PART ONE: A Professor’s Perspective
I recently listened to Professor Wilson Poon talking on the subject of “Science and Christianity: Allies or Enemies?” He is a Professor of Condensed Matter Physics at the University of Edinburgh, a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and a senior research fellow of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. He is also an active Christian and has preached sermons at St Peter’s Scottish Episcopal Church in Edinburgh.
His stated intention was to show that there is no incompatibility between Christianity and science. I shall, to the best of my recollection, repeat his arguments here and then offer my own views on the topic. Any omissions or distortions are unintentional, due entirely to my own failures of memory.
He commenced by saying that Christianity and science were neither allies nor enemies. If he stopped here, things would have been fine; I could go along with that. But he didn’t. He started with a conclusion and backed it up with a series of weak half-arguments that were meant to show Christianity was an ally.
He pointed out why creationism is a non-starter and that a literal interpretation of the bible will not work; it is so self-contradictory it doesn’t even need science to disprove it. In any case, most Christians aren’t creationists, and most Christians can happily accept science; the Professor made no further mention of them.
The Professor defined ‘scientism’ as the view that only scientific claims have any validity or meaning, which, he said, required faith in science. I got the impression the Professor quite likes the idea that science could be a ‘faith’ position; that science and Christianity could both be equivalent (he described Charles Darwin as “Dawkins’ God”). In his view we all have faith (for example, we all had ‘faith’ that the food laid out for us hadn’t been poisoned).
The Bible’s self-contradictions therefore meant one of two things: either it was written by idiots, or it is not meant to be taken literally. He sees the two creation myths in Genesis as poetry, not claims of truth. This is not a modern view; even St Augustine of Hippo said you shouldn’t take it literally!
He made a brief aside about the fact that neuroscience has advanced to the level where we can scan the brain activity of believers having religious experiences; his only comment on this was, in effect, to shrug it off by saying “So what?” – they could scan his brain while he does his work as a physicist too. What was the big deal? He did not elaborate or develop the point.
He went on to assert that Christianity supported the development of modern science and that modern science could not have started without it. “Chinese science” was once supreme, but it withered; “Islamic science”, too, was once highly regarded, but no longer. This shows the incompatibility of Chinese ancestor-worship and Islam with science, unlike Christianity. He confessed that he wasn’t an expert in history, just “that he had an interest” in it.
Professor Poon concluded by saying that he can be a scientist and a Christian at the same time; a father, stamp-collector and musician too. None of these things contradict each other; and he doesn’t need to “remove his brain” when he goes from the lab to the church. Therefore, Christianity is not an enemy of science.
He has certainly satisfied himself that there is no argument between (his particular variety of) Christianity and science; that the two are neither allies nor enemies. He even used a handy analogy to flatter his faith: Christianity is like an operating system on a computer. Other religions represent other operating systems; and science is a faith too, since scientists require faith that it works. Any argument between scientists and believers is no more than an argument over which OS is better.
I rather naively thought he might have something intelligent to say; a weighty argument examining the long history between Christianity in all its forms and the process of science. Instead, what I heard was a Gish Gallop of factual errors, strawmen, No True Scotsman fallacies, a cherry-picked selection of quotations and poetry he thought supported his argument (which made me facepalm repeatedly), and that snide ad hominem about Richard Dawkins (at which point I really did beat my head against the wall). By the time we were asked if we had any questions, I was a twitching wreck; I didn’t even know where to begin against such a rampaging torrent of ill-conceived thoughts.
The Professor’s first serious problem was his evasion of dealing with creationists and all the other anti-scientific varieties of Christianity which have cropped up in the past two millennia. Yes, there are many modern, liberal, open-minded Christians in the UK today; but this does not mean you can ignore those Christians, historical and contemporary, who reject science. If one is to argue about whether or not Christianity and science are allies or enemies, one must account for them too. Perhaps the Professor was embarrassed by them? Perhaps reconciling their views, with his own belief that his faith did not conflict science, was just too difficult? I really wished he had the intellectual courage to tackle this, instead of dodging the matter entirely, but then I don’t have to deal with the cognitive dissonance this must generate, given that I’m not a Christian apologist.
How does one define ‘Christianity’? The words attributed to Yeshua bar-Yosef and his followers? The teachings of one or several church authorities? The opinions of those who describe themselves as “Christians” for whatever reason? Modern Christians, or all Christians since it began? If one excludes a particular subset, one must have a good reason why (beyond making things easy for yourself).
Professor Poon did well to point out the contradictions within the Bible, but I felt he was missing a third conclusion to come from this fact: he said this meant the Bible was either written by idiots, OR it was not meant to be taken literally, but he shied away from suggesting both might be true together. The contents of the Bible were decided upon in the Council of Nicaea in 325AD – which bits would stay in, which would be left out, and what order they would be presented in – in other words, the Bible was put together by committee in an attempt to satisfy disparate factions from across the Roman Empire. I found the Professor’s historical references were highly selective to say the least.
St Augustine can certainly be recruited to bolster the argument that the Bible shouldn’t be read literally, but the topic under discussion was about Christianity and science, not scriptural literalism. St Augustine is perhaps not the best person to quote, if you insist on Christianity’s pro-science credentials.
There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us to try to discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.
The quote is from “Confessions” where Augustine says pursuit of knowledge for its own sake made him an arrogant young man. He much preferred faith to curiosity:
Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.
Professor Poon uses the word ‘faith’ as a catch-all term for a number of things; he has faith in Christianity (although just how literally he takes the gospels I do not know); he has faith that science works; and he has faith that his food isn’t poisoned. I would suggest he needs to be much clearer about what he means in each case; he is using semantics to obfuscate rather than enlighten.
I would describe ‘faith’ in the religious sense as ‘blind acceptance’, which is more or less how Augustine saw it (except that Augustine thought this was a good thing).
I would describe ‘faith’ in untainted food as ‘reasonable expectation based on past experience’; if your hosts have provided food before without killing anyone, and if they have no motive to kill you, it’s a reasonable bet they won’t kill you this time; it is trust, and trust is earned.
‘Faith’ in science is similar to the reasonable expectations based on past experience, with the crucial distinction of falsifiability; a scientific claim is only assumed to be true until evidence shows otherwise, at which point it must be modified or rejected. This is incompatible with the ‘faith’ required to be religious.
Science has shown itself to be a robust process for finding out how the world works, and is strong enough that anyone who tries to lie or cheat or make unjustifiable claims will be found out. It is hard to think of anything else which has had the same success; in the 21st century, there really is nothing better for making meaningful, valid claims about the world. It is pointless to refer to “Chinese” or “Islamic” science, when the process and discoveries work independently of nations or creeds.
‘Scientism’ can be used in a dismissive, even pejorative, way: scientists poking their noses in things they can’t or shouldn’t; a hollow reductionist view of the world that permits no aesthetic (“spiritual”) pleasure. I was bemused to see a Professor of physics use the word in this way, when all it is, in Michael Shermer’s description, is a worldview that does not resort to the supernatural. Nothing is off-limits, nothing is sacred and if this threatens one’s religious beliefs, too bad. And if one chooses to celebrate scientists for their intellectual achievements, that’s one’s prerogative; just don’t conflate this with veneration of supernatural beings.
This leaves the historical perspective of the interaction between Christianity and science. I will not attribute Professor Poon’s views of history, religion and science to chauvinism or bigotry when they can be attributed to mere ignorance. However, I do feel this history deserves a more in-depth investigation, especially since it will do much to answer the Professor’s question.
To be continued…