Thursday, October 8, 2009

Don't Blame Science! Part 1

Recently I read a news story from a Midwestern community. The high school band had designed tee shirts that featured an image of a primate moving through stages until it becomes human: that famous illustration of evolutionary development. Each figure held a brass instrument. It seemed a clever way to encourage band spirit for their fall program. The tee shirts were banned, however, because of parents’ complaints that the shirts promoted evolution. The article reported that an assistant superintendent said that the school district must remain neutral about religion [1]

I'm religious and I love science, so this kind of story distresses me. But I want to respect the people in this story and think a bit about the issues involved. The school official and the complaining parents apparently consider evolutionary theory a “religion” or, at least, a philosophy that competes with traditional religious belief.

If one understands certain distinctions, aspects of this issue may fall into place. A hypothesis is an assumption that something is true, but that assumption is still undergoing experiments, discussion, and testing. A theory is a “model” of reality that has stood up under many experiments over many years, has been discussed in peer-reviewed journals, is compatible with other theories, and can potentially anticipate other observations and theories.

Evolutionary science is a theory in this respect: it is a sound scientific model that explains data in many different fields like biology, paleontology, and others. Evolutionary theory is science. There are no alternative theories that are accepted by a majority of those in scientific community; this is not because scientists are closed-minded to other theories but because this model has been studied and refined for years and is viable. No other scientific models make as much sense and explain as many phenomena, from an empirical standpoint.

Science concerns the observation and explanation of physical phenomena. Although science does address questions of cognition and behavior, science does not answer questions of theology and spirituality. Science is “methodologically materialistic,” that is, its procedures and methods are aimed at physical phenomena.

But at this point you can take at least three philosophical positions. The first, which I hold, ais that science and religion are complementary sources of truth. The invisible world exists but it is approached through religion, faith, faith-encouraged reason, certain kinds of experience, and tradition rather than empirical examination. Science can describe phenomena according to empirical methods, while religion can declare truthfully that "God created the heavens and the earth."

The second position is “epistemological materialism”; there may be a spiritual world, but since we cannot know it through science, we cannot know anything meaningful about it. Religious belief is a matter of faith but not reason.

The third is “metaphysical materialism”: we cannot know the spiritual world through science, therefore the former does not exist. We can explain everything meaningfully through science, including the reasons why we’re religious, moral, etc.

I think many people become upset about evolutionary theory because they believe it necessarily falls under the third position and, therefore, is an atheistic philosophy which is being taught to our children. No, evolutionary theory, properly speaking, is a scientific theory that explains physical phenomena. But among scientific theories, evolutionary theory seems the very threatening to theological doctrines like the image of God in humanity, sin, redemption, and the inspiration of the Bible. Somehow even the antiquity and vastness of the universe do not make people as theologically anxious, even though astronomical science could equally threaten a literal reading of the Bible.

Public schools should offer traditional science as proper science but also find ways to introduce some kind of non-sectarian religion courses for students--and then students can get a more full religious instruction in other settings. There are suitable ways in which religion can be brought into public schools without violating church-state separation. My daughter’s schools in Kentucky and Ohio did a good job of striking these tricky balances.

Shameless commerce: I discuss these issues in a study book that I wrote for the United Methodist Publishing House: What about Religion and Science: A Study of Reason and Faith, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007. But I’ve also been re-reading Huston Smith’s Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World’s Religions (New York: HarperOne, 1992, originally published in 1976), where he comments:

“With science itself there can be no quarrel. Scientism is another matter. Whereas science is positive, contenting itself with reporting what it discovers, scientism is negative. It goes beyond the actual findings of science to deny that other approaches to knowledge are valid and other truths are true. In doing so it deserts science in favor of metaphysics--bad metaphysics, as it happens, for as the contention that there are no truths save those of science is not itself a scientific truth, in affirming it scientism contradicts itself. It also carries marks of a religion--a secular religion, resulting from overextrapolation from science, that has seldom numbered great scientists among its votaries” (p. 16-17).

Smith's words shed light upon some the issues raised by the critics of the band tee shirts. These folks were concerned about a secular religion being promoted (scientism, or metaphysical materialism). But they confused scientism with science. Science is a wonderful, vitally important thing that should be taught in public schools and more widely appreciated and understood by the general public. (In fact, the tee shirts don't even represent current science, which no longer posits such a linear progress of species development.)

I'll touch on a few thoughts about Bible interpretation within the next few days.


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