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Critical Thoughts about Belief in God and Modern Science…

Critical Thoughts about Belief in God and Modern Science… January 13, 2016

Critical Thoughts about Belief in God and Modern Science (Using a Case Study: James Burke’s The Day the Universe Changed: Science Revises the Heavens)

James Burke is a British journalist famous for making films and writing books about intellectual history for the masses. He has a unique way of presenting complex subjects about culture—philosophy, the arts, religion, politics, science—in entertaining ways. For years I have used his documentary film series “The Day the Universe Changed” in classes—to illustrate cultural revolutions to which Christian theology has responded. The series has recently been re-released on DVD with enhanced visual and audio features. It is well worth watching—but with a somewhat critical eye.

When I teach about modern theology I begin (as does my book The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction) with the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century (briefly mentioning its roots in Ockham and his “razor”). I write and talk about Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. Burke, in his episode “Science Revises the Heavens: Infinitely Reasonable,” covers much of the same ground but includes Kepler, Boscovitch, and other early figures in the scientific revolution. It’s a delightful episode. To illustrate his points about the rise of modern science Burke rides a bicycle, rides a roller coaster, and does many other things. Many of the scenes of his mini-lectures are “on location”—where great scientific discoveries were made.

Burke makes some mistakes along the way in this fascinating narrative. (I speak of both the entire series and the specific episode mentioned above.) Most of them are fairly minor and understandable as Burke is neither a scientist nor a theologian. Most of them are not worthy of criticism even if they call for correction (should he ever revise the series or the companion print volume by the same name).

However, at the very end of “Science Revises the Heavens: Infinitely Reasonable,” about the rise of modern science, the first “scientific revolution,” he makes a glaring mistake, one that cannot be forgiven or passed over without critical comment. During the last segment of the documentary Burke rides a huge roller coaster and other rides at an amusement park (I’m not sure where but somewhere in Europe) and talks, as he rides, about Newton’s and other early scientists’ discoveries of the laws of nature—especially (but not only) gravity. As always, he presents this as “the day the universe changed”—meaning that these discoveries shook the world and shaped modern culture in ways that cannot be unshaken or unshaped. It is clear that he is personally enamored with this subject—the discovery of the laws of nature that govern everything and make the universe predictable and modern progress possible.

At the very end of the episode, however, Burke is speaking about the meaning of it all while walking around Empress Maria Teresa’s palace library in Vienna—where scientist Roger Boscovitch, Jesuit priest and astronomer, used Newton’s laws of nature and mathematics to predict that Haley’s comet would be late arriving in the solar system.

Then Burke stands at a window of the palace, overlooking nightfall in Vienna, and says (paraphrasing) that all this (viz., the scientific revolution) means that “There is no one ‘out there’ to care” (he points upward toward the sky) and that “We are on our own” in the universe—“Just a cog in the vast machine” of the universe. In other words, so he implies, the scientific revolution disproved God.

Now that irritates me. Imagine the thousands upon thousands of young, impressionable minds (and perhaps old gullible minds) who watched that episode either in school or on public television (the series was shown first on PBS in 1985) and thought atheism is the only option if you want to believe in science.

As I tell my students: First, Burke ignores the fact that both Kepler and Newton described their projects in physics as “Thinking God’s thoughts after him.” In other words, they (and many later scientists and theologians) simply regarded the discoveries of modern physics as the discovery of a function of God’s general providence of the universe. Nowhere, that I have heard or read, did Burke even mention that Newton, for example, saw no conflict between his discoveries and the Bible. Nor did Galileo who, in his “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” laid out a method for handling apparent conflicts between the Bible and science. To be sure, these Enlightenment thinkers recognized conflicts between their discoveries and some traditional interpretations of the Bible! Nobody doubts or questions that. And they recognized conflicts between what they were discovering and some teachings of the Catholic Church as it was then. But most, if not all of them considered themselves believers in a personal creator God—even if they were not orthodox Christians. (Newton, for example, probably did not believe in the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.)

One has to wonder about Burke’s motives for concluding the episode that way. Why would he do that? Nothing about modern science itself, as opposed to scientism/naturalism (a philosophy, not part of science), disproves God or demonstrates conclusively that we are “on our own” and “there is no one out there to care.”

Once I point out to watching students the gigantic leap of thought Burke makes—from the discovery of natural laws to atheism—most of them are aghast at the propagandistic sleight of hand (or sleight of thought) Burke has made in front of them—magically leaping from Newton to atheism.

Burke is not the only culprit in this misuse of modern science to establish atheism. Other, even better known names, could be mentioned as equally guilty. The “upshot” of it all is total confusion on both sides—many budding young science majors concluding that science and atheism are inextricably linked and many conservative Christians concluding that science is the natural enemy of faith. Burke isn’t the originator of this confusion; he simply picks it up and makes it seem inevitable and palatable.

In my opinion, however, for what it’s worth, I think that kind of misrepresentation, so common in intellectual culture (but that “trickles down” to the masses) is simply dishonest. At the very least people like Burke and other popularizers and writers/speakers about this subject ought—for the sake of intellectual honesty—say that Galileo, Kepler and Newton did not regard their discoveries as undermining belief in God. At the very least they are obligated by intellectual honesty to say, somewhere in their presentation, that these men of the scientific revolution thought and said that their projects amounted to “thinking God’s thoughts after him.”


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