November 17, 2019

Has Science Disproved Christianity?

Has Science Disproved Christianity?

In her review of Rebecca McLaughlin’s new book Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, Jesus Creed regular contributor, RJS, discusses the question, “Hasn’t Science Disproved Christianity?”  Of course, RJS’ answer is a hard no.  She lays out her argument based on the fact that science has never, nor could, disprove anything essential to Christianity.  RJS says:

First, what is the essence of Christianity? The Apostle’s Creed (see below) is a good starting point. There is absolutely nothing in the Creed that is disproved, or even addressed by science. Nothing here about the age of the earth or the shape creation took. The virgin birth and the resurrection are specific acts of God, and thus not anything that science can address. They are not ‘normal’ and repeatable, but both Christians and atheists agree here. Our future hope is for a new creation. Again not something addressed by science.

What I thought was interesting was, in her comments, frequent commentator, the atheist “Tim”, raised a good point.  He said:

Well, anytime you have a belief that lays claim to noticeable effects in the real world, it can in principle be tested by science.  So the question is whether Christianity entails such a belief?  If Christianity, for instance, would put forward the expectation that sincere, devout Christians as they grow and develop in their discipleship will…overall on average (not every case of course)…manifest fruits of the spirit / light & salt in a way that would be noticeable to others (e.g., self-sacrificial love, mercy, forgiveness, meekness. discernment, etc.), then such a thing could be observed through the social sciences in some capacity.  Now, if Christianity makes no such claims, or if any claims in this regard are so weak and sporadic as to be unnoticeable across a population of ostensibly devout and sincere Christians in comparison to the rest of the “world,” then the social sciences would be irrelevant to this question.

And that is what I’ve found. Anytime I discuss with others how we ought to expect Christianity to manifest in the real world in any noticeable positive way, the claims are hedged back so far as to the point that they might as well not be there.  And so if you have a faith that doesn’t lay claim to any recognizable effects in the real world, then of course there’s nothing for science to look at is there?  And this, it seems, is a very common apologetic approach in progressive Christianity.

Now Tim has a heck of a good point here, “a belief that lays claim to noticeable effects in the real world, it can in principle be tested by science”.  I believe our own frequent commentator, Stephen, has raised this same issue before.  There is a very nice back and forth with Tim and some other Christian commentators that is respectful and intelligent and worth reading. Kudos to those commentators.  Then someone referenced a Roger Olson blog post that was covering a similar discussion.  Roger was explaining why he deleted an aggressive comment recently and said:

Recently I just automatically deleted a brief comment from someone which claimed that theology has no explanatory power because there is no evidence for God. This was his response to my essay here describing the “integration model” of relating science to theology and vice versa. There I said that science has no explanatory power in matters of meaning and value and theology has no explanatory power in matters of nature and is ordinary workings. I also argued there that both have explanatory power within their own proper spheres and that sometimes those spheres overlap and in those areas where they overlap both can inform each other. They are somewhat interdependent. I was speaking to my audience: evangelical Christians.

Roger goes on to further buttress his argument with a riff on the classic C.S. Lewis “argument from evil.”  Roger again:

An example is evil. Science alone, without drawing on any metaphysics or theology, cannot explain evil without reducing it to something other than evil. If evil is only decisions and actions resulting from chemical interactions in brains or only what individuals or society’s consider deleterious to some “common good,” then it is no longer really evil. The word, the concept evil, contains within itself something powerful, something that points beyond nature to something spiritual, something transcendent. It is what ought not to be but is. And it is what cannot be explained; it is an irreducible mystery…

This has become my stock response to anyone who claims that science alone has explanatory power: What about evil? Some will say science does explain it, but after they have described the alleged scientific explanation of evil it is no longer really evil. It is ignorance or it is a lack of evolutionary progress or it is what most people think is contrary to the common good or it is…. In every case of attempt to explain how science alone explains evil; evil becomes less than really evil.

The whole post is an example of the erudite reasoning that Roger Olson is famous for; go read the whole thing.  Then, like icing on a cake, there is an excellent give and take in the comments (frequent Imonk commentators Iain Lovejoy, Dana Ames, and Christiane also partake).  Good back and forth that really makes one think.  At the end of the comments there is this exchange:

Brian K: “Only existential fallenness can really explain evil while keeping it evil.”  If you define evil as necessarily some sort of existential force, then all your work is ahead of you. Demonstrate such a thing exists. Absent that, I’ll just continue to use the word in the colloquial sense.

Roger Olson:  My point is exactly that “the colloquial sense” includes that “evil” is something more than just badness. Use it as you wish, but once you believe it can be explained without metaphysics you have emptied it of its power. Then you might as well discard it.

Brian K:  I don’t see the dilemma. If it can’t be explained without appealing to things we have no reason to believe are real (or discoverable), then sure, discard it. Problem solved.

Roger Olson:  The problem for your argument and prescription is that no one can really discard my meaning of evil when standing before the gates of Auschwitz.

Well, what do you think?  I have always found Roger Olson’s argument persuasive.  A version of that very reasoning is, in part, what turned me from my atheism.  And although “Tim” raises a good point the problem with his argument is that the social sciences have really no way to set up the experiment.  Because the issue isn’t measurable differences in different cohorts, it is measurable differences in each individual’s life through the progression of their life.

Comments

  1. And, of course, people do not necessarily act in a scientific experiment as they do in real life. And part of the difficulty of the experiment would be allowing for other variables, so that the experiment was only measuring the effect of being or not being a believer, as opposed to socio-economic status. But Tim’s point is not easily wriggled away from – does being a believer in Jesus Christ make a noticeable (positive) difference to a person’s life (as observed by others, as opposed to subjective feelings), whether it is measured scientifically or not?

    • There is no way to know how the individual believer in Jesus Christ’s behavior would be different minus their faith. No external observation can measure that; there are too many hidden variables, too much unknown about the individual with or without faith, not only to external observers, but also to herself.

      • Daniel Jepsen says

        Totally agree.

        C. S. Lewis:

        But there is another way of demanding results in which the outer world may be quite illogical. They may demand not merely that each man’s life should improve if he becomes a Christian: they may also demand before they believe in Christianity that they should see the whole world neatly divided into two camps —Christian and non-Christian—and that all the people in the first camp at any given moment should be obviously nicer than all the people in the second. This is unreasonable on several grounds.

        (1) In the first place the situation in the actual world is much more complicated than that. The world does not consist of 100 per cent Christians and 100 per cent non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen.

        There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example, a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points.

        Many of the good Pagans long before Christ’s birth may have been in this position. And always, of course, there are a great many people who are just confused in mind and have a lot of inconsistent beliefs all jumbled up together. Consequently, it is not much use trying to make judgments about Christians and non-Christians in the mass….

        The question is what Miss Bates’s tongue would be like if she were not a Christian and what Dick’s would be like if he became one. Miss Bates and Dick, as a result of natural causes and early upbringing, have certain temperaments: Christianity professes to put both temperaments under new management if they will allow it to do so. What you have a right to ask is whether that management, if allowed to take over, improves the concern. Everyone knows that what is being managed in Dick Firkin’s case is much “nicer” than what is being managed in Miss Bates’s.

        That is not the point. To judge the management of a factory, you must consider not only the output but the plant. Considering the plant at Factory A it may be a wonder that it turns out anything at all; considering the first-class outfit at Factory B its output, though high, may be a great deal lower than it ought to be. No doubt the good manager at Factory A is going to put in new machinery as soon as he can, but that takes time. In the meantime low output does not prove that he is a failure.

      • –> “There is no way to know how the individual believer in Jesus Christ’s behavior would be different minus their faith.”

        True, that. And all I know is I’m a pretty miserable example of a human being WITH Christ in me; I can’t imagine how awful I’d be without Him.

    • –> ” But Tim’s point is not easily wriggled away from – does being a believer in Jesus Christ make a noticeable (positive) difference to a person’s life (as observed by others, as opposed to subjective feelings), whether it is measured scientifically or not?”

      I was in a Bible study last night in which the comment was made (paraphrased), “As Christians stamped with Jesus’ image, believers are progressively being made more holy and more righteous.”

      And I thought… Hmm, I’m not sure I see in other Christians nor feel it myself. As is suggested, wouldn’t you think the non-believing public would see much more evidence of that? Instead, I think they see a lot of hypocrisy. I know I do.

  2. Not just Christianity, but much of all religion and much that is deeply human in other ways, is too “thick” to unravel into component parts that can be quantified and defined. If you pull the threads, the human object of observation unravels, and there is nothing even left to see, much less understand. In addition, in unraveling the human object of investigation, the human observer also unravels herself, so that there is really no one left to observe and comprehend the result of the experiment. The existentialist philosophers were completely correct when they insisted on this a century ago, and they are still correct today.

    • “If you pull the threads, the human object of observation unravels, and there is nothing even left to see, much less understand.”

      “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” Gandalf Stormcrow

  3. Go into a library or bookshop. What proportion of the subject matter of those books is amenable to scientific investigation? Or even in the same *dimension* as science?

    Obviously, I’m using books as an expression of what humans are about, what our lives entail. The problem isn’t these things “aren’t proven by science”, it’s that science can’t even ‘see’ them. There just aren’t scientific categories for whole swathes of our human experience.

    The worry is that if you get those scientific glasses stuck to your face, you may stop being able to see everything else, and you will become … less than human.

    To me it’s like the difference between “artificial intelligence” and self-conciousness: just look at Chaplain Mike’s photos from Switzerland. What does science see? Pixels? What has science got to say about what happens in your ‘heart’ when you see those views?

    Science is great, it’s a powerful, unbeatable tool for certain kinds of knowledge. But accepting science as the arbiter of everything ‘real’ doesn’t just eliminate God, it eliminates us.

    But I haven’t answered the question 🙂

    • Christiane says

      sometimes, it’s the questions we humans raise that are more insightful into our humanity
      than any answers we are able to come up with

    • Daniel Jepsen says

      Very good points

      • Christiane says

        Hello Daniel Jepsen

        on this:
        ” The problem for your argument and prescription is that no one can really discard my meaning of evil when standing before the gates of Auschwitz.
        Well, what do you think? I have always found Roger Olson’s argument persuasive.”

        people stand before the Holocaust and ask ‘where was God?’ when sometimes is needed the question ‘where was humanity?’

        Roger Olson recognized the presence of real ‘evil’ in the treatment of asylum children taken from their parents. For that reason, alone, I am a fan of Dr. Olson. He saw. He spoke up. And that took courage in his evangelical world, because these days, many evangelicals seem ‘silent’ in the face of the known suffering of those children.

        What kind of ‘evil’ wants to go to a mother and take her infant away from, and not even have any record of who she is or the child’s connection to her in hopes of someday returning her baby to her arms?

        Roger Olson saw it for what it is. And as a prominent evangelical, when he spoke up, in ways, he put himself at risk, the same way Wade Burleson once spoke up when Paige Patterson and his crew bullied missionaries and women. That is a sign to me of ‘integrity’ rather than ‘hypocrisy’ in a Christian person, yes. Because, like the martyr Bonhoeffer, these men place themselves on the line for others selflessly.

        We are, in the end, defined by those we stand up for.
        The evil at the gates of Auschwitz and the evil present in trumpism is the same evil . . . an absence of humanity. An absence of the ‘image of God’ that is needed in us to be human at all.

  4. I think Stephen J. Gould got it right: science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria.” One of them is about facts, the other about values, so they each possess different authority. You can’t judge the truth of one by the other.

    • Last time I checked though Christianity makes historical truth claims. Paul in his letter to the Romans clearly believes Adam was a real person and bases his argument on that. If there was no first Adam what need for the second? I’m not saying there isn’t a valid response but I don’t find this clear demarcation that restricts Christianity to “values” very satisfying and I would say for most of the last two millennia neither have most Christians.

      • thatotherjean says

        Paul’s belief in Adam as a real person is just that–a belief without actual evidence. Actual scientific evidence is on the side of evolution. It is certainly possible to see Adam as a character in a foundation myth important to the people of Israel, without believing in the literal truth of the myth. It is also possible to believe in evolution, at the same time. It may not be satisfying to Christians who believe in the literal truth of every word of the Bible, but science and religion can be seen as compatible, because they are not addressing the same truths.

        • Ok but how far are you willing to go? Can you believe in the Resurrection as a foundational myth important to Christians without believing in the literal truth of the myth?

          • We’ve seen this tennis match played before…LOL…

          • How is science going to address a purported one-time non-repeatable event? Science cannot look into the miraculous. It is one thing to scientifically investigate the evolution of humans and thus the story of Adam but it is a different thing to investigate the resurrection.

            • I agree with you so why are we suddenly hip deep in Christian apologists grimly determined to prove that the Resurrection was a historical fact like Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492?

              • It can be a historical fact without being a scientific fact.

                Fact.

                • thatotherjean says

                  That’s where we part company, Ben. In my understanding, “historical” and “scientific” facts are much the same–there is actual, physical evidence for them, that can be studied by historians and/or scientists. A thing can change from a matter of belief to a matter of fact, however. For example, until 1961, physical evidence of the existence of Pontius Pilate, the fifth Governor of Judea had not been discovered. His was mentioned the Bible and a written text by Tacitus, a 1st Century Roman historian, but no records of his administration have yet been discovered. In 1961, a inscription “Pontius Pilatus, Prefect of Judea, has dedicated to the people of Caesarea a temple in honor of Tiberius.” in Caesarea Maritima, on the coast of Israel. Pontius Pilate moved from the realm of belief to fact, thanks to tangible archaeological evidence.

                  • I had dinner with my wife last night. It really happened; it’s a fact. Yet in one hundred years, and actually in even a much shorter time, neither historians nor scientists will be able to prove that it happened — of course, it won’t even be remembered. Was it not an historical event because it will leave no lasting record established by evidence? Well, I can tell you that it didn’t happen outside of history, at least not insofar as I know!

                    • There are many events that cannot and have not been established by the discipline of history as having happened, actually far more than have been so established, yet they nevertheless actually did happen, and they happened in history. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is such an event, imnsho; as C.S. Lewis said, in that event the mythological and the actual, the historical in the sense I’ve used here, converged.

                • Klasie Kraalogies says

                  That is a very curious statement. I do think that it arises from a very limited definition of the word science – namely that science encompasses only the hard sciences. However, as time goes on, the social sciences are not any less scientific. Different methodology due to subject matter. But a sociologist (for instance) studies aspects of human behaviour, which is a subset of biology.

              • You are suddenly hip deep in them because it is important to their faith that the resurrection have happened as a physical event, experienced directly through the senses of the first witnesses to it, and that it have been experienced through direct encounter with the risen person of the Lord Jesus. Without that anchoring in the material world, and in the presence and action of the Lord Jesus, the linchpin of their faith would be removed, and the edifice would fall apart. I feel the same as they do. There is room enough in the church for both ways of believing in the resurrection, I don’t see that we need to fight each other to establish one view or the other as the “correct” one.

              • If you are asking me to change my understanding of the resurrection, the onus is on you to prove that I should. It hardly makes me (or anyone else) a Christian apologist if I continue to hold the understanding that is meaningful to me. And my view is not tantamount to believing that the resurrection of Jesus was in the same category of historical events as the Columbus journey, anymore than that my daily interactions with my wife are in the same historical category as it.

          • thatotherjean says

            Because I’m agnostic, rather than Christian, although I started out as an Episcopalian, yes, I can believe that the Resurrection was part of a foundational myth, rather than the literal truth. But, as other people point out, the Resurrection was a miracle, and not subject to scientific inquiry. It requires belief, not scientific evidence.

      • A strange thought occurred to me. Is it possible that was acquainted with the deep, essential and utterly life changing nature of myth (not myth as falsehood the way we have come to use it) and that he would see no need to change his language because it all remained true? There are certainly things (“meat of the word”) that he chose not to elaborate on. It’s a stretch, granted, but when I ponder it I do see the possibility.

        • thatotherjean says

          That doesn’t strike me as a stretch at all. Myths are not literally “true,” but neither are they simply falsehood. They are storytelling that makes the world make sense, and says important things about, and to, the people who tell them. There are different kinds of “truth.”

  5. Klasie Kraalogies says

    The theistic “argument from evil” is not persuasive. Let me explain:

    “I’VE NEVER BEEN VERY SURE ABOUT WHAT IS RIGHT, said Bill Door. I AM NOT SURE THERE IS SUCH A THING AS RIGHT. OR WRONG. JUST PLACES TO STAND.”
    ? Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man

    Someone here mentioned Auschwitz. One of the most horrific moments in human history. They could also have spoken about the killing fields of Cambodia, the genocide in Rwanda etc etc. So we can agree, genocide is wrong, right?

    Wrong: At least if you follow a literal Biblical interpretation, as the Bible waxes almost lyrical about genocide. Kill the Canaanites. Everyone – including little children. So – is genocide ok depending on who demands it? Or maybe, like Pete Enns, we acknowledge that these Scriptures were written by humans and that they imbue diving meaning to their own history. Fine, but then we have acknowledge that evil is relative. As the hymn says,

    “Time makes ancient good uncouth”

    Any attempt to make universal absolute standards of evil, divinely decreed, is going to run into this obstacle. This should frighten us – how will the future judge us?

    At the same though, we have to acknowledge that there is a morality even among animals. We have discussed this before – it is well documented. Leading to the argument that knowledge of evil is coded into being, not just for humans. Fine, I hear someone say – it is Divinely ordered thus. Sure, I’m ok with someone believing that. But there are good evolutionary arguments for this state – more moral / empathetic organisms have a better long-term survival prognosis, therefore animals with “moral” genes (hard coded knowledge of good and evil) have a better survival prognosis.Thus the belief in that this is Divinely ordered is fine, but it is no longer an argument for the Divine. In essence, what I am saying, is that religious belief regarding good and evil is fine, but it is in itself no argument for the existence or non-existence of transcendence, whether a deity, many deities or some other form of transcendent belief.

    • I agree that the so-called “moral argument” is very weak. Outside the metaphysical framework which engendered it the concept of “evil” doesn’t really exist. I always shudder a little at so-called “Divine Command Theory”. Behind it lies a moral void. It is appalling to hear apologists like William Lane Craig lustily defend the slaughter of the Amalekites. If you truly believe you are doing God’s will you are capable of anything. Enns is right. The Bible was written by human beings. Thank God!

  6. I would say in general science has indeed disproved a form of Christianity, namely fundamentalism. Unfortunately that seems to be the dominant form of Christianity in our country. It will go down hard.

  7. ‘evil’ is an entity

  8. 1 Tim. 6z:20 O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane [and] vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called:

    1Co 1:25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men

    1Co 2:14 14 But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know [them], because they are spiritually discerned.

    1Co 3:19 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness.

    Why does humanity place so much emphasis on knowledge and science? I’m just a foolish Christian that believes the Word of God. Let’s be very cautious where the Word of God and science conflict, particularly the origins of our world and it’s design.