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Science and Faith at Odds?
Do the natural sciences pose a challenge to the Christian faith? This is a hot question at the moment, given the high profile by works such as Richard Dawkins’
Real scientists do not believe in God! This sound byte will be very familiar to Dawkins’ readers. Many in Western culture seem prepared to accept it as the wisdom of our age. So how reliable is this idea? And how should Christians respond to it? This is one of the greatest challenges to faith in the public domain at present, and we need to know what to say.
But it’s more complex than that. It’s not just Richard Dawkins who is asserting that science — especially evolutionary biology — leads to atheism. This same slogan is found in many fundamentalist Christian circles, where it is argued that Darwinism is necessarily atheistic. Why, many wonder, are so many Christians, especially American evangelicals, so wary of science in general, and the theory of evolution in particular? Given evangelicalism’s characteristic emphasis upon the authority of Scripture, it is not surprising to find that one of the major concerns within the movement concerns apparent challenges to biblical authority arising from scientific advance. This is seen most acutely in evangelical concerns about challenges to traditional interpretations of the Genesis creation accounts posed by evolutionary biology. My goal, therefore, is to explore these important issues, beginning with Dawkins, who is now widely regarded as the high priest of the “science disproves God” belief system. But first, let me tell my own story.
My love affair with the natural sciences began when I was nine or ten. I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the night sky and longed to explore it further. I ransacked my school library for books on astronomy and even managed to build myself a small telescope enabling me to observe the moons of Jupiter. Around the same time, a great-uncle who had overseen the pathology department at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, gave me an old German microscope, which allowed me to explore another new world. It still sits on my study desk, a reminder of the power of nature to enthrall, intrigue, and provoke questions.
One of those questions troubled me greatly. While in my teens, I had absorbed an uncritical atheism from writers such as Bertrand Russell. Atheism was, I believed, the natural resting place for a scientifically informed person such as myself. The natural sciences had expanded to inhabit the intellectual space once occupied by the derelict idea of God. There was no need to propose, let alone take seriously, such an outmoded idea. God was a baleful relic of the past, revealed as a delusion by scientific advance.
So what was life all about? What was its meaning? As I reflected on the scope and power of the sciences, I gradually came to the view that there was no meaning to life. I was the accidental byproduct of blind cosmic forces, the inhabitant of a universe in which one could speak only of direction but not purpose. It was not a particularly appealing notion, but I found solace in the idea that its bleakness and austerity were certain indications of its truth. It was so unattractive that it just had to be right. I must confess to a certain degree of smugness at this point, and a feeling of intellectual superiority over those who found solace and satisfaction in their belief in God. It was obvious to me that science demanded atheism, and I was willing to be led wherever science took me.
And so I continued working at mathematics, physics, and chemistry, eventually winning a scholarship to Oxford University to study chemistry. Yet in the months before I went to Oxford, I began to read works dealing with the history and philosophy of science. I was suspicious of this area of study, tending to regard it as uninformed criticism of the certainties and simplicities of the natural sciences by those who felt threatened by them. Yet by the time I had finished reading the somewhat meager holdings of the college in this field, I realized that I needed to do some very serious rethinking. Far from being half-witted obscurantism that placed unnecessary obstacles in the relentless path of scientific advance, the history and philosophy of science asked all the right questions about the reliability and limits of scientific knowledge. And they were questions that I had not faced thus far.
By the time I arrived in Oxford in October 1971 to start the serious study of chemistry, I had realized that I had a lot of rethinking to do. Up to that point, I had assumed that, when science could not answer a question, there was no answer to be had. I now began to realize that there might be limits to the scientific method and that vast expanses of intellectual, aesthetic, and moral territory might lie beyond its compass.
SCIENCE AND FAITH
This brings us to a fundamental assertion which recurs in recent atheist writings — namely, that the natural sciences eliminate any ground for belief in God. People who believe in God are simply running away from the evidence. One of the core arguments of Dawkins’ influential book The God is that religious faith is irrational. “Dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument,” he opines. Faith is a “process of non-thinking,” which is “evil precisely because it requires no justification, and brooks no argument.”
It’s all typical of Dawkins’ swashbuckling style, which mingles hopelessly overheated rhetoric with a scant regard for evidence and accuracy. Let’s look at things in a little more detail.
Everyone agrees that science is one of the most secure forms of knowledge we possess. How do we know that the chemical formula for water is H2O? How do we know the structure of DNA? The answer is simple: because that’s what the scientific evidence tells us. I don’t think anyone will quibble with this. Dawkins is right to praise the sciences for their ability to give clear, reliable answers to some important questions — such as “how is genetic information transmitted?”
Do you belive that ' the dead believers will be recurrected' and with the 'believers' will fly up into the sky to meet Jesus/Immanuel/Son of God/Son of Man/Saviour etc. (or whatever title you confer) and that the 'unbelievers' will be left behind.
Yes or no.
Simple scientific question.
Simple christian question.
Simple religious question.
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