Science in Christian Perspective

Whatever Happened to Scientific Prestige?*
Department of Materials Science 
Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305

From: JASA 23 (March 1971): 7-9.

Within the past twenty-five years we have seen the rise of the prestige of science to unprecedented heights and also its current fall toward unprecedented depths. It is important that we understand the causes of these changes and resolve upon a consistent course of action for men who are both Christians and scientists.

Four Descriptive Tableaux

1. I was an undergraduate in physics at Brown University when the atomic bomb was first dropped 25 years ago. I rushed to my physics professor to ask him if it could really be true that the atom had been split. He assured me that indeed it was true. We rejoiced at this scientific triumph that had assured a rapid end of the war. It was only in later years that we began to wonder whether it had really been necessary to drop the first bomb on the populated area of Hiroshima rather than in some unpopulated spot as a warning. And why was it necessary to repeat the devastation over the second populated area of Nagasaki? If scientists were not to blame for the decision to drop the bomb, they were certainly responsible for producing it.

2. The San Francisco Mime Company paid a visit to the Stanford campus during last spring's days of tension. They presented a play called 'The Rape of the Earth." Representatives of business, government, the university and science were trotted out to respond to the people's needs. Business advocated more rape; government advocated some paper work; the university advocated further study. The scientist had a plan. When the people protested that science's plan would cause the death and suffering of many poor people, the scientist replied, "Uh, uh! Now you're being subjective again!"

3. A university meeting was held to discuss the implications of military-related research on the university campus. A speaker arose from the audience and insisted on his scientific right to pursue knowledge or application regardless of what society might do with it. If he wanted to work on poison gas or biological warfare, it was his academic right to proceed.

4. A trend was emphasized by the Kinsey report. If many young people engaged in pre-marital sex, then this meant that pre-marital sex was natural, and if it was natural, it was certainly good. Other scientific reports have added to the confusion. Scientists report that the use of marijuana does people no harm. Scientists report that they have scientific proof that exposure to hard-core pornography does people no harm. Meanwhile our society is decaying around us.

From all skies and for all kinds of reasons, science is under attack.

Recent History

Science is a way of knowing based on the interpretation of sense contacts with the physical world.
For over a century the scientific method has been exalted as the only road to truth and as capable of providing all the answers to man's problems. Science won the war. Science provided improvements in transportation, medicine and communications that revolutionized life. When national need to catch up to the Soviet space program developed, science was exalted even further. Science was introduced in Kindergarten and funds for scientific research almost exceeded what could be reasonably spent.

Now all of this is in reverse. Why?

Fast History

Some insight into the present situation can be obtained by reflecting on the period of Deism that followed Newton. Successes in producing mechanistic descriptions of the world led to the attempt to produce a rationalistic religious and world outlook. It was the day of the clock-maker complex as the model for God. What started as a defense of religion turned into first a substitute for religion and then a base for an attack on religion.

This situation eventually gave rise to a reaction in terms of the Romantic Rebellion of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Romantics emphasized immediate experience, freedom, individuality, dynamic change and novelty. Religiously-oriented Romantics emphasized devotion in life instead of only in creed, and the pietistic movement started.

We are living in a similar day. Modern Deists uphold a "mechanical man" to stand alongside the "mechanical God" of the 18th century Deists. As says Dean Wooldridge in Mechanical Man, This is not to say that complete atheism will be required . . . . There will be no reason why the term "Cod" cannot still be used to denote the seemingly inexplicable origin of the laws and particles of physics.

The Hippies are today's secular Romantics; the Pentecostalists are today's religious Romantics. Everywhere rationalism is on the run.

The inveterate assumption underlying the gospel of progress is the assumption that the growth of science and technology, of man's comprehension and mastery of nature, will necessarily produce an increase in human happiness and well-being. But is this true? Certainly there has been progress of a sort in Western society and, over the long view, for mankind as a whole. Life has become easier for many. More people have opportunities to study, to learn, to enjoy. Yet, strangely enough, man is not happy. He wants to know whence he came, whither he is going, and what he must do to find peace with himself and his fellow man. His mind grows weary thinking of indefinite progress onward and upward, of infinite future possibilities to he realized, when he is unable to realize a fraction of the possibilities of his present nature.

John C. Greene, Darwin and the Modern World View, Mentor Books (1963), p. 96

Our Situation

Our difficulty has followed largely from the tacit acceptance of the proposition that science is the only road to truth, and that therefore anything unscientific is either unknowable or false. (This proposition must, of course, except itself.)

We smiled at the naivete of the Soviet astronaut who reported the confirmation of his atheism by not finding Cod during his space trip, yet we agreed with him. The scientific investigation of the mechanisms of the human body provided a model of an organic computer, or of a complex organic machine. Since science provided the whole truth, it followed that man was only an organic computer, only a complex machine. The scientific investigation of the universe revealed a fantastically immense and complex structure in both the physical world and in human history. Since science provided the whole truth, it followed that man was an insignificant object caught up in the vast turmoil of impersonal contingencies and fates.

Destruction of Meaning

Scientific prestige is down because science is equated with the destruction of meaning and faith in life, with rationalism and impersonalism.

A machine buffeted by fate is hardly a man. Not only did Cod die, man himself died. The baseless faith assumption that science provided the only road to truth led to the engulfment of modem society in meaninglessness and despair. Bertrand Russell was faithful to his convictions; he proclaimed that only despair was consistent with a scientific view of the world. The pattern of despair is available for everyone to see in modern art, music, theater, philosophy and theology.

Now a man has to square his view of the world with his experience. Although he believes that science had shown by a rational process that he is only a complex machine, he can not square this with his own experience in which he knows that he loves, decides, hates, responds, and takes part in meaningful human relationships. How is this possible? It cannot be possible-so he thinks-on the old basis of a Cod who created the world and cares for the individuals in it, for hasn't science made these traditional religious views unacceptable? If it is going to be possible at all, he is going to have to provide the way himself. By a non-rational-or even an irrationalprocess, he is going to have to separate himself from the rational, physical, finite, material aspects of this life, and construct a religious faith, a god if you will, all by himself. The widespread interest that we see all around us, in astrology, scientology, witchcraft, drug-use, and increased interest in Eastern religions, with their rejection of the value of the finite and the material, all hear witness to this almost hysterical attempt by man to resurrect his humanity in the modern world.

It is no surprise that when science is equated with the destruction of meaning and religious faith in life; and when a non-rational or irrational approach to life is equated with the only way to reestablish the humanity of man, that strong anti-science and anti-intellectual sentiments develop. Seldom before have more people been seeking more desperately for what can be found fully only in Christian faith.

Ethical Impotence

Scientific prestige is down because of an enhanced awareness of the ethical impotence of science. Scientists toil away at increasing the store of knowledge, perhaps with the hope that some good may come of it, but traditionally rather indifferent to anything other than the contribution to human knowledge. Men take the products of science and use them for good, but perhaps even more commonly for evil. The application of his knowledge falls beyond the competence and frequently the interest of the scientist. In fact,

If the ultimate ends of action have no basis in the structure of reality, there is little point to science. The passion for science then appears as an odd preference on the part of the scientist for a certain kind of activity. This is precisely the situation in which Darwin found himself at the end of his spiritual evolution. Science had become his passion, the only thing that made life bearable, but its ultimate significance was no longer clear to him. He was sure that he had been right in devoting his life to science, but he could not say why.

John C. Greene, Darwin and the Modern World View, Mentor Books, (1963), p. 112

There is still another misconception about science that might be corrected by a greater emphasis on the verb sense. The misconception I refer to is the view of science as the all powerful, final authority. The teachers of science in the elementary grades, in the high schools, and in the colleges are too often responsible for originating and perpetuating this image of science as the savior of mankind. The teachers, however, are abetted in this distortion by textbooks that are overwhelmingly taken up with the noun sense of science and in which the subject is presented in fait accompli fashion. Science is not free of dogmatic thought and must constantly guard against it. . . One remedy for both the dogmatism and the savior image of science is a study of the history of science. Such a study, even if it is rather superficial, will make a mockery of the dogmatism and will establish how science has "backed and filled," advanced and retreated.

John S. Rigden, Department of Physics, University of Missouri, St. Louis, Missouri. From "Reshaping the Image of Physics," Physics Today, October 1970, pp. 5 1,52

if he is faithful to his discipline alone, the scientist can make no ethical judgment whatsoever. He has no basis for saying that anything "ought" to be; he can only comment on what is. As ethical beings scientists sometimes feel driven to derive ethical judgments from science; in such a case they can conclude only one thing; what is, ought to be. This is a faith judgment with no basis in science. Good and bad are terms that a scientist per se can use only in a pragmatic and never in a moral sense.

Today moral concerns are considered vital, even by those whose actions themselves seem unrelated to their concerns. The impersonal carelessness of "scientific objectivity" is an alienating factor. To be publicly indifferent or unaware of the importance of ethical decisions is inexcusable. To be unable to produce the needed ethical guides from science-after claiming to be able to do so-again leads to the anti-science sentiment.

Illusion of Deliverance

Scientific prestige is down because the scientific faith that promised deliverance to mankind has proved openly to be an illusion. Technological advances have produced conveniences and delights, but they have also produced pollution and destruction of the environment. Improvements in medical treatment have enriched the lives of many, but they have also ac centuated the population explosion and its unsolved problems. On every side science's grand claim to be the modern savior is exploded. Many of today's young people tend to look to science as a slave-maker rather than as a deliverer.


What then of us? As scientists we know the importance and the validity of a scientific approach and of a rational (not a rationalistic) view of life. To us an irrational approach is bound to degrade the human being. To us the loss of scientific prestige is a dangerous sign. But also, as human beings and Christians we know full well the limitations of the scientific method. We recognize the fallacy of exalting science as the only way to truth. We appreciate the causes for the loss of scientific prestige. Here we are one with the Hippies, and it is important that we realize it. The Romantic Rebels of today will not accept the dictum of the modern Deist-and like every other rebel he is likely to overthrow everything in reaction.

What can we do? Let me suggest a few possibilities.

1. Make it clear that science is one way of knowing, but not the only way. That the rational and scientific view of life is one of the important perspectives, but not the only one.
2. Make it clear that science is not an infallible impersonal exercise of unconcerned automata, but the human enterprise of fallible men. That scientists are human beings who care about other human beings.
3. Emphasize that scientific investigations cannot be expected to answer the most ultimate and basic human problems, but that these answers must, even in the lives of scientists, be obtained through a religious encounter with the living God,
4. Challenge the postulates of modern popular philosophy which are based on the false premise that science has made all traditional moral, ethical and religious bases unacceptable.
5. Work at the development and integration of a rational faith as the only way to prevent nonrational or irrational excesses.
6. Recognize that the pursuit of science calls for a personal commitment to service through science, and that only those with a real calling to this commitment should be encouraged to enter a career in science.


Misrepresentations and misconceptions of the purpose and power of science have come to full flower in our lifetimes. We cannot expect to overcome these unless we are willing to put our own understanding of science and life in order, and unless we are willing to spend time and effort in communicating our humanity to others.