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Thoughts on Science and Religion

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I’ve always had an interest in science. Even as a very young child, I can remember puzzling over day and night. How does the sun get back to the east to rise? What are the stars? I remember imagining that the night sky was really a huge inverted colander. The sun would make its way back to the east outside the colander, and we would see the sun’s light coming through the holes. My interest in science arose from what I took to be a universal desire to understand the world in which we live. I understood science to be a systematic inquiry into the world for the purpose of understanding it.

One of the things I’ve learned as a parent is that characteristics I thought were universal were merely personal. None of my children has the least interest in science. I do not know why. The desire to understand is so much a part of my very being that I cannot grasp being without it. One of my sons recently told me he hated science. I asked why.

“It’s boring,” he said.

Boring?! How can science be boring?

“It has nothing to do with life,” he continued.

My son is a bright fellow. He knows full well that the technology he enjoys so much comes directly from science. But, as he pointed out, he doesn’t need to know how a computer works—or an iPod or a smartphone—to use it. None of my children have much curiosity about how things work. It is enough for them to know that they do work. Perhaps most people think the same way. I do not know.

As for me, I am always curious about how things work. I also have tremendous faith in my own capacity to understand how things work.

I wrote a while ago about the difference between scientific thinking and magical thinking. When I wrote it, I was sure that most people can tell the difference between magic and science. Now I am not so sure. Without a curiosity about how things work, why should anyone seek evidence for or against their own thinking? What difference is there in the thinking of most people between belief in electricity, gravity, or the nuclear strong force and belief in fairies, gnomes, or sprites? For those with a purely instrumentalist view of knowledge, the question is not, “Is it true?” but, “Does it work?”

I have to admit, I am more interested in truth than in utility. Not that the truth and utility are necessarily opposed. But they are not the same thing. One can easily imagine investigating the utility of a concept without coming close to discovering its truth. It is also possible, I suppose, to investigate the truth of a concept without discovering its utility. Nevertheless, I believe that the significant advances that have been made in technology result from scientists earnestly seeking the truth about the universe we live in. Technology takes the discoveries of science and makes them useful, but there is no enterprise that takes the usefulness of things and makes them true. So science is preeminent.

Many people who unthinkingly use technology every day criticize science as if its objectives were fundamentally flawed. Among evangelical Christians, for example, it is common to disparage biological evolution as if biologists were motivated solely by a desire to discredit God. Certainly there are some scientists so motivated. However, the desire to discredit God is not fundamental to science; it is fundamental to rebellious man. Biologists are motivated by a desire to understand living things. Out of that desire, mixed with countless hours of observation, experimentation, testing of hypotheses, and all the other activities of science, a consensus has emerged among scientists that all life on earth is descended from the same source, that all living things are connected by heredity. This consensus is not wishful thinking. It is not dishonest or unscientific as some Christians have claimed. It is good science, supported by a wealth of evidence from disciplines as diverse as geology, genetics, paleontology, and biology.

Science is a human enterprise for understanding the world we live in. Understanding is always about truth; you cannot understand something without believing what you understand to be true. (You can, of course, believe something to be true without understanding it, but the reverse is not true.) It is not the only enterprise for understanding the world. Religion also makes truth-claims about the world and also provides a way of thinking about the world and understanding it. But religion concerns itself with spiritual reality, while science concerns itself with physical reality. There are some who deny spiritual reality, as if the capacity to understand were not itself a spiritual reality. Human ideals, philosophy, ethics, love, justice, faith—these all belong to the spiritual world. To deny that world is to deny what makes  us human.

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Witness Protection Program

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I don’t think of myself as a strong witness for Christ. When I’m among people who are likely unbelievers, I tend to play it safe when the topic turns to religion. There are a number of reasons for this. Partly, it’s just habit. I’ve grown used to avoiding religion discussions. When I was a child, I didn’t want to be labeled. In fact, I had an inordinate fear of it after being ridiculed as a pansy or a goody-goody. As I matured, this fear turned into an unwillingness to be misunderstood. I would remain silent because I thought the people I was with would not understand what I said.

How unlike Jesus! He repeatedly said things that confused not only his opponents but also his closest followers. When religious leaders asked him by what authority he drove merchants and bankers from the temple grounds, he replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it again.” The leaders were taken aback. The temple had been under construction for almost 50 years, how could this man claim to be able to rebuild it in only three days? On another occasion, he told his listeners that they would have to eat his body and drink his blood. “For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink,” he explained. Talk about saying things that were ripe for misinterpretation! Yet Jesus said nothing to clarify his meaning.

What was the result? The Jews called him a crazy bastard. They vilified him. He was labeled and called names. He didn’t seem to care.

One thing I’ve recently noticed, however, is that I don’t have a problem discussing religion online. In person I shy away from religious discussion, but on my blog and in my Facebook posts I often choose religious topics. I’m not sure why. I know, for example, that people are often less civil online than in the real world. But talking God-talk online is somehow easier than in real life.

Perhaps it is the perceived distance. Even though hardly anyone reads my blog except friends and family—at least as far as I’ve been able to determine—I have the sense that when I commit words to the ether that anyone who reads them is far away, separated from me by a virtual chasm that cannot be crossed. Perhaps it is that written words can be meticulously crafted. When a topic comes up in conversation, I may be glib, but I cannot be well-researched. Whatever the reason, I feel somehow safer expressing my views online than I do in person. Being online acts for me as a kind of witness protection program, giving me a comforting illusion of safety.

I consider this a flaw in my character. I need to be the same person in real life as I am online.

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Dissipation

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Jesus gave a clear and succinct mission to his followers before he left: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” It is not hard to understand. It is hard to do.

In fact, it is so hard to do that I basically don’t do it.

Don’t get me wrong. I approve of the mission. I am willing to support those who engage in fulfilling it. I give to organizations that preach the gospel and make disciples. I just don’t do much myself. When I consider what I might do, I feel defeated before I start.

Many years ago when I was a senior in high school, one of the local churches decided to sponsor a door-to-door campaign to reach local neighborhoods with the gospel of Jesus. I went along partly because there was a girl I liked who was participating. Unfortunately, I didn’t get paired with her. I was sent out with her sister instead. We started canvassing houses. Most people were simply not home. Others clearly mistook us for Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses and refused to open their doors. After a while, we came to a house where several young men were lounging on the porch and steps drinking and smoking. I hung back, thinking that these men were not likely to want to hear about Jesus, but my companion walked right up to them and invited them to church. She was an attractive young woman, so they were immediately attentive. Their attentions quickly became crude, but my companion was undaunted. She politely ignored their comments and pressed on, asking them where they would spend eternity. They were plainly drunk and just as plainly entertained. They strung us along as long as they could, and I was only too glad when we finally left.

“That was a waste of time,” I said.

“No,” said my companion. “Who knows what seeds we may have planted.”

“But they were drunk,” I objected.

“Tomorrow they may be sober,” she retorted. “They may think about what we said and be drawn to God.”

It was very charitable of her to say “we” since I hadn’t opened my mouth the whole time. I had been silently praying, but not for her hearers. I had been praying that she would shut up so we could leave. I didn’t think—and still don’t—that we had any positive impact at all. All we had done was to reinforce cultural stereotypes about evangelical Christians. Great.

I love the gospel. I have seen people transformed by God’s power, and I have experienced it myself. I am not ashamed of the gospel. It really is the power of God for the rescue of everyone who believes. But I don’t like doing things that are demonstrably ineffective. I can’t imagine that “make disciples of all nations” means employing some of the silly methods evangelical churches have used over the past several decades in an attempt to reach the surrounding culture with the message of God’s enduring love.

I confess. I gave up. I was wrong to do so, and the thought that I ought to do more has nagged me ever since.

Recently I’ve been thinking about it more. Like most Americans, I spend a lot of time being entertained and little time thinking deeply about the state of the world, the direction its headed, and what I might be able to do about it. Sometimes it seems that our whole world is geared toward convenience. People won’t recycle unless it’s convenient. People won’t volunteer unless it’s convenient. People won’t oppose injustice unless it’s convenient. We regard those who inconvenience themselves as extraordinary. We regard zeal with suspicion. We live in a world where half-hearted efforts garner praise and whole-hearted efforts provoke envy, where ease is the only happiness and hardship the only misery.

I am by nature an optimist. I don’t do dismal, even when I’m out of a job and the economy is still in the basement. I think the world is rife with God’s blessing. Every living thing seeks opportunities to grow and develop. Many of us, however, seem content with little. We content ourselves with movies and music and food and drink when there are things we could do to change people’s lives for the better. I don’t see around me the same ambition that drove pioneers to break up the sod on the Minnesota prairie or caused fur traders to endure extraordinary hardships to feed the demand for beaver hats. Who am I to complain? I don’t see that kind of zeal in myself.

So what do I want? I hardly know. I want zeal with knowledge. I want to spread the good news of God’s kingdom in ways that work.

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