Science and Religion: When Does a Conflict Take Place?
Since the days of Charles Darwin, in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, many people have believed that a conflict exists between the Bible and the results of scientific research.
Before Darwin's time, many of the leading scientists in the English-speaking world were Christian believers. They believed that the world, and the universe (in so far as it was then understood), could not have existed without a supreme creative intelligence to design it, and to be responsible for its continued existence.
Many of them took the view that, seeing that God was both the creator of the world, and the inspirer of the Scriptures, then both these sources of knowledge would reveal the same story. If at any stage they appeared to tell different stories, then the problem was probably with the limitations of our understanding, and not with the Bible, or with the nature of reality which was being studied by the scientists.
Some of these people accepted an idealist philosophy, like Plato (in ancient times) and Bishop George Berkeley (in more recent times), in which things could only exist as thoughts in God's mind, and gained their reality on that basis. Even since the time of Darwin, some scientists have adopted this kind of view, such as the astronomer and philosopher Sir James Jeans. This may have been partly because, in England, there was a very strong school of idealist philosophy in the universities, through the later parts of the Nineteenth Century, and the early years of the Twentieth Century.
Within the scope of Christian theology, a conflict between the results of scientific research, and Christian teaching, has arisen amongst those who have adopted (a.) a view that life on earth has only existed for a few thousand years. (b.) Linked to this is a very literal understanding of the creation stories in the Book of Genesis.
With respect to (a.), many years ago, a certain archbishop added up the ages of the Old Testament patriarchs (assuming that the information in the Bible is complete), and found that Adam was supposed to have lived about 4,000 years B.C. These dates were often printed at the tops of the pages in the King James Version of the Bible, and so this idea gained an aura of authority, as a result.
Naturally, this limited the age which could possibly be applied to any fossils or human remains, or any alleged evolutionary "missing links" which might be found, or any other prehistoric or archaeological findings.
Point (b.) is usually associated with the view that the creation of the world, and of everything in it, as described in Genesis, chapter one, occurred in six days, each day being only 24 hours in length. This naturally affects one's view about the ages of rock formations, and fossils of all kinds.
A further alternative is to say that the creation of the entire universe occurred on Day One, within this literal six-day understanding. This naturally created a problem for astronomical types, who began to realise the enormous distances which exist within the known universe, and beyond which objects can be clearly seen.
Of course, it must be emphasised that this problem is not peculiar to certain forms of Christianity. It can exist in any religion, or, indeed, within systems of thought which do not claim any great certainty of religious knowledge at all.
Stating the Problem
It is possible to describe this problem of conflict in many different ways.
One way, which I happen to think is very helpful, is to look at the problem as arising from an attempt to use two different sources of knowledge, and two different ways of knowing things, to answer a question, instead of being able to operate one's whole view of reality on the basis of one kind or system of knowledge only.
(a.) Traditionally, Christians have viewed the Bible as Divinely inspired. As a result, through the centuries, many Christians believed that the knowledge we gain from searching the Scriptures must have a certainty about it which does not apply to ordinary, everyday knowledge, where mistakes are so easy to make. Especially is this so when someone reads the Bible, and comes to a view as to the meaning of Biblical passages which seem very clear and distinct to that person. The person thinks that the conclusions they have reached are obviously what God is saying to us. These beliefs then become "the Word of God" in their view, and people think these truths are known with a great degree of certainty. Indeed, they become quite dogmatic about them, and display what others might recognise as arrogance.
The fact that such a person will, over the years, grow in their understanding of the Bible, and indeed change their opinions about many things included in their understanding of the Bible, does not stop them from being extremely confident, and certain, about "knowing to be true" those things which seem so obvious to the person at that moment. "This is the Word of God!", they say.
People will even feel this extreme confidence about their religious beliefs, although they know that a great many other intelligent people do not agree with them, and may even believe something quite contrary. Some people even have this extreme confidence about their religious beliefs, even though nobody else in the world might believe exactly as they do.
It needs hardly to be said that such extreme confidence about the truthfulness and finality of our own religious opinions is an extreme form of arrogance, and is both spiritual and intellectual pride. Ultimately, it means that we think we can know absolute truth with some of the same kind of certainty as God Himself would have in knowing something.
This first form of knowledge, therefore, is gained from our reading of the Bible, or from the teachings of the Catholic Church strongly presented. It is supposed to have a great degree of certainty, because it is based more immediately upon Divine inspiration, and upon the teachings of the Holy Spirit within our own minds and souls. There are not so many steps between what we think we know and what God said. So there is less likelihood of mistakes being made.
(b.) With this form of knowledge, we must compare the ordinary knowledge gained from the experiences of daily life, which is obviously provisional and incomplete in many ways.
Although many people today have very great faith in what they have been told are the undisputed results of scientific research, and treat "science" as producing greater certainty than religious beliefs, it is nevertheless true that scientific knowledge is ordinary, everyday knowledge, which is always provisional and always is open to be reviewed and corrected. Scientific knowledge is changing all the time. Attributing great certainty to the results of scientific research is a common mistake, which changes science into a kind of substitute religion. This mistaken attitude is, in Biblical language, a kind of idolatry.
Regardless of this common mistake, scientific knowledge is basically ordinary, everyday knowledge, except that it has been arrived at by a special process called the "scientific method".
This "scientific method" is simply a particular means for gaining knowledge, and for testing and correcting theories and beliefs. Experience has shown it to be, in a great many cases, a good procedure to follow in improving our knowledge, although our ability to use it in a pure form is conditioned very much by what area of knowledge it is in which we intend to use it This last point is very important.
The "classic" areas where the scientific method can be used in its purest form are in physics and chemistry.
The scientific method has to be modified slightly when it is used in astronomy or astrophysics, because it is not possible to get the stars and galaxies into a laboratory to analyse them, as can be done in chemistry. Less direct methods must be used. Sometimes a whole range of theories and speculations can be made about a certain subject matter in astronomy, because there is currently no way to conduct an experiment to eliminate false theories. Ability to use the scientific method in astronomy can be affected by such mundane things as having too much cloudy weather at the wrong time, not managing to get observing time on a telescope, failure of funding, or the fact that the stellar object in question is hidden by the sun when you manage to get use of a suitable telescope.
In other disciplines, such as biology, psychology, sociology, or economics, many people have tried to imagine that they are using the scientific method, as used in physics and chemistry, when in fact they could not achieve this goal, simply because the material, or people, they were trying to study were not suitable material for this purpose. They could only be studied with a lesser degree of certainty in the results, or where the generalisations which resulted from this research only applied to other situations with very modest success..
The Core of the Problem
The core of the problem appears when we use these two different types of knowledge, and these two different methods of gaining knowledge, to answer the same question.
These is no problem, of course, if both systems of knowledge provide the same answer to the one question. But what happens if they do not? What happens if "God said" a certain thing in reply to this question, and "ordinary knowledge" provides a completely different answer? Then we have a real problem!
For example, what happens if "God says" that the world was made in six days of twenty-four hours each, about six thousand years ago, and the scientist is able to prove with reasonable certainty that rocks and fossils existed millions of years ago.
What happens if someone says that "God said" the universe was created six thousand years (or even six million years) ago, but the astronomer can see things which can be proven with reasonable certainty to be so far away that light which has been emitted by that object has taken thousands of millions of years to get here.
The result is that our knowledge becomes fragmented. We believe one source of knowledge regarding a matter, and not the other. We put one area of human experience away into a pigeon-hole in our minds, and we isolate it from the rest of experience, because we do not know how to put it all together into one whole picture. Our view of the world and of life becomes increasingly inadequate and restricted, because there are whole areas of reality that we cannot understand.
Some Christians have opted to believe what they thought "God said," and to despise the results of what honest, hard-working scientists have been studying for decades, with reasonable success.
Many people have sadly used this division of knowledge to belittle what is known about God, saying that Biblical teaching is all very uncertain and speculative. Relativism has resulted, to some degree, where many people think that it does not really matter what you believe about God. They are content to be ignorant about areas of reality which are really of vital importance.
After all, religious beliefs are fundamental components of any world-view. A world view is impossible without some kind of answer to the various religious questions. Most of the values about life that we practice come from religious opinions and sources.
A devastating result of the fragmentation of knowledge, and especially of splitting religion off from the rest of knowledge, is that people no longer really know with any certainty what is right and wrong, why such things are either right or wrong, what is really valuable and important in the end, and what basic principles ought to undergird society.
If ultimate principles are removed, truth itself is the final victim. Opinions become so relative that people no longer know how to be truthful, or how to recognise the truth when they see it.
What is the aim in life that people have? Do they want to get through life without thinking, any more than they have to? Sadly, many people seem to be like that. Ignorance about an important subject can result in a person making enormous mistakes about many details, and in having a view of the meaning of life which is seriously distorted when compared with what can be known to be true.
What is the Cure?
(a.) In the modern scheme of knowledge, there is an identifiable discipline of knowledge for each area of reality. For example, physics studies the basic laws of the material universe. Chemistry studies its chemical makeup. History studies past recorded events and other details of human history. Archaeology studies past life and events of human history before written records existed. Geology studies rocks and fossils, and the story of the earth revealed by these things. Astronomy studies the universe out in space. Psychology studies the processes of the human mind. Religion usually relates to our knowledge and experience of God, etc., etc.
How can one gain reasonably reliable knowledge in any of these disciplines?
(b.) Within the second half of the Twentieth Century, several of these disciplines have gained a good understanding of how their methods actually function for gaining reasonably reliable knowledge. Certain of these disciplines have managed to reach a degree of maturity in understanding what human knowledge is, and how human knowledge is gained, within that discipline's area of interest.
Other disciplines have struggled to reach that degree of maturity. Some of them have made the mistake of imagining that they should function like physics. Then they have wondered why other people did not believe that they had succeeded.
Each discipline has its own area of concern, and its own way of gaining reasonably reliable knowledge. The method actually used in each discipline has to be modified slightly from that used in physics and chemistry, to accommodate itself to the nature of the material it has to study. This, in turn, produces a variety in the degree of certainty which is obtainable, varying from one discipline to another.
(c.) The most widely recognised of these mature systems for gaining reasonably reliable knowledge is, of course, the "scientific method," as it is used in physics and chemistry.
The other method which has gained the greatest degree of maturity in recent decades is the historical method, or the method used to gain knowledge in the study of history.
Advocates of other disciplines (such as biology, economics, sociology and psychology) have often claimed, or hoped, that they practised the scientific method as in physics - with the same rigour and success as physicists have achieved - but it is not too difficult to show that these claims and hopes have NOT been well founded, and certainly have not yet been achieved.
(d.) Ever since I was at the university, and also since I did my initial theological training, I recognised the need to have a single basis for knowledge, which would be able to embrace everything which could reasonably be claimed to be known, in any area of knowledge, and yet would frankly recognise what degree of certainty - or uncertainty - existed in that knowledge. It was a project that I worked on steadily for nearly three decades, as I worked at being a parish minister.
About ten years ago, this project reached a certain mile-post, or marker along the way. I wrote a philosophy book entitled "An Evangelical World-View Philosophy" which tried to set out the foundations of this unified view of human knowledge, as best I could.
This unified method of acquiring knowledge was based upon the theory of knowledge set out by Albert Einstein, and also his philosophy of science, as found in his later thought and writings.
On this basis, a reasonable basis of knowledge exists for each of the disciplines, allowing standards of evidence and verification which were suitable to the areas of reality that each of the disciplines sought to know about. Flexibility is required also in recognising the degree of certainty which is obtainable in the different disciplines and areas of experience.
(e.) This general understanding of the nature and basis of human knowledge which I set out in my book, includes a foundation for knowing that God exists, and that this God is indeed the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ - and that the New Testament is a reliable Word from God. On this basis, the general outlines of evangelical Protestant theology can be shown to be true, and well founded.
This philosophy of human knowledge does not provide the same foundation for other world-views, other world religions, or even for other types of Christian theology. However, exponents of these other views may well be able to provide the required evidence, to show that their views can be known to be true, within the parameters of this philosophy.
(f.) For a Christian thinker, the name which is normally given to this kind of intellectual quest - to unify knowledge - is to establish or set out the relationship between theology and philosophy, or between faith and reason.
The unification of knowledge is seen as an effort to set out one basis for our knowledge about everything, in all areas of life, wherever real knowledge is possible.
In this way, Christian theology would be known to be true, and it would then be established intellectually, in some convincing manner.
If this was achieved, no conflict would exist between science and religion, or between any other two areas of knowledge.
(g.) In the history of Christian theology, such a synthesis has been achieved several times, and on two of these occasions, a good degree of success in unifying knowledge (as it then existed) flowed from those efforts.
The first instance where some success was achieved in this area, was through the thought and writings of one of the early church fathers, known to us as Justin Martyr, who lived about 150 A.D. He used the doctrine of the Logos, from Saint John's Gospel, to forge a link with some aspects of Greek philosophy, and with some other aspects of ancient thought.
The first major success was achieved by Saint Augustine, the North African Christian leader, and Bishop of Hippo, who lived from about 354 to 430 A.D. He created a synthesis between a form of neo-Platonic idealist philosophy and a broad Christian theology. It was a work of genius. It was used extensively through the Middle Ages, until about 1100 A.D. With the destruction of the Roman Empire by the barbarian hordes, a great deal of the learning of the ancient world was lost, including Aristotle's philosophy.
Augustine's theology and philosophy was preserved by the monks, and was very influential for 600 years. Even today, his theology, (although not his philosophy) is still widely influential, amongst both Catholics and Protestants. It is of outstanding importance in Christian theology.
Some parts of Aristotle's writings, however, had been preserved amongst the Moslem scholars in the Arab world, and it was from this source that Aristotle's philosophy was reintroduced into Europe about 1200 A.D. In the eyes of scholars around 1200 A.D., Aristotle's philosophy appeared superior to Augustine's Platonic philosophy, and students began to be dissatisfied with the old synthesis.
The other synthesis between faith and reason to achieve outstanding success was formed by the giant of late Medieval philosophy, Saint Thomas Aquinas, who lived from 1225 to 1274 A..D.
His synthesis was based in Aristotle's philosophy, and used insights from Saint Augustine, and from other sources. This philosophy was fused with the Roman Catholic theology of that period.
Sadly, this synthesis did not last long, and its real value was never fully realised. This was not due to any lack of quality of Saint Thomas's thought, as his "Summa" was a work of genius. It was overtaken by forces beyond the control of anyone. The critical philosophies at the end of the Middle Ages, and the coming of the Renaissance, and the Reformation, created a sea-change in many things, and people became dissatisfied with Medieval philosophy.
The rise of modern science introduced new fundamental ideas which were not consistent with the basic categories of Aristotle's philosophy. As a result, Saint Thomas's synthesis is no longer directly useful in the modern world, except as an example for us all to emulate, if we can.
Despite all that, Aquinas's theology is still the official theology of the Roman Catholic Church.
(h.) Protestant theologians generally have failed to contribute to this intellectual quest, and those few who have tried to make a contribution, or to offer a solution to the problem, have not had the success that they would have liked.
In his "Institutes of the Christian Religion," John Calvin provided a few sentences only which pointed in the direction of a possible synthesis. It was the merest indication. But the direction in which it aimed is one which few people today would accept. Despite this, many aspects of Calvin's theology still influence very strongly many Protestants today.
As in every age, some leading Protestant theologians have strongly argued that such a synthesis is impossible. The great theologian Karl Barth was the latest to take that line. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones took a similar line, amongst the more traditional evangelicals. But, despite what these people said, such a reaction does not achieve good things, so far as the preaching of the Gospel is concerned.
In the last decade, Mark Noll has argued that the failure of evangelicals to grapple with the problems of faith and reason is a scandal. His book is called "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind."
Although they may not recognise it, it is for reasons such as this that people have for many years been able to misguide themselves (and others) into thinking that serious conflicts exist between science and evangelical religion.
So, the reader can easily see that I do not believe that any reasons exist for well-founded conflicts between widely recognised results of scientific research, on the one hand, and the main beliefs of evangelical Christianity, on the other hand.
In fact, I believe that the main beliefs of evangelical Christianity, and many details of it, are examples of well-founded knowledge, in terms of the theory of knowledge which I outlined in my philosophy book, and to which I have referred.
What is this "Evangelical World-View Philosophy"?
As I mentioned earlier, the starting point of this philosophy is Albert Einstein's theory of knowledge, and his philosophy of science, as these appear in his later thought and writings. I believe that these opinions show a great deal of maturity in understanding how Einstein himself, and how we all, actually think and gain our knowledge. He gained these insights from analysing what creative thinkers actually did, rather than what they said they were doing.
He believed that human beings receive a great many sense impressions, and that the human mind has the ability to remember them, and to create "concepts" in order to organise and understand these impressions. A concept, therefore, is a free creation of the mind for the purpose of organising these impressions, and in that way we can have some success in understanding the world around us.
These concepts range from simple ideas about people, furniture, things in normal life, through to highly abstract ideas of mathematics, philosophy and religion.
A "world-view" is a set of ideas which makes up a person's general understanding of overall reality, and of the meaning and value of life and of the world. A world-view is usually composed of a series of philosophical, ethical and religious ideas. Everybody has a world-view of some kind or other. The world-view provides a context of meaning within which that person interprets all of the happenings around him or her.
Concepts can be improved and developed as our experience grows. Naturally it is easier to test and improve ideas and concepts which are closer to daily experience, or are able to be tested by experiment, than highly abstract ideas which do not relate directly to normal experience. Because it is so difficult, or even impossible, to verify the truthfulness of many highly abstract ideas, it is easily possible for many people to embrace philosophical or religious ideas throughout their lives which are in fact largely or entirely wrong. But they never find out.
Actually, a circular form of reasoning is involved. A person's world-view enables him to understand his experiences by providing him with a context of meaning. If that person feels happy with the way the experiences are interpreted, it will serve to reinforce in his mind that his world-view is correct, and is a good guide to a truthful understanding of reality. Only if we become dissatisfied with the world-view will we ever begin to think that we might need to change it. We need to note that, although many world-views, and all of the world's main religions, have an explanation for everything that happens, this does NOT mean that the world-view or religion is correct or truthful, or is a helpful guide to a good degree of truth. Many religious ideas cannot be verified at all, and there is such a wide range that they cannot all be correct, or even have many truthful common factors. Building one's life on false religious views, or on unfounded ethical ideas, is like building a house without foundations.
Despite all this, it is to be hoped that a set of religious ideas or theological views can be checked, tested or verified at some point. Such a test should be earnestly sought, in order to gain at least some evidence that some of the religions of the world are either true or false, or partly so.
The question as to what will be accepted as evidence, or what degree of probability such knowledge might have, applies in every area of knowledge, and not simply in theological areas. These, and many other related matters, are discussed in my book, and cannot be enlarged upon here.
Logically, evangelical theology depends upon our understanding of the Bible. It depends upon God's revelation of Himself, and it does not ultimately depend upon our experience as the final criterion of its truthfulness. However, apart from trying to view the subject Biblically, systematically or logically, it can and should be approached in terms of the kind of empirical philosophy that we have been considering, because that is how in fact we gain our knowledge. We need to approach it in this way also because we have to try to make our knowledge of these things arise on the same basis of human knowledge as all of our other knowledge. If we do not unify human knowledge in this way we will have to go back to "pigeon-holing" different aspects of knowledge, as we have been doing beforehand.
My philosophy book, therefore, seeks to set out the ways in terms of which we can know that the God of the Bible exists, that this God is the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that the New Testament is a reliable word from God.
Not only so, but, on this basis, an entire philosophy of civilisation can be developed, within which the general parameters of Evangelical Theology can be seen as a fundamental part.