Beyond the Risen Son

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BioLogos published a series of articles that critiqued New Atheism and the movement’s use of flawed reasoning in its portrayal of religion and science. The series reviewed an essay by Stephen Snoblen, a historian of science, about New Atheist views of science and religion. One article in the series, “Science, Religion and New Atheism: Introduction,” made a distinction between the militant atheism of New Atheists and more moderate atheists. Snoblen said that many of the moderate atheists seek to distance themselves from the perceived excesses of the New Atheists. So what he asserted in his essay applied primarily to New Atheists. Snoblen thought some of the best, and most sympathetic, studies of the relationship between science and religion were written by individuals who would be moderate atheists, skeptics or agnostics.

The November 2006 issues for Wired magazine ran an article entitled, “The Church of the Non-Believers” which Snoblen said was important in canonizing the name and mission of what is called “New Atheism.” Not so coincidentally, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins had just been published the month before. By early December, it had reached number four on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list; it went on to sell millions of copies. There have been many others besides Dawkins articulating the central tenant of New Atheism, which Snoblen succinctly stated as: science is good and religion is evil. There is no afterlife; no heaven; no hell. “Religion must be abolished. The only thing that matters is science.”

While this is based upon views of “religion” and “science” that fit nicely with its atheistic worldview, it is not universally accepted as true. The New Atheist sense of religion is one that sees any acceptance of the supernatural as “religious.” And “science” is necessarily positivistic and materialistic. Within the above-linked article, “The Church of the Non-Believers,” Dawkins was quoted as saying the “big war” between science and religion is not between evolution and creationism. Rather, it is between naturalism and supernaturalism. “Sensible” religious people believe in supernaturalism; however “That puts me on the other side.”

This sense of religion is based upon the views of the founder of British anthropology, Edward Tylor, who theorized that all religions were based on animism. He defined religion as “the belief in spiritual beings.” According to Tylor, animism had two components: a belief that the human soul survived bodily death, and a belief in other spirits, including deities. The belief in spirits and deities was an outgrowth of believing in souls. There was a progressive development from the veneration of objects within nature (animals, trees, etc.), to venerating specific spirits that were less attached to objects (gods, devils, fairies, angels). As these gods were associated with good and evil, or as “first causes” of creation, they were seen as highly powerful beings—and even as a Supreme Being. Tylor said: “Animism has its distinct and consistent outcome, and Polytheism its distinct and consistent completion, in the doctrine of a Supreme Deity.”

Another problem lies with a New Atheist sense of faith that further distorts religion. Famously articulated by Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, he said faith “means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.” This is a definition that few religious believers would accept. It is unquestioning belief; faith as belief with a complete absence of evidence.  Snoblen said the New Atheist definition of faith was a straw man, applied to Christianity “with hostile intent.” The geneticist and former Head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, said this sense of faith was not the real thing.

[Dawkins’s definition] certainly does not describe the faith of most serious believers throughout history, not of most of those in my personal acquaintance. While rational argument can never conclusively prove the existence of God, serious thinkers from Augustine to Aquinas to C.S. Lewis have demonstrated that a belief in God is intensely plausible. It is no less plausible today. The caricature of faith that Dawkins presents is easy for him to attack, but it not the real thing. (Francis Collins, The Language of God, p. 164)

A better definition of faith suggested by Snobler would be “Faith is belief in the absence of complete evidence.” Conceive of faith as existing on a continuum. On the one side is blind faith; faith with no evidence. Snobler said he was not aware of any believer whose faith could be defined that way, but it was a logical possibility. At the other extreme would be positivism, which argues there can be no belief without evidence. “Somewhere on the continuum between these two extremes we could place ‘informed faith,’ belief with partial evidence.”

As Ian Barbour discussed in his book, Religion and Science, science is not as objective as positivists believe; and religion is not as subjective. He said positivists portray science as objective, meaning its theories are “validated by clear-cut criteria” and tested by their agreement with “indisputable theory-free data.” Both the criteria and the data are held to be “independent of the individual subject” and not affected by cultural influences. Religion, on the other hand is seen as subjective. But since the 1950s, these contrasts have been increasingly challenged. Science was no as objective as had been claimed by positivism.

Scientific data are theory-laden, not theory-free. Theoretical assumptions enter the selection, reporting, and interpretation of what are taken to be data. Moreover, theories do not rise from logical analysis of data but from acts of creative imagination in which analogies and models often play a role. Conceptual models help us to imagine what is not directly observable. (Religion and Science, p. 93)

Barbour said many of the same characteristics are present in religion. While religious beliefs are “not amenable to strict empirical testing,” they can be approached in a similar way. “The scientific criteria of coherence, comprehensiveness, and fruitfulness have their parallels in religious thought.” Following the thought of Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Barbour said religious traditions could be seen as “communities that share a common paradigm.” Kuhn’s book asserted that both theories and data in science were dependent upon the ruling paradigms of the scientific community.

In the choice between paradigms, there are no rules for applying scientific criteria. Their evaluation is an act of judgment by the scientific community. As established paradigm is resistant to falsification, since discrepancies between theory and data can be set aside as anomalies or reconciled by introducing ad hoc hypotheses.

In The Big Question, Alister McGrath said New Atheism was really an antiquated rationalism “which has failed to catch up with the philosophical revolution of the twentieth century” in the pivotal works of philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Hans-Georg Gadamer. McGrath said this was good news for both science and religion, which were both now free of the rationalist dogma “that human reason can lay down what the universe is like. It does not, and cannot.”

Reality is too complex to be comprehended by any form of intellectual tunnel vision. We need multiple windows on our complex world if we are to appreciate it to the full and act rightly and meaningfully within it. Now there is nothing wrong with seeing only part of the truth, so long as we realize that this is an incomplete vision. The problems begin if we think that reality is limited to what one tradition of investigation can disclose, and refuse to listen to any other voices than our own. (The Big Question, p. 205)

McGrath gave an interesting lecture at Lanier Theological Library on Richard Dawkins, C.S. Lewis and the meaning of life. Addressing the question of whether faith was reasonable, McGrath noted Dawkins thought we could only believe what can be proven by reason or science. His above quote on faith illustrated this. But Lewis believed most of the important things in life were beyond rational or scientific proof. He famously said: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.”


Agenda from a Dead Past

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I first became aware of John William Draper and Andrew Dickinson White from reading Alister McGrath’s book, Science & Religion soon after it was published in 1999. McGrath said they played an instrumental role in establishing the commonly held view that there was a conflict or war between science and religion. Two significant books, one by each, played central roles in the development of this false dichotomy. Draper’s 1874 book was titled: History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, and White’s 1896 book was: History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. Intriguingly, McGrath observed that this conflict model appears to have emerged from the rise of the “professional scientist” in Western culture.

Within nineteenth century English society there was a growing sense of competition between the two social groups: clergy and scientific professionals. “The clergy were widely regarded as an elite at the beginning of the century, with the ‘scientific parson’ a well-established social stereotype.” An emerging professional group of scientists sought to displace the entrenched position of the clergy. By the end of the 19th century, clergy were portrayed as enemies of science and social and intellectual progress. “As a result, there was much sympathy for a model of the interaction of the sciences and religion which portrayed religion and its representatives in uncomplimentary terms.”

Timothy Larsen observed in his essay “War is Over, if You Want It: Beyond the Conflict between Faith and Science,” that in the mid-nineteenth century, there was no such thing as a scientific profession. There were “men of science” just there were “men of letters,” referring more to the pursuits of gentlemen of leisure rather than what someone did for a living. In order to hold a teaching position at Oxford or Cambridge for much of the nineteenth century you had to be ordained within the Church of England. The biologist Thomas Huxley, famous as a champion of Darwinism, could not become a university professor at either Oxford or Cambridge because of his agnosticism.

Huxley and others who aspired to turn scientific pursuits into a profession, therefore, “needed” a war between science and religion. The purpose of the war was to discredit clergymen as suitable figures to undertake scientific work in order that the new breed of professionals would have an opportunity to fill in the gap for such work created by eliminating the current men of science. It was thus tendentiously asserted that the religious convictions of clergymen disqualified them from pursuing their scientific inquiries objectively.

One of the first encounters between Huxley and the English clergy was the so-called Huxley-Wilberforce debate. John William Draper was one of the scheduled speakers for the 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The organizers had to move his talk to a larger room, as they were expecting a crowd of over 500. The crowd was not really there to hear Draper, but because of the rumor that Bishop Wilberforce planned to use the occasion to critique Darwin’s recently published book, On the Origin of the Species. It was during the time for comments after Draper’s lecture that the infamous exchange between Huxley and Wilberforce occurred. While Draper’s long and reportedly boring lecture has become a historical footnote to that occasion, the importance of the moment was not lost on Draper himself.

Draper was an English-American scientist, philosopher, physician, chemist, historian and photographer. He was the first person to produce a clear photograph of a woman and the first one to compose a detailed photo of the moon in 1840. He has several important scientific discoveries to his credit and was a professor of chemistry and the president of New York University at the time of his lecture before the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

His 1860 lecture, “On the Intellectual Development of Europe, considered with reference to the views of Mr. Darwin and others, that the progression of organisms is determined by law,” preceded his 1862 book, The History of the Intellectual Development of Europe. He also wrote a three-volume history of the American Civil War, and famously, History of Conflict Between Religion and Science in 1874. The conflict thesis between religion and science takes its name from Draper’s book, which rejected the idea there could be harmony between religion and science. It went through fifty printings in the U.S. and was translated into ten languages. Read more about Draper here.

In his Preface, Draper said there was a great and rapidly-increasing departure from public religious faith. So widespread and powerful was this secession, that it could not be stopped. Ecclesiastical spirit no longer inspired the policy of the world. The antagonism witnessed between Religion and Science was said by Draper to be a continuation of a struggle that started when Christianity began to attain political power. Divine revelation was necessarily intolerant of contradiction; and it viewed with distain all improvement in itself that arose from “the progressive intellectual development of man.” Yet human opinions on every subject are continually liable to modification “from the irresistible advance of human knowledge.”

The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other. No one has hitherto treated the subject from this point of view. Yet from this point it presents itself to us as a living issue—in fact, as the most important of all living issues.

Darwinians claimed the gauntlet in the conflict between religion and science was first thrown at the so-called Huxley-Wilberforce “debate.” But some historians have recognized how that view was imputed onto the incident twenty to forty years after it happened by Darwin’s supporters. Draper’s book fails to mention Darwin, Huxley or Wilberforce.  But he seems to be one with Huxley in seeking to incite war or conflict between science and religion. Given his presence at the exchange between Huxley and Wilberforce and his early attempt to apply Darwin’s thought to social and political issues, it seems reasonable to see Draper’s book as one of the major “battles” of the so-called war between science and religion. See “A ‘Debate’ About Origins” for more on Huxley and Wilberforce.

John Dickinson White was the first president and a cofounder of Cornell University in 1865. According to Larsen, Cornell’s secular stance was used as a way to set it apart from the older Ivy League schools that still had mandatory chapel attendance. White said Cornell was established as an institution for advanced instruction and research where science would have an equal place with literature. He and Ezra Cornell wanted their university to be free from the “various useless trammels and vicious methods” which hampered many, if not most of the American universities and colleges at that time. They saw the sectarian character of other colleges and universities as a reason for “the poverty of advanced instruction” given in so many of them.

McGrath said many of the established denominational schools (Harvard, Yale and Princeton?) felt threatened by the new university and encouraged attacks on the new school. Both White and Cornell were accused of atheism. Angered by the accusations, White delivered a lecture in New York on December 18, 1869 entitled “The Battle Fields of Science.” An expanded version was published in 1876 as The Warfare of Science. Between 1885 and 1892, he published a series of articles in Popular Science Monthly, “New Chapters in the Warfare of Science.”  The two-volume 1896 book, History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, was essentially a combination of these writings.

In his Introduction, White said while Draper saw the struggle as one between Science and Religion, he saw it as one between Science and Dogmatic Religion. While he admired Draper’s treatment of the questions involved, “More and more I saw that it was the conflict between two epochs in the evolution of human thought—the theological and the scientific.” It never entered his mind that he was doing something irreligious or unchristian by establishing Cornell as a secular institution. Far from trying to injure Christianity, he and Ezra Cornell were trying to promote it by not confounding religion and sectarianism.

McGrath observed that while perhaps White did not see religion and science as enemies, that was the impression he created by his work. “The crystallization of the ‘warfare’ metaphor in the popular mind was unquestionably catalyzed by White’s vigorously polemical writing.” For example:

In all modern history, interference with science in the supposed interest of religion, no matter how conscientious such interference may have been, has resulted in the direst evils both to religion and science, and invariably; and, on the other hand, all untrammeled scientific investigation, no matter how dangerous to religion some of its stages may have seemed for the time to be, has invariably resulted in the highest good both of religion and science.

McGrath pointed out how the story of warfare between science and religion is alive and well within the writings of New Atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins as well as the Christian fundamentalists who are determined to confront secular culture wherever possible. He said this propensity towards confrontation inevitably leads to a reinforcement of a warfare model of religion and society. The natural sciences (and supremely the theory of biological evolution) are then seen “as the advance guard of the secularizing trend within society as a whole.”

In The Big Question, McGrath proposed that we move on from a narrative of a conflict between science and religion. He said that narrative is locked into the agenda of a dead past. Instead, he suggested developing a narrative of enrichment between the two—one that accepts the empirical sciences, but rejects their claim of finality. “[It] is in conflict with the scientism that has become so characteristic of the New Atheism, but it is not in conflict with science, which has always been willing to recognize its limits.”

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) made a series of short films available to spark discussion on several different topics related to science and religion. Here is a link to their video on the Draper-White Conflict Thesis discussed above.


A “Debate” About Origins

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Winston Churchill’s famous saying, “History is written by the victors,” is certainly true with regard to the so-called “Huxley-Wilberforce Debate.” It has been regularly portrayed as a classic example of the war between science and religion. According to the popular version of the meeting, Thomas Huxley, a young biologist and defender of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, responded to an insulting question by Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, in a way that exposed both the bishop’s ignorance of science and his ungentlemanly behavior. But, as Jonathan Smith said in his essay on the event, “There was no such thing as the Huxley-Wilberforce debate.”

The exchange between Huxley and Wilberforce took place on June 30, 1860 at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. According to the popular version of the meeting, as Wilberforce completed a 30-minute critique of Darwin and his recently published book, he turned and asked Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or grandmother that he descended from apes. Huxley is to have responded that he would rather have an ape as an ancestor than a bishop who distorted the truth. You can watch a four-minute excerpt from a PBS documentary, “Evolution” that portrays the Huxley-Wilberforce exchange. A two-hour section of that documentary titled “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” is available here.

But recent historical scholarship concluded that wasn’t really how it actually happened. In The Big Question, Alister McGrath said: “The popular image of Huxley’s triumphant defeat of a reactionary religious opponent of evolution is now generally seen as a myth created by the opponents of organized religion in the 1890s.”

This revisionist account of the meeting does not deny its historical factuality. The new research of the meeting calls into question overblown and inaccurate accounts of its significance and offers an informed reconstruction of the debate, which accounts better for the historical evidence at our disposal.

As McGrath related the events, the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting moved from city to city throughout Britain at the time in order to promote the pursuit of science. In 1860, the Association’s meeting was scheduled to meet in Oxford. Some of the meetings were open to the public, as it seems this one was. This also was the first meeting of the society since Darwin’s book, On the Origin of the Species, had been published the previous year. Darwin was not able to come because of heath reasons, so Huxley was invited in his place.

Wilberforce was not there as a representative of the Church of England. He was invited to speak at the meeting because he was a past vice president of the Association and because he was familiar with Darwin’s writings. He had just written a review of On the Origin of the Species that was to appear in The Quarterly Review soon after the June 30th meeting. McGrath commented:

 It is quite clear from Wilberforce’s careful and insightful published review of Darwin’s Origin of the Species that religious issues did not feature prominently in his mind; the issue was the scientific case for evolution, not its religious implications or complications. The fact that Wilberforce was Bishop of Oxford has clearly led many to conclude that religion was at the forefront of the debate and that Wilberforce opposed Darwin on religious grounds. The evidence dose not support this interpretation of events. . . . Darwin himself remarked, after reading Wilberforce’s review of his work, that it was “uncommonly clever; it picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts, and brings forward well all the difficulties.”

McGrath thought the real debate seems to have been between two visions of science and not between science and religion. One view was defined by “naturalist” assumptions, while the other was more open to theistic beliefs. Jonathan Smith also thought that Wilberforce’s case against Darwin was made primarily on scientific and philosophical grounds, not religious ones.

Verbatim quotes of Wilberforce’s question and Huxley’s reply are uncertain. The most detailed journalistic account of their exchange, in the Athenaeum, mentioned neither one. One of the few journalistic accounts ironically said the event was “a sign of toleration, not hostility between science and religion.” And some of those who were at the conference thought that Joseph Hooker (another friend and ally of Darwin’s) gave a more effective defense of evolution at the meeting than Huxley.

Having recently completed his soon-to-be published review of Darwin’s book, Wilberforce repeated many of the observations he made there in his remarks at the Association’s meeting. In his opening comments for the review, Wilberforce said the Origin of the Species was a most readable book, full of facts in natural history. He acknowledged that it had some clear import not only for scientists, “but to every one who is interested in the history of man and of the relations of nature around him to the history and plan of creation.” Towards the end of his review Wilberforce commented that his readers should have noticed that he had objected to Darwin’s views purely on scientific grounds.

We have no sympathy with those who object to any facts or alleged facts in nature, or to any inference logically deduced from them, because they believe them to contradict what it appears to them is taught by Revelation.

So where did the legendary account of Huxley vanquishing his arrogant, sneering, scientifically ignorant foe come from? Jonathan Smith said that account was formed by Darwinians and their allies in the 1880s and 1890s. Darwin’s son, Francis, and Huxley’s son, Leonard, gathered reports overwhelmingly from Darwin’s partisans. Most of them were recollections made twenty to forty years after the fact.

The story told by Francis Darwin and Leonard Huxley was, not surprisingly, the story the Darwinians had long told amongst themselves, in which they were the clear victors and natural science stood up to religious ignorance and obscurantism. Once ensconced in the three Life and Letters, this version became the established account, repeated and recycled, often with additional embellishments.

Alister McGrath pointed to a particular recollection by Mrs. Isabella Sidgewick that appeared in the October 1898 issue of Macmillan’s Magazine, in an article entitled “A Grandmother’s tales.” He said her account was idiosyncratic and inconsistent with most of the accounts in circulation or published closer to the time of the meeting of the Association. Another article by J. R. Lucas, “Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter,” made the same point. Lucas also gave the following quote of Mrs. Sidgewick’s recollection from the article:

I was happy enough to be present on the memorable occasion at Oxford when Mr. Huxley bearded Bishop Wilberforce. There were so many of us that were eager to hear that we had to adjourn to the great library of the Museum. I can still hear the American accents of Dr Draper’s opening address, when he asked `Air we a fortuitous concourse of atoms?’ and his discourse I seem to remember [was] somewhat dry. Then the Bishop rose, and in a light scoffing tone, florid and he assured us there was nothing in the idea of evolution; rock-pigeons were what rock-pigeons had always been. Then, turning to his antagonist with a smiling insolence, he begged to know, was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey? On this Mr. Huxley slowly and deliberately arose. A slight tall figure stern and pale, very quiet and very grave, he stood before us, and spoke those tremendous words – words which no one seems sure of now, nor I think, could remember just after they were spoken, for their meaning took away our breath, though it left us in no doubt as to what it was. He was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth. No one doubted his meaning and the effect was tremendous. One lady fainted and had to be carried out: I, for one, jumped out of my seat; and when in the evening we met at Dr Daubeney’s, every one was eager to congratulate the hero of the day. I remember that some naive person wished it could come over again; and Mr. Huxley, with the look on his face of the victor who feels the cost of victory, put us aside saying, `Once in a life-time is enough, if not too much.’

Jonathan Smith described how the context of the conference contributed to the exchange between Huxley and Wilberforce. The meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science had already met for two days. In the discussion following a previous presentation, Huxley had affirmed the substantial and significant similarities between humans and apes. Human dignity and privilege were not imperiled by such a connection. Even clergy “had nothing to fear … should it be shown that apes were their ancestors.”

The talk given by John William Draper drew a large crowd because of a rumor that Wilberforce would use the occasion to critique Darwin’s theory. The organizers of the conference had to move it to a larger room because of the size of the audience. Huxley was going to skip the presentation, but was persuaded to attend by Robert Chambers, who said by leaving he would be deserting the evolutionary cause. Draper’s address was followed by a number of comments. Wilberforce’s comments reflected those he made in his article for the Quarterly Review. He said Darwin’s theory was speculative rather than a valid induction from established facts. It also lacked an observational or experimental basis.

In his closing remarks, Wilberforce, who was well known for both his humor and rhetorical skills, played off of Huxley’s remarks two days before, where he had said human privilege and moral responsibility would not be endangered by sharing a genealogy with apes. Wilberforce turned to Huxley and asked him where apes were located in the Huxley family tree. The exact wording is uncertain, but it seems Wilberforce asked Huxley “whether he would prefer a monkey for his grandfather or his grandmother?” This corresponded to what Huxley said in a letter two months after the event, where he said the question was concerning “my personal predilections in the matter of ancestry.”

Huxley stood and said he had heard nothing new in what Wilberforce said, except for the question about his ancestry. Although it was a topic he would not have introduced, he would reply. Smith said Huxley’s report of what he said two months later in a letter was probably fairly accurate:

If then, said I, the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessing great means & influence & yet who employs those faculties & that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion—I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.”

Although Huxley’s rejoinder drew cheers and laughter, it certainly didn’t silence the critics or settle the issue. “Significantly, both at the time and many years later, Huxley took pains to deny the widely circulated claim that he had said he would rather be an ape than a bishop or had in any way insulted Wilberforce in his reply.” Several others spoke afterward, a number of who rejected evolution. Joseph Hooker spoke last and it was he who gave the most extensive defense of Darwin’s theory, and the most direct critique of what Wilberforce had said. Opinions at the time as to who “won” the debate were divided. Some thought Huxley had, others thought it was Wilberforce; still others thought it was a draw.

Wilberforce told a correspondent that he had “thoroughly beat” Huxley. Huxley and Hooker were confident the supporters of Darwin had prevailed. Darwin himself thought the exchange was momentous; that it marked a turning point for Darwinism within the scientific community and for its struggle for independence from religious authority.

Smith said it was not surprising that a generation later, when Francis Darwin and Leonard Huxley, drew on the correspondence of their fathers and the recollections of their fathers’ friends and allies, the story of the events on June 30, 1860 were told in that way. Even Leonard Huxley admitted the encounter could not be described as “an immediate and complete triumph for evolutionary doctrine.” However, its importance lay “in the open resistance that was made to authority, at a moment when even a drawn battle was hardly less effectual than acknowledged victory. Instead of being crushed under ridicule, the new theories secured a hearing.”

So the “debate” between Huxley and Wilberforce did not happen the way it is widely presented and understood today. The “received” account was codified when Darwinian thought was in its ascendency some twenty to forty years later. J. R. Lucas astutely observed, “The quarrel between religion and science came about not because of what Wilberforce said, but because it was what Huxley wanted; and as Darwin’s theory gained supporters, they took over his view of the incident.”

Alister McGrath pointed to another facet of the 1860 Oxford conference of the Association that was often overlooked. “On Sunday July 1, the day after the confrontation between Wilberforce and Huxley, the conference delegates heard a sermon preached on the theme of ‘The Present Relations of Science to Religion.’” Its significance lies in highlighting the harmony possible between the scientific investigation of nature within general revelation and the special revelation of God in Scripture. The minister who gave that sermon, Fredrick Temple, would go on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury.

He asked if science and the Bible were foes. And if not foes, were they so distinct as to have no point of contact?  “Not so.” The harmony between them would not be found in the “petty details of fact,” but rather in the “deep identity of tone, character, and spirit which pervade both” the book of Nature and the book of Revelation. “The more the Bible is studied, and the more nature is studied, the deeper will be found the harmony between them in character, the more assured the certainty that whomever inspired the one also made the other.”


Genesis, Science and Creation

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© Oleg Dudko | 123rf.com

For conservative Christians holding to the authority of the Bible “as the only rule of faith and obedience” in the modern world, there is perhaps no more important question than whether science is a competing or complementary form of knowledge and authority to Scripture. In a way, this dilemma is traceable to the third chapter of Genesis. Genesis 3 contains the story of the Fall of humanity, where Adam and Eve fell into the trap of striving to be “like God” by knowing good and evil independent of God and his revelation. Ironically, they did gain knowledge independent of God; and the first thing they discovered was their own “nakedness” apart from God. Autonomous knowledge comes with a price.

We can see this compulsion for autonomous knowledge clearly within a short discussion of the encounter of God and His Word with science and nature. In Escape from Reason, Francis Schaeffer noted how early scientists shared the outlook of Christianity in believing that a reasonable God created a reasonable universe; and humans, by using their reason, could become knowledgeable about the universe. Early science was natural science, but it wasn’t naturalistic. There wasn’t an assumption that reason could be exercised independent of God; that nature could be known autonomous of God’s revelation.

Alister McGrath’s discussion of the relationship between science and religion in his book Science & Religion is helpful here. McGrath said there were three broad positions on the relationship between the natural world and the divine. The first is that the natural world is divine. This is certainly not a position that either Christianity or modern science would take. A second position is that the natural world is created and bears some resemblance to its Creator. The third is that the natural world has no relation to God. This third position underlies the view of what Schaeffer calls modern, modern science. And the second is necessary for a two books view of Scripture and Nature.

This idea (which is sometimes expressed in terms of the “two books” of Scripture and Nature) gave additional impetus to the study of nature. If God could not be seen, yet had somehow imprinted his nature on the creation, it would be possible to gain an enhanced appreciation of the nature and purpose of God by studying the natural order.

Science and the Bible were able to peacefully coexist for centuries. Nature was the “textbook” of God’s general revelation; and the Bible was the handbook of his special revelation. This “two books theology,” as noted above, was an essential foundation for the rise of modern science. Denis Lamoureux quoted Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), a scientist and Christian, on the “two books” of God’s revelation:

Let no woman or man out of conceit or laziness, think or believe that anyone can search too far or be too well informed in the Book of God’s Works or the Book of God’s Words. Instead, let everyone endlessly improve their understanding of both.

A related issue concerns the order of nature within a doctrine of creation. “The doctrine of creation leads directly to the notion that the universe is possessed of regularity which is capable of being uncovered by humanity.” Encapsulated within “the laws of nature,” this was of fundamental importance to the emergence and development of the natural sciences. But how then do science and religion interact? Are they part of the same reality? Are the insights of science and religion contradictory or complementary to each other?

McGrath said one view of the interaction of science and religion sees them as in conflict or at war with each other. A second view sees science and religion as convergent; “all truth is God’s truth.” Developments in science should be welcomed and accommodated within the Christian faith. The third view sees science and religion as distinct. In other words, the natural sciences ask the “how” questions, while theology asks the “why” questions.

In his book, Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man, Bryan Applyard dated the birth of modern science to the time of Galileo. The moment that Galileo looked through his telescope in 1609 contained “all that was new and revolutionary in science.” He looked through his crude telescope and believed what he saw with his own eyes. The method of science (or wisdom, as Appleyard called it) that existed before Galileo was different in many ways from what ruled after 1609. “Its foundation was neither observation nor experiment, but authority understood through reason.” But from that time onward, “a new and unprecedentedly effective form of knowledge and way of doing things appeared.”

This science inspired a version of the universe, of the world and of man that was utterly opposed to all preceding versions. Most importantly, it denied man the possibility of finding an ultimate meaning and purpose for his life within the facts of the world. If there were such things as meanings and purposes, they must exist outside the universe describable by science.”

Francis Schaeffer called this the birth of “modern, modern science.” And he believed this was a radically different way of doing science than what Bacon and Galileo did. A necessary presumption for any scientific endeavor is the uniformity of natural causes. Early scientists like Bacon and Galileo saw this existing within the open system of nature, where God could and did have a sustaining influence on His creation. Christians were free to pursue science and maintain their belief in a Creator God who was still active within His creation.

But within modern, modern science, this unity of natural causes exists within a closed system of nature. There cannot be any intervention from forces or influences outside of nature. Science necessarily is done within the assumed closed system of nature. If it isn’t, then it is not science. In Escape From Reason, Schaeffer said:

That little phrase [the uniformity of natural causes within a closed system] makes all the difference in the world. It makes the difference between natural science and a science that is rooted in naturalistic philosophy.

So science as it is widely practiced today, what Schaeffer called modern, modern science, begins with a philosophical assumption that excludes the potential influence of a creative God, or a creative force. I think this is one reason why scientists today are so antagonistic towards Intelligent Design Theory. To them it feels and looks like cheating; an undermining of this basic philosophical foundation of the modern scientific method. Any attempt to accommodate the discoveries within the Book of God’s Works with the Book of God’s Word, as in the “two book” theory, is not legitimate science. Modern, modern science is autonomous from God.

So when interpreting Genesis 1, it matters which view of science you bring to the process. Is it the open system of nature within the two books theory, or the closed system of modern, modern science? If nature is open to God’s interventions, was it designed to exist independent or autonomous from God after creation, like a giant watch with God as the Watchmaker; or is creation sustained by a Creator? If creation is not independent of its Creator, can a study of creation tell us something about its Creator? Can knowledge of the works of God inform us about the Word of God? Will knowledge of the watch tell us anything about the Watchmaker? Is that knowledge independent, complementary and accommodating, or in conflict to what the Bible reveals to us about God and His creation? And if in conflict, does that mean that biblical religion and science are at war with each other?

In “Origins and Creation” I looked at several different ways to understand the Genesis account of creation. The categories were drawn from the web lectures and writings of Denis Lamoureux, an Evolutionary Creationist. The categories were: Young Earth Creation (YEC), Progressive Creation (PC), Evolutionary Creation (EC), Deistic Evolution (DE) and Atheistic Evolution (AE). Look at “Origins and Creation” for more information on how these views of creation differ from each other. Drawing on the above discussion, we can then suggest views of origins have the following relationships between nature and science, creation and God, and the interaction of knowledge found within science and the Bible:

Creation Origins

Nature as an Open or Closed System

Relationship of Creation to God

Interaction of Knowledge in Science & the Bible



Creation is sustained by God

Accommodation conflict/war




Creation is sustained by God

Some accommodation; Some conflict



Creation is sustained by God

Complementary &

no conflict


Open at first

Creation is autonomous of God

Some relationship

No interaction



Creation is autonomous of God

No relationship


It’s not enough to select which of the three creation positions available to a conservative Christian (YEC, PC and EC) appeals to you. Each of the three positions carries interpretive decisions with regard to Scripture and with regard to science that have to be made. The views you hold with regard to the interaction of science and Scripture, nature and the Bible, influence your views on creation. They influence how you interpret both Genesis 1 and the other passages of Scripture. Modern knowledge of the works of God is not autonomous from the Word of God. So when God created the heavens and the earth in the beginning, how do you think He did it?

For more articles on creation in the Bible, see the link “Genesis & Creation.”