It’s about time Christians stopped playing at science
If you take a stroll through the website for Answers in Genesis (and to be honest, I recommend that you don’t), you’ll find a huge number of articles that deal with scientific evidence. You’ll also find numerous arguments that proper scientists can be creationists, and a huge amount of devotion to notable scientists from the past who were Christians.
In AiG world, any scientist who believed in God is taken as evidence that science doesn’t disprove creationism. I used to think this was funny, if tiresome – the idea that Isaac Newton’s theological views have any bearing on the current scientific consensus on the age of the Earth or the origins of the universe is unintentionally hilarious – but it’s part of a trend that increasingly worries me.
It’s no surprise that Answers in Genesis have no understanding or respect for the scientific method. They like the air of authority that comes from a sciencey-sounding opinion or an ignorant or specious counter to the established evidence, but at least they’re more or less honest about it. As their “10 Best Evidences” page says:
That’s why, when discussing the age of the earth, Christians must be ready to explain the importance of starting points and assumptions. Reaching the correct conclusions requires the right starting point.
The Bible is that starting point.
They don’t care about science unless it falls into line with their interpretation of what the Bible says. Despite their best efforts to bolster weak arguments, they’re engaged in an almost perfect example of what Richard Feynman called “cargo cult science”. They adopt some of the language and habits of science, but lack the methodology and particularly the integrity of the real thing.
This isn’t controversial, and of course many sensible Christians rightly ignore AiG’s Bible-thumping dribble because the scientific consensus is overwhelmingly against them. Those Christians probably agree with everything I’ve said so far, because they hear what science says about our origins, and they incorporate that knowledge into their worldview. That’s laudable, but why don’t they do that all the time?
Science has so much to say about a wide variety of theological beliefs, if only anyone would take an interest. Healings, spiritual experiences and much more are amenable to scientific investigation, at least in principle, to determine both what’s happening and how it might be explained. But Christians who appeal to science to debunk Young Earth Creationists like AiG are still wary when science starts to threaten their own theological comfort zone.
Sadly, it doesn’t matter how much you hold up science as having the answers in this case, or that one. If there are areas where science can tell us anything and you aren’t prepared to take a scientific approach or let it inform your view, then whatever you’re doing, it isn’t science. At best, you’re missing a trick, at worst you’re engaged in cherry-picking and cargo cult science as bad as anything AiG have done.
At this point, some are probably crying “NOMA” at me. I don’t particularly hold to Gould’s views, but nor do I see any problem for those who do. If you believe that religion and science answer different questions, the boundary between the two will only become clear after substantial investigation, and the very existence of non-overlapping magisteria would allow Christians to use science to answer “how” questions while leaving the “why” questions to religion.
This isn’t about expecting the full force of science to smash religion to pieces. Science doesn’t guarantee a particular answer, only an inquisitive, investigative approach and a willingness to follow where the evidence leads, whether it supports our existing beliefs or shows them to be sadly mistaken. I was recently privileged to witness a fine example of this scientific mindset.
I saw an appeal on Twitter to sign the petition on Bishops in the House of Lords, posted by @RichWiltshir and retweeted by @CrispySea, so I responded with a necessarily brief explanation of my reservations and a link to my recent post for a more comprehensive treatment of the subject. Their immediate response, much like Jonny Scaramanga commenting on the post at the time, was to acknowledge the arguments and change their minds.
They weren’t being unscientific before, nor (I hasten to add) were they paragons of science just because they agreed with me. But their willingness to reconsider in the light of new evidence or arguments is what’s important, even though the arguments were far from empirical. A truly scientific approach holds facts to be provisional and open to correction, regardless of how much we might like them to be true, or how strongly we held them before.
This sort of thing doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it’s surprisingly moving. An interest in following the evidence, rather than looking for ways of shoring up our existing beliefs, doesn’t just show humility – it’s the very foundation of progress.
I understand why Christians would be concerned about science trampling all over their beliefs – I lived with that fear for years. And having firm, unshakable convictions doesn’t make you a bad person, but it does mean you’re not being scientific. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and you might take the view that science isn’t a valid epistemological approach, but then you need to stop using it to debunk AiG and their ilk.
I’m not saying that Christians aren’t allowed to be scientists (as if I had that authority), nor that they must be. And you’re free to claim that God resides in whatever domain remains untouched by scientific investigation without any taint to your scientific credentials. But if you’re not prepared to consider evidence that contradicts your beliefs, stop claiming to have any interest in science.