It’s about time Christians stopped playing at science

Planet SIf 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.

Flask SThis 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.

Tesla SThis 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.

Circuit Board SThis 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.

Images courtesy of Beniamin PopH Berends, lcs9 and Nuno Fernandes, used with permission

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

6 responses to “It’s about time Christians stopped playing at science”

  1. unkleE says :

    Hi RA, I hope you don’t mind if I comment again.

    I think I agree with you more than I disagree, for what that’s worth. I certainly agree that if you want to do science, you have to use the scientific method properly. But it isn’t only christians who fail at this.

    Naturalistic scientists claim that evolution and natural selection are “unguided”, but are you aware of any experiments they have done to establish it is unguided by God? I think Intelligent design falls over because any actions of God that might be required to help evolution along would be indistinguishable from natural processes and undetectable. But if that is so, evolution being unguided is equally unprovable.

    Likewise abiogenesis. Scientists believe it was a natural process, despite the amazing complexity of the requirements to make amino acids, proteins, DNA, etc, yet they have been unable (last I read up on the topic) to show a viable process and mechanism. Their belief remains a matter of faith (based no doubt on the success of science in other areas).

    I think the extreme claims of the uber-naturalist scientists is partly (only partly) responsible for over-statements by christians, and also deserves criticism.

    But it may interest you to read these two articles by Max Tegmark (Celebrating Darwin: Religion And Science Are Closer Than You Think and Religion, Science and the Attack of the Angry Atheists, showing that (1) while 46% of Americans belief in some form of young earth creationism, only 11% belong to churches that teach that, suggesting there are other factors than religion involved, and (2) ‘fundamentalist’ atheists seem just as opposed to helping christians inside the scientific tent as are fundamentalist christians.

    All food for thought. Thanks.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I’m not sure you can sustain that claim about equal and opposite scientific dogma. The ideas you mention are hypotheses which are constantly being tested and fleshed out, and I’m not aware of any evidence that they’re wrong. In fact, all the individual elements have been shown to work in principle.

      I’m not sure how you could test for a difference between “this happens because of natural laws” and “this happens because of natural laws driven by God” – if you have a suggestion, there could be a Nobel prize in it. But if NOMA has any sense in it, it’s to prevent science from getting bogged down in this sort of untestable metaphysics. I’d say William of Ockham would have an objection to your hypothesis, as well.

      But Christians aren’t alone in this approach to science, they’re just a group that I think particularly need to hear this right now, because it’s frustrating to see so many people learning from science in one area, while disregarding it completely in another.

  2. Ben Searle says :

    I’ll be honest with you: the ‘science v religion’ debate is a subject that has bored me. The pompous-ness, immoveable conviction and mis-directed ire with ridiculous assumptions makes my eyes roll. I’m glad a blogs like this that address this subject from an actual rational viewpoint.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I don’t exactly hate religion v science arguments, but I know what you mean. Generally, I try to steer clear of boring rehashes of old and tired arguments, because they bore me to tears. I hope I’m doing a decent job of that so far.

  3. Sabio Lantz says :

    “Evidence” is something apologists don’t understand at all. Heck, I am convinced most atheists don’t either.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      For sure. Whether you believe A or NOT-A, there’s no sort of guarantee that your reasoning makes any sense, even if (for the sake of argument) you happen to have reached the correct conclusion.

      If there’s one thing I’d change about the national curriculum, it would be to give all children a grounding in principles of logic, evidence and critical thinking. But I’d have to introduce it in a randomised trial, so that its effects could be properly evaluated. 😉

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