Posted on Dec 20, 2011 by Tom Gilson
To borrow a line from Vox Day, this pair of sentences is so superlatively wrong that it will require the development of esoteric mathematics operating simultaneously in multiple dimensions fully to comprehend the orders of magnitude of its wrongness.
Science is knowledge of proven facts, religion is a belief system based on unproven theory. The matter is closed, science is alive and growing where as religion is based on ancient history.
McGrew’s conclusion was the same as mine, only expressed so much better! And yet for many the whole thing seems sensible, believable, even right. We did a small-sample straw poll on this at our church this week, asking members of our youth group and our college/career group to rate Loren’s message on a five-point scale from “Completely Wrong” to “Completely Right.” Out of 54 students, 5 (9%) rated it mostly right, and 16 (30%) rated it about half-right, half-wrong. Our college and career students agreed with Loren considerably more than our youth group members were No one at our church rated it completely true, thankfully.
I suppose I could have rated it mostly (not completely) wrong myself. There are a couple nuggets of truth in Loren’s message. “Science is alive and growing,” yes. Religion has a significant basis in ancient history, yes to that, too, though Christianity has current grounding as well. (Christianity is the one religion I have in mind throughout this blog post.)
When I was in high school I would have said that what Loren wrote was mostly true, if not entirely so. It just seemed to me that science was displacing religion. It was “alive and growing,” and the more it grew, the more it showed that religion religion was dead. I don’t remember who taught it to me. I doubt anyone did, really; I think instead I absorbed it from the atmosphere around me. It just seemed sensible to think that the progress of scientific knowledge meant that religious belief was on its way out. I remember wondering if it would happen in my lifetime.
David Brooks put it this way, speaking retrospectively in 2003:
Like a lot of people these days, I’m a recovering secularist. Until September 11 I accepted the notion that as the world becomes richer and better educated, it becomes less religious. Extrapolating from a tiny and unrepresentative sample of humanity (in Western Europe and parts of North America), this theory holds that as history moves forward, science displaces dogma and reason replaces unthinking obedience. A region that has not yet had a reformation and an enlightenment, such as the Arab world, sooner or later will.
It hasn’t happened, of course. Secularizing theory has run into the facts of global reality. Brooks went on to write,
It’s now clear that the secularization theory is untrue. The human race does not necessarily get less religious as it grows richer and better educated. We are living through one of the great periods of scientific progress and the creation of wealth. At the same time, we are in the midst of a religious boom.
So religion (including non-Christian religions in this case) is not, in fact, being displaced by science and reason. Should it be? The New Atheists say so. That’s Loren’s message. The problem with it is that it’s based completely on false understandings of the relation of science and religion.
Implicit in Loren’s two sentences, for example, is the idea that science and religion are in conflict. They aren’t, or at least they need not be. Alvin Plantinga wrote recently on this in Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. David C. Lindberg and Ronald Numbers, not Christian apologists, debunked the “Conflict Thesis” nicely in their brief historical review. Secularism’s claim to a monopoly on reason turns out upon inspection to be tenuous at best. And as I wrote last time in this pair of posts, scientific thinking was largely an outgrowth of Christian thinking.
What then about all the ways Christianity has stood in the way of science? I was talking about this with once a family member, a Christian who is better versed in these matters than most. Our conversation was in the context of the Church of the Middle Ages and early modern period. He said, “You have to admit the Church made mistakes with scientists, like Galileo.” I said, “Name the other one.” He couldn’t. There isn’t another one. Galileo gets held up in front of us as an example of religion’s long pitched battle against the progress of knowledge—but the Galileo story is an example of itself and nothing else. Not only that, but even the Galileo story is not so one-dimensional as it’s made out to be. The church did make a mistake with him, yes—but he was asking for it (read Lindberg and Numbers).
Still there has been this mood, this atmosphere of science’s superiority over religion, and the coming displacement of religious knowledge by scientific knowledge. And it’s not about the creation-evolution controversy. I know that because it predates it by decades, or centuries even. It goes back to the Enlightenment conceit that reason would win out over faith, and more recently it has been reinforced by influential—but thoroughly debunked—academic writings on a supposed historic conflict between science and religion (I refer you to Lindberg and Numbers yet one more time).
The mood reigns. It hangs in the air as a haze obscuring reality. It’s never had any more substance to it than that, but that’s been enough to confuse many of us. Do you want to see reality? Then wipe away the fog from your own thinking, at least. Science is, by orders of magnitude, the best thing that’s happened in the world of knowledge over the past few hundred years. Some people have extrapolated that—most unscientifically!—to the conclusion that it’s the only good thing left in the world of knowledge. It isn’t. Not by a long shot.