Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Science Wars

The term war conjures up powerful emotions. In most cases a war is a battle between those holding differing ideologies. Most often people associate war with armed conflict. Other disputes could result only in verbal exchanges or other hostile actions short of armed conflict. Many would be surprised to learn that groups of scientists sometimes strive with one another about their practices, conclusions, and the philosophy guiding their work. Sometimes science as a general discipline could be perceived to be at war with a completely different discipline or school of knowledge. One of the best-known examples is the alleged war between science and religion--Christianity in particular.

On October 27, 2010, Walter Bradley addressed participants at the Vibrant Dance of Science and Faith Symposium in Austin, TX. His topic was the alleged war between science and Christian faith. Bradley co-authored The Mystery of Life’s Origin in 1984. The book was one of the first to tackle the origin of life issue from a creationist and intelligent design perspective. Contrary to the popular claims of well-known atheist scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Bradley stated that claims of a running conflict between science and faith have been exaggerated. Nevertheless, the relationship between the domains of science and faith has been complex and interesting.

Andrew Dixon White, Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) co-founder and first president, wrote a provocative two volume History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in 1896. He claimed religious leaders had long attempted to interfere with science progress. White’s thesis became influential in molding public attitudes. It has been largely discredited, but its effects linger today in the public consciousness. Instead of the “interdigitation” of science and faith optimistically addressed earlier in the Vibrant Dance conference by Andy Crouch, many people within and outside the church still do not perceive faith and science as “vibrant dance partners.”

Bradley discussed four models of the science/religion relationship. More time was devoted to the “conflict” model than the other models, because the perception of conflict may still be more prevalent in our culture. Enlightenment figures from the 17th/18th centuries have been wrongly reported as promoting the idea that religious figures suppressed scientific investigation and knowledge. That model has little basis in fact. Many early scientists of that era were Christians, including Pascal, Newton, Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler. As centuries passed, other scientists of faith appeared, such as Maxwell, Kelvin, and Faraday.

With the secularization of higher education around the time of Darwin, Christian creationist views came under attack. Later, from 1910-1990, the “warfare” was actually fomented by Christians whose hermeneutical frameworks did not permit them to accept scientific discoveries on the age of the earth and the beginning of the universe in a “Big Bang” creation event.

Materialistic worldviews conflicted with the Christian worldview. Naturalism (“Nature is all there is”) and scientism (appealing solely to the authority of science) began to achieve status as popular worldviews. More recently, from about 1990 to the present, a shift occurred. Intelligent Design proposals posited that evidence in the natural world supports the inference of an Intelligent Designer. Meanwhile, creationists of all stripes, both old and young earth, have attempted to reconcile the words of the Bible with correct interpretations of modern science.

Aggressive, militant atheist scientists are the most high-profile proponents of a science/religion disconnect. They have attracted a lot of attention and have gained prominence, helping to keep ideas of “science/faith wars” active. Other models of the science/faith relationship are less confrontational, even describing mutual support for each other. The “independence” model is exemplified by Stephen J. Gould’s NOMA (separate realms) principle: The two realms are not adversarial, but they do not impinge on one another. Other models are termed “constructive integration” and “complementarity.” Many writers have described these models. Generally, they provide visions of accommodation between scientific and religious thought.

It is important to understand the relationship of science and faith. We err in thinking that the many God-given dimensions of our lives are separated into compartments. Science and faith may both grow more effective as our Christian worldview is strengthened.