Does modern science rule out religion?

Does modern science rule out religion? October 12, 2018

THE QUESTION above, and current developments depicted below, involve skeptics’ long-running assertion that modern science makes religion outmoded and it should be discarded as irrational. Is faith still credible in our scientific age? How do devout scientists view this supposed “war” between science and religion?


Gary Saul Morson, a Russia expert at Northwestern University, offers an important analysis of why the purportedly “scientific” — and horridly bloodthirsty — Soviet regime worked zealously to exterminate all religion (see the October issue of Commentary magazine). But here The Guy will bypass political atheism’s track record.

Nor will this item survey the continual scientific and anecdotal evidence that religious involvement fosters physical and emotional well-being and positive life outcomes. Philosophy professor Stephen Asma, for one, hails these benefits even  though he’s an agnostic bordering on atheism (see “Religion Q & A” for August 11).

Instead, The Guy focuses first on new research by British scholars Michael Buhrmester at the University of Oxford, Jonathan Lanman at Queen’s University, Lois Lee at the University of Kent, Valerie van Mulukom at Coventry University, and Anna Strhan and Rachael Shillitoe at the University of York.

Lee, who studies why youths become atheists, says non-believers usually think this results strictly from rational inquiry. But “science increasingly shows that atheists are no more rational than theists,” and thinking otherwise is unscientific, indeed “irrational”! She finds that people on both sides of the God divide are shaped similarly by environmental influences like group-think, charismatic individuals, and how their parents raised them.

Atheistic parents pass on their outlook like religious believers do, more through shared culture than rational arguments, she reports. Non-religious parents often say children should choose for themselves but inevitably convey attitudes about religion. Not surprisingly, 95 percent of children from atheistic homes “choose” atheism.

As for religious upbringing, Lee’s work indicates that though parents may insist that faith is valid and important, their grown-up children are unlikely to agree unless the parents demonstrated those assertions by consistently attending worship and praying.

There’s more to come. Buhrmester and Lanman are also researching why children come to believe or disbelieve, with a similar actions-speak-louder-than-words hypothesis. Strhan and Shillitoe are studying the socialization of non-religious youths in Britain, noting that most prior research treated only North Americans.

Van Mulukom’s related studies undercut narrow rationalism by praising “intuition,” typically thought to be far inferior. ‘She insists non-rational, emotional brain functioning is “a form of information processing” as much as rational calculations. Intuition taps “stored knowledge and memories of previous experiences” subconsciously to assess situations quickly, which in many cases is more effective than rational thought.

Meanwhile, scholars are re-examining the relation between science and faith, or seeking to overcome hostilities. Examples:

One:  Sociologists Elaine Ecklund of Rice University and Christopher Scheitle of West Virginia University conducted comprehensive research on the topic of their 2017 book “Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think” (Oxford). They surveyed 10,000 Americans and interviewed in depth 300 believers from various faiths.

Religious Americans turn out to have “similar or higher” interest in scientific material compared with the non-religious. Notably, evangelicals are no more antagonistic than others when asked whether “modern science does more harm than good.” But believers object if science is employed to attack religion, and often worry about specifics, e.g. experiments that destroy human embryos or manipulate genetics. Thus, believers’ attitudes are friendly, yet complex.

Two:  The American Association for the Advancement of Science is sponsoring “Science for Seminaries” to foster scientific understanding among future clergy. Ten schools are involved, with 35 more in the pipeline. The seminaries incorporate scientific scholarship in two or more required courses, with each school determining the contents, and sponsor campus-wide events on the theme.

Significantly, AAAS works with seminaries in the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod and Seventh-day Adventist Church, both of which reject evolution and believe God created the world in six days. “Creationist” hardliners like Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis warn of inroads that promote evolution.

Three:  Scientists and theologians who identify as “evolutionary creationists” back, which proclaims “the harmony between science and biblical faith,” believes in biblical and modern miracles as instances where “God chooses to work outside his usual patterns” in nature, and accepts “mainstream science” on biological evolution and a vastly ancient age of the earth.

BioLogos founder Francis Collins, a devout evangelical, is one of the world’s leading human geneticists and now director of the National Institutes of Health. He is among scientists speaking at a BioLogos conference next March 27-29 on “Beyond Conflict: Science, Faith, and the Big Questions.”

Four:  The somewhat similar American Scientific Affiliation unites 2,400 Christians who are working scientists, educators, or students and “believe that in creating and preserving the universe, God has endowed it with contingent order and intelligibility, the basis of scientific investigation.”

The ASA’s convention next July 19-22, on the theme of “Exploring Creation,” will feature Brown University biology professor Kenneth Miller, Northwestern University physicist Gerry Gabrielse, and a tribute to Stanford University materials scientist Richard Bube.

Five:  Other harmonizing comes from Professor Ian Hutchinson of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Like Collins, he is an adult convert to Christianity, and both pro-evolution and pro-creation. He answers “yes” to the title of his new book “Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles?” (InterVarsity), but covers interests far broader than that. He ponders 220 questions college students have posed at his many lectures on science and Christianity.

Hutchinson of course celebrates scientific research but says such knowledge is limited. He decries a prevalent but seriously mistaken assumption on campuses that “the investigative methods of natural science apply universally to all topics” as though other forms of knowledge are “nonsense.” That ideology is called “scientism.”

Against that, Hutchinson says science studies “reproducible” events whereas countless occurrences (including religious ones) are one-shots. Science is not equipped to pontificate on literature, law, philosophy, politics, art, or music, much less whether one’s own existence and that of the cosmos have purpose, or whether an action is right or wrong. Such matters “are permanently and in principle unanswerable by science.”

He argues that Christianity is fully compatible with science and, correctly understood, based on evidence. And that’s but the beginning of this fascinating and readable inquiry.



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