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Science and religion: clash of two faiths

Published:Sunday | July 7, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry

Martin Henry, Contributor

Every now and again, some of the puff-chested doctors-cum-priests of science and a wide variety of coat-tail-hanging quacks emerge to advise us that religion, and particularly Christianity, is terminally ill. This is especially strange since modern science is irrefutably a product of Christian faith, more particularly of Protestant Christian faith.

So here comes another one, Dr Patrick White, who holds a doctorate in engineering and has led research groups at Bell Labs, puffingly announcing 'Christianity losing race against science' (Gleaner, July 1, 2013).

For a scientist and Bell Labs man, Dr White recklessly flings out the boldest of claims which would not stand the slimmest chance of validation in his labs. Religious bigotry is, from all appearances, not limited to Christianity and other 'terminally ill' traditional religions.

According to White, cosmology, evolution and even archaeology, which has been one of the Bible's best friends, have routed Christianity. And now, "With attacks like these, across several fronts, the Judaeo-Christian religion is indeed facing the fight of its life, with the possibility of a rout of truly 'biblical' proportions." And, "It may be too late for the Church to ignore scientific progress."

But Dr White's real goal is neither defending scientific 'progress' nor exposing what he considers to be the 'anti-progressive' nature of religion/Christianity, as such. It is to establish "the scientific basis of homosexuality", something which other kinds of scientists are far more qualified to pronounce upon than a physical scientist/engineer have no firm agreement on, even among the anti-religion set.

And where might science be racing to in its progress?

The scientific method of the natural sciences has delivered the most astounding progress in human understanding of the natural world. And, from that understanding, the most spectacular technological achievements that humankind has ever known; and all in the last three and a half centuries or so. The temptation to worship science is great, and is very often yielded to.

But the very technical achievements of science are pushing the entire planet to the brink of disaster. For the first time in human history, human action, through technology, has the potential of destroying human survival on the planet.

Worship of science

Engineer White is bound to the pre-World War II Age of Optimism by the chains of Scientism, the worship of science. A lot of very thoughtful people have moved on to confront the harsh realities of the science-created present and the threats of the future. What the world needs now more than anything else, if it is to survive, is wisdom, traditionally the purview of philosophy and religion, both of which White, the technician, crudely dismisses.

Science is replete with its own pet prejudices, bigotry and religious zealotry. At its epistemological core, science, as preached by many practitioners and bandwagon believers, operates on two weak assumptions: The reductionist view that reality is purely material, the interplay of matter and energy; and that the only way of truly knowing is by 'scientific method'.

All of human experience, over millennia, suggests a richness and complexity of reality beyond the material. Science has been quite glibly willing to dismiss the mountain of evidence of non-material reality in defence of its own pet prejudice and in a deliberate and concerted effort to get rid of 'god' and the supernatural, which might be more properly described as the 'othernatural' rather than the 'supernatural'.

But, as science progresses, everywhere at the frontiers some of its most able practitioners are meeting Othernatural mind. In the behaviour of matter at the ultra micro level. In the outer reaches of the Cosmos. In the ultrafine intricacies of life. And at the frontiers of the human mind itself. The deep prejudice is that if they persist long enough they will get past these very obvious and embarrassing outcrops of othernaturalness and generate purely natural-material explanation for all phenomena.

And as science progresses, it is forced to abandon its most cherished truth claims in endless revisionism. Any claim to be any kind of ultimate source of truth is patently ridiculous and a massive overreach.

Two areas in which cherished dogma of theory is currently under pressure are climate change and epigenetics. The certitude of global warming, and with it climate change from human action, dogmatically defended, and supported by deception now exposed, is being challenged by counterdata and may not be rescued even by presidential decree.

We once 'knew', from third-form biology up, that inheritance could only happen through the genes encoded by DNA in the nuclei of cells. We now know through epigenetics that the genome dynamically responds to the environment, with factors like stress, diet, behaviour, toxins and other stimuli activating and deactivating chemical switches that regulate gene expression.

A scientific study has appeared in my email inbox. 'Sex-specific epigenetic disruption and behavioural changes following low-dose in utero bisphenol A exposure', out of the Department of Psychology of Columbia University. The study is proposing that exposure to a particular chemical widely present in plastics, even at low dose, could epigenetically affect sexual behaviour, or orientation.

So engineer Patrick White may have a point about the scientific basis for homosexuality, but not quite the point he thought he had that it's in the genes and is therefore 'natural'. The Bible has othernatural epigenetic stories in it which were once the butt of scientific derision and an embarrassment to 'scientific' Christians.

Scientific dogmatism insists that the only real way of knowing is through scientific method, which has worked enormously well in the 'natural' sciences. Anchored in the positivism of Auguste Comte, the social 'sciences' have struggled to ape scientific method as the only legitimate way of knowing and are now facing an epistemological existential crisis.

Some of the deepest insights into human nature have not come from any 'science' but from art. In the case of literature, for example, character in great and enduring texts probe and expose human nature in ways that no artificially contrived 'social science' can.

Indeed, literature is considered great and enduring precisely when it does this best. Shakespeare lives not because he was the most technically accomplished playwright but because of his profound understanding of human nature and the capture of this understanding in his characters.

And even if the Bible can be debunked as some holy book of othernatural revelation, some of its most thoughtful critics, from George Bernard Shaw to our own late John Hearne, recognise in it stretches of truly great literature. The consummate poetry of Isaiah, for example, which it is to be hoped even engineers can appreciate, ranks with the finest in world literature. And we would do well to humbly heed its theological lessons and prophetic warnings in a world where things are very obviously falling apart (Isaiah 24), despite science and also on account of the triumph of science without wisdom - a pyrrhic victory.

defending the dogma of evolution

Nowhere is scientific dogmatism more evident than in the obsessive-compulsive defence of the cherished dogma of evolution. Engineer White would have us to know that Darwin's 'Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection' "enabled mankind, for the first time, to understand how life developed and why it is now diverse, without having to resort to the supernatural." And, "Although this battle is still not over, defeat of the religious alternative is already in sight."

A key reason why science is apparently winning this fight is its suppression and persecution of alternative views which, in method and ruthlessness, would have made the mediaeval Church proud.

Taking science on its own ground, no hypothesis of origins can be established by scientific method because it simply cannot be tested, a key requirement of validating hypotheses. Origin, whether of matter or of life, is a unique, one-off, non-replicable event of the distant past without human witnesses. Scientific method proceeds by examining replicable phenomena for attaining reliable and valid results. In matters of origins, we all ultimately stand on a platform of faith.

The only rational, purely natural 'scientific' position is that we, conscious and self-reflective human beings, find ourselves here. We do not know where we came from. We do not know why we are here. We do not know where we are going.

Science can answer none of these critical existential questions. And science can assign no value to human life. The object cannot value itself. Value is derived from being valuable to another.

The only reasonable options to this crisis of being are to go mad like Nietzsche, endure life like the Greek Stoics and Cynics, or to end it. I am only prepared to grant any significant credibility to the atheistic-materialistic views of the Patrick Whites of this world when many more of them deliver their nihilistic testaments as suicide notes.

Religion, and Christianity in particular, has often been its own worst enemy in the contrived conflict with science. The Bible is not a science text and was not intended to be. The pronouncements of the mediaeval Roman Catholic Church upon cosmology which led to its 'routing' by Copernicus and Galileo, over which Patrick White now gloats, had no warrant in data sources available to the Church.

Mediaeval Catholicism must not and cannot be construed to be the universal voice of Christianity, just as no school of science speaks for all science in all times. But the Bible does make earth-centric, human-centric declarations of origins which science has no methodological tools whatsoever to refute or to propose scientifically reliable and valid alternatives. Let the faiths contend.

Furthermore, religion has strained too hard to be 'scientific' rather than contesting, on solid philosophical-epistemological grounds, the pompous and pontifical claims of science to be the grand purveyor of truth.

As powerful and productive as they have been, science and scientific method are not without boundaries of competence to define and to examine reality. Trespassing outside those boundaries is definitely not scientific, and bluff and bluster by the doctors, priests and quacks of science cannot change that simple fact.

Martin Henry is a communication specialist. Email feedback to and