Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Science vs. Religion: Thoughts on Handling Apparent Conflicts

"While many Christians and non-Christians see the two [love of science and a desire to serve God] as in perpetual conflict, I find they integrate well. They operate by the same principles and are committed to discovering foundational truths. My passion... is helping Christians see how powerful a tool science is to declare God's glory and helping scientists understand how the established scientific discoveries demonstrate the legitimacy and rationality of the Christian faith." ~ Dr. Jeffrey Zweerink, UCLA Assistant Researcher and RTB Scholar

When people find out that my educational background is in physics and that I just graduated from seminary, I am often asked about the alleged conflict between science and religion/faith. When the questions come from a fellow Christian, they generally ask how I can merge the two without giving up my commitment to the inspiration, authority, inerrancy, and infallibility of Scripture (all things to which I am completely committed). This is a very important question and usually I find it comes from people hungry to hear something besides "God said it, I believe it, that settles it" or "religion simply causes fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and suffering." I enjoy being asked the question because it gives me a chance to try to help others realize there is no inherent conflict between science and the Christian faith, and that the alleged conflict is simply played up by many of the so-called "new atheists" and media hype.

What is a Christian to do when they come across "scientific fact" that seems to conflict with Scripture? Below are several things that I keep in mind when I see headlines or read the latest "new atheist" rant. Not all these things will be possible all the time, but they are things to look for and keep in mind that will help us sort these issues out (this is by no means an exhaustive list and I or others may modify or add to it later):
  • Remember the world in which we live... and do not be surprised: I sometimes find myself astonished that someone would treat me with contempt or patronize me like a child when they find out I am a Christian and a scientist, and then, when I come to my senses, I remember that I should expect nothing less. This is exactly what Jesus told us to expect. Christians are a people whose highest allegiance is God Himself and His written Word is the highest authority in our lives. We, however, live in a world whose highest allegiance is any number of idols, particularly human reason. These ultimate allegiances are going to come into contact and, as the man used to sing, "something's gotta give." But, neither side is willing to give up their allegiance. The world looks to reason as the only self-authenticating authority and will not tolerate Christians who look to the Bible as the only self-authenticating authority (of course, Christianity does not deny the value of reason but places it in its rightful place: under God). So, do not be surprised when the alleged conflict is amplified or someone claims your belief is "unwarranted." This is part of the world in which we live.
  • Check the source and wait: Sometimes discoveries made by scientists are either reported by the media too early (and incorrectly) or later debunked by further testing and experimentation. In the first case, take note of what you are reading in media articles and from where the information came. Did it come from a published, peer-reviewed article or from a presentation at a scientific conference? There can be a big difference in the reliability of the data. At conferences, researches share raw, infant ideas that can range from Nobel prize concepts to junk and dead ends. Sometimes unpublished, un-peer-reviewed claims are portray as scientific fact when even the researchers would not say that. If you have the knowledge and ability to check the claims, do it. If not, wait and see if further information on the subject comes up after the research has made it through the peer-review system (make use of Google Alerts). If the media story does come from a reputable journal, try to check the reporting and claims by doing your own research or asking a friend who might have expertise in the area. If that is not possible, I would recommend asking my friends at Reasons to Believe, but, as a distant second, I offer my assistance (at times I talk about scientific discoveries from a biblical perspective, some examples are here, here, here, here, and here). When all else fails, wait and follow the story (again, make use of Google Alerts)  Sometimes mistakes can happen, like the recent neutrino debacle (read the before and after) or claims can be over blown, like the Ida circus stunt. When so many people are trying to make a name for themselves, this is the nature of the beast and eventually bogus claims are exposed. 
  • Try to separate the data from the interpretation of the data: This can be a huge help when trying to deal with scientific claims that apparently contradict Scripture. There is a difference between scientific data and interpretation of that data. The data is the raw information brought to light by a study or a discovery and that data has to be interpreted with a model or paradigm to figure out what it means and where it fits. Everyone interprets data within a model or paradigm (whether we know it or not) based on our beliefs and worldview. A scientific model refers to the schematic description of a system (or set of data) that accounts for observations and inferences as well as origin and history. It is a paradigm that attempts to offer reasonable explanations for the entire scope or history of a particular system in nature, as well as for its relationship to other phenomena. Particle physics has the Standard Model, for example. There are other models, like naturalistic evolution. Data taken in by various fields of science is generally interpreted within the accepted model. What you are likely reading in a media article (even a journal article) is not the data itself (for that would not sell advertising) but an interpretation of that data. Christians need to separate the data from its interpretation and interpret it within a biblical model. If we really believe God created the universe and wrote Scripture, then we know the data will fit within a biblical model, we just have to do the work of separation and interpretation. Sometimes the interpretations will be almost identical; other times there will be significant differences. For example, see my articles on the historicity of Adam and Eve. Now, again, this can be a very difficult thing to do for someone who does not have access to journal articles (to get the data) or the necessary training to understand and interpret the data. As mentioned above, try to check the claims by doing your own research or asking a friend who might have expertise in the area. If that is not possible, again I would recommend asking my friends at Reasons to Believe, but, again as a distant second, I offer my assistance.
  • Remember that everyone is biased... everyone: If there is one good thing that postmodernism has done for society, it is to shown that everyone is biased and no one has the ability to lay aside completely their personal presuppositions. We interpret every piece of data not only in a model (see above) but according to our own presuppositions. As stated above, one of the common modern presuppositions is that human reason is a self-authenticating authority. Another might be that evolution is a scientific fact. We need to look for the hidden presuppositions in bold statements and ask how they might be affecting a person's interpretation of the data. We should not berate others because they have biases (for we all have them), but we should try to help them see how their biases are affecting their interpretation and how other interpretations from other presuppositions are equally valid.
  • Remember that God is the God of general and special revelation: Article 2 of the Belgic Confession states: "We know Him [God] by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: His eternal power and his divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20. All these things are enough to convict men and to leave them without excuse. Second, He makes Himself known to us more openly by His holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life, for His glory and for the salvation of His own." What the authors of this great confession were pointing out is that God is the God of all truth, whether it comes from nature or Scripture. This means that science and Scripture will perfectly harmonize when we are interpreting both correctly. The apparent contradictions crop up when we or others are misinterpreting one or both "books." All apparent contradictions are just that, apparent, and not real. Sometimes it takes a lot of hard work and time to figure out where we or someone else has gone wrong in interpretation, but we must never forget that any contradictions are a manifestation of human fallibility, not inherent to God's Word or world. 
  • Be humble: Remember, you and I are just as fallible, biased, and sinful as the most hardened, virulent "new atheist." The only difference between us and them is that we have God's grace, forgiveness, salvation, and Holy Spirit (not from anything in us but as a gift so no man can boast, Eph. 2:8-9). The only reason that you and I understand and believe the Scriptures is the Spirit's illumination (1 Co. 2:9-12), therefore be humble when responding to critics, evaluating someone's work, or discussing apparent contradictions with others.
  • Pray: When Nehemiah stood before the King Artaxerxes to request permission to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls around the new Temple, he was in a tenuous spot. He could have been killed for his request. In 2:4 the king asks the question "What are you requesting?" and before Nehemiah responded Scripture tells us that he prayed. In that moment, few seconds, he prayed for wisdom and God gave it to him. We need to pray for wisdom when trying to figure these things out. Sometimes they are very difficult (if they were not, there would not be all the controversies we find ourselves in today). We need to pray that God will help us sort out the truth from interpretation, the facts from presuppositional errors; and we need to pray that He will help us come to a proper understanding of both His Word and His world. 
  • Remember that God is still God, even if you cannot figure it out: Friends, let us be honest, we are not going to figure everything out. Even the best scholars sometimes have to say, "I don't know." We must remember that even if something seems contradictory and after all our research we still cannot figure it out, God is still God and Jesus is still coming back. I hate not being able to figure something out as much as the next guy, but sometimes (rarely but sometimes) we need to admit it is too much for us, trust God, and go get a milkshake. 
By His Grace,

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