Ask Andrew 6: Science & Religion

Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for members of Knox to ask questions of faith and religion. Andrew answers them in the Sunday morning service, and now in this blog. Enjoy!

Ask Andrew 6: Science & Religion

I often see contrast between science and religion. As a scientist myself, this is somewhat of a struggle for me. I find myself in a case where, as the x-files would say, “I want to believe.” How can we evolve our understanding of faith while still learning from scientific inquiry”?

I have always had a lot of sympathy for Doubting Thomas. His friends had presented him with something patently impossible: the resurrection of Jesus, and he insisted on seeing evidence. Thomas was asking for something quite reasonable and as a result he has become the poster boy for a lack of faith.

The debate between Science and Religion, particularly in the USA, has become a fight between dominant paradigms. Whose way of thinking will win? Whose picture of reality will inform the way we live and the decisions we make?

Religious leaders have always known the importance of persuading people, one way or another, that our perspective is right. 500 years ago protestant churches introduced sermons & study groups for that very reason. Out of that movement rose the Enlightenment, which sought to take the same approach but with a philosophical bent, rather than religious. Modern Science arose from the enlightenment, and the scientific method has been refined over the years.

Science takes what is measurable and develops theories on the basis of what is observable. Theoretically, there is no space for faith, no room for belief that is not tested and proven. It is supposed to be rigorous and skeptical as it attempts to explain the universe.

In reality, because there are human beings involved (and no human being is totally rational and logical), we get situations where Scientists cling to pet theories past all reason, with the result that we have the time-honoured story of younger scientists grumbling because the older ones did their best work before they were 35 and haven’t produced a useful new idea since then . . .

That’s just human nature. Stuff like that happens in any field of human endeavour.

I find that the most useful way to think about the question posed above is to consider the inherent limitations of each field and work accordingly.

For example: Science works on the basis of observation and considers the whole universe to be fair game. Indeed, Science attempts to explain the entire universe all the way back to its beginnings and how those happened.

The obvious limit to this approach is that if there is anything outside the universe it is not observable. God, by definition, must be greater than the universe, and therefore is not fully subject to scientific study. Science must presume the non-existence of God as it examines the universe, especially as it seeks first causes, or else it cannot do its job.

Of course, theories can go where observation cannot. Scientific theories of multiple universes have existed for years, and there are people who can do the math to prove both the real prospect of other universes and the absolute necessity of a bunch of extra dimensions in this universe that we cannot observe because they are folded in on themselves. I cannot do that math, so I have to trust those who can.

And there may come to be a point where scientific speculation and religion cover a lot of the same bases. This led to an amusing footnote by author Terry Pratchett to the effect that something was so contrary to common sense that it would only be believed by the most backward and superstitious of tribes or the most advanced Theoretical Physicists.

The Bible was written back before Science existed, but people still had the same questions that we still have: where did we come from? Why is the sky blue? Why do bad things happen to good people? And the writers of the Bible tried to give meaningful answers.

The Bible was never intended as a science text, it was designed to teach meaning. If you look carefully, you will see that the first two chapters of Genesis contain two separate creation stories which unfold in opposite chronological order. In the first, humans are created last, as the pinnacle of creation. In the second, humans are created before all the other living things to help name them. The stories are obviously contradictory, and yet they are both there, because they each teach us something different about our place in the universe and our relationship to God.

A lot of the fight between Science and Religion in the States is between people who I would identify as fundamentalists on both sides.

The pro-religion crowd tends to be literalist: in their eyes, the Bible has to be taken literally, with no critical thought given to its words, its origins or its more abstract meanings.

The pro-science crowd are frequently scientists who have escaped from fundamentalist religion and have found a satisfying explanation for the world in their studies and evidence. They feel that they are fighting against ignorance when they oppose religions in the media and the courts.

When I have ended up in debates with people from the second group, the biggest stumbling block between us has tended to be my willingness to discuss things that cannot be measured or proven, such as a creator who exists beyond the measurable bounds of this universe.

Of course, it is not only religion that goes there. Philosophy does too, on a regular basis. The human experience of life includes our imagination; our ability to wonder about things which are impossible.

Actually, “impossible” as a word suggests all kinds of imposed limitations of understanding. Science itself has held things to be impossible that have later proven to be true as our ability to measure has improved. Just look at the study of sub-atomic particles, where we keep finding ways to break the smallest possible thing into even smaller stuff, to the point where it stops being “stuff” and becomes patterns of energy that fool us into thinking they are, for example, a pulpit or a chair.

I was trained in the sciences: I have a diploma from John Abbott College in Health Sciences. I was accepted into McGill’s Chemistry department before I felt called into ministry and changed my field of studies. Mr. Spock of Star Trek was my hero as a kid, while the church I grew up in could be pretty fundamentalist at times, so I have had years to think about this.

From my perspective, a willingness to ask questions is important to both science and an intelligent faith. I don’t believe that God calls us to mindless or blind faith. God has given us brains, and expects us to use them.

More to the point, the historical emphasis on faith in the church arises from the Reformation, when the reformers were rebelling against the Catholic church’s emphasis on the authority of the church and tradition. The Reformers wanted to replace that with the authority of scripture, so the emphasis was put on the individual to believe what was in the Bible.

For myself, I am content to have Science tell me how things work. Science has revealed wonders that we couldn’t even see if we hadn’t looked scientifically.

I believe that beyond this, it is important for us to ask questions that go beyond Science into areas of faith and spirituality. I have seen the value of a community of faith over and over. Beyond that, I have seen things work out in ways that prove to my personal satisfaction the existence of God.

At the same time, I am not comfortable with rigid doctrine. I really dislike fundamentalism of any sort: religious, scientific, political, or whatever. Fundamentalism tends to represent a closed mind rather than the Truth.

I believe that God wants us to remain open to possibilities and to keep searching for the truth; not because we will ever have it completely in our grasp, but because the search itself is what brings us closer to God.

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