Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology
The relationship between science and religion has always been complicated. The scientific revolution featured tension and collaboration between religious viewpoints and innovative scientific theories.
ALISTER McGRATH SAID, “HISTORICALLY, the most significant understanding of the relation between science and religion is that of ‘conflict,’ or perhaps even ‘warfare'” (1). As human beings, we strive constantly to determine origin, purpose, morality, and destination. Gottfried Leibniz and other Christian theologians have identified the fundamental philosophical question: Why is there something rather than nothing? Those who claim to be nihilists (rejecting all religious and moral principles, and believing life is meaningless) are rare. But believers in the purposeless, random, chaotic origin of the universe and its inhabitants abound. Cosmological arguments come in several forms, but all believe the mere fact that the universe exists suggests a cause. Theists argue everything that exists must have a cause; the universe exists, so it must have a cause; therefore, the universe is caused by a first cause (i.e., God) (2).
Lang Craig, J.P. Moreland, and others believe the adage, “out of nothing, nothing comes” (ex nihilo nihil fit). David Hume said, “But allow me to tell you that I never asserted so absurd a Proposition as that anything might arise without a Cause” (3). “Nothing” lacks all causal power, because it has no properties at all! Nothing is no thing. Groothuis tells us the “nothing” before the Big Bang is not a subject that can have properties, but is rather an absence of all properties. Zero, divided or multiplied by zero, is zero. I believe the mere vastness and mathematical precision of the cosmos belies a causeless beginning. An actual infinite (which itself sounds like an oxymoron) can never be transversed through successive addition—that is, through incremental steps. We can neither count from one to eternity nor count down from eternity to one (4). Hawking said “…almost everyone now believes that the universe, and time itself, had a beginning at the Big Bang” (5).
The scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. —Stephen Hawking
Jeremiah wrote, “It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens” (Jer. 10:12). The universe is a manifestation of the power, wisdom, and love of the Father. In this regard, it is teleological: relating to or involving the explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve rather than of the cause by which they arose. The universe is contingent (inexplicable by natural processes); is complex (the greater the complexity, the less the likelihood an event came about by chance; and, it is made according to specification (featuring a pattern of design which is independent of mere probability). I believe the existence of natural laws is evidence of intelligent design. A complex system cannot assemble itself. Lennox writes, “The design inference is not based on ignorance of the natural world but on knowledge about it, especially given recent discoveries in physics (fine-tuning) and biology (the cell and DNA)” (6).
C.S. Lewis says, “Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator” (7). Lennox notes that the laws of nature describe the universe, but they actually explain nothing. We were designed to be curious, inquisitive, imaginative, determined. It is natural for us to ask questions. But it is extremely important to realize not all questions (especially regarding origin, meaning, morality, and destiny) can be answered by science alone. Feynman writes, “The fact that there are rules at all to be checked is a kind of miracle; that it is possible to find a rule, like the inverse-square law of gravitation, is some sort of miracle. It is not understood at all, but it leads to the possibility of prediction—that means it tells you what you would expect to happen in an experiment you have not yet done” (8).
Myth: Science Depends on Reason but Christianity Does Not
While there are religions that feature an anti-intellectualism, Christianity is not one of them. Science is a progressive human undertaking. It is built squarely upon the cumulative observation of a cause/effect paradigm, and verified through the scientific method. The basic steps of the scientific method are: (1) make an observation that describes a problem; (2) create a hypothesis; (3) test the hypothesis; and (4) draw conclusions and refine the hypothesis. Critical thinking is a key component of the scientific method. But this way of thinking is not limited to science. We use common sense (rational) thinking in nearly every situation. Remarkably, this model of inquiry is featured in Scripture. Jesus referred to mental faculties in Mark 12:30: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (italics mine). Notice the reference to mind: God is not anti-reason. Merriam-Webster defines reason as “a statement offered in explanation or justification;” “a rational ground or motive;” “the thing that makes some fact intelligible (cause);” “a sufficient ground of explanation or of logical defense.” It is because of these features that the universe is teleological.
As Christians, we are charged with the responsibility of “…being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). We are to be ready with an “apologetic” for anyone who asks us for a reason for our Christian beliefs. Paul also mentions “…the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (Phil. 1:7). He adds, “…I am put here for the defense of the gospel” (1:16). Significantly, the apologetic of which Peter speaks is a defense of Christian hope. Indeed, as Christians our lifestyle and confession are “on trial” everyday. The key element here is that our defense is one that is reasonably sustained, accessible, and well articulated—as any courtroom defense would be. The Greek word for reason is logos, referring to a universal, divine reason—or the mind of God. The transliteration of 1 Peter 3:15 is, “But as the Lord Christ, sanctify in the hearts of you, ready always for defense to everyone asking you a word concerning the in you hope [sic]” (9). Paul writes, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Col. 4:6).
Speaking from the position of science, Lewontin says, “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… because we have a prior commitment to materialism… 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 counterintuitive… moreover, that materialism is absolute for we cannot allow a Divine foot in the door” (10). You may remember from my article Dark Matter and Other Phenomena (Sept. 15, 2021) that God has written two books: the general revelation of creation and the special revelation of Scripture. This provides an excellent means of comparing the rational scientific activity of interpreting nature and the rational theological activity of interpreting the Word of God. In essence, we have two sets of “data.” The first comes from our observations of nature and the cosmos, and the second comes from systematic study of the Bible. As with Scripture, nature also requires interpretation. Paul writes, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:19-20).
Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words, “You must have faith.” It is a quality which the scientists cannot dispense with. —Max Planck.
Huxley said, “The one act of faith in the convert to science is the confession of the universality of order and of the absolute validity in all times and under all circumstances, of the law of causation. This confession is an act of faith, because, by the nature of the case, the truth of such propositions is not susceptible proof” (11). Scientific theory admittedly offers “the best account” of currently observed phenomena. But unless we have a crystal ball that projects observation into the future, it is impossible to take an absolute position on whether a scientific theory is right. Instead, ours is a provisional view of science, which necessarily undermines the outdated positivism of the “warfare” model of science versus religion. It is much wiser to state, “There is a broad consensus within the scientific community that this is correct, but this will probably shift as and when more evidence accumulates” (italics mine). Not to worry, because this is precisely how scientific method works.
Dinesh D’Souza reminds us that faith is not a highly acclaimed word in the scientific community. Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “The claims of religions rely on faith [but] the claims of science rely on experimental verification” (12). Science is based on what Trefil calls the principle of universality: “It says that the laws of nature we discover here and now in our laboratories are true everywhere in the universe and have been in force for all time” (13). Admittedly, there is order in the universe. Its complexity cannot subsist without it. Scientists have discovered laws, physical principles, and structures that aid in deciphering the universe.
Science was not founded in the seventeenth century as a revolt against religious dogma. Rather, it was founded earlier, between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, through a dispute between two kinds of religious schools of thought. The first belief held that deductive reasoning was the best way to discover God’s hand in creation; the second promoted inductive experience (including the use of experiments) to properly evaluate and define nature. As a result, the scientific method emerged in the thirteenth century, and the professional position of “scientist” was established in the late Middle Ages, with a great number of scientists being Christians who viewed their work as a fulfillment of Christian objectives. As a result of the rejection of papal hierarchy, the so-called “priesthood of the individual believer” became immensely popular. The “protestant” Christians did not realize they were introducing new theological concepts that would have a huge impact on the emerging scientific culture in Europe.
Quantum Physics and New Interpretations
There have been a number of paradigm shifts in science over the decades, but none as remarkable as discovery of the sub-subatomic world of quarks and leptons. Quantum mechanics, deemed the hardest part of physics, is helping to redefine how the universe operates. The seeming regularity of the universe is based on anomaly, pathology, and holes in the spacetime continuum. At the foundation of quantum mechanics is the Heisenberg uncertainty principle which states: there is a fundamental limit to what one can know about a quantum system. At a basic level, quantum physics predicts very strange things about matter that are completely at odds with how things seem to work in the real world (14). For example, the more precisely one knows a particle’s position, the less one can know about its momentum, and vice versa. Systems with quantum behavior don’t follow the rules that we are used to, they are hard to see and hard to “feel,” can have controversial features, can exist in several different states at the same time, and even change depending on whether they are observed or not.
Hawking addressed the plausibility of predicting the position and speed of all of the particles in the universe. He writes “Our ability to predict the future is severely limited by the complexity of the equations, and the fact that they often have a property called chaos” (15). Thus, a complete prediction of the future cannot be realized. Although scientists stand a good chance of being right about events anticipated over the next few decades, the rest of the millenium will be wild speculation. Quantum mechanics shows that energy comes in discrete packets called “quanta.” This new theory suggests that things do not have a single unique history, but have every possible history each with its own probability (16). Even what we understand as empty space is full of particles moving in closed loops in space and time. Kuhn writes, “Because it demands large-scale paradigm destruction and major shifts in the problems and techniques of normal science, the emergency of new theories is generally preceded by a period of pronounced professional insecurity” (17).
There must be a meeting of the minds between science and religion if we are ever to grasp how a created universe behaves: by what rules, and to what degree of predictability. One such focus relates to paradigms, and how they gain status because they are more successful than competition from existing theories. Paradigm shifts can be rather untidy. Few people who are not involved in the daily practice of scientific method realize how much mop-up work results in this sort of critical change. The dance of science and religion tends to be choreographed by the religious belief itself. For example, there are philosophical, biological, and scientific aspects of Christianity. Moral philosophy asks whether the natural sciences can establish moral values. What role does human cognition play in religious beliefs and actions? Some philosophers argue that religious beliefs are impositions upon mankind. But surely God has implanted is us a hunger for filling our “hole in the soul.”
Religion has always played a role in science. It is no accident that we tend to “look to the stars” for answers. New research has shown us that science and religion need to work together in order to explain origin, purpose, and destiny. Many Americans believe religion and science are compatible on a variety of issues, and the two should not battle each other all for the sake of trying to help people with their lives. The relationship between science and religion must address a number of issues: so-called “conflict,” independent thought, dialog, integration. Although the lion’s share of secular scientists believe science and religion inevitably conflict—as they essentially discuss the same domain—a vast number of authors who cover the subjects of science and religion are critical of the “conflict” model, stating that it is based on a shallow and partisan reading of the historical record. God has written two books: the general revelation of creation and the special revelation of Scripture. I believe we cannot achieve a complete understanding of the universe by focusing on only one of these books. Our knowledge of the world must be grounded in matter and in precepts.
“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:19-20).
(1) Alister E. McGrath, Science & Religion: A New Introduction, 3rd. ed. (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2020), 8.
(2) Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 208-09.
(3) Ibid., 215.
(4) Ibid., 219.
(5) Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, The Nature of Space and Time (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 20.
(6) John Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Oxford, UK: Lion, 2007), 168-71.
(7) C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 140.
(8) Richard Feynman, The Meaning of it All (New York, NY: Penguin Publishing, 2007), 23.
(9) Alfred Marshall, The Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 916-17.
(10) Richard Lewontin, “Adaptation,” In Evolution:A Scientific American Book (San Francisco, CA: Freeman, 1997), 114-25.
(11) Thomas H. Huxley, in McGrath, Science & Religion, Ibid., 97.
(12) Neil deGrasse Tyson, “An Astrophysicist Ponders the God Question,” in Paul Kurtz, ed., Science & Religion (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003), 74.
(13) James Trefil, Reading the Mind of God (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1989). 1.
(14) Richard Webb, “Quantum Physics: Our Best Basic Picture of How Particles Interact to Make the World,” NewScientist (n.d.). URL: https://www.newscientist.com/definition/quantum-physics/
(15) Stephen Hawking, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 2018), 91.
(16) Ibid., 154.
(17) Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2012), 68.
*a priori knowledge is knowledge that is absolutely independent of all experience.