The Consequences of Dogmatic Faith in the Age of Science

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Published:
March 17, 2022

I will go out on a limb and give voice to a nagging suspicion: that young Adventist students who take the science track in church schools are more likely to lose their faith than their non-science counterparts. This suspicion is anecdotal because I’m not aware of any studies that track this trend. But I suspect further that the losses are accretive with educational advancement.

The sciences are unique in that they are largely evidence-based, so the church is unable to sustain the “gains” made in teaching science the “Adventist way” after our wards leave the elementary grades. Aided by our own denominational “science” textbooks, we are adroit in laying the foundation for creationism in the early years. But in high school, when the training wheels come off, our young scientists are set up for an uncomfortable awakening, as they have to “unlearn”—particularly in biology and earth science—much of what they learned.

By the time they get through church high school and college, then perhaps graduate school, I conjecture that a significant percentage of Adventists who took the science path would either have severed relationships with the church or, at best, become token Adventists. The ostensible reason, I contend, lies with our curricula approach in the foundational grades, where science instruction is only a few degrees above indoctrination. In those early years, our curricula tilt heavily toward the creationist viewpoint. Instead of making competing information, such as Darwinian claims, available to our budding scientists early and teaching them the critical thinking skills needed to manage any pitfalls in the process, we kick that can down the road. And then we seem shocked when these same students later, often feeling lied to, exit the church as they learn the “truth.”

This is part of the ongoing existential reality Adventism faces, given its unyielding positions on faith/science questions. It is for this reason that I looked forward with hopeful anticipation to Dr. Leonard Brand’s article “Faith, Science, and the Bible” in the Biblical Research Institute’s Biblical Hermeneutics: An Adventist Approach. And probably also why the let-down was so disheartening.

Of course, Dr. Brand has every right to structure the content of his article to his preferences. But I was still surprised by his complete lack of engagement with real-life issues that grow out of perceived conflicts between faith and science in today’s world. For example, he is silent on gender and human sexuality, genetic engineering, the boundaries of medical treatments in an age of seemingly endless possibilities, etc. These are issues that affect flesh-and-blood human beings, particularly Christians, who are grappling with them and could use some guidance.

Instead, there is a doubling down on the historicity of early Genesis: “Scripture contains historical records, first person accounts of events, etc., but the Holy Spirit maintained quality control over the biblical text. Those who read the Bible this way understand events such as the seven-day creation week and the global flood were literal events that occurred as they are described.” Elsewhere he adds: “The biblical account provides us with the correct understanding of our history and it is wise to take Genesis as a reliable account of our beginnings.” But this Genesis account, if taken literally as we’re asked to do, also presents a firmament cosmology with a sprawling solid dome, which God created on day two of creation week to divide the primal sea into upper and lower portions, allowing the dry land to come forth. The physical evidence clearly disproves such cosmology, and it is unclear whether Brand just wishes this part away or would like us to pretend the portrayal is not in the account.

He takes issue with those Christian scientists who attempt to bridge the deep divide between evolutionary Darwinism and creationism. Those who see abundant evidence for confidence in the Bible as an inspired, factual book think that those who reinterpret the Bible message into theistic evolution over deep time are making a big mistake.” This is not a dog whistle but plain language advocating a literalistic understanding of all biblical content.

Brand has high praise for science as a “successful enterprise,” but what his right hand gives, his left hand quickly takes back. He’s worried that such success “has resulted in a sense of invincible prestige for science . . . Our concern about such scientific prestige is that scientific conclusions change over time, as new evidence becomes known. Many scientific conclusions are not permanent, but rather may be best described as a progress report along the journey to understand.” But Brand does not explain why this process, a near-perfect description of the scientific method, is a problem.

He concludes: “An authentic approach to science and the Bible will acknowledge that we must not test Scripture by our ideas of nature, but we must test our ideas of nature by Scripture.” In other words, Brand seems to imply, not to worry. The Bible anticipated all scientific progress and had answers for anomalous statements made by Bible writers long ago that might be puzzling to us today.

As Brand’s article demonstrates, the faith/science conversation often degenerates into esoteric musings where professional theologians and academics throw mud in a game that has lost its audience and is subsumed by irrelevance. In this arena the game balls have remained constant: Darwinism vs. creationism, Ussher’s 6,000 years young earth vs. science’s postulated billions, slow vs. cataclysmic fossilization, Genesis’s three-tiered cosmology vs. post-enlightenment understanding of an endless cosmos. On these and other ancillary topics, contemporary faith leaders seem to be preaching to an increasingly graying and dwindling choir.

But our children, the church’s forgotten future, are sidestepping this vision, refusing to be blinded by a faith that forces them to disbelieve the evidence of their senses. We tell them everything came into being merely 6,000 years ago and the fossils that seem to say otherwise are the products of a cataclysmic event, then seek validation in Noah’s flood. Our youth, tired of hearing the same unsatisfying arguments, are no longer interested in continuing with it. Because when they read about Noah, they are not captivated by the story’s outlines but are instead bothered by its ethical implications: of a God who would, humanlike, resort to such stupendous violence with near-complete life obliteration just to resolve the evil machinations of humans—who, incidentally, are his own creation.

There are other ways of reading the story without caving in to credulity. If we take the story literally, then the militant actions of Noah’s God seem in conflict with what Jesus taught, given similar situations. For example, James and John were incensed when some Samaritans refused to put out the welcome mat for Jesus. Inspired by Elijah’s example (2 Kings 1:10), they asked Jesus to give them permission to mete out a similar punishment for their insubordination: “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” (Luke 9:54 NIV).

No! Not this God. And in declining that path, Jesus gently rebuked them: “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are made of” (9:55 KJV). On another occasion, the trigger-happy church leaders caught a woman in the very act (John 8:3-11) and demanded that the law that exacts the death penalty in such situations be honored. Again, Jesus would not stoop to their murderous level: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” And then he waited (John 8:7).

Maybe, instead of investing so much of our theological capital in proving the literalness of the Noah account, we should spend more time studying the story’s implicit ethics. Because our youth are unlikely to view the actions attributed to Noah’s God as Christ-like or love-inspired. If we insist on reading this story literally, we should not be sanguine about some of the adverse lessons it leaves in its wake. If we (and the god of our conception) project a cavalier attitude about the destruction of the antediluvians and their world, we then have little credibility in condemning human despots who similarly cheapen life when they resort to indiscriminate acts of violence to resolve disputes. The truth is that if we look in the mirror long enough, it is likely that what stares back at us are images similar to those very antediluvians we are indifferent to.

What should we do then?

If longitudinal studies about young people’s attitudes towards religion are correct, contemporary youth are attracted to experiential, not doctrinal, religion. They gravitate to and flourish in religious environments that inspire them to help others. They’re “in” if religion inclines them to selflessness, drives them to care about their neighbors, or moves them to help stem environmental degradation. Their church must be others-directed along the lines of Matthew 25: visiting the sick, sharing excess with the impoverished, inspiring hope where despair is the alternative. This is what provides a powerful motivation to belong. Against these motivations, our poorly-concealed, brow-beating belief as God’s specially favored—a remnant that alone holds the key to eschatological knowledge—comes across as merely a pompous attempt at piety.

In everyday living we can misconstrue the demands of faith in its perceived conflict with science—to deadly consequences, especially in times of sickness. When we are diagnosed with cancer, destabilizing debility, or another life-threatening disease, the treatment options we take often betray our deepest beliefs. Do we pray or visit the doctor? Most people hedge their bets and combine the two. Sadly, however, there are some in our community who still view treating pneumonia with an antibiotic or breast cancer with chemotherapy, radiation, or even surgery, as demonstrable faithlessness in “following the light we have been given.”

When I was in college, this “light”—the non-medical approach to healthful living—was what Ellen White called the eight natural remedies. Today it is promoted as a cure-all lifestyle with the catchy acronym NEWSTART (Nutrition, Exercise, Water, Sunlight, Temperance, Air, Rest, and Trust). For too many of us, the incredibly successful Loma Linda University Medical School experiment notwithstanding, we view reliance on prayer and these natural remedies as “the only light” given to the church. Simple diseases that are easily treatable by scientific medicines are ignored, leading to needless suffering and premature deaths.

So it is understandable why our young these days have little interest in rehashing the faith/science conflict on the same old grounds. These youth strip the conversation of its superficiality and drill to its core: could we adequately rely on one or the other, faith or science, to cure or ameliorate disease and sickness? It is at this level that we have to decide between vaccinating against a raging virus or opting for prayer and natural remedies alone. This is where the conversation between faith and science should be. Because these are the practical, life-altering decisions that are being made daily in our churches: to follow where science leads or stick with an age-old perceived authority of faith.

This, and not the theological or academic bantering we often engage in about faith and science, is the fundamental nature of the grand experiment that has been going on in the two big Adventist churches in Berrien Springs, Michigan, since the pandemic erupted two years ago. On this battleground, Pioneer Memorial Church, the university church, has generally modeled recommendations from the scientific community: masking, social distancing, and vaccination to fight the virus. Its counterpart, the Village Church, has gone the other way in eschewing masks, social distancing, and vaccination. While the data is incomplete, by one important observational criterion—the number of COVID-related funeral services conducted in the two churches since 2020—it appears one of these two churches has made a pact with death.

The scientific method has an inbuilt recognition that knowledge is not static, that today’s best “truth” could be found wanting tomorrow. New data may necessitate stepping back and sometimes stopping an established treatment regimen because we learn of side effects that do more harm than good. This is the process that required discontinuation of the popular hormone replacement therapy (HRT) of estrogen and progestin. This combination therapy was considered a lifesaver for millions of menopausal women. And for roughly 40 years many swore by it, oblivious that the treatment also increased the risk of disease and death for some. Then in 2002, researchers who were in the middle of a longitudinal clinical trial of the long-term effects of estrogen and progesterone abruptly stopped the study. The data in their unfinished study was too compelling and concerning to carry on. Whether for heart disease, stroke, blood clots, or invasive breast cancer, the aborted study found the therapy’s hazards too great to justify continuing and risking more lives. So they stopped the trial midstream and rang alarm bells, and that is why HRT now comes with a clear warning about its danger, analogous to labeling we use on cigarette boxes.

For the most part, when science gets it wrong, it owns up to and learns from it. This is one clear reason why science continues to thrive and organized religion is at risk of floundering, a lesson all organized religion, and Adventism in particular, needs to learn. For I have yet to come across a belief we got wrong, owned up to, and apologized for. It is a conceit that all our beliefs are Bible-based, that our interpretations are never wrong and thus the church is never wrong. This kind of dogmatic intransigence in the face of manifest error is a recipe for irrelevance and pretended allegiance.

 


Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.

Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found by clicking here.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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