Is Christianity the Enemy of Science?
By: Glenn S. Sunshine|Published:
Answering the Church's Critics
The recent spate of books by anti-theists (such as Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris) has recycled a number of old arguments against belief in God in general and Christianity in particular. While none of the challenges are particularly new and have been answered effectively many times (with answers in some cases going back to the Middle Ages and even the late Roman Empire), our lack of knowledge of the long history of apologetics in the Church has made it appear as if the case the anti-theists make is stronger than it really is.
In this article, we will explore why the specific charge that Christianity is irrational, anti-intellectual, and anti-science sticks so readily on the Church, as well as look at one response to the idea that Christianity is the enemy of science.
A simple glance at the walls of your local Christian bookstore demonstrates how far we have gone down this road toward anti-intellectualism. In Elizabethan England, the bestselling books were collections of sermons and works of serious theology, many of which are still studied today. Look at the shelves now, and ask the owner what kinds of books and materials are selling. Ask to see the apologetics or biblical commentary section, and compare it to the more therapeutic, “feel good” sections of the store. How many of these books will still be read and studied in 400 years?
This is not an attack on Christian bookstores—they need to stay in business, and so they stock what sells. The question is: Where is the demand for more serious works that stretch our minds? The fact is, the market is not there (except for a few popular authors), and so the stores cannot afford to stock them. In our desire to preserve the simplicity of the Gospel, we have ignored Christ’s command to love God with our minds—something Jesus thought was so important that He added the word to the text of Deuteronomy 6:5.
But even before the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, Western culture had begun drawing a line between science as the world of fact, and religion as the world of faith. This division, explored in Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth, is a critical element of how the Western world has approached the relationship of Christianity and science since the Enlightenment. The basic idea is that anything that belonged to the world of facts has nothing to do with religion, and anything religious has nothing to do with fact, just opinion or faith. The two are seen as incompatible worlds that do not touch.
So scientists can simultaneously accept undirected evolution—a view that was expressly intended to take God out of the picture of creation—and yet believe in God and even be a member of one of the historic Christian churches. But compartmentalizing our thinking like this—religion here, science there, ethics in that corner, and so on—not only results in a disintegrated view of the world, but it implicitly rejects Christ’s claim to be Lord of all, which includes nature, science, fact, ethics, meaning, as well as faith.
Quite simply, the Christian world has largely abandoned an integrated worldview, and has lost its mind as a result. One of the most urgent needs of the Church today is to recover intellectual life for the service of the kingdom of God.
MAKING SCIENCE POSSIBLE
Here, I want to look at the question from a different angle, one more directly in keeping with the need for an integrated understanding of the world and our place in it: Which worldview, Christianity or materialism (that is, the idea that the physical universe of matter and energy is all that exists), provides a surer foundation and motivation for studying the natural world? Or, more simply, which worldview makes it possible to do science—the search for explanations of why the physical world works as it does?
The biblical worldview teaches that God made the universe. Since God is a rational being, He constructed the universe in a rational way. In other words, it is possible to make sense of it. The biblical worldview also teaches that human beings are made in the image of God. Being an image-bearer of God has a number of important implications; but for our purposes, it means we are rational, because God is rational. Although our rationality is finite and God’s is infinite, it is nonetheless possible for us to “think God’s thoughts after Him” and discover the rules that govern the universe. Moreover, Christians throughout history have believed that God revealed Himself in the natural world, and thus we could come to know Him better by studying it. These studies, known as natural theology or natural philosophy, are the historical roots of science and a major motivating factor for many of the key figures of the Scientific Revolution.
These aspects of the biblical worldview also explain why what we know today as modern science developed only in the Christian West, and not in other areas of the world that had different worldviews. For example, in the East, the physical world was seen as an illusion, a dream in the mind of God. That being the case, the highest use of the mind was meditation to see past the illusion, not attempting to make sense of how the illusion worked. As a result, Asian countries produced remarkable technologies, but no science in the sense of a coherent, non-philosophical explanation of the physical world.
In the Muslim world, it was believed that God directly controlled everything. This had important consequences for how the natural world was viewed. For example, while medieval theologians were working on early forms of scientific laws, the prominent Sufi scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazali argued that the very idea that there were laws governing the physical universe was an attempt to limit Allah’s freedom and was therefore blasphemous. Muslims who argued for ideas like this were contradicting the Qur’an, making them infidels and thus subject to execution. The net effect of this kind of thinking was that Muslims excelled at math and practical disciplines like astronomy, geography, and medicine (up to a point), but did not develop science—that is, the search for answers to questions about the natural world through a process from hypothesis to theory.
WHAT ABOUT MATERIALISM?
Materialistic explanations of the universe have to rely on one of two explanations for where the universe came from. The first is that the universe is eternal. This idea runs into problems almost immediately because of the second law of thermodynamics. This law states that the useable energy in a closed system is constantly decreasing, which means that an eternally old universe would have run out of useful energy by now. To solve this problem, some physicists argue that the universe can reset itself periodically by collapsing and re-forming in what is known as an oscillating universe. While there are logical problems with this idea (see William Lane Craig’s The Kalam Cosmological Argument), it still leaves us with our current universe having a starting point.
This brings us to the second version of materialism, which argues that the universe came into existence at a specific moment in an event known as the Big Bang. While Christians see the Big Bang as having been initiated by God, the materialist version of the theory argues that the universe essentially brought itself into existence. How this is possible is a mystery, and this led the scientific establishment, which was wedded to the idea of an eternal universe, to resist the idea of the Big Bang when it was first proposed: The only way to make logical sense of a universe that came into existence was to argue for a creator, something a materialist can never do. Only when the old guard died off and the evidence for the Big Bang became overwhelming was the idea accepted.
The key question in the Big Bang is where the universe came from. Unfortunately, since the laws of physics as we know them may not apply prior to the Big Bang, there is no way of knowing this. (An oscillating universe theory could conceivably argue that the laws of physics are eternal, but since it is impossible to look before the Big Bang, there is no evidence for this, and it would specifically require that the fundamental second law of thermodynamics be reversible and thus not eternal.) However the laws of physics came into existence, they led to the formation of galaxies and planets. On at least one of these planets, chemicals combined to produce organic compounds, which in turn combined with others, and somehow the compounds organized themselves and came to life, despite the well-known law of biology that life does not come from non-life.
Given the extreme implausibility of this happening—it is well beyond mathematical possibility—some thinkers have posited an infinite number of universes, with ours being the lucky one in which the impossible actually happened. Others have suggested that life on earth arrived here from outer space, but that does not solve the basic problem of how it arose in the first place: In fact, it makes it worse. If the universe is not old enough for the process to have occurred on Earth, having life come from another planet shortens the time even more, because now you have to take into account the extra time it takes for it to travel from wherever it developed to Earth.
In any event, somehow life began on earth, and by a process of random mutation, living organisms grew progressively more complex as survival of the fittest weeded out weaker, non-competitive life forms. Eventually, out of these random processes, human beings evolved. Our brains, which are the product of random mutations that enabled us to survive in the distant past, have somehow also developed the capacity to decipher the laws of the universe. This is what enables us to do science.
RANDOMNESS V. RATIONALITY
What makes better sense: to believe an explanation with so many “somehows” that provides no real answer to how you can trust the conclusions of human thinking, or to accept the idea that the universe is rational, and we can understand it, because that is how it was all designed?
Far from being the enemy of science, the biblical worldview provides the essential foundation that makes science possible. It provides a coherent explanation of both the comprehensibility of the universe and the capabilities of human reason—something materialism cannot do. In fact, materialism’s reliance on unexplained events—the source of matter and energy, the origin of the laws of physics, the ability of the human mind to understand the world, and so on—requires far more acts of faith than Christianity.
Glenn Sunshine, a key faculty member for BreakPoint’s Centurions Program, is chair of the department of history and professor of early modern European history at Central Connecticut State University. He has published two books on the Reformation including The Reformation for Armchair Theologians, a popular history of the Reformation. His next book, tentatively titled How We Got Here: Why You Think the Way You Do, will be published by Zondervan.