“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
“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.]