As Science Advances, God Retreats

eagle nebula

I was eight. I’d been reading picture books about my favourite childhood topic: Dinosaurs. Fearsome creatures that, so said these books, died out eons before humans existed. Now I was sitting in a cold, 150 year old red brick chapel for school assembly, listening to a minister read the creation week account from Genesis. Something wasn’t adding up.

Eight year old me had stumbled upon the infamous “Science vs Religion” debate. In the media and our public institutions, the loudest voices are telling this story: the more humans have discovered about the world, the less need there has been to believe in God. As science advances, God retreats.

Science n. the systematic knowledge of the physical world gained through observation and experimentation.

The mild version says that you’re still free to believe in a god or religion of your choice, but thanks to science it’s now an optional extra. The more aggressive version insists that religion is an outdated superstition. In the words of Richard Dawkins, “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence.” Is he right?

My voice may not be as loud, but can I have a turn to speak? My conviction is that Christianity and science are perfectly compatible. For two reasons:

FIRST, science is a product of the Christian worldview and can’t work without it. Science has a long history and many influences—Greece, Islam and the Enlightenment being significant players. While there were brilliant minds in China, India, Arabia, and countless other places, science arose once and only once: in Christian Europe. Why? A growing number of academics are suggesting that the Christian worldview is a major factor. For science to work at all, a number of things have to be true:

a/ The universe has to actually exist. Many eastern philosophies hold that everything is an illusion. Why study an illusion? The first declaration of Scripture however is, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1). It actually exists, so it can actually be studied.

b/ The universe has to be orderly. If a pantheon of gods were in charge, like those of the Egyptians, Greeks, or Romans, and they were competing with one another to run the universe, we could never have discovered natural laws that predict future outcomes. The same would be true if the universe were one great “thought” as some eastern religions conceive: it might change its mind at any moment. But as 1 Corinthians 14:33 says, God is a God of order, not chaos—and by inference, so is the world he created.

c/ Humans need to have confidence that investigating the world is a worthy pursuit. Many cultures believe that there are spirits in the trees and animals and landforms—that creation itself is divine. Studying them could anger the spirits—and this is one of the reasons many cultures never tried. However in Genesis 1:28, God said to the first couple, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” Because of this, Christians have had confidence that studying the natural world is safe and worth our effort.

d/ Humans have to have free will and not just be slaves to their brain chemistry. C.S. Lewis puts this better than I can: “If the solar system was brought about by an accidental collision, then the appearance of organic life on this planet was also an accident, and the whole evolution of Man was an accident too. If so, then all our present thoughts are mere accidents—the accidental by-product of the movement of atoms. And this holds for the thoughts of the materialists and astronomers as well as for anyone else’s. But if their thoughts… are mere accidental by-products, why should we believe them to be true?” From Scripture we know that God has given humans free will, so we can think and reason freely and arrive at trustworthy conclusions.

e/ Objective truth has to actually exist. Many belief systems insist that what’s true for you isn’t true for me. Why bother experiment if the findings are true for some people and not others? Christianity however says that truth does exist and is knowable.

You don’t need to be a Christian to be a scientist. But to be a scientist—even a scientist who is an atheist, you have to borrow the Christian worldview.

Christianity wasn’t the only factor that lead to modern science—but it was an absolutely indispensable one. And let me be clear: you don’t need to be a Christian to be a scientist. But to be a scientist—even a scientist who is an atheist, you have to borrow the Christian worldview. One of atheism’s conundrums is that, from the Christian worldview, it borrows the idea that objective truth and the universe actually exist, that the universe is orderly and worth studying, and that the human brain has freedom to think and reason—and then uses these to try to disprove Christianity—the very thing it’s had to assume is true in the first place!

SECOND, and you may need to sit down for this one—the loud voices have silenced it for so long that it may come as a shock: almost every field of modern science was founded by a Bible-believing Christian. How about this impressive list?

Antiseptic Surgery | JOSEPH LISTER (1827-1912)
Bacteriology | LOUIS PASTEUR (1822-1895)
Calculus | ISAAC NEWTON (1642-1727)
Celestial Mechanics | JOHANN KEPLER (1571-1630)
Chemistry | ROBERT BOYLE (1627-1691)
Comparative Anatomy | GEORGES CUVIER (1769-1832)
Computer Science | CHARLES BABBAGE (1792-1871)
Dimensional Analysis | LORD RAYLEIGH (1842-1919)
Dynamics | ISAAC NEWTON (1642-1727)
Electrodynamics | JAMES MAXWELL (1831-1879)
Electro-Magnetics | MICHAEL FARADAY (1791-1867)
Energetics | LORD KELVIN (1824-1907)
Entomology of Living Insects | HENRI FABRE (1823-1915)
Field Theory | MICHAEL FARADAY (1791-1867)
Fluid Mechanics | GEORGE STOKES (1819-1903)
Galactic Astronomy | WILLIAM HERSCHEL (1738-1822)
Gas Dynamics | ROBERT BOYLE (1627-1691)
Genetics | GREGOR MENDEL (1822-1884)
Glacial Geology | LOUIS AGASSIZ (1807-1873)
Gynaecology | JAMES SIMPSON (1811-1870)
Hydraulics | LEONARDO DA VINCI (1452-1519)
Hydrography | MATTHEW MAURY (1806-1873)
Hydrostatics | BLAISE PASCAL (1623-1662)
Ichthyology | LOUIS AGASSIZ (1807-1873)
Isotopic Chemistry | WILLIAM RAMSAY (1852-1916)
Model Analysis | LORD RAYLEIGH (1842-1919)
Natural History | JOHN RAY (1627-1705)
Non-Euclidean Geometry | BERNHARD RIEMANN (1826-1866)
Oceanography | MATTHEW MAURY (1806-1873)
Optical Mineralogy | DAVID BREWSTER (1781-1868)
Palaeontology | JOHN WOODWARD (1665-1728)
Pathology | RUDOLPH VIRCHOW (1821-1902)
Physical Astronomy | JOHANN KEPLER (1571-1630)
Reversible Thermodynamics | JAMES JOULE (1818-1889)
Statistical Thermodynamics | JAMES MAXWELL (1831-1879)
Stratigraphy | NICHOLAS STENO (1631-1686)
Systematic Biology | CAROLUS LINNAEUS (1707-1778)
Thermodynamics | LORD KELVIN (1824-1907)
Thermokinetics | HUMPHREY DAVY (1778-1829)
Vertebrate Palaeontology | GEORGES CUVIER (1769-1832)

Every scientist today, regardless of what they believe, is indebted to these men—men committed to a personal relationship with Jesus.

Matthew Maury’s is a story worth retelling. He served in the US Navy and then for the US Naval Observatory. For decades he studied the winds, clouds, weather and ocean features, as well as the Bible. One day, reading Psalm 8:8, which speaks of fish passing through “the paths of the seas”, he reasoned that if the Bible says there’s paths in the seas, there must be. He studied old ships’ logs and compiled charts only to discover the ocean’s major currents, founding the field of Oceanography.

Sir Francis Bacon’s contributions can’t be overlooked. He is considered “the Father of Modern Science”. He developed the Scientific Method that, 400 years on, is still used in science classrooms and research laboratories all over the world: observation → induction → hypothesis → experiment → proof/disproof → knowledge.

Every scientist today, regardless of what they believe, is indebted to these men—founders of almost every field of modern science—and men committed to a personal relationship with Jesus.

If Christianity and Christians were so important in the founding of science, why is the view so widespread today that as science advances, God retreats. What changed?

Put simply, over the last 150 years, a small, vocal and growing number of scientists have decided to redefine science. They’ve smuggled an extra phrase into its definition. To them, everything in the world arises from natural properties and causes, and supernatural explanations are excluded.

Naturalism n. the philosophical belief that everything in the world arises from natural properties and causes, and supernatural explanations are excluded.

This is a philosophy, and it’s called naturalism. The naturalists haven’t deduced this from their research. They’ve assumed it from the outset—they’ve simply decided it’s true. It’s philosophy masquerading as science. Dr. Scott Todd wrote in the science journal Nature: “Even if all the data point to an intelligent designer, such a hypothesis is excluded from science because it is not naturalistic.”

The proponents of this philosophy are relentless evangelists and even though they’re in the minority (a 2009 poll found that 51% of scientists still believe in God or a higher power—not to mention agnostics) they have a lot of air time in the media and public institutions. If they can’t beat you with better science, they’ll ridicule you until it’s just unfashionable to be on your team.

From that little red brick chapel I set out on a relentless search for answers. I have learnt at least two lessons from that journey so far. One is that we live in a world where the loudest voices are saying that as science advances, God retreats. The other is that if you listen more carefully past all the noise, history speaks for itself: Christianity and science are perfectly compatible. Not only is science a product of the Christian worldview; science was founded largely by Bible-believing Christians. It really is possible to love God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27).

In the words of Johann Kepler, founder of Celestial Mechanics and Physical Astronomy, to practice science is “to think God’s thoughts after him.” Sounds about right to me.

Read on about the “Evolution vs Creation” debate.

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