Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Secularization of Science

Those who forget history are destined to repeat its mistakes. In one form or another, authorship of this statement is claimed by many. In the current lively area of science/faith issues, we would do well to remember the history of how science became completely secularized well over a century ago. Knowledge of the root of modern scientists’ antagonism toward intelligent design and creationism may not make their opposition any easier to accept. That knowledge may, however, help us develop a more meaningful and appropriate response to the ubiquitous design, creation, and theistic evolution squabbles rampant today in personal and media discussions.

From 1870 to 1930 a militant struggle, encompassing every facet of public life, occurred in the United States. Had this struggle been characterized by armed conflict as had been the tragic American Civil War, our children’s history textbooks might contain lengthy accounts. Rather, the struggle was a conflict of religious and secular activists for institutional control and authority: Who would be most influential interpreting the discoveries of science? Would a view of theistic reality help inform us, such as belief in the existence of God and His actions as Creator of the cosmos? Or would rigid secularism prevail? Secularism is the loss of religious authority in all aspects of life. This includes social life, education, and governance, and yes, science.

Sociologist Christian Smith in The Secular Revolution details the historical battle for secularization of our society. He describes the battle as “a profound cultural revolution which transformed cultural codes and structures of thought, expectation, and practice.” Smith often uses “revolutionary” to describe the struggle.

One chapter in Smith’s volume details the capture of science by the secularizers. Contributor Eva Marie Garoutte reminds us that for more than half of the 19th century, inductive Baconian science undergirded scientific inquiry. Baconianism was the accumulation of knowledge through refined observation. Early scientific methodologist Francis Bacon (1561-1626) had stated, “Knowledge is the rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate.” The practice of science through this Christian worldview lens was straightforward. The scientific laws discovered through Baconian induction “were understood teleologically as descriptions of the mediate intervention of the divine in the world,” Garoutte states. But dramatic post-Civil War changes were in store.

Over several decades the gospel of naturalism was spread publicly and militantly. As science became more popular, ambitious secularist scientists claimed the authority formerly accorded to theistic scientists. The secularization of higher education and the secularization of science went hand in hand. The positivists, who had stated that sense experience was the only path to authentic knowledge, won the day. Science, they said, could not inform us about God or any of God’s creative interventions in the cosmos. The domains of religion and science must be kept separate, they contended. The secularists insisted that science and religion did not constitute “a single, self-consistent whole,” Garoutte continues. “They were completely disjunct; they simply had nothing to say to each other."

How does this historical knowledge inform us today? Did the secular scientists make mistakes as they captured science for the “religion” of secularism? May we avoid repeating those mistakes of history? “What mistakes were made?” we may ask. For starters, consider the lack of scientific knowledge of the immediate post-Civil War decades. Gregor Mendel’s pea plant experiments were merely the start gate on man’s ever-widening journey of discovery in genetics. Scientists knew virtually nothing of the structural complexity and function of cells. Cosmology was in its infancy. Evidence for the origin of the universe did not exist. The exquisite precision of physical constants, the fine-tuning of hundreds of cosmic and terrestrial parameters, the mind-bending information contained in DNA, the protein building capability of the cell based on the DNA code…these are but a few of our discoveries.

The 21st century mistake, more serious than the mistake made by the secularizers of science in the late 19th century, is to disconnect science and faith after the example of Stephen J. Gould, who advocated the NOMA principle in 1997. Gould and many other science commentators have repeated the errors of the 19th century secularizers. This is even more astonishing in light of our exponential increase in knowledge of our incredibly ordered cosmos.

My prayer is that Christians would not submit to the bondage of secularization with respect to the science/faith connection. Instead, they should prayerfully consider the most effective means to stage a counter-revolution. Eva Marie Garoutte suggests that to submit to the secularist science mentality is to submit to a “progressive” religion that makes peace with science by completely subordinating ourselves to it. Wise application of science provides countless God-gifted benefits. Early scientific thinkers saw that science and religion formed “a single, self-consistent whole.” Let us strive to recapture that vision.