Last month we began a conversation laying the groundwork for negotiating some of those hairpin turns in the culture wars that divide people. Today, we’re turning to the topic of science. There seems to be this culture war right now that tells people, either you can be a Christian or you can be a scientist, but you can’t be both; that the two are incompatible with each other. (This of course cannot be substantiated because some of the world’s top scientists like Dr. Francis Collins who was the Director of the Human Genome Project and is now the Director of the National Institutes of Health are actively Christians.) For me, this topic strongly comes to mind as I think about the youth we have proudly confirmed at the church on Holy Trinity Sunday. This is one of the major topics of controversy that they are facing and it’s so important to give them and us good guidance and encouragement on this topic.
Let me illustrate what the new confirmads are facing. After an internet search for Christianity, I came across some demotivational posters. These posters are parodies of the ones that say things like, “Success. The easiest way to fail is to never try to succeed.” They were all the rage for a while and then these demotivational posters came out that use tongue in cheek humor. Some are funny. Most are obnoxious and I wished I had never seen. Many still are completely insulting, like this one with a picture of Albert Einstein that says, “Dear Christians. People who are opposed to science have no right to use it. So get off of your computers now.” (By the way Einstein never said that) Hearing people speak like that without an understanding of the basics of Christianity and, to be honest, history itself, is insulting, but you can shrug it off and move on. The problem is that this kind of speaking without understanding is one of the things that get in the way of reasonable, careful, and compassionate conversation between people with different points of view.
First thought. Unfortunately, as so often happens, this same kind of speaking without understanding is across the board. Take for example how the word theory is used. The word theory when used outside of the scientific field often times is used to mean more of a guess or a hunch instead of the way it is used in science. Here is a definition of the word “theory” from livescience.com:
“A scientific theory is the framework for observations and facts. Theories may change, or the way that they are interpreted may change, but the facts themselves don’t change. Tanner likens theories to a basket in which scientists keep facts and observations that they find. The shape of that basket may change as the scientists learn more and include more facts. (http://www.livescience.com/21491-what-is-a-scientific-theory-definition-of-theory.html)
Theories are worked on over time, improved or rejected, enhanced and modified. So when a scientist typically uses the word theory they usually do not mean a random hunch or guess, but an interpretation of the facts at hand. What makes a good theory is its staying power. How well it holds up to experimentation and research and what kind of validation it receives across the broad span of scientific fields, from astronomy to biology.
Sometimes I’ve heard people try to differentiate theories from what some might call “working science,” science that creates something like a computer or a car. But that’s not at all correct. For example, the vast majority of our medical advancements—medical advancements that you and I and our loved ones benefit from—come from medical research that is based upon current scientific theory.
Second thought. Much of this controversy comes from a basic misunderstanding of terminology about science but even more so from a belief system that is created about science. But first let’s have a definition of what science is, again from livescience.com:
“Science is a systematic and logical approach to discovering how things in the universe work. It is also the body of knowledge accumulated through the discoveries about all the things in the universe. The word “science” is derived from the Latin word scientia, which is knowledge based on demonstrable and reproducible data, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. True to this definition, science aims for measurable results through testing and analysis. Science is based on fact, not opinion or preferences. The process of science is designed to challenge ideas through research. One important aspect of the scientific process is that it is focuses only on the natural world, according to the University of California. Anything that is considered supernatural does not fit into the definition of science.”
Notice that science is designed to talk about “how” things happen. A comes from B, or this is B, now what was A? That’s what science does, based on demonstrable and reproducible data that focuses on the natural world, not opinion or preference.
But this is where things shift away from science to what is probably best called scientism. Scientism takes some, and only some, of the things learned from observation of the natural world and then forms an opinion that says something like, “and now we know there is no God or spirit, that the material world is the only thing that exists because we can put it in a beaker.” This is a belief system—it says that the only way of knowing is what we can know materially. But we have to be very honest about this; science is not a belief system. As soon as someone adds this kind of belief to science, it stops being science and stops being supported by science and becomes scientism.
Note scientism—the belief that the only things that exist are strictly based in the material realm, that there is no spirit or God or anything at all like that—is something that as Christians we do have a very strong disagreement with. Think about it this way: the kind of belief system that says there is no God or Spirit has the ultimate burden of proof since it has to try to prove the complete negation of something. In essence, it has to be able to say it has been everywhere, and I mean everywhere, seen everything, knows everything, and that simply can never be said honestly or truthfully.
So Christianity and Science are not at all in conflict, but instead there is a conflict between these two belief systems: Christianity and Scientism (and this belief system is not science even if it pretends to be so). I hope that understanding the difference between these things will help all of us, but especially our new confirmads have reasonable, careful and compassionate conversations as we move through life.