Science in Christian Perspective
Why Christians Are Afraid Of Science*
William W. Watts
The King's College
Briarcliff Manor, New York
From: JASA 34 (December 1982): 233-236.
Many Christians are afraid of science. At the mention of the world "science," we may experience feelings of awe, of mystery, of mistrust, of anxiety. Natural science is a threat to many Christians, but social science is even more frightening.
Some of the dimensions of these fears warrant our exploration. Just why are we afraid? Are these legitimate fears? And can we do anything about them?
1. The Fear of Power. Perhaps the most obvious of our fears is the fear of power. The typical horror movie pictures the bespectacled, long-haired, white-coated mad scientist transforming assorted chemicals into some uncontrollable monstrous creature. And in the second feature film, we find an even more terrifying monster creeping out of some radioactive ooze to (almost) destroy the world. In the standard plot, the most ingenious and concerted human efforts fail to allay the destructive power of the monster; only the monster itself has the power to destroy the monster.
Most of us do not fear literal monsters. Yet the fear of figurative ,'monsters" haunts many of us. It seems that as science marches on, every important discovery brings some unwanted side effects. Radioactivity, cancer, and pollution are but three examples of these "monsters."
The power of science is not just the monster-fiction of the cinema. The mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb is a symbol of modern science and the potential elimination of nations-indeed of all mankind. Jacob Bronowski1 has pointed out that there is a sense of doom overshadowing modern man, and this sense of doom arises from a fear of war. Science has enlarged and distorted war in at least three ways, according to Bronowski. They are as follows:
(1) "Science has obviously multiplied the power of the war makers." More people can be killed in a much shorter time and with an expanding variety of unpleasant techniques.
(2) Bronowski points to the wealth and surplus created among nations by the growth of science and technology. "This (surplus) is the greed of nations, and this also gives them the leisure to train and the means to arm for war."
(3) "It (science) has created war nerves and the war of nerves." Through modern communication media, we have immediate awareness of war, in our own homes. This awareness of war is not the distant engagement of a nation's soldiers as in centuries past; its impact is much more forceful in each of our lives. We see actual destruction of human lives in our own living rooms, and we begin to accept it without alarm.
A spirit of war is part of international political mentality. Many a nation and group see war as one of the most important tools of diplomacy. The world is continually close to a dreaded war that may destroy a major portion of mankind in minutes.
The power of science goes beyond wars and monsters. Not only can science destroy, but it can also control. The scenarios of 1984 and The Brave New World are no longer remote possibilities. Today we face the threats of scientific control: genetic engineering, involuntary sterilization, behavior modification, subliminal seduction, mind-controlling drugs, reproduction by cloning, and testtube babies. Not only do these raise serious ethical issues, but they also frighten the person who cherishes human freedom. Just who will be the controllers with all of this power? Will they be beneficent rulers? What will be their bases for control? The controlling power of science is recasting the nature of human society and raising difficult questions about human freedom.
The Christian is part of this society and he partakes of its culture. The Christian shares many of these fears and is influenced by the non-Christian's feelings of despair.
Some historians of science have characterized a historical flow from an early superstitious magic, then to religion, and finally to science. Presumably, as man has developed a greater intellectual sophistication, he has progressed to a purer and more reliable means of power. All we now need, so many tell us, is to redirect our wills and spend enough money, and we can solve any problem. On the one hand, man boasts that he has landed on the moon and split the atom. Yet, on the other hand, he fears this power, because he cannot completely control it. New wonder drugs bring unwanted side effects. The more we strive to control nature, the more it strikes back. People try to use the methods of modern science to solve the problems of society and persons, and yet somehow they are haunted by the suspicion that many of society's ills are products of a scientific world. The problems of society resist the methods of science.
2. The Fear of Authority. Christians are known for their commitment to the authoritative, inerrant, verbal inspiration of the Scriptures. We believe that the Bible is the Christian's reference point for absolute truth. Any system of thought that poses as an alternate source of truth, particularly when it presents an opposing claim on a common subject, raises certain threats to many Christians. Science presents such a claim to truth.
We live in a culture that elevates the authority of science to awesome heights of respect. "Science" sells toothpaste, shoes, margarine, and beer. Products are "scientifically" developed, tested, and proven. "Science" makes pronouncements about human behavior, about social norms, about political and economic systems. To a world that has come to trust in the absolute authority of science, it has become a religion.
Science has such powerful authority because of the scientific method. Like some fool-proof recipe, science produces results. Hypothesis, induction, experiment, deduction, and verification are the ingredients. The results are dependably repeatable and practical-how can truth claims of science ever be challenged?Science and religion have waged war against each other through the centuries because they often do make conflicting truth claims. Such was the case with Galileo and the Church in the seventeen= century. Galileo's observations and reasonings convinced him of the validity of a sun-centered model of the universe. Such a model had been proposed decades earlier by Galileo's fellow churchman, Copernicus. With the telescope, Galileo was convinced that the planets, including earth, revolved about the sun. But the Church reacted very strongly to this. They pointed to Scripture verses to support their claim that the earth does not move. To the Church, man and earth had to be at the center of any Christian cosmology.
Thus there was a serious conflict of two authorities: the scientist Galileo and the Church theologians. The controversy was heated and bitter, with Galileo being pressured to publicly declare his views to be false, which he did. But history has shown Galileo to be the victor in that debate. Yes, even Christians today acknowledge that the earth moves, and they are not shaken in their faith in the inerrancy of Scriptures.
We face a similar conflict in the twentieth century. "Evolutionary" biology and geology present many claims to truth which ap pear diametrically opposed to a number of Christian teachings Modern science teaches an age of billions of years for the earth many Christians accept Ussher's age of six thousand years. Mod ern science claims that man and ape evolved from some common ancestor; Christians believe that man has been uniquely created in God's image. Science says that all is chance; Christians believe that the universe is filled with purpose. These are but few of the many many contrasting claims.
The creation/evolution controversy began in the last century with the work of Darwin and his contemporaries. The controversy has never been satisfactorily resolved. Many Christian scientists and theologians are actively engaged in writing, debates, and political movements, with the intent of challenging the authority of evolutionary scientists. Much of this activity on the part of Christians is rooted in a deep fear-the fear of the authority of science to make truth claims that challenge the validity of our Christian belief system. For example, some creationist scientists contend that we will lose faith in the truth of God's Word if we accept an age for the universe which is much greater than a few thousand years. Unfortunately, much of this fear is transmitted to laymen, so that many Christians' reactions to evolution are based upon emotion and human authority, rather than upon reasoned analysis of the deficiencies of evolution as a theory.
3. The Fear of Reason. Many Christians fear science because they arc afraid of the human mind. Science itself is one of the most striking illustrations of the creative ability of the human faculty of reason to produce significant changes in the world.
As humans, we tend to compartmentalize and categorize aspects of our experience. Thus it is that we hear many Christians speaking of their conversion experiences as one of "heart knowledge" as opposed to "head knowledge." The preacher warns us that reason is out to destroy faith, and we are exhorted to choose the latter at all costs. Philosophy and logic are sometimes pictured as secular tools of Satan, to be eschewed by the Christian. The Christian life then becomes a world of feeling, excitement, sentimentality, and emotional warmth. Skepticism, analysis, dialog, and intellect are objects of mistrust. Preaching and writing that stir emotions-the flash and the polish-are more popular than that which stretches the mind and departs from the traditional.
The fear of reason is not limited to the Christian as Christian. Historically, the reaction to the reason of the eighteenth century
Enlightenment was the emotion of nineteenth century Romanticism. At other times, the present being a sterling example, the practical skills have overshadowed the pursuit of a life of reason. Modern man is afraid of reason. Somehow, reason is mysterious and beyond the grasp of common man. Then too, the power and authority of science derive from reason, and so reason is the real threat. Reason produces specialists and eggheads, so we are told. So reason is to be feared.
4. The Fear of the Secular. The first three threats-power, authority, and reason-affect both Christian and non-Christian, although the fears produced may have different twists for the believer. However, there is one type of fear that is peculiar to the Christian. He is afraid of science because it is secular.
This fear is much broader than the fear of science. It is a fear of culture that is indisputably non-Christian and thus secular. The Christian who fears science because it is secular usually fears secular art, secular literature, secular psychology, secular sociology, secular economics, and secular philosophy. H. Richard Niebuhr has described five models which give ways that Christians have related their faith to culture, in his book, Christ and Culture.2 Christians who have extreme fears of secular culture belong to the "Christ-Against-Culture" model. By totally rejecting secular culture, they become anti-intellectuals, and this is their defense against the threat of culture.
Such fears are based in a particular brand of Christian theology. This phenomenon probably derives from the asceticism of pietistic Christianity. Such theology holds that sin is so powerful that it makes the cultural efforts of fallen man totally useless and meaningless. Culture is seen as pursuing a declining history, with the art and philosophy of contemporary mankind being far inferior to that of past centuries. To be human is to be worthless. The sacred is good; the secular is bad. Modern culture, according to this view, is controlled by Satan, who deceives the scientific theorist, who confuses the data, and who uses culture to keep men from accepting Christ and the authority of Scriptures.
With such fears, the Christian's safety lies in his ability to withdraw from culture. He must insulate himself from such threats. He must keep his faith strong within a culture created by him and likeminded believers.Conclusion: Some Words of Hope
We have painted a picture of gloorn, doom, and despair. The Christian fears science because of its power and control, because of its authority as truth claimer, because of the mystique of reason, and because of its domination by non-Christians. If science does not kill us, it may dehumanize and de-Christianize life to the point that life becomes completely meaningless.
But there is hope. And the Christian, among all people, has the greatest hope of overcoming such bleak prospects for the future.
Faced with the destructive and controlling power of science, the Christian holds extremely powerful weapons of his own: the doctrines of the sovereignty of God and the image of God in human beings. This world has been created by God, for His purposes. Jesus Christ is Lord of history and sustainer of the world. His kingdom will come, and His will is being done. A power greater than any world power is at work in the Christian, and this power is an overcoming force. There is tremendous peace available to the Christian who trusts in the sovereignty of God.
Man is made in the image of God. Thus, my responsibility as a Christian image-bearer forbids my sitting and bemoaning the power of modern science and technology. Rather, I am called upon to use my God-given talents and skills to help channel the direction of such power. We need more Christians of moral integrity and ethical courage as leaders in modern science and government. Morality must not remain a private Christian matter; Christians must infect the modern marketplace of events and ideas with the human values taught by Jesus Christ.
Faced with the claims of science as an authoritative source of
truth, the Christian can likewise take the offensive. Science as
authority is a myth. Thomas Kuhn has given us some important insights into the nature of scientific "truth" in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Near the end of this book, he notes that he has
used the word "truth" only once in previous chapters, and that
only in a quotation from another author. His words strike a shocking blow to the authority of science: "Scientific progress is not
quite what we had taken it to be
We may, to be more precise,
have to relinguish the notion, explicit or implicity, that changes of
paradigm (scientific models) carry scientists and those who learn
from them closer and closer to the truth.3
The key concept here is that of interpretation. In science, all data is theory-laden. In other words, facts do not speak for themselves. There are subjective, interpretative elements that control science much more than many a scientist will admit, and much more than the layman is aware. Theories change, because interpretations of data change, in a world of changing concepts.
Likewise, theology has its interpretative aspects. As Christians, we must humbly acknowledge that there is a difference between the absolute truth of the Scriptures and our understanding of the Scriptures. In fact, the Church finally admitted this in the case of Galileo.
Thus, the current warfare between creationists and evolutionists takes on a different perspective. Christians will not disprove evolution by research and data gathering alone. Facts are not enough. The battle is being waged on the wrong front. Rather than challenging the correctness of facts, the reliability of methods, and even the logic of arguments, the anti-evolutionist must challenge the very conceptual foundations of evolution: its major theses and its important unspoken presuppositions. Here is where the Christian church is in need of scientists and philosophers of science who are ready to grapple with such broad, over-arching issues.
Faced with the challenges of reason, the Christian again has hope. To begin with, we need to acknowledge that the Scriptures are filled with appeals to reason. Man has been created by God as a reasoning begin, and reason is important both in our life of faith and our life of secular thought.
In his excellent little book, Your Mind Matters, John R. W. Stott argues that God expects us to use our minds in Christian worship, Christian faith, Christian holiness, Christian guidance, Christian evangelism and Christian ministry. Stott claims that man's rationality is basic to Christian doctrine because: "God has constituted us thinking beings; he has treated us as such by communicating to us in words; he has renewed us in Christ and given us the mind of Christ; and he will hold us responsible for the knowledge we have."4 Stott calls Christian anti-intellectualism a form of worldliness.
But we must go even further. We must refuse to accept the dichotomy that contrasts head and heart. We must accept Scripture's view that human beings have been created as holistic, inte grated beings, with the aspects of body, soul, and spirit interming ling and interacting. A human person is not simply "composed of" three detachable parts that are in isolation, but is a unity.
Thus, I can bring reason to my life of worship, and not be afraid. Likewise I can bring faith and emotion to the laboratory and not be ashamed. In whatever I do, I am a human being, I am a unity, and I must reject false dichotomies and compartmentalizations.
Finally, the Christian need not fear the secular. Niebuhr provides alternatives to the "Christ-Against-Culture" approach.' The Bible does not force us to reject culture. On the contrary, all people have been created in the image of God. All mankind has been given the cultural mandate and the responsibility over creation, as declared in Genesis. Although mankind has fallen, the effect has not been to nullify culture, but to mar it, to keep it from becoming just what it might become. Unsaved people create beautiful paintings, write insightful novels, develop sound philosophical arguments, and, in reference to our subject, produce acceptable experiments and theories.
Thus, the Christian need not set out to destroy contemporary science. Nor need he develop his own private, Christian science. A better approach, and I believe that it is the biblical approach,is to become involved in modern science, to become part of its transformation.
In fact, this might well be the central theme of this paper. The Christian church and its people must learn to act rather than react. Our churches and our Christian schools and colleges must develop leaders in the world, instead of just followers in the Church.
These four Christian responses to four threats of modern science sound quite simple, but they are by no means simplistic solutions. If we accept the challenge to overcome, we can expect hard work; disappointment, false starts, discouragement, and misunderstanding. There are no formulas, no slogans, no mantras, no easy ways to destroy our fears.
As Christians, we must accept God's challenge to have dominion over all the earth. And we need not be afraid.References
1Bronowski, Jacob J; The Common Sense ofScience,- Random House, 1959.
2Niebuhr, H. Richard; Christ and Culture; Harper & Row, 1951.
3Kuhn, Thomas S.; The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; University of Chicago Press, 1962.4Stott, John R. W.; Your Mind Matters; Intervarsity Press, 1972.