Scientific Facts and Christian Faith:
How Are They Compatible?

by Otto J. Helweg


Otto J. Helweg is Dean of the College of Engineering and Architecture, North Dakota State University.

This article first appeared in USA Today, March 1997, pages 84-86.


INTRODUCTION

One would think the unnecessary battle between science and Christianity had long ago been resolved; however, recent statements by both scientists and theologians belie that thought. For example, Richard Dawkins, an outspoken atheist biologist wrote, "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." On the theological side, some Christian organizations continue to publish anti-evolutionary material that is not acceptable to mainstream science. Interestingly enough, as flawed as some of the scientific statements of Christian organizations have been, they seem to be more informed in science than the anti-Christian scientists have been in theology.

The causes of the science versus Christianity battle may be traced to three errors. First, the proponents on both sides often fail to define the term, "evolution." Second, both sides have failed to see science as a product of a Christian world view. And, finally, both sides confuse the realms (limits) of science and theology.

WHAT IS EVOLUTION?

The American Scientific Affiliation has published an excellent book, Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy, for high school science teachers. In it they list five definitions of "evolution." Micro evolution (breeding programs which have produced hybrids and species adapting to changing environments in minor ways) obviously occurs. Macro evolution (the hypothesis that homo sapiens evolved from a single cell or even from inorganic compounds) is not obvious and much more debatable. Finally "evolution" is sometimes used as a religiously value-laden tenet of naturalistic faith that "Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process..." Few, if any, would disagree that we see minor changes over time in the plant and animal kingdoms. Conversely, few would agree that homo sapiens (along with the rest of the universe) is only a product of chance or random events.

When some biologists refer to the macro evolutionary hypothesis as a "fact," they distort the evidence and cloud the issue. There is considerable debate among biologists and paleontologists about the mechanism and possibility of macro evolution. Consequently, overstating the case for macro-evolution raises a large target for some Christian fundamentalists. This results in attacks on evolutionary biology which distracts biologists from a critical study of their own hypotheses and causes them to band together against a common enemy.

As will be discussed later, extending scientific hypotheses into a theological (metaphysical) world view under the guise of being scientific is completely unwarranted. What ever hypotheses evolutionary biologists espouse (as long as they are limited to biology) say nothing about Who started and sustains the process. Likewise, theologians who read the Bible as a scientific text engage in faulty hermeneutics. It has been convincingly argued that a correct interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative says nothing about the scientific mechanism God used to create the universe.

THE ORIGIN OF MODERN SCIENCE

It surprises many to discover that modern science is basically a product of a Christian world view. The well known Cambridge historian, Herbert Butterfield in his book, The Origins of Modern Science, convincingly argues that what happened in the 16th century and following was not so much a result of new data, but of changed minds. While other cultures have given great discoveries to the human race, such as the introduction of zero from the Hindus and algebra from the Muslims, the Christian West had the unique set of assumptions required by science.

Three main assumptions of modern science are:

The Greek and Roman cultures had none of these assumptions. The gods were fickle and unpredictable; who could know their intentions? Math and philosophy were ends in themselves and not means to discover a rational universe. The traditional Hindu culture saw the universe as cyclical, again with the gods being capricious. Who could know the mind of Kali or Shiva? There was no incentive to show that they ruled over an orderly system. Islam would adapt the Judeo-Christian concept of a creator God and, therefore, conceive of an orderly universe, but Allah is so transcendent that he could not be known in the Christian sense, nor could his universe. There was, then, little incentive to argue for the order of his universe. Classical atheism must hold to strict metaphysical naturalism in which everything occurs by chance or random events. To many, such a world view takes more "faith" than belief in a Creator. At any rate, such a view in the 16th Century would hardly bespeak an orderly universe. If the world is illogical, how can one understand it? If all is a result of chance, what incentive would there be to discover order? Of course, we know that understanding science and technology greatly improves our quality of life, but this is insight after the fact and really borrows from the presuppositions of a Christian culture.

Only a Christian world view seems to fit the three criteria. The created universe is logical as can be seen from numerous Biblical references such as Jeremiah 31:35, "...the Lord, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night..." This universe can be known because the Creator can be known as Paul in Romans 1:19-20 declares, "For what can be known about God is plain ...his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made." Finally, the incentive exists in the direct command in Genesis where God says to "...fill the earth and subdue it..." Thus mankind is to be not only a steward but to master Godís creation.

What surprises some is that many of the founders of modern science were not only Christians, but they were scientists in order to demonstrate that we lived in an orderly universe. They believed that such a demonstration would be powerful evidence that such a universe was created by an orderly God who could be known.

For example Copernicus (1463-1543), one of the first to question Aristotlean cosmology and the geo-centric solar system, was a devout Christian and tolerant toward the reformation. Bacon (1561-1626), another outspoken Christian, formulated the "scientific method" and brought a more quantitative approach to science.

The conflict between the Roman Catholic Church and Galileo (1564-1642) has been used to support the anti-scientific bias of Christianity towards science, but for one who knows the history (see Hummelís book, The Galileo Connection), Galileo had many high ranking Catholics on his side, among whom was Cardinal Baronius who wrote "[The Bible teaches] how one goes to Heaven, not how the heavens go." Galileo, no paragon of tact, delighted in alienating his fellow professors, who were Aristotelians and believed in a geo-centric solar system. It was mainly they who caused the Pope to condemn Galileoís teachings, but Galileoís other Catholic supporters helped broker the final plea bargain. Unfortunately, professors have a history of irrational actions which continues to the present. Kepler (1571-1630) upon whose discoveries our space program rests, wanted to be a minister of the Gospel, but was persuaded to pursue his talents in math and astronomy. In his writings, he frequently quotes psalms and explicitly relates the order of his discoveries to Godís rational creation. Pascal (1625-1662) is certainly one of the greatest minds in this line of founders. He is credited with being the father of probability theory, hydrostatics, mass transit, modern French prose, computers, and Christian Apologetics. His Pensees (notes defending the Christian faith) is a classic work.

Newton (1642-1662) considered his theological writings more important than this scientific. Harvey (1578-1657), Boyle (1627-1691), Faraday (1791-1867), and Maxwell (1831-1879) to name a few, were all devout Christians. Boyle, the first to show the difference between compounds and elements, was a lay preacher. Faraday, the discover of electro-magnetic induction, once only read from the Bible for a sermon saying his words could add nothing to Godís. Maxwell, who discovered magnetic flux, wrote:

Lord, it belongs not to my care
whether I die or live
To love and serve Thee is my share
and that Thy guard must give.

It is an interesting historical question as to why, science, conceived in a Christian culture by many Christians, was turned against Christianity and why Christians allowed this to happen. I give the Huxleys, starting with Thomas (1825-1895), considerable credit along with others who saw science, and especially biology, as answers to questions that had previously been attributed directly to God. Christians, instead of realizing that their own creation was being used against them, "threw the baby out with the bath water" and considered science the problem rather than the misuse of science. There has (and continues to be) a confusion between primary causes and secondary causes. The study of natural science deals with secondary causes while theology studies primary causes. For example, we may explain rain by saying that moisture in the air is cooled below the dew point causing water molecules to condense around dust particles thereby generating precipitation. This is a secondary cause. The primary cause is simply, "God made it rain." In other words, God, who created the physical system, is the cause behind the observable cause.

Some people attempt to explain unknown causes in nature by Godís direct intervention. This has been called, "the God of the gaps." While God could certainly intervene in the natural process (called a miracle), to make God responsible for common natural phenomena means that as each scientific discovery finds a natural explanation of what was previously attributed to God, the direct intervention of God becomes unnecessary. That is, as the gaps in knowledge become smaller, the God of these gaps becomes correspondingly smaller. People with this mentality see science as a threat to their faith. Obviously, were such a view held by the founders of modern science, there would have been no incentive to find answers to the natural phenomena. Understanding these natural phenomena as secondary causes, places God above them where increased ability to explain how they occur not only does not "decrease" God, but adds wonder to His creation.

WHAT ARE THE REALMS OF SCIENCE AND THEOLOGY?

Having discussed the historical rise of modern science and some of the conflicts, the present day battles can be solved by understanding the limits of both science and theology. The following table illustrates the almost complete separation of the realm of theology from that of science. They do not conflict, they complement each other.

Notice that the only intersection of the two almost disjoint sets (columns) is nature. So those who see theology and science as completely unconnected miss the point. Historically, this intersection of nature has lead to what is called the "Teleological Argument," that is, the order of the universe points to an orderly creator, the same point made by many of the founders of modern science. Scientists may study this mechanistic universe and be impressed by it, but in order to understand anything about the Creator, they have to go outside of the four dimensional time-space continuum which limits their studies. Theologians may study the Creator who made this order, but they are bound by His revelations (the Bible) and cannot extrapolate these to make scientific pronouncements.

REALMS OF SCIENCE AND THEOLOGY

ITEM

THEOLOGY

SCIENCE

Assumptions

God is primary cause along with Jesus and the Bible

Orderly universe, cause and effect, etc.

Subjects

God, mankind, spiritual world, absolute truth NATURE

NATURE, forces, material universe

Sources

Bible, Holy Spirit

Natural universe and events

Purposes

Who and metaphysical why

How and immediate why

Language

Qualitative and subjective

quantitative and objective

Method

Biblical studies, experiential, experimenter involved

Observation, experimenter detached

Results

Oughtness, knowing God

What is

Validation

Biblical principles, personal experience

Internal consistency, empirical testing

Limitations

"How" is not explained

"Who" and the metaphysical "why" not explained

The order of the universe is all the more amazing when we understand that order contains information and, according to the more general Second Law of Thermodynamics, nature destroys order (information). That is, just as water runs downhill, the energy in the universe is "running down" and, baring some intervention, the sun and all the stars will burn out and all that will be left is low level radiation.

Robert Gange, in his book, Origins and Destiny, points out that the amount of information in the simplest bacterium is 7 million bits (not the computer bit, but information bits). Think of this number as an exponent. The question then becomes, if the information (order) in the universe is being destroyed, where did the original information come from? Moreover, the universe seems to have been designed to support life. The laws of the universe are so finely tuned to this end, that some scientists have called this order "The Anthropic Principle." For example, if the difference in expansion rate of the universe were different by 10-14 [1.0E-14], the universe would either collapse or no stars could form. It seems that more theoretical physicists than biologists are impressed with this order. The book by physicist Paul Daviesí, The Mind of God give compelling evidence for a Creator.

CONCLUSIONS

Two quotations on the limits of science are instructive.

"Science proves nothing absolutely. On the most vital questions, it does not even produce evidence."
Vannevar Bush, past Chairman of the Board of MIT
"It has become increasingly evident our century that science is uncertain in its very nature.... Indeed one thing of which scientists can be quite certain is that they will not achieve a complete solution of any worthwhile problem."
George Gaylord Simpson, Professor of Vertebrate Paleontology, Harvard

Two quotations on the limits of theology comes from an unlikely source. It was St. Augustine, who wrote in the 5th Century:

"We must be on guard against giving interpretations of Scripture that are far-fetched or opposed to science, and so exposing the Word of God to ridicule of unbelievers."

He also wrote:

"The Spirit of God who spoke through them [authors of the Bible] did not choose to teach about the heavens to men, as it was of no use for salvation."

Notice that it was scientists who understood the limitations of their field and it was a theologian who understood the limits of theology. The final word is for both scientists and theologians to understand and use the "two book" model that goes back at least to Cardinal Baronius of Galileoís time which says that the Bible reveals Godís words while nature reveals Godís works. In other words: The Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. Science and theology are meant to be complements, not combatants. Science gives theology perspective while theology gives science meaning. It is time for a truce.