Christians Must Confront Scientific Illiteracy

God loves good science

God loves good science

“Interpretation of biblical passages must be informed by the current state of demonstrable knowledge. . . Many non-Christians are well versed in natural knowledge, so they can detect vast ignorance in such a Christian and laugh it to scorn.” — Attributed to St. Augustine.

Last week, I had a blogpost on how some scientists take scientific principles and inaccurately attempt to extend them to philosophical realm without recognizing or acknowledging that these are two different spheres of knowledge.  This generated a fair amount of good discussion in the Comments and via e-mail.

This week, I would like to talk about an equally insidious problem that religious people face in Western culture: an appalling lack of knowledge by many religious people on scientific matters.  I am fortunate to come from a faith tradition that has long supported science and viewed it as

In a fantastic article at Huffington Post, Charles J. Reid, Jr., Professor of Law at St. Thomas University,

“Where science is concerned, responsible Christians are caught in the vice grip of two extremes. On the one hand, there is the defiant and willful ignorance of persons like Congressman Paul Broun (R-Ga.), who famously declared during last fall’s election cycle that “evolution and the big bang theory are lies straight from the pit of hell.” And on the other hand, there is the cool atheism of someone like Richard Dawkins, contentedly dismissing the whole of religious experience as the magical thinking of the great superstitious mass of humankind.

Christians must provide effective witness against both extremes. But before Christianity can engage atheism it must first address the scientific illiteracy in its own house. For the greatest danger Christianity confronts at the present moment is not incipient persecution, but increasing marginalization and irrelevance. If Christians cannot engage reasonably and responsibly with science, there will be no place for them in the public life of advanced societies.”

Professor Reid goes on to further highlight the fantastic scientific discoveries that Christian clerics have made over the centuries, including

  • Nicolaus Copernicus (Catholic monk), who was the first to mathematically articulate a heliocentric theory of the solar system;
  • Gregor Mendel (Augustian monk), who is the father of modern genetics; and
  • Georges Lemaître (Belgian priest), who first devised the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe.

Modern Christians who have made significant contributions to science include Francis Collins, leader of the team that mapped the human genome, and John Polkinghorne (Anglican priest), member of a team that discovered the quark.

My personal recent favorite is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, paleontologist and geologist from the early 20th century.  Teilhard de Chardin was Catholic Jesuit priest who studied human evolution.  Teilhard de Chardin was a leader of the team that discovered the Peking Man, now known as Homo Erectus, in 1929.  Teilhard worked hard to integrate his scientific findings into a broad vision of Christianity.  Although Teilhard had some disagreements with the Church during his lifetime on the theological implications of evolution, the Church fully supported and encouraged Teilhard’s scientific research and publications.  Today, Teilhard’s core ideas on the marriage of evolution (both cosmic and biological) and theological evolution (all of natural and spiritual creation is evolving towards a deeper union with God) is accepted as part of mainstream Christian theology.

So it is very frustrating when a vocal minority of Christians deny basic scientific facts or inquiry.  Not only does this cast all Christians in a negative light, it also diminishes the wonder of a loving God who has created the vast cosmos with exquisite scientific and artistic detail and precision.  

The Christian Gospel message is a compelling story.  The message of unity, love and peace resonates with the deepest longings of humanity for a sense of purpose and meaning in life.  The Christian Gospel message is supported by all forms of human knowledge, from sciences, arts, music, philosophy, history, divine revelation and human experience.  In a Western society that so values scientific knowledge, Christians should embrace good science as Christianity has done over the 2,000 years, recognizing that good science ultimately points to the Truth of God’s revelation.

[Update:  In honor of St. Dominic, the patron saint of scientists, I did a blogpost on famous scientists who were also strong Christians.]

About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog (www.teilhard.com) explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
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10 Responses to Christians Must Confront Scientific Illiteracy

  1. I agree with your post – scientific illiteracy is a problem across the board. I’m truly dismayed by the large volume of individuals who have gravitated towards radical positions such as the anti-vaccine movement. Individuals from these sorts of causes tend to espouse a vitalistic philosophy on human health completely divorced from modern medical understanding. The pervasiveness of this sort of thinking is so widespread that I’ve even hear fellow MD/PhD students referring to the need to “detox.”

    Although a number of people are attracted to atheism, especially New Atheism, because they might get a charge out of conflict or because it gives them a feeling of superiority, I would dispute Reid’s characterization of atheism as “cool.” According to Pew Research Studies, over 50% of the public regularly rates their opinion of atheists as unfavorable (http://www.pewforum.org/Public-Expresses-Mixed-Views-of-Islam-Mormonism.aspx). Bear in mind that there are a large number of atheists who either don’t call themselves that, or hide there beliefs. There are a substantial group of silent atheists in this country, and data suggests that the group is growing (http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx). Unfortunately, some atheists are also poorly informed on scientific matters.

    I also like to caution you against falling into the No True Scotsman fallacy. You said, “a vocal minority of so-called Christians consciously turn away from God’s revelation in the form of scientific facts.” As I’m sure Jesus would be the first to point out, failing to live up to his teachings doesn’t separate you from the body of Christ.

    My current opinion (imperfect) on anti-science rhetoric, in the USA, is that it is a legacy of the Protestant Reformation. When Christianity began to split as a result of the corrupt practices of the Renaissance Catholic Church, reformers insisted on the ability to have a direct personal relationship with God. The privilege of doing what you like and claiming God supported the action thus passed from the Catholic Church and it’s officers to individuals. Anyone could then claim a personal divine revelation. This developed, especially in America, into modern evangelical Christianity which seems to be linked with a disdain for science, exemplified in the widespread denial of Evolution. If I believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God, and I have a personal relationship with him that confirms this, I can believe anything in the Bible literally – and if scientists disagree then they are wrong.

    The central problem seems to me, as an atheist, to be that once you acknowledge faith as a valid route to knowledge then you can have faith in anything and know it to be true. There is nothing more inherently corrosive to science then this sort of attitude. Postmodern relativism is also a significant problem in this regard. Oddly enough, there seems to be nothing more corrosive to religious faith then a deep knowledge of science, judging by the fact that (different polls have placed the percentage of the American Academy of Sciences at between 72 – 93% atheist). This doesn’t support the idea that science and religion necessarily conflict, but it is an elegant demonstration that as you educate a population in science they will tend to be less religious.

    I have great respect for religious individuals who live the best aspects of their faith (and ignore the other parts) but thinking knowledge can be achieved through faith is inevitably going to result in a group of people who disagree with science on the basis of their faith.

    • Patrick: Excellent comments. Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I agree with 95% of what you said so I will just highlight a few areas for further discussion.

      [I also like to caution you against falling into the No True Scotsman fallacy. You said, “a vocal minority of so-called Christians consciously turn away from God’s revelation in the form of scientific facts.” As I’m sure Jesus would be the first to point out, failing to live up to his teachings doesn’t separate you from the body of Christ.]

      Touché. You are correct that I got carried away with hyperbole and have corrected that. I do believe that all humanity is part of the part of the Body of Christ, whether they are believers or non-believers.

      [The central problem seems to me, as an atheist, to be that once you acknowledge faith as a valid route to knowledge then you can have faith in anything and know it to be true.]

      Faith has to be supported by reason to be legitimate. As Blessed John Paul II said “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth”. To further the analogy, if the wing of reason is not functioning, the human spirit is flapping on the ground rather than seeking the Truth. The discipline of science is an excellent example of how reason can inform faith or modify the understanding of faith in search of the Truth. For believers, the wonders of cosmology and evolution have opened their faith to a deeper understanding of reality and a wider horizon of the Creator. Set forth below is the beginning of a fairly in-depth piece on the symbiosis between faith and reason in the search for meaning from a Christian perspective:

      “In both East and West, we may trace a journey which has led humanity down the centuries to meet and engage truth more and more deeply. It is a journey which has unfolded—as it must—within the horizon of personal self-consciousness: the more human beings know reality and the world, the more they know themselves in their uniqueness, with the question of the meaning of things and of their very existence becoming ever more pressing. This is why all that is the object of our knowledge becomes a part of our life. The admonition Know yourself was carved on the temple portal at Delphi, as testimony to a basic truth to be adopted as a minimal norm by those who seek to set themselves apart from the rest of creation as “human beings”, that is as those who “know themselves”.

      Moreover, a cursory glance at ancient history shows clearly how in different parts of the world, with their different cultures, there arise at the same time the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life? These are the questions which we find in the sacred writings of Israel, as also in the Veda and the Avesta; we find them in the writings of Confucius and Lao-Tze, and in the preaching of Tirthankara and Buddha; they appear in the poetry of Homer and in the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles, as they do in the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle. They are questions which have their common source in the quest for meaning which has always compelled the human heart. In fact, the answer given to these questions decides the direction which people seek to give to their lives.

      http://tinyurl.com/46wut

      [thinking knowledge can be achieved through faith is inevitably going to result in a group of people who disagree with science on the basis of their faith.]

      Again, this is true only if you divorce faith from reason, which I believe is ontologically impossible. M.I.T. Department of Physics did a survey earlier this year on Science, Religion and Origins. The study looked at the various positions of non-believers and believers on whether there was a conflict between faith and science. The study ranked the strength of each belief system for the support of science. The results were fascinating in that atheists, Catholics and mainline Protestants all ranked the highest in the support of science. Smaller denominations of Christians were anti-science. Non-Christians ranged from insufficient information to mildly supportive. The full survey can be found here.

      http://space.mit.edu/home/tegmark/survey.html

      I am hoping to do a blogpost on the survey in the next few weeks.

      • Thank you for your reply, your comments have helped me to understand your position. I am curious, in you theology why did God make man with the capacity of reason but make reason insufficient to know him fully? My understanding is that God and faith in him is perceived as something nourishing and needed, both in this life and the next. God gave us the capacity to feel and reason about our other needs in a clear manner. For example, I feel hunger, I know I need food, science also is capable of explaining why I need food and no faith is needed in food as such. Many people clearly feel a need for God in their lives, but while the faith they address the need with may be guided by reason, it is not sufficient. Why couldn’t God live, physically with us, teaching us in a personal way. Or put another way, why didn’t Jesus stay on earth after the Resurrection? I realize that you could probably do several blog posts on that alone, I just found myself wondering about it.

      • Hi Patrick:

        Great questions and comments as usual. There is lot to cover and philosophers have been asking this question for thousands of years, if not longer. I will attempt to briefly summarize my own views on these questions.

        Humans have the capacity for reason, but reason can only go so far in explaining the complexity of what it means to be human. That statement is not natural for me to write as I am fairly analytical and skeptical by nature. I spent the majority of my adult life as a non-theist. I was never an atheist, but I was generally in the agnostic (it is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God) camp. I leaned towards deism as I appreciated the mathematical precision and beauty of the universe. However, I did not believe in a personal God, as it was not “logical”. If there was an entity that was powerful enough to create the Universe, why did this entity care about a violent species on a small planet in a remote part of a middling galaxy. To me, a Creator caring about humans made as much sense as a human caring about the bacteria that was crawling on her skin.

        I mostly spent my time focusing on building a career and did not spend much time reflecting on the meaning of life. Mostly I was happy but there were some specific instances that led me to deeper reflection. For example, I am blessed to have two wonderful boys. I still remember the first time that I was able to see and hold each of them. Those were deeply personal and emotional events for which I did not believe that purely biological explanations were adequate (despite the best attempts of Dawkins, et. al.). There were similar experiences that I had for which purely rational or biological explanations were inadequate. As a result, I started becoming more philosophically inquisitive, looking at the great philosophies and religions across cultures for explanations.

        I ultimately ended back at Christianity, but it was an entirely different worldview than the limited notion of God I had in my youth. (I felt a bit like St. Augustine or G.K. Chesteron, wandering in the wilderness before coming home). Coming across the writings of Teilhard de Chardin had a major impact on my worldview (hence this humble blog). His great vision is that humanity is continuing to evolve both biologically and spiritually towards God (or Omega Point). Looking back at the progress that Homo Sapiens have made over the last 100,000 years, and the fact that this progress continues to accelerate (albeit not always in a straight line) supports this view. On a personal level, I believe that each of us is unique and has an internal desire to search for the Truth.

        There are a couple of great resources that highlight these themes. First, a fantastic book published by the philosopher Brendan Purcell called “From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution”, which explores both the scientific and non-scientific aspects of human consciousness in a comprehensive, yet easy-to-read format.

        http://tinyurl.com/ofrzlsr

        The second, which is very simple yet very profound, is an adaptation I had from an excerpt from the science fiction author Julian May. May wrote the Galactic Milieu series (named after the Divine Milieu of Teilhard de Chardin), which is a futuristic world where humans have evolved to develop telepathic and PK communications and have made contact by other sentient beings. Although May’s work is pure science fiction genre, she briefly introduces philosophical and religious themes. Below is a link to an adaption of a telepathic communication between a Mother and a soon-to-be born son discussing the “illogicallness” of Christianity.

        http://wp.me/a3pJsV-31

        Peace,
        W. Ockham

  2. I had the opportunity to page through the link you provided to some of May’s writing. I have to say that if I was an interlocutor in that particular conversation my responses would have been rather different. Ultimately, I suppose the the illogical content of Christianity is non-problematic if you adopt the view that reason alone is insufficient to describe the human experience. Considering the success of reason and science in explaining the world and our experiences in it to date, and the numerous demonstrations that explanations Religions have given for similar phenomena are false, I tend to think we should stick with reason. Arguing that it is insufficient and therefore we need faith/religion feels like a more vague form of the God of the Gaps argument applied to reason and the realm of human experience rather than purely scientific matters.

    Morality is an excellent example of a topic in which Religion has had a paramount role. However, thanks to the work of numerous excellent moral philosophers, we now how several excellent rationales for morality that are entirely secular, i.e. based on reason alone. One in particular I can recommend is Derek Parfit’s recent work “On What Matters.” It’s a really amazing book that combines the work of Kant with both Social Contract theory and Consequentialism/Utilitarianism to make a serious case for an objective secular morality. I think this is an excellent example of how, when we cease relying on religion we can forge advances in the human condition outside the realm of Science.

    • Patrick: Thank you for your excellent insights.

      [“Considering the success of reason and science in explaining the world and our experiences in it to date, and the numerous demonstrations that explanations Religions have given for similar phenomena are false, I tend to think we should stick with reason. Arguing that it is insufficient and therefore we need faith/religion feels like a more vague form of the God of the Gaps argument applied to reason and the realm of human experience rather than purely scientific matters.”]

      We keep coming back to the fundamental issue: whether there is a dimension (or dimensions) of reality beyond the material world. I posit that there is a dimension of reality (the spiritual dimension) beyond the material world and there is no conflict, and can never be a conflict, between science and faith because they are two complementary ways of looking at the ultimate multi-dimensional reality. A simple analogy in the material world are the senses. If there is a steak on the grill, we may be able to see the steak with our eyes, smell it with our noses and hear the sizzle with our ears. These senses complement each other in the search for the proposition that there is a steak on the grill. To borrow another analogy from the material world, a blind person may not be able to see UV radiation that is within the spectrum of normal human eyesight, but that does not mean such UV radiation does not exist if it can be discerned by other means.

      This leads to the question of ethics and morality. Or rephrasing the issue, what does it mean to be a human being, and what obligation (if any) does a human being have to others. Are humans self-contained beings or are they part of a broader matrix of connections with other humans and other parts of creation? You are correct that both moral philosophers can address this question in a logical manner without reference to religion. However, IMO whenever you create a value system based on reference to others (whether it be social contract theory, utilitarianism or otherwise), there is an inherent assumption that there exists something beyond the individual, whether it be a social contract or a concept of a “greater good”. These concepts presuppose that there is a dimension (or dimensions) of existence beyond the material world. If all we are is matter, then propagation of our individual genes and the pursuit of our own satisfaction. During my agnostic phase of life of life, I was very attracted to Ayn Rand’s objectivism because if there is no reality beyond the material world, I logically believe that the primary value should be the individual, without any reference to others. Yet, humans of all recorded times and all recorded cultures have had an innate sense of basic ethics, even if there have been variations and changes (evolution) over time. Dawkins and others have attempted to bridge this gap through the selfish genes or similar biological theories but I believe these to be inadequate. Further, pure biological theories do not address deep emotions of unrelated biological persons (spouses, adopted children, etc.), nor do they address non-material items such as art or music that do not inherently promote the survival of the human race.

      Granted, none of the statements above lead to any type of religion, much less a theistic religion such as Christianity. Non-theistic beliefs such as Buddhism and Deism can adequate address the moral questions by assuming a spiritual connection among humans and others. However, the common starting point for Theists, Buddhists and Deists, in contrast to materialists, is that reality is more than simply the material universe.

      With that said, thank you the recommendation on Parfit’s book. It looks very interesting and I look forward to reading it. Hopefully it will address some of my questions.

      Peace,
      W. Ockham.

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