Science and faith – Darwin and the Bible; these topics have excited a great deal of interest in our culture of late – and the spate of books on the topic shows little sign of abating. Several resources have appeared to facilitate discussion in college classrooms.  These books try to look at the issues  objectively – with varying degrees of success.

One recent such book is Darwin and the Bible: The Cultural Confrontation by Richard Robbins and Mark Cohen. This book contains a series of chapters by authors ranging from Steven Jay Gould to Phillip E. Johnson. and aims to structure discussion around the historical, theological,  social, and political aspects of the confrontation between science and religion.

The first chapter of the book, written by Mark Cohen, sets the foundation – describing the need for science; the need for faith – separately (his title).  But before we can discuss science and faith we need to agree on the meaning of the terms. According to Cohen “real science is defined by two central properties. If these conditions aren’t met there is no science.”

What constitutes science? What makes one theory scientific and another pseudoscience?

What is science according to Cohen?

First, science is a marketplace of competing ideas about the workings of nature and our potential use of nature’s processes.

It isn’t perfect, scientists are people after all.  Politics, values, ideology, ambition, mistakes, misdirection, can all cause a meander rather than a linear path from point to point. But the system works because it is open and pragmatic – if something works, eventually it is generally accepted.  There are six general factors contributing to the success of an idea:

  1. A theory makes sense in light of related knowledge.
  2. It makes explicit or implicit testable predictions.
  3. It is elegant (fewest possible assumptions or logical leaps).
  4. Tests can be replicated by others.
  5. Can be crosschecked by other methods, ideas, or theories.
  6. Apparent exceptions can be explained satisfactorily.

The principle ideas here are consistency, simplicity, consensus – and time. This is a reasonable description of the scientific process. If an idea – a theory – stands up in the marketplace of ideas over the long run, if it works, it will achieve near universal consensus.  The general principles of the evolutionary theory fall within these guidelines – it works beautifully. Scientific creationism fails. The Intelligent Design movement, and Michael Behe in particular, has put forward some ideas for testing in the marketplace.  These ideas are controversial (but many new ideas are), but more importantly they are not standing up well to the test.

Cohen’s second property of science is more controversial … and worth some discussion.

The second major principle of all science by definition is uniformitarianism.  Any attempt at science must abide by it. Unifomitarianism means that the world operates by natural laws that, at their core, are unchanging, even if they may be shaped by individual circumstances. (p. 28)

So far so good – all science must abide by this principle.  In fact I would say that this is consistent with the idea of a God who created a rational universe.  But then Cohen goes off the deep end …

It means that there are no miracles in defiance of those laws. If there is a God who created, he doesn’t interfere, so we can rely on the laws to be unchanging, hence predictable and usable – or, in the case of prehistory or evolution, reconstructable – if we know enough and think clearly. (p. 28)

In general I agree with this as well. In order to move forward in science we assume that there will be rational explanations for everything we see.  Why would God design a world where he needed to tinker constantly to make things work? But Cohen is far too absolute in his statement.  He essentially eliminates from consideration any personal God and any potential for interaction between God and mankind.

And later in the chapter he makes this clear…

Uniformitarianism means that we are not special, but part of, and subject to, natural laws and processes. Uniformitarian reasoning means that there are no guarantees. God does not intervene. (Being above nature and conquering it are Judeo-Christian ideas. Most world cultures percieve themselves, more accurately, as integral parts of nature and subject to its rules.) In our culture, not being special damages self-esteem both because of the Judeo-Christian heritage and because of our enormous sense of our own superiority. (p. 37).

So what then is Faith according to Cohen?

Science is a discipline that aims to understand the way things work – and to make use of the processes of nature.  As such “miracle” (or Intelligent Design) has no place in a science classroom. 

According to Cohen “faith (whether or not in God) is essential to all human beings.” Faith answers the “why” questions. As such faith is required for individuals and societies to answer questions concerning proper motivation, behavior, morals, values, social organization, altruism, ethics. Everyone, even the adamant secular materialist (yes, even Dawkins) makes faith based assessments in the way he or she lives life. We have no basis for action or morality outside of faith, and it is then essential that we understand the faith motivations of ourselves and others.

But Cohen, while purporting to see separate and valuable spheres for
science and faith, actually relegates faith to a limited and rather
unsatisfactory sphere.  “Faith” in his eye is not capable of any real
explanatory power. Faith doesn’t contribute a valuable worldview and a
Judeo-Christian outlook is misguided.

What is the relationship between science and faith?

This discussion gives path into one aspect of the conflict between science and faith in our world today.  Faith has been neatly partitioned off as one way of knowing, but a way that is in its essence cultural and relative. There is no absolute truth or basis for motivation, behavior, morals, or values. But this wimpy view of faith is inherently unsatisfactory. God has been defined out of the equation in setting, not just the rules for scientific investigation (which I agree with completely), but also the acceptable and “moral” interpretations of the world we see. We are left at best with a moral, cultural, individualistic, deism.

But the Christian gospel in much more robust than this. The gospel needed in our world today (as in the past) is the story of meaning, purpose, and virtue grounded in the interaction of the Creator with his creation. I actually think that faith in God and in the Gospel of Jesus Christ can be subject to the six general factors contributing to the success of an idea – and come out on top. Ultimately faith in God does not require turning off one’s brain to “just believe.”

The same cannot be said for a literal-historical interpretation of Gen 1-11, “scientific” creationism, or even Intelligent Design and irreducible complexity. When we tie the gospel to the “plain” interpretation of Genesis, we undermine the preaching of the Gospel in our world.

What do you think?

What are the proper roles for science and faith in our understanding of the world?

Can science undermine faith in God as revealed through scripture and through his interaction with his people?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

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