Monday, January 24, 2011

Reflections on science and religion

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about the relationship between religion and modern science and thought I might share a few of my thoughts on the subject. I want to warn before I begin that my ideas on the subject are incomplete and so necessarily disconnected right now, so there is probably some inconsistency and certainly some discontinuity in them.

First and foremost, I want to say that I think that those who posit an opposition between science and religion, as if the two were in conflict, are being ridiculous and absurd. If there is an objective truth, and we as Christians know there is, then it is impossible that true religion should conflict with true science or vice versa. There may be certain methods which are incapable of reaching truth, but there cannot exist two "truths" which are mutually exclusive but simultaneously true.

This is one of the (plethora of) things that bothers me about Young Earth Creationism. To all appearances, the earth is billions of years old. Volcanoes, rock layers, fossils, the light visible on earth from stars certain distances away, and numerous other scientific observations all point to an earth that is very, very old, certainly much older than 6000 years. Asserting that in spite of all of this evidence to the contrary the earth is only 6000 years old is the same as claiming that God not only created Adam and Eve as fully grown adults, but even put scars on their knees and elbows and implanted false memories in them of the childhood mishaps that led to these scars. In the end, to entirely discount all of this scientific evidence in favor of some form of deluded biblical literalism is to accuse God of being a liar and an author of confusion; Scripture affirms that he is not (see Titus 1:2 and 1 Corinthians 14:33).

A second point about Young Earth Creationism that bothers me nearly as much is what seems to be its neo-Gnostic streak. This neo-Gnostic tendency is to be expected, given Young Earth Creationism's origins among Calvinists and semi-Calvinists, Calvinism being a neo-Gnostic movement itself. The neo-Gnostic tendency in Young Earth Creationism is perhaps most obvious in the often (rightfully) mocked assertion that "I didn't come from monkeys." Questions of the inaccuracy of this silly statement aside, its very presence in and use by Young Earth Creationist adherents seems to me to indicate neo-Gnostic tendencies. Why else would there need be an adamant denial that man is part of the system of life on earth?

Even if we reject Young Earth Creationism in favor of, for instance, Intelligent Design or so-called Old Earth Creationism, these alternatives are still potentially problematic. Associating any particular scientific theory too closely with the Christian faith is very dangerous. St. Augustine of Hippo, writing in his Confessions in the fifth century, raised this point very early on in Christian history. The Manichaeans, a syncretist Gnostic sect with which he had been affiliated before his conversion to Orthodox Christianity, had incorporated points of ancient Greek astronomy and cosmology into their dogmatic system; by St. Augustine's day much of this older Greek science had been discredited and replaced with more up to date understandings of the earth and the universe. As St. Augustine continued in his secular education and learned that the Manicahaeans were teaching incorrect ideas about science, he came to question their religious ideas also; if they are so wrong about the stars, the sun, the moon and the earth, he reasoned rightly, how can they possibly be right about lofty and complex concepts like God, the afterlife, and spirituality? I wonder what St. Augustine would say about those Christians today who teach certain pseudo-sciences alongside the dogmas of the Christian faith.

Neither absurdly rejecting all scientific advancement in favor of some clearly incorrect understanding of the world as Young Earth Creationists do nor frantically trying to reconcile science with religion as many supporters of Intelligent Design seem to do are acceptable courses of action for Orthodox Christians. Both are the product of an understanding of the Scriptures that is in conflict with the ancient Christian understanding and both are serious threats to the continued life of the Christian faith. Orthodox Christians must avoid falling into the frameworks, and so the pitfalls and, inevitably, the heresies, of the West; both Creationism and Intelligent Design stem from a uniquely Western framework.

The Patristic answer to all of this is really somewhat of a non-answer. Vladimir Lossky, in his Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, explains that "the theology of the Orthodox Church, constantly soteriological in its emphasis, has never entered into alliance with philosophy in any attempt at a doctrinal synthesis." In fact, "having no philosophical preferences, the Church always freely makes use of philosophy and the sciences for apologetic purposes, but she never has any cause to defend these relative and changing truths as she defends the unchangeable truth of her doctrines." This point, I think, is indispensable for a truly Orthodox Christian understanding of and relationship with modern science.

Modern science is not a threat to Orthodox Christianity any more than was ancient Greek science, which similarly ran contrary to a literalist interpretation of the Genesis account. The Church Fathers used the science of their day to prove their point; St. Irenaeus, for instance, defends the use of four and only four gospels by the Church through an appeal to the four winds. They did not, however, choose some particular scientific theory and claim that "this is the Christian one." Christianity's focus is salvation, not explanations for the origins of and events within the natural world.

Because science is not and cannot be a threat to Christianity, we must also not shy away from any aspect of the modern scientific understandings of the universe. I have heard Christians claim, for instance, that they are willing to accept evolution but not that humans evolved from apes because "humans are different." While I agree that "humans are different," I see no reason to reject that aspect of evolutionary theory which takes man's origins into account. Unlike so many of our Western brothers, Orthodox Christians are not Platonists. We do not believe that the material world is inherently evil or that it is anything less than "good," the term which God used to describe each aspect of his creation in the Genesis account. Not only that, but matter has been redeemed and even sanctified; this was one of the main arguments put forward by St. John of Damascus and the other Orthodox defenders of the Holy Icons and Relics of the Saints against the Byzantine iconoclasts in the eighth and ninth centuries. We do not believe that man entered the world from somewhere else, as in the Origenist scheme of the pre-existence of souls; we affirm, along with the Genesis account, that man was created from the dust of this very earth. We also do not believe that man is going to die and leave this material world behind forever; according to Orthodox Christian eschatology, the end of the age comes with the resurrection of the body. Indeed, man has been, is, and always will be a part of this world, the good creation of our good God.

I see no reason, then, to reject the evolutionary concept of common descent nor man's part in that common ancestry of all living things on earth. Affirming common descent is entirely compatible with affirming the biblical account of creation. If anything, I think it could be argued that common descent only serves to illuminate and magnify the Orthodox Christian understanding of man's origins, man's goal, and man's place in the world. Our work as Christians is the redemption and sanctification of the world; I can think of no more beautiful example of this than the priest's lifting of the unconsecrated bread and wine while he intones "thine own of thine own we offer unto thee on behalf of all and for all" during the Divine Liturgy. Humans are, according to an Orthodox Christian understanding, the crown of God's creation; we are both created from the dust of the earth and also created in the image and likeness of God. Common descent only, I believe, adds a further and beautiful dimension to this understanding.

Having said all of this, I have to admit that in spite of all that I am actually very pessimistic about where science has taken us and where it will take us if left unchecked. Science has been used as an excuse for abandoning God and no doubt it will continue to be abused this way. Science, specifically evolutionary science, has been used, especially in the first half of the twentieth century to justify horrendous crimes against humanity, including the Holocaust, abortion, and the forced sterilization of ethnic minorities. Perhaps worst of all, science has deprived man of meaning; as the physicist Steven Weinberg, himself an atheist, poignantly put it: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." Friedrich Nietzsche, that prophet of atheism, observed fairly early in the process that the advancements of modern man would lead him eventually to nihilism; as he famously exclaimed: "God is dead!" And the often forgotten exclamation that follows immediately after: "And we have killed him!"

I'm certainly not a Nietzschean nor am I an atheist, but I think that in a sense Nietzsche was right. Man's understanding of the world around him and his ability to apply that knowledge have increased rapidly over the last several hundred years, and especially in the last one hundred years. The science of medicine has completely changed the way that we look at disease, has significantly decreased human suffering, and has extended the human life expectancy. The sciences of physics and biology have made leaps and bounds in our understanding of the world around us and of how it got to be the way it is. And what is the result of all of this? A feeling of reverence and awe at the beauty of the universe? An increased devotion to God for his wonderful creation? No; the result has been two apparently contradictory but strangely complimentary feelings in man: hubris and despair. We have simultaneously come to view ourselves as masters of the world and captains of our own destiny with no need for a God and as completely and utterly hopeless, living short, lonely, and meaningless lives on a comparatively tiny chunk of rock floating aimlessly in cold, black space. In spite of the chorus of assurances from Richard Dawkins and his flock of faithful followers, science does not have all the answers nor will it ever.

And this is where Christianity comes in. The job of the Church and even, I would dare say, of the individual Christian is not to try to reconcile Genesis with Darwin or to formulate some new, theistic explanation for evolutionary processes. The job of the Christian is to declare Jesus Christ crucified and risen. The job of Christians is to check the pride of man by reminding him that he will one day have to give an account before the dread judgment seat of the Lord and to uplift him by reminding him that life is not meaningless and that we are not alone. God has a purpose for us -- human life has meaning -- and God is still "Emmanuel," God with us.


  1. An interesting and thoughtful piece.

    I have never seen science as any kind of challenge to religion. I happen to be a scientist and I happen to be an atheist, but the one doesn't have any connection with the other.

    Religion fails in its own terms not because of the boiling point of acetone or continental drift. And if someone disproves evolution - and any good scientist will be open to the possibility - that won't make me one bit more likely to believe in a god or gods.

  2. Nor should it. I agree that the issue of theism vs. atheism is entirely a separate subject. "Christians" who attempt to posit the scientific debate about origins as one of Christianity vs. Atheism are being ridiculous. I got a laugh out of watching a video not too long ago that featured a debate between a devout Roman Catholic and an admittedly nominal Protestant on the issue of Intelligent Design; funny enough, the devout one was arguing against and the nominal one for.

  3. I read your post a couple of days ago and had a thought. I don't have much time so I haven't skimmed the article a second time, but consider, if you haven't, scientific paradigms.

    I am not arguing for or against evolution or Young Earth Creationsim or anything for that matter. I only speak of paradigms because looking at their history in science, one wonders why we think the science of our day is "spotless". No one actually believes that. New things come, old things go, some old things stay, other old things are modified by new things... and on and on we go.

    I wouldn't pick any particular origins theory or idea, in part because I am not trained as a scientist but also because of the natural tendencies to interpret this or that evidence in favor of the current paradigm. It happens. Sometimes it fits nicely, sometimes its like sticking a square peg into a round hole.

    Anyway, I would still see no opposition between science and religion. I just wouldn't make a dogmatic statement on way or the other.


  4. My understanding is that for Darwin's theory death is essential. Death is man's enemy as a Christian, it's not natural.

    That is my problem with your post, you don't reflect at all on the problem of death at your post (and I skimmed it again to be sure, though you mention Jesus crucified and risen at the end)

    Christ was the perfect man and He conquers the problem of death and sin in His cross and resurrection. If death isn't a problem but a part of the way God put together the natural systems of the world and so forth ... well, I just don't see how you can reconcile materialistic Darwinian theory with true Orthodox christianity. How do you reconcile the problem of death, please?

  5. Jake,

    Saint Athanasius the Great speaks of the NATURAl law of death (what has been created from nothing tends 'naturally' to return to nothingness; man, who has been made from earth, will 'naturally' return to earth; etc). But natural is not the same as "the way God intended it to be": here's where our acceptance or rejection of God come into place.

    See also [my comment on] this post here.

  6. Jake:

    You raise an interesting point. While I don't have a response to that (though I think Lvka's also raises an excellent counterpoint), I do want to point out that the theory of evolution is not synonymous with Darwinism. I do not accept Darwinism; it's simply unscientific and has much more to do with the philosophical currents of the early 19th century than with real scientific observation and analysis. Theories of evolution and common origins existed well before Charles Darwin was even a twinkle in his father's eye. In fact, Darwin's own grandfather wrote about the idea. Even as far back as ancient Greece, there were theories of evolution and common origins based upon observations of nature and of the development of the human fetus in the womb. Darwinism is a specific system which posits that the impetus for evolutionary change is "survival of the fittest." As I said, this is more a product of 18th and 19th century philosophy than of science done properly; I don't accept and I don't think that many intelligent people do anymore.

  7. Okay. I'm stupid.

    Now that we get that out of the way, let me ask for some clarification because of my second sentence:

    By evolution, do you mean the fact that animals/plants change from one (what we might call) type to another? And that Darwinism posits that it is only those that are best suited to survive do so? I'm totally confused here. Perhaps a detailed explanation of what you mean by Darwinism and what you mean by evolution and how they differ. Without some details, I'm hopelessly lost as to what you mean by differentiating between the two.


  8. John:

    I apologize for my lack of clarity; it's a very complicated topic and I'm trying to summarize as much as I can.

    If I remember correctly, it was the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Anaximander who was the first to posit a theory of evolution. He derived his theory from observations of the development of human fetuses coupled with observations of changes in other species over time. He didn't develop his theory much, and neither did anyone else, until the 18th century.

    The reason for this is that the idea of time as progress from a starting point to a definite end point is a uniquely Jewish idea, which, of course, was carried into Christianity. The Greeks (and everyone else) had a different view of time than did the Jews and the Christian inheritors of the Jewish tradition. This Judeo-Christian understanding of time as progress with a start and an end -- especially a goal -- is, of course, a prerequisite to an acceptance of any plausible theory of evolution. If time is cyclical (as most ancient peoples believed) or linear but without start or end (as the Greeks believed) evolution makes no sense in that context. In especially the century leading up to Darwin, the coupling of Judeo-Christian understanding of time with a Greek emphasis on observation and analysis of nature led several different individuals, unrelated to each other, to develop theories of evolution.

    What makes Darwinism unique among these theories is that it posits not just that evolution occurs, but offers an explanation as to why and how it occurs, namely random genetic mutation and survival of the fittest. In order to arrive at these concepts, Darwin used the political, economic, and social theories current at his time and found in the writings of individuals like John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, and Thomas Moore; he applied their humanistic theories to biology and voila!: Darwinism.

    To summarize:
    1. A belief in evolution is the result of cultural conditioning from a Judeo-Christian understanding of time and a Greek view of nature as a self-regulating mechanism (this latter view exacerbated by thinkers of the Enlightenment well beyond the view of the Greeks, eventually culminating in the materialism of thinkers like Hume and Marx).
    2. Evolutionary theory comes before and is different from Darwinism.
    3. Darwinism is a system which seeks to explain the process of evolution through the political, economic, and social philosophies of the early Enlightenment.

    I hope that's somewhat clearer...

  9. Yes, that does clarify a few things. Thank you.


  10. So does this mean one can propose evolution without needing death (or "survival of the fittest") as a mechanism for moving evolution forward, or as progress?

    I guess what I'm saying here is, is "survival of the fittest" and the necessity of the death of inferior adaptations (and thus the creature) unnecessary for evolutionary processes?

    I hope that makes sense. This is the first I've ever heard of this distinction and so my mind is whirling with possible implications if one need not have Darwinism side by side with evolution as if they were the same thing.


  11. John:

    That is absolutely correct. There are a number of different explanations for why evolution occurs. I don’t find any of the various theories entirely satisfactory myself, but Darwinism is certainly not the only option. In fact, I'd say it's one of the weaker options so far as the evidence is concerned.

  12. David,

    One final thing, if I may.

    Do you know of an online source where I can read about these other alternatives to Darwinism? Not ever having viewed the two as different (evolution and Darwinism) I was not aware that any other mechanism was proposed as a means to change. I've never even heard of someone trying to debunk these other mechanisms. In all the resources I've read, survival of the fittest is just assumed to be the cause of the change.

    This should be my last comment. Sorry for so many questions.


  13. Hello? David? Sorry to keep bugging you, but I was discussing this topic with an atheist friend of mine and now she is also interested in this topic of Darwinism versus evolution. Anything on those sources I asked about?


  14. David you wrote: "Christianity's focus is salvation, not explanations for the origins of and events within the natural world."

    My main question is what is the meaning of ancestral sin and salvation in an evolutionary context. Yes Chrisitanity's focus should not be on explaining the natural world, but it needs to be consistant with it.

    You are right on about Darwinism being outdated. No scientist has been a pure Darwinist since the 1930s.

    I would hesitiate to be critical of the term creationism, however. We do still maintain that God "created" us, right, even if he took four billion years to do it.


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