Monday, 14 March 2016

Faith and Wisdom in Science: observations from a recent Norwich science and faith conference

Last week, Tom McLeish, Professor of Physics at Durham University and chair of  the Royal Society’s education committee participated in an afternoon session at Norwich in which a group of  "lay ordained, religious believers (of different kinds) and not, and including two working scientists" [1] fielded questions from a group of sixth form students on questions related to science and faith. The range of questions asked by the young people included comments about creationism, the 'God of the Gaps', free will, and the need for religion to prove itself to be valid. Those are pertinent questions which have been asked in our community but poorly answered or even ignored, and one is left lamenting how mainstream Christianity leaves our community far behind in being able to raise and answer these questions in an intellectually honest manner.

One of the questions asked by the sudents was:
Many churches still preach creationism as a literal interpretation of Genesis. This message is in direct contradiction to evolution and the evidence provided by physics. Is there too great a gulf between faith and reason to reconcile the two?
McLeish noted that the purpose of his blog post was not to provide the answers but to "reflect on the diverse concerns and assumptions behind these probing questions". The problem as he laments is that the public understanding of the historical background of these issues is informed by a shallow version of the long-debunked 'conflict hypothesis' between science and religion. McLeish argues that this has led to the misconception that both are rival explanations, which given the success science has in explaining things has resulted in God being squeezed out of the universe.
From that starting point it is not a surprise that faith and science have become tangled in pupils’ minds as competing explanatory frameworks – so God rescues and inhabits the ‘gaps’ in our explanations (until there are no gaps left…). Science itself becomes misunderstood – the notion of ‘scientific proof’ is appealed to (it doesn’t exist) – and a grasp of ‘religion’ also – we found ourselves asserting that Christianity is not just ‘about ideas’ but about practical living that works.  The most troubling questions – troubling because they arose, not because they are hard to answer – were about the conflict of science with young earth creationism (and it came up more than once).  This is a terrible 20th century heresy that is taught in more churches than most people think, poisons young minds and reduces Bible-reading to thin, selective and disrespectful proof-texting.  The Church needs to speak out on this much more strongly, for here is a real conflict – one has to throw out essentially all that we have learned through science to countenance it. [1] Emphasis mine
McLeish's description of YEC as a "terrible 20th century heresy" may appear to be a particularly blunt description, but given (1) the fact that modern YEC as we know it is a recent phenomenon with sectarian roots in fundamentalist Christianity (2) the incredible harm it has inflicted on the reputation of Christianity by linking Christianity and obscurantism firmly in the minds of many people and (3) the steady stream of deconversions from YEC to atheism, it is hard not to agree with McLeish. YEC is poor science and even worse theology, and its fruits are bitter indeed.

McLeish brings his post to an end on a positive note:
So it is a wonderful thing that Churches and Cathedrals are increasingly recognising that they are natural places to host science festivals, such as the Norwich science week in which the debate took place.  Lectures, hands on experiments – even a simulated volcano spewing fire – all graced the festival week.  To move from seeing science as a vague secular threat, towards celebrating it as God’s Gift, is an essential journey for the Church today.  This is not only so that the apologetic questions can be re-framed in proper historical and philosophical light, but because science needs the church to support its mission even more now than it always did.  This is the central point of the book Faith and Wisdom in Science, in which I argue that a ‘Theology of Science’ needs urgently to replace the opposition of theology and science.
I cannot agree more, but note with an elements of sadness that such intelligent, contemplative events are non-existent in our community other than at a grass-roots level. The need for such intelligent, informed conversation in our community has never been greater.


1. McLeish T "Science and the Church: Gift, Celebration and Re-Creation" Faith and Wisdom in Science March 13, 2016