The Natural Animus Between Religion and Science

In a recent essay Rabbi Adam Jacobs states that there is a reasonable argument for the existence of God, independent of faith, particularly as it pertains to the origins of life on this planet. The hackneyed syllogism used by Jacobs and the faithful of centuries past goes something like this:

Premise 1: Anything that cannot be explained naturally must be the result of God’s agency

Premise 2: X (any subject du jour) cannot be explained naturally

Conclusion: Therefore, X must be the result of God’s agency

This flawed syllogism, an intellectual Trojan horse trotted out during every debate regarding what science has yet to discover, is used frequently by the believer. The argument shows little understanding of the differences between coincidence, correlation, and causation. It simply shows the believer glad God steps in when he does. A rather common example of this is when someone narrowly escapes death during a tsunami or some other natural disaster. Defying the odds during this tragic event is attributed to divine assistance rather than dumb luck. Strange that God did not prize the lives of the other 250,000 people who died during the disaster. What mysterious “plan” is the Almighty attempting to make manifest?

I see at least two problems with this god-of-the-gaps type of thinking.

First, the initial premise of the above syllogism has been effectively challenged time and again, and grows ever narrower each day. For example, science has shown us clearly that the universe is around 14 billion years old and that the planet on which we live is around 4.5 billion years old. We know from the fossil record that our species homo sapiens sapiens diverged from a common ancestor around 200,000 years ago. Therefore, any notion that mankind, or any animal, was created at a single moment in time does not agree with the natural record—it surely does not support the biblical literalist’s notion of a creation 6,000 years ago. I suppose one could argue that human evolution was directed by God 200,000 years ago when he decided to bestow a superior brain on our direct ancestors, an idea similar to the one popularized in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Of course, unlike the immutable truths on which faith rests, or vice versa, scientists are very comfortable with modifying these natural timestamps and the underlying theories on which they are based. They are unperturbed by new facts or the clarification of previous facts. Those of faith view these debates between scientists over the particulars of evolution as evidence of chaos in the academy. However, unlike those of faith scientists have proven themselves to be very ecumenical in their pursuit of truth. After all, string theorists do not stand outside the academy railing against the heresy of the standard model. Those who hold to punctuated equilibrium within evolution theory are not excluded from the National Academy of Sciences. Even Michael Behe, who vociferously holds to the intelligent design thesis, still holds his position in biochemistry at Lehigh University.[1]

The second problem I see with this attempt to reconcile faith and science, or to make faith an intellectual stopgap for when science “fails,” is that faith and science are mutually exclusive worldviews. The late Stephen Jay Gould called these worldviews non-overlapping magisteria.[2] According to Gould, each worldview exists for a specific purpose. Science exists to explain the natural world while religion (faith) exists to answer questions about human morality and meaning.

I generally agree with Gould’s notion, although I view the conclusions of science as superior to the conclusions of religion and faith, which is why I sympathize with Goethe, who once wrote, “He who possesses art and science has religion; he who does not possess them, needs religion.” Which is why, even in the realm of morality, science and reason seem at times superior to that of religion and faith, especially when the latter leads to suffering because people believe that life on the other side is the only thing that matters.[3]

Yet, the superiority of science over faith is not what I think threatens those of faith in the long run. What threatens those of faith in the future is that they are laying down a wager against science; they have bet nothing less than faith itself against the very real possibility that science will eventually figure it all out.

One way to look at this is through the research that is now being done in neuroscience. If science should prove as robust in explaining the human brain as it has proven in explaining the universe, then the man of faith who has wagered everything on faith being a reasonable position could very well be left with nothing at the end of the day. There may come a day when the conclusions of science about the brain are inescapable. What will the man of faith do if it is shown that faith can be switched on and off by stimulating certain portions of the brain? Of course, this raises a whole host of issues better left for another forum.

Using faith to challenge science directly, or trying to fuse faith with scientific reason, is a recipe for disaster, for both faith and science. Science will continue to break down the walls of the unknown. It is inevitable. The god-of-the-gaps will slowly disappear as knowledge grows and is disseminated, and those who have built their faith on this foundation of sand will lose everything in the end. The attempt of believers to place faith in the ascendancy over scientific reason will only end in bad science—should they succeed. Any science dominated by a faith-based model will make Soviet Lysenkoism look like a second Scientific Revolution.

The Christian Apostle Paul once told the Corinthians that the wisdom of this world was foolishness to God, which is why God chose to use the foolish message of Christ crucified to redeem those who would believe. (I Corinthians 1) In an Old Testament passage God tells the prophet that his ways are not the ways of man. (Isaiah 55:8)

Even an unbeliever, in light of these passages and many others, must wonder why the modern believer appears to have such a desperate need to be accepted by the intellectual and scientific community. Could it be they are attempting to make certain a faith which by its very nature is the opposite of reasonable and, furthermore, rests on the hope God will be true to his promises?

Is it possible that the only way to rescue faith is to separate it entirely from science, reason, maybe even the physical world itself? These are questions I leave to the philosophers and theologians, and to those struggling to make of their faith more than it is. (Hebrews 11:1) However, be warned, science will provide the believer no succor or solace; it can only inform you about this world, and if you steep yourself long enough in science and reason your faith will surely be challenged.


[1] Michael Behe’s departmental colleagues have distanced themselves from his intelligent design views, but Dr. Behe still remains a member of the biochemistry department at Lehigh University.

[2] See Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999).

[3] This issue has been addressed recently by Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010).

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