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Science vs. religion

Conflicts between conservative
Christianity and scientific findings

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Quotation:

bullet"The chief major battle between [conservative] Christianity and modern science is not about a large number of individual facts, but about the principles that control science in its work. The battle today is largely that of the philosophy of science." H.R. Van Til.
bullet"In a recent Gallup poll it was found that half the adults in America believe that the earth is 6,000 years old. The reason they give for believing this is 'the Bible says so.'  Meanwhile, according to Christian astronomer Dr. Hugh Ross, 99% of all scientists believe this idea is more far fetched than believing the world is flat. Their reason? The scientific record says so." 9 Kevin Sluder

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Overview:

Various groups disagree about humanity, other species of life, the earth itself and the rest of the universe. This is because their beliefs are built upon different initial assumptions. Thus, they reach different conclusions:

bulletVery conservative Christians generally believe in the inerrancy of the Bible when its passages are literally interpreted -- except in those cases where a symbolic meaning is obviously intended. Thus, whenever the Bible discusses matters of geology, cosmology, astronomy, medicine, linguistics, etc. they believe it to be free of error. They perceive that the biblical authors were inspired by God to avoid all falsehood. All events described in the Bible, whether miracles or naturally occurring consequences, happened exactly as described. There is no possibility that any of these events did not happen in this way, because that would mean that the Bible itself is not free of error. The Bible can not be falsified -- proven to be false -- because it is by definition true.
bulletLiberal Christians see great spiritual truths in the Bible, but note that the authors of the Bible lived in a pre-scientific age. When the writers described the creation of the world, they borrowed heavily from earlier religious writings of nearby Pagan societies. When they wrote about about animals talking, the sun standing still, mental illnesses being caused by indwelling evil spirits, a worldwide flood, a flat earth under a metallic dome, etc. they were merely reflecting the primitive level of scientific knowledge in their society. Such material is not to be taken as a serious description of reality. The Bible is a spiritual book, not a scientific text book.
bulletScientists generally work from the assumption that things happen as a result of purely natural processes. They use the "scientific method" to discover new insights in to nature. Many scientists believe in the existence of God. However, most do not see God regularly intruding in the universe and setting aside natural laws. That is, they believe that miracles either do not happen or are extremely rare. Unless they are biblical archaeologists, they rarely refer to the Bible as a guide for their research.

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An example of a four-way conflict:

Although the conflicts between conservative Christianity and science get the most press coverage in North America, they do not represent the full story. For example, consider the history of humanity in the Western Hemisphere:

bulletMany followers of Native American spirituality believe that their ancestors have always populated the North American continent. They base these beliefs on oral traditions passed down from generation to generation.
bulletMormons teach that ancient Israelites emigrated from Palestine to the Americas via the Atlantic Ocean, in three waves of immigration circa 2247 BCE and 600 BCE. They base their belief on statements in the Book of Mormon and the Bible.
bulletMany, perhaps most, conservative Christians believe that God created the first humans sometime between 10,000 BCE and 4000 BCE. People originally once spoke a single language, but that God caused linguistic confusion at the time of the Tower of Babel circa 2247 BCE (according to the Schofield Reference Bible). Most conservative Christians believe that humans migrated from the Middle East to spread across the world, probably reaching America via Siberia sometime in the second millennium BCE. The source of their beliefs is the Bible.
bulletScientists believe that the earth coalesced about 4.5 billion years ago, and that ancestors of humans exited from Africa more than 100,000 years ago. Scientists currently have three main theories that differ on the details and timing of human development and migration. All believe that North America was devoid of primates until the first modern humans, Paleo-Indians arrived. They came via the Bearing land bridge circa 40,000 BCE. Scientists base their conclusions on carbon dating of ancient artifacts; on the blood types, facial shape, and genetic makeup of modern-day Native Americans; and on other data. 1

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How scientists and theologians derive their beliefs:

In science: The scientific method

In conservative religion: revelation

The scientific method forms the core of scientific research. It is extensively used by scientists in their quest to build their knowledge base and gradually gain increasing insight into the workings of nature. It typically involves a number of steps:
bulletObserve something that is unexpected or unusual. Perhaps something that has just been detected for the first time.
bulletGather as much evidence as possible about the phenomenon.
bulletCreate one or more hypotheses that might explain the observation(s), using intuition, analytical methods, trial and error...whatever works.
bulletDesign a test that will give predictable results if the hypothesis is true. (Sometimes a test is designed to attempt to prove a hypothesis to be false, in order to eliminate it from consideration.)
bulletConduct the test; check the results. Determine if the hypothesis has merit.
bulletGo back to the second step, if the hypothesis has no merit.
bulletIf successful, publish the results in a peer-reviewed journal.
bulletOther scientists Independently duplicate the test to confirm that the conclusions are reproducible.
bulletGo back to step 1.

At this point, a theory has been discovered and confirmed. If the theory gains general acceptance in competition with other theories, and if it leads to a general advance in scientific knowledge, then it may become an established theory. Eventually, it may become so universally accepted that it becomes regarded as fact by the vast majority of scientists. The theory of evolution is one example.

At any step in the process, falsification is possible: 

bulletThe hypothesis may not be confirmed. 
bulletOther scientists may not be able to duplicate the results. 
bulletSome new theory might come along at any time that replaces the current one.

Some important facts about science:

bulletA full, complete picture of nature will never be known.
bulletCurrent beliefs of scientists are at least partly wrong and need refinement.
bulletThe scientific method guarantees a self-correcting system of knowledge.
bulletCurrent errors in belief will be corrected over time as new data emerges.
bulletKnowledge will increase with time.
The theological quest for truth is considerably more complex. Most conservative Christians believe that their own belief system is true, and was given by God to humanity through biblical revelation. They often regard the teachings of other wings of Christianity to be in error. They regard the teachings of other religions as at least partly false. Meanwhile, followers of other religions and other wings of Christianity feel that their beliefs are true, and that the teachings of others are false. Considering the the origins of the Universe as one example, we find that chaos reigns:
bulletFollowers of Jainism deny that the universe was created.
bulletThe ancient Celtic religions that Wicca is pattered after, have no creation story.
bulletConservative Christians follow various interpretations of the two creation stories of Genesis.
bulletMany Native American tribes believe that humans fell out of the sky into water, and that sea animals brought up earth from the bottom of the sea to support the humans and build "turtle island" (North America).
bulletReligious skeptics generally believe that all of the religious creation stories are myths, legends, and fables - devoid of any accurate content. Ancient creation stories are simply legends made up by humans without any knowledge of the real events. 2,3

Conservative Christians base:

bulletTheir theories of cosmology, geology, and origin of the species of life, largely on the creation stories in the first few chapters of Genesis, and on story of the flood of Noah in Genesis 6.
bulletTheir theories on early human migration and linguistics is largely based on the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11.
bulletTheir beliefs about human behavior are largely based on the story of the fall and original sin in Genesis 3 and the writings of Paul in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament).
bulletTheir concepts of human sexuality (including homosexuality),  marriage, and the allowable roles of women, are largely based on Genesis 2:24, various "clobber" passages in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and Christian Scriptures) relating to homosexual behavior, and in particular, the writings of Paul.
bulletTheir concepts of divorce and remarriage are based on the sayings of Jesus, writings of Paul and on a scattering of writings by other biblical authors. Unfortunately, the Bible is ambiguous on these matters.

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The concept of falsification of beliefs:

Very conservative Christians generally believe that the authors of the Bible were inspired by God to write text that is inerrant and thus none of its contents can be proven to be false. Further, most believe that when a person trusts Jesus as Lord and Savior, the Holy Spirit enters her or his body and they become a new creation. One effect of the indwelling Spirit is that they can interpret the Bible accurately for the first time. These are foundational beliefs, and are correct, by definition. Thus falsification of their beliefs is impossible.

Scientists hold that all scientific theories are capable of being falsified. Implicit in the scientific method is the belief that nothing is absolutely proven for all time.  That is, researchers must always be prepared for some future experiment or investigation that will prove that an existing theory is invalid. The scientific method is thus a self-correcting process; any errors will eventually be detected and corrected.

Two of many instances from the 20th century in which new evidence overthrew long-established scientific beliefs are:

bulletLaws of motion: Sir Isaac Newton discovered mathematical formulas that accurately predicted the relationships between force, mass and acceleration. These formulas precisely predicted the movement of everything from pendulums to planets. Over time, Newton's theories advanced in status. The mathematical expressions of his theories became known as Newton's Laws. However, in the early 20th century, Albert Einstein predicted that an object's mass is not constant. Its mass increases as its speed increases. As its speed approaches that of light, its mass approaches infinity. Subsequent experiments, and observation of naturally occurring phenomena, validated this theory. However, Newton's Laws are still used in almost all engineering and scientific designs because their error is minuscule.
bulletStomach ulcers: A recent medical discovery found one of the major causes of stomach ulcers. In the past, doctors had been treating ulcers with stress relief programs, medication to lower stomach acid, and diet. But ulcers often persisted in spite of the best care. Patients often had to accept their condition as permanent. Two Australian physicians were able to demonstrate that many ulcers are not caused by spicy food, excess stomach acid or stress; they were created by a particular bacterium called H.pylori. Doses of two medications (one antibiotic and one that blocks acid) cured ulcers in over 80% of patients. Although the research was first published in 1983, it was not until 1994 that the U.S. National Institutes of Health endorsed the new treatment. Here, we have an instance where medical science went down the wrong path for many decades. The scientific method played a major role in convincing the medical fraternity to accept a bacterial cause to ulcers. One of the researchers had the courage of his convictions to actually infect himself with H.pylori, wait until he developed ulcers, and then cure himself with antibiotics. 4

Within science, there are many levels of theories. Some, particularly new and emerging theories, are little more than speculation; they may be based on little evidence. Others, like the existence of evolution, the scientific laws governing electricity, mechanical motion, genetics etc., are supported by so much evidence from such a wide range of sciences that they are almost universally held beliefs among scientists. The full "'truth' can probably never be determined. Results must always be held open to extension, modification, even possible replacement." 5

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How Scientists, conservative Christians, and intelligent design supporters view science:

Almost all scientists assume that God is not intimately involved in the processes that they are studying. That is, things happen because of repeatable physical, chemical, electromagnetic, nuclear and other processes. But even that belief is capable of being falsified. Philosophers and theologians have tried to prove the existence of God for many millennia, without any success. But if God exists and decided to make his presence known in some unmistakable way, then scientists would have to start treating God as part of their understanding of the universe. God could, for example, rearrange a few thousand stars to spell the phrase "I AM" against a background devoid of any stars visible with the unaided eye. That would prove God's existence to almost everyone, although it would not reveal any of God's attributes.

Researchers in the Intelligent Design (ID) movement accept the existence of God, or at least of some form of intelligent life with knowledge, abilities and powers which are vastly superior to humans. They assert that there are certain patterns, designs, and functions in the universe that could not have come into existence as a result of purely natural forces and processes. They must have been specifically designed and implemented by an intelligent entity with super-human ability and knowledge. ID'ers feel that some super-human intelligence must be taken into consideration when one studies nature. However, intelligent design has not made much of an impact in the scientific community. Most of the material being written on ID can be traced back to folks at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, WA.

Conservative Christians view the non-involvement of God as an invalid starting point. Thus, they expect that scientists' conclusions will be highly distorted, and probably devoid of truth.

bulletH.R. Van Til writes "...Free scientific inquiry...requires that there be no pre-interpretation of facts in terms of the Christian story. On the other hand, the Christian holds that the idea of free scientific inquiry is unintelligible except upon the presupposition of the truth of the Christian story." 6
bulletC. P. Ferroni, a Christian Reconstructionist comments: "As Christians, we have a different starting point in understanding our origins. Perhaps it could be called an unfair advantage. The creator of the universe has told us about that creation. Because of this, it isn't necessary for us to spend vast amounts of energy trying to understand origins..." 7
bulletE.J. Young writes that: "Fallen man must read general revelation in the light of Scripture, else he will go basically astray. Of course the Bible is not a textbook of Science, but the Bible is necessary properly to understand the purpose of science. Perhaps one may say that it is a textbook of the philosophy of science. And on whatever subject the Bible speaks, whether it be creation, the making of the sun, the fall, the flood, man's redemption, it is authoritative and true." 8

There is little hope that these diverse and conflicting views will be harmonized in the near future.

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References:

The following information sources were used to prepare the above essay in 2000 and update it subsequently. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Valerie Polino, "Early man in North America: The known to the unknown," at: http://www.yale.edu/
  2. D. Leeming & M. Leeming, "A Dictionary of Creation Myths", Oxford University Press, New York, NY, (1994)
  3. B.C. Sproul, "Primal Myths: Creation Myths Around the World," Harper Collins, San Francisco, CA, (1979), Page 192 to 194. Quoting W. Theodore de Bary, Ed, "Sources of Indian Tradition"
  4. "FDA Approves Drugs That Cure Ulcers," Gannett News Service, 1996-AUG-8
  5. The Scientific Method: Ingredient #13 at: http://www.scientificmethod.com/
  6. H.R. Van Til, "The Case for Calvinism," Page 137. (Believed to be out of print).
  7. C. Paul Ferroni, "The Reconstructionist view of science" at: http://www.chalcedon.edu/
  8. E.J. Young, "Studies in Genesis One," Page 54. Order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  9. Kevin Sluder "God, Genesis and the big bang: The Bible and science in conflict: A brief history," at: http://www.kiva.net/

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Copyright © 2000 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-AUG-20
Latest update: 2008-JAN-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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