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Is Science Necessarily Anti-religious?

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As everybody knows, well-known biologist Richard Dawkins moonlights as a polemicist against religion. Yet recently a leading physicist described Mr. Dawkins as a "fundamentalist." The physicist is Peter Higgs (as in Higgs Boson particle). Higgs is expected to win the Nobel prize after this summer's discovery in Geneva supported his theory about how particles attain their mass.

Although Higgs says he is not a religious believer himself, he chalks it up to his secular upbringing. Science and religion are not incompatible, Higgs asserts, but religion needs to rethink some of its arguments in the light of contemporary science.

Recently I also had the opportunity to ask Harvard astrophysicist Owen Gingerich about the religious implications—if any—of the Higgs Boson, which has been called "The God Particle." He was kind enough to write up the following insights exclusively for our White Horse Inn readers.
The recent discovery of evidence for the elusive and short-lived Higgs boson stirred up a great deal of short-lived press coverage. My friends knew somehow that it was Very Important, without knowing quite why, nor why it was referred to as "the God particle." Were there deep religious connotations in this discovery?

The discovery was long ago predicted (if everything was all right with the so-called "standard model" of nuclear particles), and thus long awaited. Already two decades ago Leon Lederman, sometime director of the Fermi Lab and Nobel laureate in physics, was frustrated by the difficulty of finding the particle, and he wanted to vent his frustration by titling his forthcoming book on the elusive boson The goddamned particle. This American idiom expressed his feeling perfectly and without religious connotations, but his publisher vetoed the idea, settling simply for The God Particle. Thus, unwittingly, the pot was stirred unnecessarily for religious connections.

A similar situation has repeated over and over in seeking for the larger context of scientific findings. A particularly interesting case occurred following the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859. Outcries that the book was antireligious brought a thoughtful response from the American botanist Asa Gray, who was a staunch Presbyterian but a serious supporter of Darwin's evolutionary views. Gray ended his review by arguing that whereas a reader could use Darwin's theory in support of an atheistic view of Nature, one could use any scientific theory in that way. Darwin, Gray wrote: "merely takes up a particular, proximate cause, or set of such causes, from which, it is argued, the present diversity of species has or may have contingently resulted. The author does not say necessarily resulted."

Thus it is that cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, already known for his outspoken atheistic stance, captures the opportunity to call the Higgs boson "The Godless Particle." It is no surprise to learn that his prior views find a confirming place for the particle in his philosophy. Likewise readers of my book, God's Universe, will not be astonished to discover that I consider the Higg's boson simply to be one of countless numbers God's particles that make up the material universe. There are discoveries awaiting to be made that will surely give rise to thoughtful discussions with far more interesting philosophical issues than the discovery of evidence for the Higg's particle. To name just one, the on-going Kepler mission, which continuously monitors approximately 150,000 stars for the brief dimming that results when a planet passes in front of one of them, has already found a couple thousand so-called exoplanets. Some of these will surely be earthlike, in the sense of being rocky bodies in just the right temperature range for liquid water and therefore possible environments for life. If we eventually find many of them, but with no evidence for life, this may support an argument for the rarity of life in the universe. On the other hand, if hints of primitive life are found, it will verify that the universe is designed to be congenial for life. Of course Lawrence Krauss will argue that the formation of life is automatic and therefore no big deal.

As we never tire of saying around here, God works through means. The Reformers emphasized that God's glory isn't lessened by the layers of creaturely means he uses to get something done. On the contrary, it shows just how involved God is at every level, in every event, even to bring good out of evil. Just as the Triune God works in saving grace through the ordinary means of preaching, baptism and the Supper, his common grace is evident in the layers of natural processes that his wisdom, goodness and love direct. In nature and in grace, everything holds together in Christ (Col 1:17). He is eternal Son who became flesh for us and for our salvation. Even in this game-changing event, his miraculous conception was complemented by a natural gestation and birth, like that of any other baby.

In God's economy, extraordinary means—miracles—play nicely alongside ordinary means. Sometimes God works directly and immediately, but most of the time he works through secondary causes. Even in Genesis 1 and 2, along with the direct fiat that creates "from nothing" (ex nihilo)—"'Let there be x.' And there was x."—are interlaced descriptions of a more ordinary procedure: "'Let the earth bring forth x.' And the earth brought forth x." This is not a recent theory to accommodate contemporary science; it's one of many long-standing contributions of our older theologians to contemporary conversations. This distinction has always been helpful in better days, when science and faith were on friendlier terms.

The science-religion conversation is complex, far more so than religious and anti-religious fundamentalists imagine. Yet it may be that our greatest weakness in this discussion is not traditional arguments from the past, but the fact that we have largely forgotten what they were.

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  • Guest - Chris

    The only way "evolution," in the sense of human origins, can be proved...along with the big-bang theory...is to re-create the suspected occurance so that it can be observed. Then we can start talking real science in the matter of origins. Beyond that everything is either speculation, mere postulation, or unsubstantiated hypothesis.

    But, thereagain, is it possible for man to take "nothing" and make it into something so as to observe it and understand it in the first place??

    What are we trying to acheive here? Why do we persist? What insatiable desire fuels our endless persuit of "greater knowledge" at the expense of the poor man and the needy?
    Do we really want to help them...then why do we exploit them on the way to supposedly finding them help?

    When is enough, enough? When can we be happy with what we have?? Man cannot be satisfied with being man--small and humble in knowledge and power. The only business that man has in this experimentation--the only reason why he insists on persuing the unknowable and impossible--is to prove that nothing is unknowable and impossible for him. It is, in essence, to defy God and His Own unequalled Majesty and Power.

    By the way, great closing comment there, Dr. Horton!

    Chris Jager
    Tillamook, OR

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  • Guest - Chris

    So Leslie,

    How's that PhD coming? Specializing in metaphysics must give you certain insight into many of the particulars of our grand society! How extensive is your work, and how might I get ahold of your dissertation? Aren't they published with the universities in some form?


    Chris Jager,

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  • Chris,

    I'd rather not say too much here about my own work, though if you Google my name and the word "philosophy" you won't have too much trouble finding me.

    Dr. Horton,

    I like you a lot, and I think that you're a serious guy. I would also guess that you realize that much of the evangelical discussion of these issues is intellectually lightweight, to say the least. Why not commission some articles from philosophers who actually know what they're doing? If you want to help the Reformed/evangelical church, you should use this site to publish at least a few pieces of serious intellectual endeavor. There are a few Reformed Christians out there who are solid philosophers. I'm not one of them (neither solidly Reformed nor a solid philosopher)), but they're out there. Hint - try looking at the department of Notre Dame. They have some solid Reformed people in their philosophy department who can write with intelligence on the issue of science and faith. In all my reading of Christian apologetics, I still haven't seen one person who understands the most basic concepts of philosophy of science. It drives me crazy. So many of the challenges to the faith could be demolished by anyone with a first year graduate understanding of the theory of laws of nature, for example. Ugh. Are Christians really that arrogant and afraid? Or are they just lazy? If I tried to write a paper on neuroscience without having taken even one graduate class on the subject, I'd be laughed out of the discussion. But somehow Christians are comfortable pontificating at length about philosophy of science when they don't know the first thing about the subject.

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  • Guest - Chris

    Right. Dr. Horton,

    You should just not worry about us lightweights...leave us behind. We'll be OK. We'll fend for ourselves.

    You should just really get serious! Put some stuff out there that is REALLY good; not this dumbed down, informative-to-only-the-average-person, mediocre, and boring ordinary stuff. Because we really like you and think you should be even more than what you are [exclaims with gusto]!

    Please teach us some really good philosophy...please? No more of this, "walk through the Bible and talk about how great the Word of God is," stuff--like it really is the inscribed words of our God who exists, one in three persons.

    And Leslie, since you are in the know, what is the first thing about the subject? Or should I say, what does the Bible say is the first thing about the subject? That's what really matters, right?

    Sorry for speaking,

    Chris Jager
    Tillamook, OR

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  • Here's the situation. Many people - both Christian and non-Christian - have argued that faith and science are incompatible. Christians who believe that faith and science are incompatible conclude that science must go, while non-Christians (or, more generally, non-theists) who believe that faith and science are incompatible conclude that faith must go. This is a serious issue. What should we say about it?

    To begin, we need to catalogue the various ways in which faith and science might seem to be incompatible, and then we need to examine these carefully to see whether faith and science are truly incompatible, or whether we have been misled by the mere appearance of incompatibility. The task is difficult for a number of reasons. First, there are many different reasons why one might think that faith and science are incompatible. Thus, even if one successfully disposes of ten arguments that purport to show that faith and science are incompatible, there may still be other - and perhaps better - arguments that remain to be addressed. (Often in these discussions, Christian apologists discuss only a few of the weakest arguments for incompatibility, which does precious little to advance the discussion.) Second, it is hard to define faith and science. If we don't know what we mean by the words "faith" and "science", then it's impossible to say whether these two things are compatible or not. However, it's very hard to get clear about what these words mean. To clarify the meaning of the word "faith" in this context (which is quite different from other contexts in which the word "faith" is often used), we need to turn to the Bible, theology, and perhaps church tradition. (Church tradition is important here even for Reformed Christians - think of the historical importance of the confessionalization of Reformed Christianity and the documents, such as the Heidelberg Catechism, that played a role in this process.) But reading the Bible is hard. Consider the amount of debate about the interpretation of Genesis 1 even within Reformed circles, for instance. And matters are perhaps even more complicated when it comes to theology.

    Thus, figuring out exactly what faith says about the natural world is no easy task. Of course, figuring out what science says about the natural world is also a complicated task. This is where the philosophy of science comes in. We need to do philosophy of science in order to understand what science is and what scientific theories are. Moreover, many arguments for the incompatibility of faith and science appeal to technical scientific and philosophical terms like "law of nature", "causation", and "matter". Unless we understand what these terms mean, we can't really evaluate the arguments. But we need both science and the philosophy of science - two separate disciplines - in order to do this. For example, if you want to determine whether faith and science are compatible on the issue of miracles, you first need to define the term "miracle". You then need to determine what faith says about miracles, and then determine what science says about miracles. At a minimum, this will require one to understand something about both science generally and laws of nature in particular. And this will require some real study - ideally at the graduate level - of philosophy of science. There’s simply no way around this. Let me be clear: one can write intelligently about the faith-science debates, say as a journalist, without formal training in the philosophy of science. However, unless one has a substantial background in the philosophy of science, one will lack the necessary background to understand – let alone contribute to – many of the most important arguments in this area.

    Here's the thing. If Christians want to address these issues in a serious manner, then they need to know what they're talking about. And that requires some education. I don't know why this is so controversial, or why so many take offense to it. Again, if I wanted to give a talk on neurology without having studied it, I'd be laughed at. Similarly, if I wanted to give a talk on Assyriology without having studied it, I'd be laughed at. However, if a Christian wants to give a talk on science or the philosophy of science without knowing the first thing about it, somehow that's ok. It is that attitude that strikes me as monumentally arrogant. Yes, I have spent a lot of time in graduate school studying philosophy. Does that make me an expert in all fields of philosophy? Nope. It really doesn’t even make me an expert in my field of specialization, which is metaphysics. At any rate, I've done some work in philosophy of science, but not a lot. That's why I said in my earlier post that there are many academics out there who are much better suited than I am to weigh in on the faith-science debates. These scholars are far better philosophers than I, and they're also far better Christians than I. My point is that no real progress is going to be made on the faith-science debates by Christians until they actually learn enough about science and the philosophy of science to talk intelligently about them. Again, this shouldn't be controversial. It should be trivial.

    A few last points. Although the faith-science debates can't be satisfactorily resolved without some real understanding of science and the philosophy of science, they also can't be resolved without some real understanding of the nature of faith. That is, resolving the faith-science debates will require us to delve into the Bible, theology, and perhaps church tradition, as I mentioned earlier. But experts on science and the philosophy of science may not be experts on the Bible, theology, or church tradition. In fact, it is unlikely that there are many people who are true experts in more than one of these five disciplines. Many scientists don't understand much about the philosophy of science, and many philosophers of science have a limited understanding of the working practice of science. Similarly, many Bible specialists don't do much theology, and many theologians don't specialize in any part of biblical studies. So, we're going to need a lot of experts. Ideally, we would have experts in science, the philosophy of science, the philosophy of religion, epistemology, metaphysics, biblical studies, theology, and church history weighing in on these issues. Actually, I think that we also need to hear from pastors here, since academics often don't have a good understanding of the ways in which non-academics wrestle with these issues. So, we need lots and lots of folks from lots and lots of different backgrounds working on these issues.

    One last point. The faith-science debates are serious. I'm fairly reformed in my soteriology. I believe that we're saved by faith alone through grace alone, and I believe in predestination. Still, there are means of grace, and there are stumbling blocks. One stumbling block for many atheists is the faith-science issue. Many atheists (and agnostics) genuinely believe that faith and science are incompatible. Shouldn't we try to remove that stumbling block? Of course we should. Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, but we're supposed to clear away as many stumbling blocks as we can. Unfortunately, the quality of popular apologetics today is quite low, especially where the faith-science debates are concerned. I haven't yet encountered one popular Christian apologist who evidences even a first-year graduate understanding of science or the philosophy of science (or epistemology, for that matter). What I see are mostly lame attacks on strawmen. That's unfortunate for several reasons, but one is this - many of the most common arguments that purport to show that faith and science are incompatible can be demolished with a first-year graduate understanding of philosophy of science. (Other arguments are more problematic.) But instead of doing the hard work and making some real progress, many apologists have chosen to keep fighting their strawmen - and doing it badly. I haven't read widely in popular apologetics, and it may be that there are some good authors out there who are doing good work. I hope so. I can say that I have read a number of works of popular apologetics, and I've been sorely disappointed by them. We can do better, and we must do better.

    Anyway, for those who are interested, there are some good resources on the philosophy of science. Peter Godfrey-Smith's textbook is solid. John Carroll edited a helpful volume on laws of nature. (Barry Loewer's article on "Humean Supervenience" is particularly relevant, I think.) Tim Maudlin has just published an introductory book on the philosophy of physics that I'm sure is good. (His book "The Metaphysics within Physics" is excellent.) Interested readers might also want to check out Christopher Hitchcock's (ed.) "Contemporary Debates in the Philosophy of Science." For causation, "Counterfactuals and Causation" (edited by John Collins and others) is a good place to start. The "Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy" is an excellent resource, and it contains useful articles on scientific explanation, causation, miracles, laws of nature, etc. These books are no substitute for formal graduate study however, and I highly doubt that it is possible to make real progress on the faith-science debates without a firm grounding (obtained by graduate study) in the philosophy of science.

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  • I want to add quickly that I never meant to criticize Dr. Horton's original article in any way. It's excellent. He addresses one issue in the faith-science debates, and he addresses it well. My comments weren't written in response to any complaint with Dr. Horton's article - which again, was excellent. Rather, it was written as a reflection on recent popular attempts by Christian apologists to settle the faith-science debates once and for all. Perhaps this was the wrong venue for my comments. If so, I apologize.

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  • Guest - C. Trace

    Leslie, you seem to be good at over complicating matters. Christians pretty much began and sustained the western scientific enterprise. It's only recently that atheists have developed their pretensions vis-a-vis science. Christians tend to see at foundational levels and are able to cut to the heart of matters. 83,000 text books on Marxism doesn't make Marxism anything more than a pedestrian notion of economic reality divorced from human nature and good only for voicing the lies and resentments of tyranny. The same with Darwinian macro evolution. It's flat Earth science. Atheists cling to it, call it science, because of its success in 'fighting' Christianity.

    When atheists and atheist scientists got total power in the 20th century they proceeded to turn their garbage science into little things like famine that killed tens of millions. Atheist science turned out the Trabant, their highest technological creation. And don't forget when they discovered how to bring color to televisions, sometime in the late 1980s.

    Read Herman Bavinck if you want to know how Christians understand science, or how science fits in a biblical worldview and thrives within that worldview. Thrives as in no other culture or civilization.

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  • Guest - Ryan

    As Reformed believers I am afraid we sometimes take the doctrine of sola scriptura to mean that scripture is the only means by which God reveals Himself. This is a major error and the church has felt it's sting in the past. God reveals Himself through nature and therefore through science.

    Of course, no discovery of science can ever trump what is said in scripture but such discoveries can and do aid our understanding of the depths and riches of Gods character.

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  • Guest - C. Trace

    Ryan, that would be 'Reformed believers' who never got past the first section of a Reformed systematic theology.

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  • I would say properly done, science is more a-religious, as in it deals only with what you can measure, sense, and quantify. Metaphysics should have nothing to do with science, but since Darwin has been creeping in more and more. These days many well-known scientists deal almost exclusively in theory based on proposal stacked on guesswork, especially in cosmology and astronomy. They may as well put "there be dragons here" in the blank parts of their work.

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