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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Common questions regarding science/faith conflicts

Well, it has been a quiet September on this blog, but not for me personally! With the beginning of the Fall semester, my dissertation-related tasks were heavily compounded, leaving little time to articulate my geological musings here. On a personal note (for those interested), I've also been adjusting to living apart from my wife, who is currently on the other side of the world as part of an immigration requirement. Needless to say, I am anxiously awaiting December, when I can join her back in Russia.

All that aside, I have been recently corresponding with a news reporter who is writing an article about science and faith conflicts. She asked me to answer three questions, drawing from my experience as a Christian working in the natural sciences, so I thought I would share my responses with you. Keep in mind that the article is not meant to argue for one position or another (or discuss scientific merits), but to provide key information to believers that may feel challenged by the modern scientific discourse. Feel free to comment, as always. I don't expect that all of you will be on the same page.

1. What are the major sources of conflict that fuel the idea that religion and science cannot coexist? Eg. Evolution, global warming, etc.

    The notion that science and religion must be at odds is a relatively novel one, fueled today by fundamentalists on both sides. One the one hand, anti-darwinian creationism insists that the majority position in biology (and often geology, astronomy, etc.) cannot possibly be reconciled with Scripture, and therefore it must be false. This group, which comprises ~40% of Americans, is willing to make the claim that 98% of professional biologists are acutely wrong on the most basic questions of their discipline. Consequently, scientists have increasingly been held in general disdain and distrust—an attitude best elucidated by recent reactions to climate science. Moreover, the claim frequently determines how one chooses political candidates and/or supports public education. The most recent debates in the Republican National Convention, for example, were characterized by an unprecedented interest in each candidate's position on climate change and the teaching of evolution in schools.
    The link between skepticism of evolution and of climate change is not necessarily organic, as the most prominent critics of anthropogenic global warming (e.g. the Australian geologist Ian Plimer) are also ardent anti-creationists. Both trends are tied, rather, to a more general sociological shift in authority. Whereas "My pastor says..." was gradually replaced by "Scientists say...", both are now trumped by "The healthy skeptic says...". Among fundamentalist brands of creationism, however, skepticism of climate change is a logical consequence for those who doubt that modern science can accurately interpret Earth history.
    It is vital to understand that creationist reactions to biological evolution are most often ideologically driven, despite some post hoc attempts to undermine the theory scientifically. Anti-darwinian creationists rarely have academic experience in the natural sciences, let alone evolutionary theory, and they commonly defer expertise to a handful of professional scientists that critique evolutionary theory for a popular audience. These critiques are not taken seriously by academia, however, because they do not accurately reflect debates within modern biology.
    On the opposite end, atheistic fundamentalists like Richard Dawkins categorically deny that any religious ideals (Christianity in particular) may be reconciled to the scientific truth of biological evolution. These individuals are even evangelistic in their effort to fight misperceptions of evolution held by the general public and to promote dysteleological ('without a purpose') evolution as incontrovertible truth. Despite heavy criticism from their colleagues, they frequently step beyond their expertise to make raise philosophical arguments against theism, such as the so-called problem of evil. In my experience, authors like Dawkins see theodicy (the problem of evil) as an insurmountable obstacle to accepting that biological evolution could have been part of God's creative act. Their opposition to the coexistence of science and faith is likewise ideologically driven, therefore, despite their sound scientific footing.
    Since both fundamentalist groups see science and faith as generally incompatible, the battle is self-reinforcing. Of course, I say this with one caveat: anti-darwinian creationists and dysteleological evolutionists nuance science and religion, respectively, to support their position. To the creationist, science is not intrinsically flawed—only the kind of science that would make counterclaims on topics where God has supposedly spoken (e.g. origin of life/species). Young-Earth Creationists in particular draw a dichotomy (that scientists do not) between operational and historical science, so as to discredit the latter when it seems to contradict their reading of scripture. In this manner, they can still praise the achievements of modern medicine and the space program while denying biological and cosmic evolution. To the uncompromising atheist, religion must narrowly be defined as belief in a god who designed the world as a perfect machine and occasionally interferes with so-called natural law. This is the god of Isaac Newton, William Paley, and the modern Intelligent Design movement, but not necessarily of orthodoxy. Neither evolutionary theory nor science in general can accept these premises, it seems, so the case is closed prematurely for many an atheist.

2. What diversity of opinion exists among scientists on issues that have a religious component?

    Dr. Denis Lamoreux, who holds doctoral degrees in dentistry, theology, and evolutionary biology, answered this question thoroughly in his books Evolutionary Creation and I love Jesus and I accept Evolution. He delineates five major positions on origins, including a purely atheistic one called Dysteleological Evolution—god is not there and thus has no part; design and purpose in the universe are delusions.
    Among believers, the best known positions are Young-Earth Creationism and Old-Earth (or Progressive) Creationism. In the former, God created all cosmic entities (the heavens and the Earth) and all kinds of life less than 10,000 years ago. Young-Earth Creationists accept that evolution plays a part in the survival of species, allowing populations to adapt to new or changing environments, but they reject evolution as a valid mechanism to produce new kinds (i.e. genus/family) of life. Common descent, the notion that all species derived organically from a common ancestor, is not even a scientific possibility for the Young-Earth Creationist. Also integral to this paradigm is that a major worldwide catastrophe (Noah's Flood) was responsible for reshaping the surface of the planet. Some Young-Earth Creationists try to offer physical evidence from the geological column that a worldwide flood occurred in recent Earth history, but their claims are not taken seriously in academia (and rightly so). Young-Earth Creationism ultimately rests in a particular scriptural hermeneutic (method of interpretation) that involves the "plain, common sense" reading of the text. From a literary critical perspective, this approach (which I call lexical absolutism) is both anachronistic and na├»ve, since it tends to undermine the Bible as literature and projects a post-Enlightenment mentality onto an ancient text.
    Old-Earth Creationism accepts the conclusions of modern geology and astronomy: the Earth is 4.54 billion years old and various species have lived and died on the planet throughout its history. Rejecting macroevolutionary theory and common descent, however, they assert that God created life progressively—an act recorded by the fossil record. In the United States, this position is most actively promoted by the very successful ministry Reasons to Believe, but some of the ministry's attacks on evolutionary biology have been harshly criticized and even deemed disingenuous by fellow Christians. Nonetheless, Old-Earth Creationism has seen growing popularity among Christians in the past few decades and provides a reasonable solution to the science/faith conflict for millions. It's also worth noting that Progressive Creationism is very popular in many Islamic countries, such as Turkey, which boasts the lowest popular acceptance of evolution in the world.
    Less known, strangely, is the majority position among scientists: theistic evolution. This paradigm accepts modern evolutionary theory, along with modern geology and astronomy, and sees no fundamental conflict between religion and science. Most theistic evolutionists are not Christians, and many ascribe to no particular religious system. Denis Lamoreux and others thus distinguish between theistic evolution (i.e. god is there, but not necessarily personal and involved with humanity) and evolutionary creation, which upholds Judaeo-Christian theology and anthropology. Theistic evolutionists reject scientific concordism—the idea that scientific conclusions can be drawn from God's revelation in scripture (particularly Genesis). They cite the use of ancient cosmology in scripture, such as references to geocentrism and/or a flat earth, as evidence against scientific concordism. Instead, they argue that God accommodated his message through ancient understandings of science in the same manner that God accommodated himself through sinful flesh in the person of Jesus. To echo the words of Dr. Lamoreux, God's infallible message of faith is captured incidentally within fallible human perceptions of reality.

3. What can religious individuals do if they feel that science is conflicting with their faith? How can they align the two?

    Religious individuals that see a conflict between science and their faith should critically examine the origin of that conflict. In my experience, the conflict is more frequently between one faith position and another (e.g. the Bible says A vs. the Bible says B). One should also critically examine whether there is sufficient warrant for drawing a scientific conclusion (e.g. humans could not have a common ancestor with other primates) from a religious text. Is it possible this text was never intended to function in such a manner? If not, how do you determine that? Are you drawing from your academic experience in theology and/or Ancient Near Eastern literature? Unfortunately, the answer falls outside the expertise of most individuals (myself included), but few are willing to admit this.
    Secondly, a conflict between faith and science is not necessarily a conflict between faith and reality. Science is not a collection of timeless truths, but an active and dynamic endeavor to understand natural phenomena. On the other hand, the mere fallibility of science is not sufficient reason to reject its major conclusions whenever convenient. Theology and natural science are similarly susceptible to human bias and error. Everyone—yes, even experts—should practice some humility when trying to articulate or critique unifying concepts.
   Lastly, I would advise any individual to take advantage of the fact that many scientists and theologians have dealt personally with these conflicts before. One should not take upon him/herself the exhausting task of answering one of life's biggest questions alone, especially without consulting experts on all sides. Although the dichotomy between science and faith will never disappear, most scientists and theologians see it as a false one. Understandably, these individuals receive less attention in the public arena, but we are there, and we love to discuss our passion with others.