Are Evangelical Scientists Practical Atheists?
J. W. Haas, Jr.*
Emeritus Professor of Chemistry,
Gordon College, Wenham MA 01984
A recent exchange on the HOPOS-L discussion list saw one participant asserting that [science] "is a very humble, pragmatic method for taking observable events and constructing general statements to explain them...the explanation is pragmatic truth...not ultimate truth. It's weakness is that it is very narrow...it cannot give ultimate explanations as to why we are here and why anything...other ways of knowing art, music, literature, myth, religion can have a piece of the pie in explaining reality."
His opponent argued, "If civilization survived another 5,000-10,000 years, than there would be a fairly good [scientific] account of how an individual is `effected' by art, music, literature, myth and religion." For him and many other intellectuals in the twentieth century, science has become a religion defined as the one and only source of truth concerning all of reality and man's questions.
ASA scientists may find some comfort with the first position. However, it is less easy to respond to those from within the Christian community who ask how the science that we engage is any different from that of our secular counterparts. It is one thing to be the subject of the derision of a non-believer, yet quite another when the charge of practical atheism is leveled by those of like faith. Do we function as naturalistic materialists in our daily work and Christians on Sunday?
Is there any discernable effect of our Christian world view on our vocation? Should we seek to promote what some have dubbed "theistic science?" Prominent scientists in the past have knowingly (and sometimes unknowingly) been influenced by their religious views. Today that seems less likely with the establishment of more universal norms in the scientific sub-disciplines.
I would ask our scientist readers to ponder anew the question of how their Christian faith plays a role in their scientific work. Some may wish to submit an essay on their thinking.
J. W. Haas, Jr.
PSCF 48 no. 2. (1996):73.
response to the question of J. W. Haas, Jr.,
"Are Evangelical Scientists Practical Atheists?"1
Blair Professor of Geology
Department of Geosciences
Princeton, NJ 08544-1003
When Al Plantinga encouraged me a few years ago to embrace a theistic science 2 or when less thoughtful fellow evangelicals have accused me of naturalistic materialism or practical atheism I could truthfully claim ignorance. I had no idea what this theistic science that Plantinga was pushing would be like. What could I possibly do differently? When I asked him, he said something to the effect that he wasn't a scientist but he thought that evangelical scientists should seriously consider the issue and come up with a valid theistic science. Fair enough. But I have considered the issue some and have yet to find anything of substance to embrace.
It does seems possible to imagine hypothetical Universe/God combinations in which some kind of theistic science would make practical sense. But ours is a combination of natural Universe/personal communicating God, which doesn't leave a lot of room for making significant changes in how we go about making discoveries about the Universe. It's hard to swim up stream against the way things are, especially in scientific discovery.
Does this mean that faith has no impact on my life as a scientist? May that never be! I've been a scientist for 36 years and a Christian for 18. Some aspects of my science have changed profoundly and some haven't changed at all. What has changed is that I have seen the Lord lay discovery after discovery before me like a banquet set in the presence of my enemies. And he has led me by the Spirit through difficult interactions with my fellow scientists and faculty. But the way I've gone about making discoveries about the history and mechanics of mountain belts on Earth and Venus hasn't changed. And my salvation hasn't compelled me to abandon earlier insights, nor would we expect it to. Even if I had been working on the origins of life or evolution I can't see how the logic of discovery could possibly have changed by my becoming a Christian. This is because successful discoveries about the Universe have to mirror the way things are.
Now there are realms of thought, inquiry and experience where something like theistic science makes sense within our Universe/God combination. For example, answered prayer and the providence of God are realms in which Biblical and non-Biblical perspectives lead us in quite different directions. These are realms in which some evangelicals could be accused rightfully of being methodological atheists.3 How we think in this area profoundly affects how we act.
For example, some evangelicals are afraid to pray about the weather because weather is controlled by physical processes of the universe. How could God change the weather without violating physics? In the same mail that brought the issue of PSCF with J. W. Haas' challenge, I received an account from Zambia of a drought and crop failure. The villagers had been doing traditional rain dances asking their gods to send rain, but none came. The Christians asked them to stop for a week while they prayed; the pagan villagers agreed. The Christians spent their whole Sunday evening service praying for rain, then went home. That night the rains came and continued. "The villagers were amazed and now ask the Christians, `So you really talk to God?'" 4 It is, of course, possible to develop wholly naturalistic explanations of the Zambian experience. But the fact is that very little serious research has been done by scholars on this sort of grass-roots Christian experience from either a theistic or a naturalistic perspective; I am convinced it is because of methodological naturalism. Under methodological naturalism, answered prayer isn't a very interesting thing to research.
There is more to be learned from our Zambian brothers and sisters. Note that they didn't attack their pagan fellow villagers but were bold to pray for their physical needs. Perhaps they can serve as a model of more fruitful ways for evangelicals to interact with scientists and other intellectuals. For example, the Zambian experience reminds me of a non-Christian Chinese professor of computer science who was a visiting scholar at Princeton University. He was staying in our home for the last month or two before going back to China and was under a great deal of pressure to successfully complete a machine-language program to control a multiprocessor computer. The program had a significant bug and he couldn't find it. One morning at breakfast he once again told my wife and me about his distress, My wife and I offered to pray right there at the breakfast table that the Lord would show him the bug that day. We prayed with the Chinese professor listening. He came home at lunch time excited to report that God had answered our prayer; the bug was found!
This is an example of a realm in which methodological naturalism would have been self defeating; as a result my wife and I wouldn't have experienced the joy of seeing God's personal communicating action in the natural Universe, and the non-Christian professor would not have been confronted with an experience that caused him to ponder whether this was coincidence or the power of the personal communicating God. Maybe praying for the needs of our non-Christian colleagues is a better way to witness on the university campus than attacking the scientific enterprise we evangelicals generally don't understand or value. 5
1Haas, J. W., Jr., "Are Evangelical Scientists Practical Atheists?" PSCF 48, no. 2 (1996): 73.
2 Plantinga, Alvin, "When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the Bible," Christian Scholar's Review 21 (1991): 8-33.
3 Brown, Colin, Miracles and the Critical Mind, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans/Patemoster, 1984), 383.
4 Francis, S., "God answers with rain," Africa Action (Africa Evangelical Fellowship, Charlotte NC 28241-1167) 10, no. 2 (1996): 2.
5 Noll, Mark A., The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 274.
From PSCF 48 no. 2 (1996): 184-5.
How Does My Faith Affect My Scientific Work?
Richard H. Bube*
Emeritus Professor of Materials Science and Electrical Engineering
Stanford, CA 94305-2205
A healthy human being is a whole person with inputs from a variety of the disciplines and insights of life. First of all, therefore, it is important to note that an interaction between my Christian faith and my scientific work is inevitable, if I make a consistent effort to live life as a whole integrated person.
How does my faith affect my scientific work? There are several ways that I will describe a little further along, but first it is necessary to make the negative of this statement clear: how doesn't my faith affect my scientific work? The answer can be given simply: my faith does not affect my scientific work by giving me knowledge of mechanisms, interactions in the physical world, or insights into proper and improper scientific theories. The reason for this is again simple. My faith is that God has created and sustains the universe, and my scientific task is to try to describe in the scientific categories available to me how it is that God does this. If I attempt to decide first what God could do because of my concept of who God is, then to decide that God must have done what he could do, and then to use this conclusion as a guiding principle in doing my scientific investigation, I make a critical mistake and fall victim to pseudoscience. The proper approach to finding out what God has done is to look at what God has done and is doing, and to draw relevant descriptions of his work from that.
The positive ways in which my faith affects my scientific work can be summarized under five headings.
1. My faith provides strong motivation for doing scientific research. With the conviction that there is indeed a reality that can be addressed by scientific research, I can enter into the joy of "thinking God's thoughts after him," and helping to unravel the complex structure of the world.
Example. A recent Ph.D. student of mine put together 300 pieces of data on the dark conductivity, the defect density, and the temperature in a sample of undoped hydrogenated amorphous silicon. It was an exciting realization that these data showed that there was an intricate relationship between these three variables so that if any two were specified, the third was known with striking accuracy, regardless of the past history of the material.
2. My faith provides a worldview and an ethical sensitivity that allow me to decide which areas of scientific work are the most appropriate in terms of knowledge gained and human conditions helped.
Example. I eagerly seized the opportunity to put my experience and knowledge of photoelectronic properties of semiconductors to work in the development and research of materials suitable for photovoltaic solar energy conversion. Although no aspect of scientific research is free of the possibility of human misuse, still this was an area where the opportunities for providing benefit to human beings all over the world seemed to be very high, where the benefit to the poor and suffering of the world could greatly outweigh any other effects.
3. My faith provides a framework of values within which it is possible to evaluate a particular career choice or involvement in scientific work. I deliberately chose a definition of excellence (or success) as referring to a life lived after Christian standards, rather than a definition as calling for a life that is better than any one else's in scientific career development and position.
Example. I consciously chose to accept or refuse opportunities for career development depending on whether they were consistent with a life lived with personal relationships with family, friends, church, and community, or whether they would make such a set of relationships difficult or even impossible. I did not always seek to be No. 1 regardless of the effect it might have on my relationships, and in fact at various times I did not even consider some possible career options because of this.
4. My faith enabled me to be open to the apparent descriptions of modern science, no matter how difficult or unexpected they might be, while at the same time protecting me from falling into non-Christian extrapolations or generalizations of these results beyond the range of authentic science.
Example. For many people the challenge of resolving the paradoxes of quantum mechanics and relativity, or of determinism vs. chance, or of God's omnipotence and a creation that obeys physical laws, has proved to be a threat to their faith or leads them into mystical or new-Age-like worldviews that are incompatible with Christian faith. My faith has helped me to be open-minded about the resolution of current problems in metaphysical philosophy, while holding to the basic truth that God is the Author of it all.
5. My faith has reminded me of the importance of personal relationships in daily life with the people with whom I work and relate - colleagues, students, and staff. My work also is expressed by my life in the office and lab, and this is guided by my faith.
Example. Once a group of visiting dignitaries from China came to visit my Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Stanford during the time that I was Chairman (1975-1986). After some discussion, they asked me, "At Stanford what is the role of a Department Chairman?" I replied, "As for myself, the role of the chairman is to serve those in the department." They were a little taken aback.
The importance of my faith in my scientific work, and my scientific work in my faith led me in recent years to write two books: Putting It All Together: Seven Patterns for Relating Science and Christian Faith, and some personal memoirs, One Whole Life. They are the best that I can do to answer the question that heads this discussion.
* ASA Fellow
From PSCF 48 no. 3 (1996): 186-7.