What does it mean to be a Christian and a Scientist, cont.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good testimony. By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.

Hebrews 11:1–3

There is a common line of thought that, of necessity, separates science and religion. This thought process, I believe, stems from the desire to validate personal preferences at best, or, at worst, to belittle one side. The idea is that science depends upon empirical proof whereas faith depends on the lack thereof, thus rendering them irreconcilable. In a recent article (and his book Science and the Folly of Faith), physicist Victor Stenger presents this view and argues that the existence of religion is detrimental to science. In the process of developing this argument, the tactic often seems to simplify faith or misrepresent it outright (Stenger defines faith as “belief in the absence of supportive evidence and even in the light of contrary evidence.”). Neither of these is an acceptable mistake for a scientist to make.

As discussed previously, the idea of simplifying science to be readily accessible and convenient is something that should be avoided. This is not to say that we should keep science from the masses, but rather that the responsibility should lie on the individual to develop an understanding, not on “science” to be easy to understand. Simplifying science invariably leads to misrepresentation or outright inaccuracy. In much the same way, simplifying faith leads to misrepresentation of what faith is. Faith, for a Christian, is about submitting to and trusting in God. The goal of faith is not to prove the existence of God, as to do so would render the concept of faith pointless. I would argue, instead that the goal of faith is to seek God. This is a message that is repeated throughout the Bible. We are even told by Paul to “not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:19 -22).” We are told to not simply accept the words of prophets, but to test them. We are challenged repeatedly in the Bible (and an especially recurrent theme in Proverbs) to seek wisdom (the exact same things science would say to do). Nowhere in the Bible are we instructed to forgo the pursuit of knowledge.

The problem for many people stems from a lack of empirical evidence. Stenger and others often propose a situation wherein they argue an “absence of evidence is evidence of absence.” If we can’t find empirical evidence of God’s existence, he must not exist. This is an exceptionally narrow-viewed and arrogant argument that is, ultimately, unscientific. The bulk of mankind’s existence on this planet has been spent without knowledge of the elements comprising the periodic table (the bulk were discovered after 1800 or so) or bacteria (discovered in the 1660s, linked to disease shown in 1870s), let alone subatomic particles. Obviously, this was due to limitations in technology; we are considerably better equipped to detect such things today than man was in the 1600s, for example. The fact that bacteria can cause disease was not invalid throughout history until the 1870s and then suddenly valid when man possessed the technology to observe such things. Instead, the fact that bacteria can cause disease was independent of man’s ability to recognize that fact — bacteria caused plenty of diseases and plagues throughout history before we knew the cause. In other words, bacteria did not require man’s recognition and consent to cause disease, they did so independent of any man-made observations. The reality was that we could not see the bacteria and therefore could not identify the true cause of such diseases — we were limited by our capabilities.

The “absence of evidence” argument only holds if we are willing to grant that mankind has advanced as far as he can. One hundred and fifty years ago, we did not have empirical proof that bacteria can cause disease and now we can say with certainty that there are things that cannot be proven (re: God)? This is not only an unbelievably arrogant position, but one that argues against the power of science. For a “scientist” to make such a claim is to admit that we have nowhere left to go with research — it is limiting and, in a sense, self-defeating. Moreover, the idea of a need of empirical proof of God is only valid for the one trying to disprove the existence of God. Is this a goal of science? I would postulate that the ultimate goal of science, regardless of the area, is to improve our existence on earth, that is it is for the betterment of mankind. I would like to think that most scientists (outside of a comic book realm), regardless of faith, would agree: their research is meaningful, useful and beneficial. These same sentiments are preached throughout the Bible as we are tasked with caring for our fellow man in a kind and loving manner. In this light, science and religion strive towards similar goals but use different mechanisms.

Ultimately, any scientific process requires some basis or reason for its investigation, a “why?” if you will. To this point, the “why?” has to do with why science (or its practitioners) would concern itself with the existence of God. Scientists take pride in the idea that their claims are validated by empirical evidence, i.e. proving the hypothesis. As such, a non-empirical argument against a scientific claim would not be validated, but rather disregarded as speculative and non-threatening to that particular academy’s work. Therefore, religious doctrine can pose no threat to the validity of a scientific doctrine. True science validates itself through concrete observations that can be measured and categorized — empirical proof is the only true validation of a scientific theory, or if the hypothesis is incorrect, empirical evidence is the only true invalidation of the hypothesis. A lack of empirical evidence does not invalidate a scientific claim, but rather empirical proof against the claim invalidates it. This is an important distinction (there was a tremendous lack of evidence that elements composed compounds responsible for life or that bacteria caused diseases for most of mankind’s existence, yet neither was ever inaccurate). In other words, a true scientist must freely acknowledge that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

The main issue in my mind is the desire to use science as a means of attempting to invalidate faith. There is no other logical conclusion to articles like the Stenger article above. Using math and science to attempt to invalidate the existence of God, though, is quite the non sequitor. Faith in God (and therefore His existence) is, by definition, not based on what would pass as empirical evidence in a scientific realm, yet that same empirical process is what is being used as a means of “disproving” God’s existence. This approach treats faith as something tangible that can be measured, calculated, projected and controlled. The reality is that faith is not tangible, cannot be calibrated and therefore cannot be quantified (thus the lack of empirical evidence Stenger uses as his basis). To take this a step further: faith is not based on empirical evidence, so empirical proof (or in this case, a lack of empirical proof) cannot be used to invalidate a person’s faith. Thus, the whole idea of using the scientific method to somehow invalidate a person’s faith is at best a pointless triviality, not a scientific accomplishment.

If there is no scientific achievement possible, the “why?” falls to arrogance, insecurity or misconception. Arrogance has no place in the scientific process as it assumes a state of perpetual accuracy (which would then eliminate the need for experimentation). Insecurity betrays a weakness in doctrine; it suggests that perhaps the “proof” is not as concrete as claimed. This is particularly true in the face of empirical counter-evidence. Religion (or faith), however, does not offer empirical counter-evidence to any scientific claim. There should then be no insecurity about a scientific hypothesis from a religious or faith-based source.* Misconception is perhaps the most understandable basis for a scientific prosecution of religious doctrine and vice versa.

Mainstream religion is the most likely source for this misrepresentation. Many publicized evangelists use a simplified doctrine, picking and choosing certain passages to argue a point, regardless of the true nature of such passages. This results in a mutation of the true message into one that becomes less and less doctrinally sound. Very often, it also results in a message that becomes more confrontational and, as the initial point is based on a faulty doctrine, it also becomes less defensible. In reality, what science does by attempting to refute popular religion is simply refute inaccurate doctrine. In a sense, mainstream religion is very analogous to a middle school student attempting to teach quantum theory or particle physics: the complex aspects would be simplified or omitted, and while the presented material could be easily grasped, it would also be incorrect. In much the same way a physicist would disregard the young person’s lesson and most adults should be skeptical of the overall presentation, the response of science to mainstream religion should be one of disregard (science, by definition, regards itself with empiricism). In the same way that it is not for religious doctrine to refute scientific claims, it is not the task of science to refute religious doctrine. The responsibility for refuting faulty scientific doctrine is on scientists and the scientific community, not religious or political leaders. Likewise, the responsibility of refuting faulty doctrine pertaining to faith is on the faithful, not the scientific community.

While this may make it seem as though science and religion cannot coexist, the truth is that they can. The requirement is recognizing the purpose and limitations of each and respecting what each has to offer. This is no different than a Christian’s interaction with any other aspect of life, wherein we are tasked with doing all things in love and charity. This includes respecting what we cannot understand, be it God or science. Likewise, we should give no regard to any man-made attack on our faith. Our faith is not in man, but God through Christ. No science can refute this. Therefore, it seems the route to a harmonious existence between science and faith is simply recognizing that, in many ways, science is a tool for man to quest for God.

*The claim that religious establishment poses a threat to the scientific process seems especially moot in times where the American government seems to dictate which religious doctrines are acceptable when making policy decisions. Additionally, claims that religious establishment slowed the progress of science by hundreds of years are not historically accurate: the Catholic church may have certainly tried to regulate science, but it and other organized orthodoxies were also responsible for preserving much of the text and knowledge from earlier civilizations after the collapse of the Roman empire. So in a sense, religion is also responsible for us not having to start from scratch.

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John Tedesco

I am an Associate Professor of Chemistry and Dean of Natural Sciences and Mathematics with profound interest in philosophy and faith.