Engaging in the science-religion debate

I preached this message at the 5:30pm fellowship at Dawlish Methodist Hall on Sunday 1st October 2017.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’

(Mark 12:30)

I read with interest an article in the Guardian this week, discussing the findings of a survey on science and religion.  What was most intriguing was not what Christians believe – we know there is considerable diversity of opinion there – but what non-Christians think we believe, and here there is a massive gap between reality and perception.  You see, most of the Christians interviewed in the survey saw no conflict between the findings of science and their faith; but most non-Christians perceived that the opposite must be true – that there is no way that the Christian faith and the results of scientific inquiry can be reconciled in the minds of a Christian believer.  As a scientist and a Christian, I was also interested to read that there are many more theists among scientists, than atheists – people whose expertise and profession is in science are more likely to believe in God, than not believe.

As you might expect, the Guardian article received quite a lot of comment in the readers’ letters a day or two later, two of which I will read to you.  The first letter reads as follows:

While I am sure that there are many people working in scientific fields who would claim to be religious, it always seems to me that there really is a basic conflict here, rather than a “misunderstanding”.

How can any ultimately “supernatural” explanation (whatever that means) for a phenomenon ever be a “scientific” answer? At what point can any dedicated scientist investigating a difficult problem decide that there is no scientific answer to it and that it can be explained only as an act of God? How would such results be presented for scientific peer review and in what terms would they be couched?

Exactly what “specific steps in the universe’s history must be the direct result of divine intervention”? Isn’t this supernatural view just a resort to mystery? And isn’t it the job of science to defy, examine and explain mystery?

And now the second letter:

You quote Lord Williams as saying: “Christians and scientists need to… recognise that their supposed ‘war’ is just fiction … The Apostles’ Creed (which is still regularly recited in church on Sunday) appears to require the faithful to believe that Christ died and was physically resurrected, that in turn our bodies will be resurrected and that we will have eternal life (“the life everlasting”).

If we take these injunctions literally, I would expect that many, if not most, scientists would find difficulty in accepting them. If they are not to be taken literally (and why not?), then their acceptance by the majority of scientists would depend crucially on how they are to be interpreted. The same observation could be made about other religious concepts, including that of miracles. Unless the church can clarify just what is meant by these important elements of religious faith (are they literally true or, if not, what do they mean?) it would appear that the “war” is emphatically not fiction.

As an evangelist seeking ways of communicating the gospel and opportunities to do so, three things seem immediately clear to me:

  1. For non-Christians such as the authors of these letters, the perceived conflict (whether real or not) is a significant barrier to faith;
  2. Non-Christians have very little idea as to what we really believe and what we really mean when we say it;
  3. There is a very poor understanding (universally) of the scientific method and the conclusions it can produce.

I’m going to start therefore by discussing the scientific method.  There are various competing philosophies of science, but all seem to agree on the following basics:

  • Science cannot prove anything incontrovertibly – it operates by accumulating evidence through repeated experimentation;
  • Scientists develop theories to explain what is observed, make predictions based on those theories, and then design further experiments to test those predictions.

An immediate consequence of this is that scientific theories can only ever be prefaced with phrases such as “In the normal course of things …” or “All things being equal …”.  Scientists know and understand those limitations, so mostly we don’t bother to include those phrases in our scientific statements, because they are unnecessary.

Water boils at 100°C is a scientific statement and everyone would know what you mean, but it is not universally true.  At normal pressures, pure water boils at 100°C – in fact, that’s the definition of 100°C.  But if the pressure is significantly lower, then water will boil before it reaches 100°C; if there are impurities in the water, then the boiling point of water may be further altered.  The scientific statement we started with isn’t wrong, but it is far from complete.

Scientists are so used to the sensitivity of their results to the environment, that experiments are performed in tightly controlled conditions – laboratories, for example, where the precise temperature, pressure, air composition, background radiation, can all be precisely determined.  Moreover, scientists learn to distrust results that cannot be replicated.  If I take a thousand readings from a scientific instrument, not only am I unlikely to get 1000 identical results, I will get some variability around the correct answer, but I may also get something completely unexpected – a wildly inaccurate reading.  If this can be replicated, those anomalies are often the first tentative steps to discovering a new scientific result.  But if they cannot be replicated – no matter what you try and how close you try to get the conditions to when the anomaly happened – then when analysing the data, a scientist will typically disregard the result as an error.

This robustness that comes from repeated experimentation and replication of results is what gives the scientific method its power.  But only when we respect the limitations of such a methodology also.

Christians claim that Jesus, who lived 2000 years ago, died and then lived again.  The claim concerns a one-off event in history, which by definition cannot be the subject of repeated scientific experimentation.  The truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection is a question concerning historical evidence – by its very nature it cannot be a question concerning scientific evidence.

Moreover, Christians agree absolutely with scientists who would argue that “people don’t rise again from the dead”.  Absolutely, as a correctly interpreted scientific statement “in the normal course of things, people don’t rise again from the dead” – we would all agree.  In fact, this scientific truth confirms that if the historical evidence points to the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, then something extremely unusual has happened – supernatural in the correct sense of the word, in being beyond what one would expect to occur naturally.  Science cannot adjudicate on the truth of a one-off historical event, only historical enquiry can, but it can affirm that the event would have been an amazing, unusual, unexpected, spectacular, supernatural occurrence.

And that is precisely why it is recorded in the bible and why it caused such a stir. Jesus’ resurrection was no less a surprise to his contemporaries, than it would be today.  In fact, throughout its pages, the bible is a record of miraculous events – by definition, supernatural occurrences that are recorded precisely because they are unexpected and not part of mundane everyday life.  Just as with Jesus’ resurrection, science can make no claim regarding their truth … it can only affirm their miraculous nature.

And let’s be honest, do we really want to read an account of the Exodus say, that goes “Day 500 in the wilderness: weather hot; ate manna again; we’re still lost and no-one is speaking to Moses.  Day 501 in the wilderness: weather hot … etc”?

So let’s now return to my 3 points from earlier:

  1. For non-Christians such as the authors of these letters, the perceived conflict (whether real or not) is a significant barrier to faith;
  2. Non-Christians have very little idea as to what we really believe and what we really mean when we say it;
  3. There is a very poor understanding (universally) of the scientific method and the conclusions it can produce.

How do we deal with these issues?  To me, it appears that the solution has two parts:

a) We have to engage in that debate as true evangelists;

We are told in scripture:

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,”

(1 Peter 3:15)

It is incumbent upon us to enter the arena of public debate and to give a good account of our faith.  That is quite a challenging thing to do and so first we need to really engage in those debates with each other:

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.

(Proverbs 27:17)

b) The church must equip us to engage in that debate.

We are used to letting our church leaders do the hard work for us, wrestling with scripture and telling us what we should believe and how we should put it into practice.  We’re complicit in allowing that to be the standard model of church preaching.  But often that just leaves us knowing certain “truths” without really knowing how those truths have been arrived at, because we’ve let our preacher do that for us.

As a teacher, I could just tell my maths students the answers to the problems that I’ve set them – but all that does is leave them knowing the answers, which has little value in itself.  If I really want them to learn, I need to explain clearly and carefully how I’ve got to those answers, and give my students those same tools to be able to tackle similar problems on their own.

Without that training, Christians are left wide-open to having their faith shaken any time they encounter something they haven’t heard before.  We are being left to fend for ourselves:

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

(1 Peter 5:8)

Those tools of bible exposition are much more subtle than the ordinary Christian might believe from the certainties espoused each Sunday from the pulpit and they require a great deal of practice and inquiry in a safe friendly environment to master.

Some of the following are definitely not stupid questions and require more than just a pat answer:

  1. How do we know Jesus lived, died and rose from the dead?
  2. What does it mean to say that Jesus is God? Or the Son of God?  Or the Son of Man?
  3. Is the bible inerrant? Divinely inspired?  What do those terms mean?
  4. Why do the genealogies for Jesus in Matthew and Luke differ from each other?
  5. How can cosmology and evolutionary science be reconciled with the creation as described in Genesis?
  6. How can we be sure that women can/not be permitted to preach in our churches?
  7. God declares eating shellfish to be “an abomination” in the Old Testament, so is it permissible now?
  8. Consuming blood is prohibited both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. Is it ok to eat black pudding?  What about rare steak?
  9. What actually does the bible teach on divorce?

I’m not saying that coherent responses to those questions don’t exist, but how confidently could you justify your answer for each?

When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door, 500 years ago at the start of the Reformation, he was inviting the Catholic church to a theological debate to work through the contradictions he saw in church doctrine.  The response of the church was to excommunicate him, rather than have the authority of its leaders questioned.  Unfortunately, we have yet to learn those lessons today with preaching and small group study often being more about asserting the will and authority of the leadership, than genuinely seeking together.

Just as the emergence of the printing press was the essential tool that ensured that the Catholic church leaders could no longer maintain control by restricting access to scripture, so the emergence and ubiquity of the internet have sown the seeds of a New Reformation.  Everyone now has access to a plurality of views, sources, debates and the underpinning arguments on their phone or computer.  It is no longer sufficient for the church to teach “truths” without teaching also the tools to derive these.  Rather than trying to hold back the tide by teaching obedience to church doctrine, leaders need to teach critical thinking and discernment.  The result will be better theology and a better Christian witness.

This could start tomorrow – the first step is to bring together congregations from different denominations to discuss belief and theology: the common ground and the differences between our churches in Dawlish.  Real discussion and debate, practised in love and grace so that we can understand each other more and develop those tools of critical analysis and good biblical exposition.

We have nothing to fear from engaging in these debates and discussions, either with atheists declaring that science precludes our faith, or with each other seeking to create better understanding across the denominational and theological divides.  Our gospel is big enough and broad enough to embrace everyone.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.

(Matthew 7:7)