Wednesday, September 5, 2007

"No Conflict Between Science and Religion" - What in the World Does that Mean?

On the recommendation of a family member, I started reading Jimmy Carter's 2005 book, Our Endangered Values. I've only read half of it, but I find myself pulled in 2 directions.

On the one hand, Carter seems undoubtedly Evangelical, having shared his faith in Jesus Christ with world leaders and dignitaries whose faiths are indifferent, if not hostile, to his own. He has studied and taught the Bible in a local Church setting for decades. I respect this about President Carter and am jealous of his zeal for evangelism.

On the other hand, while I agree with Carter that America's moral values are in serious trouble, I attribute the cause of moral decline to the exact opposite of whatever he attributes such decline. For example, he believes that the social conflict in America over Church-state relations is not due to the fact that the government (more specifically, the legislature) is taking a stronger stance against Christianity and Its values, but because religious fanatics (fundamentalists, the religious right, etc.) are pushing their morality on the public and forcing religion into politics. I find Carter's logic invalid, his examples circumstantial and his conclusions unsound.

Which brings me to the subject of this post. Chapter 5 of Carter's book is titled, "No Conflict Between Science and Religion." Before starting the book but having browsed the table of contents, I was intrigued and excited to read what he had to say. I also believe that there is no conflict between science and religion and thought that Carter and I would have something to agree on here. However, as I began to read the book and experience the discrepancy described above, I realized that it was highly likely that Carter meant something utterly different than I mean by that phrase. And sure enough, upon reading the chapter, I now know that I have a completely contrary understanding of the relationship between faith and science than does Carter.

At some point in the course of reading the chapter and realizing our disagreement, I recalled that Francis Schaeffer had written a piece about the relationship of science and religion with a similar title to Carter's chapter. I checked volume 2 of Schaeffer's complete works and there it was, No Final Conflict. I doubted highly that Schaeffer and Carter shared the same view but, due to my initial error in judgment about Carter, I wondered if even Schaeffer and I shared the same view. I imagined the 3 of us, all espousing that there is no conflict between science and religion, having three radically different relationships in mind. It's not the potential different perspectives on the relationship that troubles me but that the 3 of us could have different views and all call it the same thing. I have a book entitled, Science and Christianity: Four Views wherein, obviously, 4 different views about the relationship between science and faith are fleshed out. Needless to say, none of the views are called the same thing and the titles clearly describe the content of the perspective, without equivocation.

So I read Schaeffer as well and, thankfully, came to realize that his view of the relationship is quite similar to mine, and quite the contrary of Carter's. But I am still, a week later, working through the reality that "no conflict" can mean two different, and quite opposing things. Let me summarize the views and then let Carter and Schaeffer speak for themselves.

No Conflict: Carter Style - Science and religion do not conflict because the former deals with fact and the latter with faith. Science describes the physical world and how it works, while the Bible describes spiritual world and God's message to man. The conflict we experience is the result of trying to make the Bible relate to science or science to the Bible.

No Conflict: Schaeffer Style - Science and religion do not conflict because both general revelation, i.e. science and special revelation, i.e. the Bible both come from the same non-contradictory God. Whatever conflict we experience as fallible human beings is the result of our inability to rightly understand one or the other.

I believe that most of the supposed conflict between science and faith that we hear of today is the result of a Carter style worldview that is inherited from the Enlightenment. A foundation stone of current secular western thought is the independence of science from religion, a demarcation that says the two don't have anything to do with each another. When we try to mix them we get nothing but contradictions. The Bible says that God created man but science says that man is the result of a mindless evolutionary process. Christianity tells us that the universe has purpose and direction but science shows no sign of these things. Rather than try to wrestle with these problems, if we relegate the Bible to only being God's spiritual message and let science describe empirical reality, we avoid the conflict. Here's how Carter puts it:

1. "I had always understood that we didn't need scientific proof for the existence or character of God. In fact, whenever there was adequate physical evidence to prove any theory or proposition, then we didn't need faith as a basis for our belief."

2. "It seems obvious to me that, in its totality, the Bible presented God's spiritual message, but that the ancient authors of the Holy Scriptures were not experts on geology, biology, or cosmology …"

3. "Whenever there is a scientific discovery or a theory that is proven by the observation of facts, these are just additional revelations to fallible human beings of truths that have always existed. They cannot possibly have an adverse effect on the status of the omnipotent Creator of the entire universe."

4. "The existence of millions of distant galaxies, the evolution of species, and the big bang theory cannot be rejected because they are not described in the Bible, and neither does confidence in them cast doubt on the Creator of it all. God gave us this exciting opportunity for study and exploration, never expecting the Bible to encompass a description of the entire physical world or for scientific discoveries to be necessary as the foundation for our Christian faith."

Carter's position is clear – science and religion do not mix and were never meant to. Controversy arises when we try to cross the firmly established lines between them. If we let each speak only to its own appropriate sphere, all is well.

But do we live this way? Can we live this way? Did God intend for us to live this way? When we ask these questions, Carter style "no conflict" seems to present problems. We don't live as if the science and religion don’t relate. When I read the intricate details of Israel's history (including the miracles) in the Bible, I get the sense that I am supposed to believe both the history and the spiritual significance. In fact, the spiritual significance is deepened and strengthened because it is historical. Conversely, when science tells me that smoking destroys the body I, knowing that my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, see smoking as a negative activity both physically and spiritually. Life doesn't allow us to slice it up and keep its spheres separate and neither does God want that. Of course we don't, "need scientific proof for the existence or character of God." God reveals Himself through many means other than the merely scientific. Nonetheless, He gave us proof, scientific proof (see the results of Intelligent Design research), and it would be foolish to ignore it. So, it seems, Carter's version of no conflict depends on an idealistic impossibility. In addition, Carter's position that faith is not necessary to believe something that has been empirically verified shows that he doesn't understand the Biblical idea of faith nor how much faith is required even in the scientific realm.

But where does that leave us? Science and religion often do seem to conflict. If we are going to propose that they don't, we have some explaining to do. Here's Schaeffer's view:

1. "And there is a reason for being shaken [if the Bible only addresses the spiritual], for there is no reason to keep what the Bible says religiously if we have put it in an upper story and thrown away that of which the Bible speaks when it touches history and the cosmos. God could have given us the religious truths which He sets forth in the Bible in a theological outline. … But instead of this, He gave us religious truths in a book of history and a book that touches on the cosmos as well. What sense does it make for God to give true religious truths and at the same time place them in a book that is wrong when it touches history and the cosmos?"

2. "The Bible is not a scientific textbook—in the sense that science is not its central theme, and we do not have a comprehensive statement about the cosmos. 'The Bible is not a scientific textbook' is true in the sense in which we have just spoken. But many people use the statement in a different way—that is, to say that the Bible does not affirm anything about that in which science has an interest. When the statement is used to mean this, it must be totally rejected. The Bible does give affirmations about that in which science has an interest."

3. "What the Bible teaches where it touches history and the cosmos, and what science teaches where it touches the same areas do not stand in a discontinuity. There must indeed be a place for the study of general revelation …—that is, a place for true science. But on the other side, it must be understood that there is no automatic need to accommodate the Bible to the statements of science. There may be a difference between the methodology by which we gain knowledge from what God tells us in the Bible and the methodology by which we gain it from scientific study, but this does not lead to a dichotomy as to the facts. In practice, it may not always be possible to correlate the two studies because of the special situation involved; yet if both studies can be adequately pursued, there will be no final conflict."

So, when it comes to science and religion, like with the rest of life, we have our work cut out for us. We know that God is one and that His truth is, therefore, unified. There is no real, ultimate conflict between science and religion, no matter how irreparable the breach might seem to us now. When science says one thing and the Bible says something else, we can't side step the issue by proposing a dysfunctionally compartmentalized perspective. Carter style "no conflict" will not work in the long run. Rather, we trust in our consistent God as we strive to integrate the truths of science and religion, understanding that there is, in fact, no final conflict but a beautiful, eternal harmony, even if we never grasp it on this side of Heaven.