhuman primates tells us something about how our own capacity for altruism developed.

However, there is still a significant gap between behavior being altruistic—even in the so-called moral sense—and the behavior being moral.

But is helping your neighbor with her rent merely on the basis of your sympathy for and empathy with her enough for your action to be moral? And if it is morally altruistic, is that enough to actually make it the right thing to do?

Certainly, de Waal has shown us a plausible account of the development and psychological functioning of certain tools we draw upon in moral judgment and action. Empathy and sympathy often form part of the basis for our moral behavior. What remains unclear, however, is how his theory of these capacities tells us anything about the nature of prescriptive morality, or about how to live.

You can act sympathetically yet immorally. With this in mind, calling sympathy the “centerpiece of human morality” is, at best, quite a stretch.

Now to pop science theories of the moral molecule, oxytocin, and its supposed presence in the trust game of Paul Zak:

What Zak observed is that those who had trusted more and shared had higher levels of oxytocin, and those who shared more tended to come out of the game with more money than those who shared less. He tried to control for personality differences, couldn’t find any, and so concluded that the oxytocin is the key difference-maker here. Zak’s takeaway? People whose brains release more oxytocin are more trusting and wind up benefiting more in Trust Game scenarios.

[Zak:] Am I actually saying that a single molecule—and, by the way, a chemical substance that scientists like me can manipulate in the lab—accounts for why some people give freely of themselves and others are coldhearted bastards, why some people cheat and steal and others you can trust with your life, why some husbands are more faithful than others, and by the way, why women tend to be more generous—and nicer—than men? In a word, yes.

Without being able to show how oxytocin figures in the broader explanatory framework of moral thought and action, he is in the position of someone trying to tell us that what explains drunk driving accidents is the presence of alcohol in drivers’ blood. Certainly this is an important, even necessary factor. But focusing only on blood chemistry neglects many other explanatory elements, such as human responsibility in choosing to drive drunk or in choosing to become drunk, or the cultural, genetic, and psychological factors that bear on such decisions.

The news gets worse: not only has the basic science of the ‘moral molecule” not been replicated, but additional research has suggested that under some conditions oxytocin promotes aggression and defensiveness, emotions directly opposed to the cuddly ones Zak describes.

They come finally to this very significant observation: “This overreaching depends on obscuring the distinction between “Is” and “Ought,” between description and prescription. By fudging that line, one may give the impression that practical moral implications emanate from the science; that a special moral authority derives from scientific expertise. This tendency is pervasive, even among the brightest lights of the new moral science.”


January 31, 2017

Lamoureux coverChapter 5 of Denis Lamoureux’s new book Evolution: Scripture and Nature Say Yes looks at the way that “science” is presented in Scripture. Science is a modern concept, but Scripture certainly speaks about the nature of the cosmos and uses language that assumes a view of astronomy, geography, and biology. But the Bible is not a science book. It doesn’t teach new science, rather it reflects the typical views concerning astronomy, geography, and biology commonly held in the ancient Near East. These views are phenomenological – the result of observation by unaided physical senses. In contrast modern science often goes beyond this using instruments and theories to describe the cosmos. Denis argues that the scientific concepts are incidental to the message of Scripture.  He explains this carefully:

The ancient science in Scripture is incidental because God’s central purpose in the Bible is to reveal messages of faith and not scientific facts about his creation. Using the term “incidental” does not mean that ancient science is unimportant. The ancient science in Scripture is essential for transporting spiritual truths. It acts like a cup that holds water. Whether the cup is made of glass, plastic, or metal is incidental. What matters is that a vessel is needed to bring water to a thirsty person. The word “incidental” has the meaning of “happening in connection with something more important.” Thus, the incidental ancient science in Scripture is a necessary vessel that delivers important spiritual messages to our thirsty souls. (p. 90)

It was necessary to use language to describe the shape and form of creation in order to convey the message that God alone is the creator, that his creation is good, and that there is no other deity involved, e.g. the sun, moon, and stars are merely created objects. The language and concepts used are, quite appropriately, those common place to the original ancient Israelite audience or the first century Jewish audience.

Denis runs through a number of examples of ancient science in Scripture. For example, Scripture often depicts a solid firmament stretched out over a flat, circular earth with a sea around the circumference.  There is also a general view that stars are small and embedded in the firmament, from which they could be dislodged. Isaiah 34:4 and Matthew 24:29 reflect this view. The vast expanse of space and the immense dimension of most stars, far larger than the earth, is not reflected in Scripture.

The message of faith in Matthew 24 and Isaiah 34 is not a revelation about the structure of the heavens or exactly how God will disassemble the universe. The inerrant spiritual truth in these passages is that the world will come to an end and there will be a day of judgment. (p. 100)

One example of ancient cosmic geography that crops up quite often in the New Testament as well as the Old Testament is the three-tiered view of the universe with the heavens, the earth, and the underworld. Philippians 2:9-11 reflects this view: Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. We shouldn’t be dissecting this passage, worried about the physical location of “under the earth” and the identity of the beings that dwell there. The point is that every knee in all of creation should bow and every tongue acknowledge, not the precise structure of the universe.

To reveal inerrant spiritual truths, God accommodated and came down to the level of understanding of these inspired ancient authors. If the Lord had stated in the Bible that he created through the Big Bang and biological evolution, I doubt anyone in ancient times would have understood. Instead, God used incidental ancient sciences as vehicles to transport life-changing messages of faith. I have personally experienced this as well. My life was not changed by the ancient idea of a 3-tier universe, but rather by the spiritual truth that Jesus is Lord over the entire creation (Phil 2:10-11). (p. 110-111)

 So what about evolution? The title of the book suggests that scripture says yes to evolution. Does this mean we should expect to find evidence for biological evolution in the pages of scripture? As with astronomy and geography, the Scriptures reflect a phenomenological understanding of biology common to the ancient Near East. There is no evidence of evolution coded into the text. Rather, there is an assumption that every creature and every plant reproduces according to its kind. This immutability of species is assumed to hold all the way back to the very act of creation.

In the eyes of ancient people, living organisms were immutable. In other words, plants and animals never changed and were always the same. Consequently there is no hint of transitional organisms or biological evolution in the Genesis 1 account of creation. (p. 104)

Nor is there any indication of rapid diversification of kinds following the fall or the flood, despite what Ken Ham and the Ark Encounter would like us to believe as they struggle to fit “kinds” into the ark. (See for example, Ark Encounter Common Ancestors: The Increasing Inclusiveness of Biblical Kinds and The Young-Earth Hyper-evolution Hypothesis: A Collection of Critiques along with other posts at Naturalis Historia.)  The ancient perspective reflected in Scripture was ignorant of evolution and of the vast diversity of animals scattered around the globe, and for that matter of the globe itself.

WaterThis shouldn’t concern us.

Denis argues that the absence of evolution in Scripture is to be expected as it was completely unknown in the ancient world.  The clear assumption that all of today’s species were created as we know them, is incidental to the message of Scripture. “The main message in Genesis 1 and 2 is not to tell us how God created living organisms, but who created plants, animals, and humans – the God of Christianity.” (p. 110)

The scientific assumptions – of a flat earth, a three tiered universe, and immutability of species – is incidental to the message. It is the cup that holds the living water, not the living water itself.

Does this explanation of “incidental” details in Scripture help with understanding?

How can we tell if something is incidental or part of the message itself?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

December 15, 2016

IMG_1211 crop 2In a popular story line the Scientific Revolution and the secularization of society moved hand in hand. A scientific society will, of course, be secular. Scientific thought eliminates the divine from the realm of rational thought. J.B. Stump in Science and Christianity explores secularization and the role of science in the process in chapter three of his new book Science and Christianity: An Introduction to the Issues.

There is no denying that the Scientific Revolution and the secularization of Western culture has occurred in parallel. The question is one of cause and effect – did the rise of scientific thinking cause the secularization of society? Christianity may well have served as a fertile ground for the development of science as discussed in the previous post on this book (The Christian Origin of Science?), but perhaps it was only a stepping stone to a more advanced mode of thought.  Stump brings Auguste Comte and his Law of Human Progress into the discussion, “human thinking necessarily passes through three stages: the theological, the philosophical (or metaphysical), and the scientific.” (p. 29) Quoting Comte: “The first is the necessary point of departure of human understanding; and the third is its fixed and definite state. The second is merely a state of transition.” (p. 30)

The atheist scientist. There is no doubt that religious belief is lower among elite scientists than among the general US population. Several recent surveys have demonstrated this, although the differential is much smaller when a broader range of scientists are surveyed. The secularization thesis would suggest that this is because scientific thinking drives out religion. The truth is undoubtedly far more complex. Stump points out that the overall numbers have not changed much over 100 years – from a survey given in 1914 to recent surveys in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries. I would suggest that the relatively lower level of religious faith among elite scientists may have as much to do with the psychology of ego and power as with the influence of scientific thinking itself.

StumpNatural replaces supernatural. Perhaps secularization isn’t so much the loss of faith among scientific thinkers as it is characterized by the replacement of supernatural explanations with natural explanations. If a person or the broader culture take the view that scientific and supernatural explanations are mutually exclusive, then science and faith will necessarily be in competition with only one ultimate winner. The scientific revolution secularizes society by inextricably moving phenomena from one side of the arena to the other.

The Intelligent Design movement arose in response to this tension in the US. There must be some phenomena that are irreducibly and demonstrably divine rather than natural. In this way faith can be saved and defended. An alternative approach is to see even the natural explanations as the works of God. This isn’t a new idea, adopted because we are losing the battle (i.e. science continues to expand). “Samuel Clarke, the public mouthpiece for Isaac Newton, believed that natural laws are descriptions of the way that God normally chooses to work through the natural order.” (p. 36)

A secular age. Charles Taylor (A Secular Age) we are in a secular age where faith is one possible option among others. “The real story, then, is the rise of the background Taylor calls exclusive humanism which makes possible a range of religious beliefs or none at all.  According to exclusive humanism, there is no transcendent order and no ultimate goals beyond that of human flourishing.”(p. 37)  The rise of deism is either a causal factor (as Jim suggests from Taylor) or a symptom of this secularization. A deist God is impersonal with no relevance for day-to-day life. Some will argue that deism, arising from a rejection of the miraculous, has its origin in the scientific revolution. Taylor suggests that the rejection of the miraculous originated not in scientific thinking, but from the lack of miracles in common experience. In David Hume, for example, “the primary argument was that miraculous events contradict our experience, and as such it is more reasonable for us to believe that the testimonies to the miraculous were mistaken. Furthermore, all the religious traditions had their own miracle stories, which were disbelieved by others, and this leads to a mutual cancelling-out of all testimonies.” (p. 38)

I am not convinced. That this argument from experience rules out an origin in the scientific revolution may be a gloss over the complexity of human thought. Arguing from experience, and dismissing the miraculous on that ground, strikes me as piercing to the very root of scientific thinking. Although there are counter-intuitive conclusions at times (modern physics is such an example), scientific thinking is developing a logical argument from experience and observation.

Jim goes on to suggest (following Michael Buckley in At the Origins of Modern Atheism)  that deism may have risen to prominence in large part because of the arguments used by theologians to counter atheism.  It was treated as a philosophical problem.  “The bare theism with which they were left was unable to support the wider context of the life of faith.” (p. 38)  He summarizes the main point: “Taylor and Buckley think the secularization of society was ultimately the result of Christian thinkers abandoning specifically Christian theology and opting for a more generic philosophical theism.” (p. 40)

Clearly it is not as simple as often expressed, that the scientific revolution did away with God. It is, Jim argues, “difficult to maintain a straightforward causal relationship between the advance of science and secularization.”(p. 39)  The relationship may be better described as hand-in-hand rather than cause and effect. To begin with, it might be useful to ask why Christian thinkers opted for a more generic philosophical theism. Perhaps this choice was a result of the broader cultural milieu that valued logical arguments over other forms of reasoning. The same cultural milieu that gave rise to the scientific revolution.

 Do we live in a secular society?

What role (if any) does science play in secularization?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

November 26, 2013

We are taking a look at the book Does God Make a Difference? Taking Religion Seriously in Our Schools and Universities by Warren Nord.  Nord’s hypothesis is that a liberal education – as in liberal arts not liberal politics – needs to take religion seriously because religion forms an important element of human existence. Before considering his suggestions we need to understand what is meant by a liberal education. From Wikipedia:

The liberal arts (Latin: artes liberales) are those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free person (a citizen) to know in order to take an active part in civic life.

In modern times, liberal arts education is a term that can be interpreted in different ways. It can refer to certain areas of literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, psychology, and science. the term generally refers to matters not relating to the professional, vocational, or technical curricula.

Secondary school education (grades 9-12) is a liberal education. Students are expected to get the basics in a wide range of subjects, not technical training for a vocation. We believe that a functional democratic society requires a liberally educated citizenry. Much, but not all, undergraduate education is likewise an intentionally liberal education with a degree of specialization, but also a required breadth of experience.

Nord lays out some of his vision for the role of religion in a liberal education by considering several specific disciplines. Being a scientist I turned first to his chapter 11 Religion and Science Courses. This title is a bit ambiguous, but Nord is not referring to courses in religion and science but to the place for religion in science courses. This is, needless to say, rather controversial.

A summary of Nord’s main point. The primary purpose of science courses is to teach students the current consensus view of the discipline. There is no place for alternatives unless there is a real controversy among practitioners of the discipline.  He sees no reason to teach creationism or even ID as alternatives to evolutionary biology. But teaching students the current consensus shouldn’t be the sole purpose of science courses in a liberal education.

No doubt the primary purpose of science courses is to teach students good science as scientists understand it, but it can’t simply be to train scientists. Science education must serve the purposes of a liberal education. High school and introductory undergraduate science courses must situate students in our ongoing scholarly and cultural conversations about how to make sense of nature and the world. (p. 242)

We typically teach science as one more disciplinary monologue that students must listen to uncritically. In fact, because science texts don’t take seriously contending interpretations of nature, students typically come to accept the claims of science as a matter of faith in the scientific tradition rather than of critical reason. (p. 243)

Do you think Nord is right here?

Should science courses situate students in ongoing cultural conversations?

There is a certain amount of “faith” – trust in authorities and the collective growth of wisdom – in any field, but this faith should be accompanied by an openness to criticism. According to Nord, methodological naturalism is the foundation of science and thus this to must be made explicit and allowed to be open to question. If methodological naturalism is not open to question we don’t have reasonable belief, but an “uncritical trust or faith.” Students should be asking questions such as “Why do we believe that methodological naturalism provides an  adequate approach to understanding the natural world?”

I think Nord has a point here. The vast majority of students, and even practicing scientists, have never thought much about what science is or what the underlying assumptions of science are. For that matter, most students seem to view science as a set of facts and methods to be learned, not a unifying approach to understanding the natural world. This uncritical acceptance is something of a problem.

[P]ublic schools and universities should not be in the business of nurturing uncritical faith, whether it is in religion, politics, economics, or science. A liberal education should encourage critical thinking, and this can only be done when we are willing to lay bare and question our fundamental assumptions. Certainly one of the most important of these assumptions is the adequacy of the scientific method. What are its limitations? When might it need revision? In what contexts might the use of scientific method be a mistake? (p. 245)

Some Examples. Because evolution is such a big issue in the US, Nord spends a number of pages discussing the ways in which his proposals might play out in the teaching of biology.

1. Discussion of evolutionary biology should include a brief discussion of the history of ideas concerning origins, this would include naturalism, various theistic or deistic approaches, and a spiritual understanding of nature in some non-theistic religions. This will help frame the questions and the ways in which they are addressed.

2. Biology texts should teach biology and evolution as the vast majority of biologists understand it.

3. Alternative viewpoints should be presented in historical and cultural context.

If students are to make informed and reasoned judgements, they must have some sense of where alternative theories acquire their authority, of what traditions they are a part, and how controversial they are within those traditions and within our culture more generally. Students must understand that the vast majority of scientists accept neo-Darwinism (although they may disagree about the religious implications). (p. 252)

4. A discussion of various views must be written fairly and accurately – not as a weapon to bludgeon those who take different views.

5. Because this is a complex subject it cannot be left to teachers to develop their own resources. It may be useful to have a short resource book or supplement rather than expect every textbook to develop a good discussion of the issues.

6. The discussion of design has a place here, not as an alternative to evolution but as part of the ongoing cultural conversation. Nord quotes Michael Ruse:

The Darwinian Michael Ruse ends an article on design theories by leaving his reader “with the reflection that the argument from design has a long and (I would say) honorable history, and that this history seems to be unfinished.” (p. 254)

Nord concludes the chapter with a brief discussion of cosmology and consciousness and examples of two other areas of science where religion should play a role. Again the issue is to present the very best conclusions of modern science and the reason for them, but to also place the discussion in the appropriate historical and cultural context. The big bang is an interesting example, because this is a place where the prejudice against creation originally led to skepticism. Now the big bang need not be interpreted as pointing to a creator, but it shouldn’t have been questioned because it might point to a creator.

Consciousness is a big issue where the science is sufficiently uncertain that care should be taken in firm pronouncements. The reduction of mind to nothing but spontaneous chemical signals in the brain is claimed by some – especially those who start with an assumption of ontological naturalism and atheism. Nord suggests that “the agenda of modern neuroscience may prove more threatening to religion than that of neo-Darwinian evolution.” (p. 260)  Again, this discussion should be placed in the appropriate historical, philosophical, theological, and cultural context. A liberal education demands no less.

A provocative (and infamous) quote to make us think. In the section of this chapter where he discusses intelligent design, Nord provides a rather famous quote by Richard Lewontin. This quote comes from Lewontin’s review of Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World,  published Jan. 9, 1997 in the New York Review of Books. This quote is used as an illustration of the way that a philosophical commitment to naturalism prevents a truly open-minded consideration of possible explanations.

We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

Unfortunately this quote is taken out of context by Nord, and, for that matter, by almost everyone who uses it.  The context makes it less incendiary and also makes an important point – one that will actually support Nord’s purpose in advocating a liberal education, rather than a merely technical one. The paragraph just above the famous one reads:

With great perception, Sagan sees that there is an impediment to the popular credibility of scientific claims about the world, an impediment that is almost invisible to most scientists. Many of the most fundamental claims of science are against common sense and seem absurd on their face. … What seems absurd depends on one’s prejudice. Carl Sagan accepts, as I do, the duality of light, which is at the same time wave and particle, but he thinks that the consubstantiality of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost puts the mystery of the Holy Trinity “in deep trouble.” Two’s company, but three’s a crowd.

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science …

I, like Sagan and Lewontin, accept the duality of light (not to mention the duality of the electron) as at the same time wave and particle. This actually makes the doctrine of the Trinity less of a stretch, less absurd – I don’t expect things that are outside of the realm of common experience to agree with my common sense. But the famous quote was not a call to an unfailing faith in naturalism, rather it was an acknowledgement that there is an element of faith.

Lewontin goes on to reflect on complexity of science and how “in the end we must trust the experts and they, in turn, exploit their authority as experts and their rhetorical skills to secure our attention and our belief in things that we do not really understand.” I will finish with his conclusion to his review of Sagan’s book:

Conscientious and wholly admirable popularizers of science like Carl Sagan use both rhetoric and expertise to form the mind of masses because they believe, like the Evangelist John, that the truth shall make you free. But they are wrong. It is not the truth that makes you free. It is your possession of the power to discover the truth. Our dilemma is that we do not know how to provide that power.

Ideally a liberal education aims to provide the power to discover truth and evaluate truth claims. This includes the claims of science, the metaphysical claims made by scientists, and the religious and philosophical claims that challenge the assumption of ontological naturalism. Nord’s proposal may be unworkable given the practical and political constraints, but the idea has merit, and I believe that Lewontin might possibly agree.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

September 11, 2012

Recently BioLogos posted a talk given by Pastor Joel Hunter at the March 2012 Theology of Celebration Workshop. I was at this workshop, and have had the privilege of meeting Joel Hunter a couple of times. He approaches the issue of science and faith with discernment, wisdom, and a pastor’s heart for his people. This means that he neither forces evolution down the throats of his congregation nor avoids the issue. To force the issue would be disrespectful of those devout Christians for whom evolution is the enemy, especially true in the South (his church is in Florida). To ignore the issue is to abandon those struggling over the apparent conflict between the science they’ve come to understand and faith in Jesus Christ.

This was an outstanding talk when originally delivered, and nearly as good (although not as powerful) as a written blog post. I strongly recommend the whole thing – A Pastor’s Approach to Science – not just the bits I highlight and comment on here.

In the United States the central task of most evangelical pastors is to exegete Scripture in ways that it continues God’s story (as fulfilled in His Son) in our present and personal lives. Such a task demands a comprehensive approach. We are not mere intellectual depositories, or we would be Gnostics. We are not summaries of moral right and wrong actions, or behavior modification would be all we need. We are not only spirit, or meditation/worship would be our exclusive activity. We have bodies and we reside in a physical world that is not only our environment, but a part of God’s ongoing revelation of Himself (Romans 1:20).

Is it possible to fully understand and practice Scripture without connecting with science? If science reveals God’s attributes, how can we fully relate to Him without some ongoing reference to the information revealed in scientific inquiry? Even more specifically, as preaching pastors, how many are we excluding if we ignore important facets of our congregations’ worldviews?


June 19, 2012

I recently received a copy of The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity. This book, edited by J. B. Stump and Alan Padgett, consists of scholarly essays covering a variety of topics relating to the discussion of science and the Christian faith. The contributors range from believers to skeptics and approach the topics from a variety of different angles. The book is designed and priced for libraries, not the casual reader, but many of the essays introduce topics worth some consideration here. I expect to dip into the book occasionally over the next several months, starting today.

In the section on The Human Sciences two articles by Justin Barrett and Dylan Evans provide an interesting contrast. Today I will look at Barrett’s article – and then on Thursday come back and look at the article by Evans. Justin Barrett studies the psychology of religion. He recently moved from Oxford to Fuller Theological Seminary where he is the Thrive Professor of Developmental Science and Director of the Thrive Center for Human Development. He has published a number of books, including most recently Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief.

In his article Toward a Cognitive Science of Christianity Justin Barrett discusses the hypothesis that there are basic common cognitive structures characteristic of the human mind that provide mental tools enabling religious belief. Religion is a common phenomenon across cultures. These different religions contain a set of overlapping ideas and structures because of a “cognitive naturalness” to religious thought. As Barrett describes it:

Normal human cognitive systems operating in normal human environments generate converging intuitions that find satisfaction in some core religious ideas (and subsequent practices).  (p. 321)

Natural religion is a form of religious belief that agrees with these converging “natural” intuitions. Christianity contains many elements that agree with natural intuition, but also deviates this natural religion in important ways. The study of the psychology of religion, however, raises questions about the truth of religious beliefs. Many assume that any rational explanation of religion is equivalent to explaining away justified religious belief. The idea of an inborn natural religion is seen as an argument against rational belief in the truth of any religion. As we will see on Thursday, Dylan Evans argues essentially this position.

Do you think a scientific explanation for religion undermines the truth of religious belief?

Is this a topic you find dangerous or of concern? Is the psychology of faith a topic that should be studied or one that should be considered taboo?


April 19, 2012

In today’s post I would like to put forth a few ideas for discussion, all related to the claim that theology is the queen of the sciences and how this could or should play out. This isn’t a polished argument, but a desire to start a conversation.

The modern university has its origin in the High Middle Ages (1000-1300) when many of the oldest institutions we know today were founded. In Europe this brought education out of the local monastery or cathedral and into a broader sphere. Theology, however, was “The Queen of the Sciences.” Most education was for the church, and the subjects of study culminated in theology. Other subjects were of value primarily as they served to enable theological thought.

Today it is relatively common to hear a statement about theology as the queen of the sciences made in discussions of science and faith. We are, some suggest, in the midst of a power play to relegate all other forms of knowledge, especially theology, to the tyranny of science and enlightenment rationalism. Theology must, they suggest, retain the privilege of having the last word, and the right to criticize and eliminate from the consideration some kinds of ideas.

Is theology the queen of the sciences?

If this is true, we then must step back and figure out what it means for theology to be the queen of the sciences.

How can we study theology? What tools do we use?

How do we learn about the nature of God?


March 26, 2012

By Adam Ruben:

I’m still fairly new at this science thing. I’m less than 4 years beyond the dark days of grad school and the adviser who wouldn’t tolerate “lone.” So forgive my naïveté when I ask: Why the hell not?

Why can’t we write like other people write? Why can’t we tell our science in interesting, dynamic stories? Why must we write dryly? (Or, to rephrase that last sentence in the passive voice, as seems to be the scientific fashion, why must dryness be written by us?)

I once taught two different college science writing classes in back-to-back semesters. The first was mainstream science writing; the students had fun finding interesting research projects and writing about them. One student visited a lab where scientists who were building a new submarine steering mechanism let her practice steering a model sub around a little tank. Another subjected himself to an fMRI and wrote about the experience. (more…)

Browse Our Archives

Close Ad