The Paradigm of Faith and the “Scientific Mind”

DNA ModelScience is, of course, the banner of the current atheist movement. Richard Dawkins has referred to the “scientific mind” as a state of thinking superior to, and incompatible with, religious belief. While I believe that it is much further from the actual reasons for the movement than its purveyors claim, the relationship between the scientific and the religious has become a key topic for many.
Fundamentalist Christians and New Atheists often demand that science has settled the matter of God’s existence. Contrast this with Gould’s claim that science and religion have nothing to do with one another, and we see that the point deserves some attention.

First, it is true that the supernatural is not addressed by science. The scientific method, by definition, can only test the empirical. This is why it is ridiculous to attempt to assess the quality of a friendship, or the beauty of a sunset through scientific experimentation. It is also why science cannot tell us whether a thing is good or evil.
This point seems to have been missed by some who, reacting against “God of the gaps” apologetics, point out that the gaps are steadily closing, and that science has replaced religious belief. Such atheists often assert that religion is humanity’s pre-scientific attempt at explaining the world, but is no longer necessary now that we have a better system.
This, of course, completely overlooks the concept of paradigms, and that religion was never meant to address the questions science studies. The fact that people don’t abandon faith after learning of science should make it obvious enough that want of scientific answers is not the reason for belief in God.
But, if this is a common counter-apologetic, theists are partly to blame. We spent quite a bit of time and energy arguing for God’s existence on scientific grounds, and, like it or not, have impressed upon many the idea that God’s existence is basically a scientific question. Looking back, we should have been more careful.

There is a kernel of truth in all this, however. That is, such objections to God recognize that there is a scientific element to religion in general and Christianity in particular. While it is entirely true that spiritual, metaphysical, and supernatural claims can never be tested with science, the Christian God is God, not only of the unseen, but of the seen as well. While, for the most part, this means simply that he is the master of science, and maintains scientific order in the universe, it also significant that there are claims about the physical world made in the Bible. (The universe had an origin, for instance.) These are scientific claims, and should be treated as such.

Sir Issac NewtonOne of the many bold claims of Christianity, however, relates directly to science (though it is not properly scientific). It is the claim that science will work.
For most of us in the modern world, science is so “obvious” that we can hardly believe that it was not conceived of earlier. In truth, science is based on a number of philosophical assumptions that were anything but agreed upon outside of western monotheism.
Put simply, the early scientists believed in science because they made the absolutely radical claim that the world was rationally intelligible. They made this claim because they believed in a rational God.
In a sense, then, the success of science is a confirmation of monotheism. No other pre-scientific system of thought expected that science should work. While this does not prevent Buddhists, pagans, or atheists from becoming brilliant scientists, it does seem to establish that science and Christianity live quite peacefully with one another.

Of course, there are those who accept that there is no conflict between belief in God and what Richard Dawkins has called “the scientific mind”, but instead claim that specific findings of science contradict the tenets of Christianity. As an avid reader of both science and theology, I’ve seen no such thing, but will have to defer the matter to another post.

4 responses to “The Paradigm of Faith and the “Scientific Mind”

  • c emerson

    It may be well to remember that the Holy Church was so committed to a literal interpretation of the Bible that it denied Copernican ideas based on scripture and ordered Galileo not to proceed with a heliocentric science (1616) – Galileo at least ‘attempted’ to comply but could not in fact deny his own rational review of the data – lived under controversy – was found under strong suspicion of heresy – lived under arrest the rest of his life – the Papacy did not express real regret for all this until 1992.

    Yes, the church (Augustine and to some degree Aquinas) ‘supported’ biblically restricted science but I think it is a serious stretch to credit religion for advancing scientific principles. Tactically it has been a terrible error (imo), and an unnecessary one, on the part of organized religion.

    But my own view is to use this on-going, often confused and vitriolic controversy as evidence of how human psychology and emotional investments actually work, and go forward from there.

    • Debilis

      I agree that the people of the church, no less than any other group, often disappoint.

      I would add, however, that the modern narrative of Galileo as a champion of reason against a church committed to literalism is a distortion of the facts. Galileo was punished as much for his personal attacks on others as anything to do with science. It also tends to be overlooked that he didn’t actually have a mathematically cleaner model than the ptolemaic system. Many in the church, including the Pope, did not deny the possibility of heliocentrism, but wanted evidence for it, while Galileo was demanding something like blind assent.

      None of this is to say that the church was innocent in this endeavor. The story is full of a foolishness and bruised egos on all sides. But I don’t think there is any general condemnation of the church that can be made here other than to say it is full of human beings.

      No, the Catholic church cannot claim singular credit for science, but it was the chief supporter of science in its infancy. It seems unreasonable, then, to claim that the church has been anti-science.

      • c emerson

        Fair response. Yes, few standard ‘sources’ give a full treatment of what went on during the controversy – strength of ‘evidence’ and disputes with papal authority. But neither, imo, did the Church over the 350 years to ‘clarify’ the Church’s position on Galileo’s status.

        > I don’t think there is any general condemnation of the church that can be made here other than to say it is full of human beings.

        > It seems unreasonable, then, to claim that the church has been anti-science.

        The Galileo episode is not meant as a general condemnation – it is exactly the point that human beings are responsible for church affairs. All the more reason to be extraordinarily vigilant to act with caution, state positions clearly and correct errors quickly. But this is also why I can argue, I think, that the Christian ‘church’ (as a general rule) has clearly been anti-science and remains so. While the Roman Church and other groups, like BioLogos, accept evolution … and rushed a bit quicker to accept the Big Bang as a concept supporting Genesis 1, the idea that science is a cherished child of God (i.e., as a valuable part of the creation) has not been fully and publicly advocated.

        Thanks for the reply.

    • Debilis

      This strikes me as very reasonable.

      Personally, I’m inclined to the idea that there are branches of Christianity which are anti-science, and those that are very much in favor of it.

      I really only mean to defend the latter group. I agree that the former needs to be more open-minded.

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