Science and Christianity: can they co-exist in the new millennium?

Science and Christianity: can they co-exist in the new millennium?

Stephen Hitchings

The announcement in June this year that geneticists had mapped most of the human genome has sparked renewed speculation about the directions in which modern science is taking us.

There is no doubt that genetic research promises to be one of the most significant developments of the next century. Indeed, there are reasons for believing that its impact may ultimately dwarf all others.

Apart from the purely technological and commercial aspects, the ethical questions involved are profound and unlikely to be resolved by the geneticists themselves. And they may well bring about huge conflicts between Christians and secular scientists over coming decades.

It is at times suggested that conflict between science and Christianity is inevitable, given the different nature of their methods and belief systems.

No contradiction

In theory, there ought be no contradiction between genuine science and genuine Christianity. As Pope John Paul II has pointed out, "truth cannot contradict truth; Faith can never conflict with reason" (Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 1996).

Nevertheless, the fact is that science and Christianity have been in conflict for centuries.

And while there is considerable debate about what constitutes genuine Christianity, the question of what is "genuine science" is just as problematic.

The word "science", from the Latin scientia, means knowledge. In particular, it has traditionally referred to particular branches of study. Thus we may speak of the social sciences and the natural sciences, while theology is traditionally known as the "science of God". Today, however, the word is taken to refer exclusively to the natural and experimental sciences, which are - at least theoretically - characterised by systematic observation, the making and testing of hypotheses, experiments and the attempt to explain the results and observations by a coherent theoretical framework.

We have probably all encountered the popular caricature, proclaimed in numerous scientific books, articles and television documentaries, that modern science only began to develop when thinkers escaped from the grip of Church domination. For centuries, according to this myth, would-be scientists had to sacrifice the truth to the demands of religious orthodoxy. This idea is reinforced by images of scientists cringing in fear before the dreaded Inquisition, which is regarded as the weapon the Church used to keep the world in darkness.

Yet it is a fact of history that modern science - along with democratic government, opposition to slavery, and other values which anti- Christian liberals have since adopted as their own - was born and nurtured in the cradle of a Christian culture.

Fr Stanley Jaki, OSB, argues that this was no mere coincidence, but that Christian belief was essential to the development of science: "The scientific quest only found fertile soil when ... faith in a personal, rational Creator had truly permeated a whole culture" (Science and Creation, p. viii).

It was that faith which provided, in sufficient measure, confidence in the rationality of the universe, trust in progress, and appreciation of the quantitative method, all indispensable ingredients in the scientific quest.

Fr Jaki explains the reason for this in great detail. The fact is that virtually all the major non-Christian belief systems (apart from the Jewish) have been mired down by doctrines of endlessly recurring cycles, from the Hindu calendar with its 311-trillion-year cycles, to the system of the Aztecs, who expected the end of the world every 52 years and rejoiced every time they were granted another 52 years' reprieve. He argues that the tragic hopelessness of such beliefs prevented these peoples from undertaking a systematic search for rational explanations for their existence.

Thus the scientific quest never really made much progress in non- Christian civilisations.

But if science is a child of Christianity, it has been, to use Shakespeare's phrase, a "pelican daughter", a vindictive, ungrateful child which has wasted little time in turning on its spiritual parent.

Perhaps this should not surprise us. After all, science and Christianity both claim to give people the answers to their problems. Given the all-too- common tendency for people to believe their particular system is the best, there are solid grounds for rivalry. More seriously, they cannot coexist if both claim to embody the ultimate source of revelation.

Science can only gain information by observation and experiment. Any information which cannot be obtained by these means - as for example divine revelation regarding the existence of God or the human soul - is seen as outside the realm of science.

Natural forces

This is a logical viewpoint. However, many scientists believe that everything should be explicable in terms of natural forces. On this basis, God cannot exist, because science cannot explain Him.

One of the prime exemplars of this philosophy is Paul Davies, the famous Australian physicist, best- selling author and multi-media personality. Davies proposes that there are only three possible explanations for the origin of life on this planet: that it was miraculously created, that it was a freak accident, or that it is a natural development of the laws of physics. He then proceeds to discuss the second and third explanations, but simply dismisses the first, saying, "Well, I'm a scientist, I don't believe in miracles, so I'm going to reject that one. It doesn't explain life at all" (The Big Questions, p. 43).

Such a stance, paraded as rationality, is unfortunately common in the public pronouncements of members of the scientific community, giving increasing credibility to Chesterton's description of a scientist as "a man who surveys all the sciences, without any particular study of them, and then gives expression to his own moral principles or prejudices."

I am not suggesting that the majority of scientists are anti-Christian per se - though some undoubtedly are - but many have belief systems and research goals which are opposed to Christian principles.

What should be the response of the Christian churches to modern science? One possible answer is open hostility and distrust of all scientists - and some fundamentalist churches appear to have come close to this position.

Another possibility is capitulation, or trying to adapt Christianity to the demands of scientists. As absurd as it sounds, this is common, and a major motivation behind attempts to demythologise the Scriptures.

Probably the most common attitude is to ignore the problem altogether, perhaps in the hope that it will go away.

Some may well think it hardly matters that large numbers of scientists are hostile towards Christianity. After all, other prominent groups are similarly inclined, with some, such as Hollywood executives, apparently wielding more influence over public opinion than the scientific community.

So, does it matter what a few scientists think?

The point, I believe, is one of moral authority. Even though most people are not especially interested in science - even finding it rather boring, or blaming it for many of the world's problems - they have a grudging respect for it. Scientists are still approached to give expert opinions on a wide range of issues, and if the issue relates to science or technology, a scientist's opinion is likely to be far more persuasive than that of any religious leader's.

The only real solution is to try to rechristianise science. Not only should more Christians be involved in scientific research, but the Church must establish informed and rational dialogue with scientists - however reluctant some of them may be in this regard. We cannot afford to concede victory to the opponents of all that we believe.

Ironically, in recent decades science's cosmology has become dominated by the idea of an oscillating universe (Jaki, pp. 336-357). Instead of going forward, it has returned to the idea of endlessly recurring cycles, becoming enslaved by the very doctrine which for so long opposed its birth.

Stephen Hitchings is a Sydney-based high school science teacher.

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