Editorial by Jonathan Clatworthy
from Signs of the Times No. 26 - Jul 2007

The recent Hay Festival included a debate between three scientists about religion.

Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, argued that science is under attack and needs as many allies as it can get:

'If we give the impression that science is hostile to even mainstream religion, it will be more difficult to combat the kinds of anti-science sentiments that are really important'.

This is hardly a recommendation of religious belief; but it was too much for the other panellists.

Richard Dawkins thought it risked 'buying into the fiction that there's something virtuous about believing things because of fate rather than because of evidence'. The evolutionist Professor Steve Jones, describing some of his students from Islamic backgrounds, complained that 'There are parts of science they will not accept. That means that, in their early lives, they have been told deliberate lies by people who, I'm sure, know they are deliberate lies. I don't care how charming they are, I don't care how pleasant they are, these people are evil'.1

Now we're getting into the spirit of it. Why evil? Because they do not accept the facts of science. This view is the mirror image of the argument that evolutionists tell deliberate lies because they can read the Bible and see for themselves that evolution is untrue.

Both these groups insist that they have the facts and their opponents are wilfully ignoring them. The presupposition they have in common is that there is a set of facts which can be known with certainty, and that these facts can be deduced from a completely reliable source of information. Philosophers call this theory of knowledge 'foundationalism'. What the two groups disagree about is the reliable source; in one case empirical observation, in the other the Bible.

Let us take an example: the recent proposal that our ancestors walked upright a lot earlier than previously believed. A team of British researchers spent a year in Sumatra, observing the movements of orang-utangs. and concluded that they learned to walk on two feet so that as they walked along branches they could pick fruit or grab other branches to swing from tree to tree.2

So: when was it that our ancestors first walked on two feet? We may compare four possible answers.

  1. 24 million years ago - the new theory.
  2. 6 million years ago, the older scientific theory.
  3. In 4004 BC when, according to a literalist reading of the Bible, God made the world, complete with its fossils to deceive modern scientists.
  4. Two minutes ago, when the world came into existence, complete with the fossils, the history books, and the misleading memories in our minds.

None of these theories can be completely disproved. All of them may be true. However, some 'work' better than others. The theory of creation two minutes ago is unhelpful. If our minds are so radically deceived about the nature of reality, we cannot know what it is like and we have no idea what to do next. In practice we discount this theory because it does not 'work'. We therefore presuppose that the world has existed for a long time. Our examinations of the world are based on that presupposition. As we examine it, we produce conflicting theories. We presuppose that the things around us are what they look like, but sometimes we discover that they are not, so our understanding of reality needs to allow for error. As our scientists travel round other exotic places as well as Sumatra, collecting snippets of information, they try to fit the snippets together to form an overall account of how the world works. At some point in our history, the combination of snippets and fitting-together produced a theory that the world was older than 4004 BC. This illustrates a development: after eight centuries of trying to correlate empirical evidence with biblical texts, in the nineteenth century most people, Christians and non-Christians alike, concluded that it cannot be done.

Liberals could accept that using the Bible to calculate the age of the world was an inappropriate use of Scripture. Conservatives - who remained committed to deriving certainties from reliable authority - formed two camps representing the alternative authorities, the Bible and empirical science. The scientific version is known as positivism - the theory that everything we can rightly claim to know is based on empirical evidence, and whatever we cannot know through this method does not exist (or, in some versions, cannot be known). This is why Dawkins and Jones misdescribe science so badly. Their hostility to religious belief results not from the scientific evidence itself but from a positivist theory about it. Scientific research is humbler and more exploratory: it uses empirical observations to develop theories about what may exist, and nearly always allows for the possibility that, by examining the things we know about, we may discover the existence of other things which we do not know about.

Both scientific positivism and Christian fundamentalism retain as presupposition what was previously theory. Our presuppositions are assumptions we take for granted. Usually we assume that other people share them. When faced with people who do not, the constructive response is to examine them to see whether we can defend them - in which case they cease to be presuppositions, and instead become theories, subjects of debate. Often, however, when people find their presuppositions challenged they react negatively, seeking some way to dismiss the challenge. So Professor Jones, faced with people who honestly think that western science does not describe reality accurately. prefers to believe that they really know it does and are deliberately lying.

Liberals can avoid these foundationalist traps. We all make presuppositions, some of them false. Our sources of information vary widely, but none are infallible. We accept some things from the Bible and the Christian tradition, others from the next door neighbours, and others again from modern science. Similarly scientists accept that they may be wrong; otherwise they would have been so committed to the theory that our ancestors first walked upright six million years ago, that they would not have made the funding available for researching an alternative theory.

Most Christians accept the scientific consensus that the world is billions of years old and we evolved. For most purposes we discount the possibility that the scientists are wrong; but, faced with someone who honestly disagrees, the constructive response is to examine the reasons for the disagreement and the underlying presuppositions. To dismiss views based on presuppositions one does not share, is to suppress the search for truth.

Good religion recognizes that it cannot answer every question: some questions are better answered by science. Good science confesses the same: it cannot give a complete explanation of reality, and there are many aspects of what we experience which are better explained by religion. The growing fundamentalist rejection of science is tragedy enough; for defenders of science to be equally aggressive in their attacks on religion only makes things worse.

Good religion values good science, and good science values good religion. In our attempts to understand the way things are, we're in it together.


Notes

  1. The Guardian 29 May 2007.
  2. The Guardian 1 June 2007.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest,  university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.