Science and Religion

Science and Religion

Written by: 
Published:
April 29, 2021

1) Introduction

The Adventist Church, whatever distinctive doctrines it may have, is quite traditional in other theological positions, and well-aligned with conservative – especially fundamentalist – segments of Christianity. Adventism believes in a recent creation, considers homosexuality to be sinful and has, at minimum, ambivalent understandings concerning the role of women. With many members leaning toward male headship. These beliefs each have the property that they are apparently somewhat at odds with science. Most notably, science is presently quite settled that the earth is very old (~ 4.54 billion years) and life has evolved (although the issue of abiogenesis is outside the scope of scientific purview). Yet Adventists officially accept ~ 6000 years since creation and are hostile to the concept of evolution. Regarding homosexuality there is more scientific ambiguity, but it is considered most often grounded in nature, not human perversity. If so, it would then be outside the scope of what should be labeled as sin, which involves choice. With women’s equality, this is less scientific than a socially-formed view. But it was also once thought that women were physically not just different, but inferior to men, in areas beyond the obvious category of strength. Thus “traditional” women’s subordination was a belief also supported by appealing to physiology.

In modernity these traditional positions have come under scientific scrutiny, resulting in a general shift in public understanding, but resisted within the more conservative Christian communities. And Adventism, both lay and administrative, has expressed hostility toward the scientific enterprise. Such antagonism by traditionalist Christians has been labeled the “conflict thesis.” The idea here is that science and religion are fundamentally at odds. Such an understanding is far from universal across the full range of Christendom and, whatever the current level of disagreement is, such was not always the case. At the beginning of the scientific revolution there was no recognition of incompatible, competing ideas. But the differences have grown wider as science has advanced.

The domain of science is the natural world. The domain of religion is whatever the revelatory material addresses. Which has included the natural world to some extent. For example, historically Christian traditions have considered the creation story to be a factual account of what occurred in the physical world. Consequently there is a potential overlap in the domains of science and religion. Religion, of course, is primarily concerned with ethics, God’s interaction with humankind and information on realms outside our lived experience – e.g. heaven. This is beyond anything science would legitimately consider. And most of the scientific enterprise addresses the natural world in areas and ways that clearly has no competing narrative in revelatory text. So, if you considered the two domains visually, as one would do when employing a Venn Diagram, you can represent the situation via two circles – science and religious information – mostly separate, but with a small amount of overlap. Inside this overlap, however, there is information on various subjects, presented from each source, but with different explanations.

Thus, now in modernity there are two apparently competing magisteria (domains of legitimate teaching authority) for deciding truths in this overlap area. Somewhat famously, paleontologist Steven Jay Gould proposed, in 1997, that science and religion could “solve” their dilemma with what he called “non-overlapping magisteria.” What he meant was that religion could have the domain of values (what ought to be) and science the domain of the natural world (what is). In other words, Gould proposed that the overlap be ceded to science. While this, I suppose, seemed a no-brainer to him, his proposal seems to me both presumptuous and naïve. Assuming one admits the possible existence of God, there are two different sources of authority. And outlawing one, a priori, is no answer. So the issue remains, where these views seem to contend, just how information about these aspects of the physical world should properly be adjudicated.

Let me end this introductory material with two important but somewhat contradictory points.

1) The issues in dispute are not essential for salvation. Unless God has changed criteria from grace to knowledge-positions, how you understand these things is not salvific. This disconnect didn’t exist for almost the entirety of human history, but people still made choices that determined their destiny.

2) But the issues are important for intellectual honesty, which surely includes grounding one’s personal world-view. No one gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror, and says to themselves: “I have faith in that which is probably a lie, but it comforts me, and investigating alternatives would be distressing.” No, we (at least) flatter ourselves that we are truth-seekers, willing to alter our belief-structure should there be compelling reasons to do so. And it is a further, obvious, idea (for theists) that God is the author of both nature and revelation. Thus, somewhere, deep down perhaps, this “disconnect” ought to resolve.

2) Issues and Bad Arguments

In this section I wish to address some misconceptions and try to fairly lay out the “landscape” of the actual problem domain. In doing so I am not trying to advocate for one side or the other. Some readers are likely to question this but, I declare, that is because there are more difficulties, in the overlap space, on the religious side than on the science side. Now I do, of course, have my opinions in these areas, as anyone who has read my past writings on this website might already know. But here I am trying to be descriptive only, in examining the overlap, not prescriptive.

2a) “God Said It”

To begin, I wish to consider what I think is the most fundamental mistake in thinking. From the standpoint of many religionists, deciding for the revelatory option in the overlap is simple, but unfortunately inadequate. The most familiar expression of the “solution” might be: “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” What this generally means is that the Bible presumably makes clear, categorical pronouncements on issues like homosexuality and the age of the earth. And, as the Bible is the “word of God” (viewed as essentially inerrant God-pronouncements), it consequently is both obvious and unassailable that one should privilege God-derived knowledge over some human-derived alternative. But, of course, this convenient short-cut to a conclusion begs the severe, general problem of fallible man-made interpretations of any written material, not excluding the Bible.

At a deeper level, below the “God said it” maxim, is the belief in a certainty that supposedly, necessarily, goes with the God-option.  Abstractly, is seems to be a difference of induction – with science, vs. deduction – with revelation. What do I mean here? First, all science develops its “laws” by proceeding from the specific to the general. Experiments that produce somewhat consistent results, and attempts to falsify which currently fail to adequately do so – all result in a probabilistic conclusion. Yes, all swans may be white. But there is always the possibility (as realized in Australia in 1697) that a black swan might be discovered. This is an inductive approach and it never, by definition, produces certainty. In supposed contrast – as perceived by many religionists – we have deductive pronouncements in the Bible. They are general statements which then get applied to specific contexts. Deductive statements have the property of certainty. So, revelation is superior. Except that these supposed God-derived conclusions suffer from two basic problems:

1) Are they really from God?  Christians take the Bible as normative, but not everyone does. And alternative “revelation-wannabes” exist – like the Koran or the Book of Mormon. Somehow there must be a vetting process to separate out the actually-inspired from the false candidates.

2) Even if the source is assumed to be inspired, it must be interpreted by limited and faulty humans, in two ways:

    a) Are the God-pronouncements being properly applied to the situation under consideration?

    b) Even if applicable, are the proposed interpretations of the God-infused text correct?

Interpretation is fallible because the interpreters are. Consequently, appeal to a revelatory source is also inductive. That is, theological arguments get made pro/con and some (necessarily tentative) conclusion results. Then we fallible humans evaluate it, while our understanding of the underlying context potentially evolves (e.g. better cultural, linguistic scholarship). Thus our interpretations may also evolve. They are probabilistic, warranted by incomplete information, produced by limited and faulty evaluators – humans. So the presumed, comforting certainty is, in reality, a myth. But please note, I am not espousing relativism. I am not saying there is no certainty, just that humans are in no position to have it.

2b) Public and Private Knowledge

These terms differentiate what can be agreed as “knowledge” outside oneself vs. that which cannot. Science operates solely in the realm of Public Knowledge. For example, if an experiment is reproducible – say, litmus paper turns red when dipped into an acid – then that is something anyone can see and verify. Private Knowledge is not verifiable by others. Religion operates, potentially, in both realms, but primarily in private. If I pray, and feel that I am heard, that can be just as true – in reality – as a litmus paper test. But no one else can verify it. Conversely, when God lead the Israelites in the wilderness – via pillars of cloud and fire – that was obviously public for them, but now its “publicness” is less clear for us, as it leans on the veracity of the account in Exodus 13. The problem for religious knowledge – in the overlap area – is that the issues in dispute are physical in nature. Thus potentially available for evaluation in the Public Knowledge arena. But the religious interpretation is grounded by warrants that are primarily faith-based. This does not make the religious interpretation false, but it has an uphill climb to override an alternate, if that alternate is adequately grounded in what is publicly verifiable.

2c) Epistemological “Distance”

Consider these two statements:

1) “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16, KJV)

2) If you fall off of Angel’s Landing (in Zion National Park) you are almost certain to die.

In what order would you rank these two statements – as to how likely they are to be true? I contend that it should not be at all controversial for them to universally be ranked: #2, then #1. Even if you believe #1 is true (and I hope you do). Why? Because #1 involves believing: a) God exists; then b) Christianity is the true expression of theism; then c) you correctly understand the meaning of the verse. Conversely, belief in #2 is experiential (although likely not from personal experience, eh?). Belief in gravity is about as fundamental to our lived experience as it gets (with the noted exception of cartoon levitation). We’ve surely fallen before in our lives, perhaps even from high enough where we got hurt. And we all have second-hand experience from stories of people dying if the fall is high enough. Angel’s Landing is almost 1500 ft. above the valley floor. My section header title of “Epistemological Distance” is a term I like that denotes how “far away” from personal experience some knowledge-assertion is. And, while I personally believe both statements #1 and #2, it takes considerably more faith to believe #1. To say this in terms I introduced in “2b)”: #2 is in the realm of Public Knowledge, #1 is (mostly) in the realm of Private Knowledge. The purpose of a concept like Epistemological Distance is to recognize and label possible conclusions about reality in terms of how far away from Public Knowledge and our lived experience they are. The greater the distance, the more tenuously “true” they are, i.e. the more faith it takes to elevate them into the category of knowledge. And thus, it is highly important to scrutinize their warrants.

2d) God of the Gaps

Ancient cosmology admitted only two possible agents responsible for action in the world – God and humanity. There was no concept of a natural world acting normally based upon physical laws, only interfered with on occasion by some God-intervention. Consequently, for example, if it failed to rain – this was God’s direct doing. If a wife could not conceive – God had closed her womb.

As scientific explanations began to be introduced as causal hypotheses, then backed up with convincing Public Knowledge proof, the God-explanation for some phenomenon got replaced with a scientific one. Thus one might say that the gaps in human knowledge of some natural cause-effect, formerly attributed to God, became more satisfyingly attributed to nature. Now this shift did not need to be controversial. But it has been, to some extent, because of two overreaches, one on each side of the growing “divide” over causation.

1) Because much of the orthodox God-cause explanatory world-view was naïve, and as science’s explanatory success grew, it became tempting to be derisive of all God-grounded explanations. “Sure,” some might say, “we have gaps in our knowledge of the physical world, but science is steadily filling those in with naturalistic explanations, reducing any deity-explanations to just for-the-moment unknowns. Soon these too will get replaced by science, and God will be finally seen as merely myth.” This is scientism, and a fair number of contemporary scientists adhere to this philosophy – perhaps most famously, Richard Dawkins. But the argument is overreach. Just because many explanatory gaps have now been more satisfactorily filled in by science, it doesn’t follow that all gaps will necessarily have such replacement eventually. That is, it is no proof of God’s non-existence. To think it does disprove God – is merely hubris.

2) But on the religionist side, too many advocates for God have behaved foolishly. They have both demonized science and engaged in pseudo-science to fend off undesirable conclusions. And historically, institutional religion also has had a checkered record of actually upholding biblically-ethical principles. For example, one impetus for the Enlightenment movement, notably in 18th-century France, was the failure of the Catholic Church to champion ethical Christian values. When a church is “in bed” with secular power, it likely degrades its moral authority. (As an aside, a significant segment of today’s American Evangelical Christianity needs to re-learn this lesson.) So intellectuals – like Voltaire – became intense critics of the prevailing institutional church, sometimes because of misuse of power, sometimes because its defenders were intellectually incompetent. This results in ridicule of religion, and undercuts a non-committed observer’s willingness to give its explanations, in the overlap area, credence.

3) The Adventist Situation

Since many scientific interpretations and traditional, conservative Christian interpretations (which Adventism endorses), do not presently resolve, there is work to do.

First, as I noted above, proper causal categorization in the overlapping area – does not affect one’s salvation. So an individual’s attention to such things should be subordinated to those doctrines and actions that do. However, this does not mean that an institution, such as the SDA Church, should ignore the overlap. Churches infer that they are truth-seeking organizations. Adventists especially imply this with a self-identity as the “come out of her, my people” landing-place (Remnant Church). Thus SDA leadership should take this overlap problem seriously. And, I claim, at present they do not.

Adventism seems unwilling to wrestle with the question of epistemic grounding. That is, how do you warrant a belief? As exemplified by Ted Wilson (whom I do not wish to pick on, but he is the most prominent representative of the Adventist leadership norm), the church somehow believes that their traditional understanding of the Bible should be axiomatic. They, in general, do not recognize that this warrant is an interpretation of the presumed revelatory material. And, in a world now trending in a post-Christian direction, this is a nonstarter, except to the already-convinced. Leadership is more sensitive to negative reactions from the membership, many of whom are already satisfied with such premises (and vocal about it), than they are of their obligation to demonstrate adequate warrant to the world-at-large. At bare minimum, this is an evangelistic dead end.

Second, leadership is not merely indifferent to, or ignorant of, the need for better warrants to privilege current SDA orthodoxy. There is demonstrable, active hostility toward propositions uncongenial to these cherished beliefs. As evidence, I refer the reader to Wilson’s 2014 address “God’s Authoritative Voice” which, I say, exemplifies both hostility toward conventional science and a serious misunderstanding of what science is and is not. He is oblivious to the circularity of grounding his premises with authority that itself needs justification before it should be accepted as valid. And he mischaracterizes science (e.g. “evolution is not a science, it is a false form of religion and part of spiritualism.” – par. 18). Again, I use Wilson simply as stand-in for what I understand much of SDA institutional leadership to hold as normative.

Such hostility, premise-assumption and ignorance of what science is, however loyal to historic positions, simply will not do in a 21st-century world. One where acceptance of 19th-century Adventist presuppositions is in eclipse, even in the so-called 10/40 window, where Adventism is still growing and traditional assumptions are more acceptable to many.

The church needs a serious wake-up. Resolution does not mean ceding the overlap to science. It means either having defensible apologetics or making (likely painful) revisions in some of the church’s beliefs. But I fear the current collective institutional mindset is not only engaging in self-defeating hostility, it doesn’t even appreciate the problem.

 

Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.

Previous Spectrum articles by Rich Hannon can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/rich-hannon

Image Credit:  Unsplash.com

 

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