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Science v religion: Who cares?

By Ryan Peter

Many Thought Leader and Mail & Guardian readers might recall an article last week on Stephen Hawking, the world-renowned physicist, remarking that there “is no heaven” and calling the idea a “fairy story”.

Here’s a quick quote from Hawking:

“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

This resulted in the usual mud-slinging between certain atheists and certain Christians in the comments section which, as usual, wasn’t really beneficial to anyone who is asking questions. But what neither of the groups arguing seem to realise is that they are framing the debate entirely incorrectly.

The reason why I say this is because science is not the discipline to be used to answer questions such as whether there is a god or why we are here. Science, as a discipline, is about observation and experimentation, not philosophising. It is the job of the philosopher to explain meaning, not the scientist, who simply provides data which, depending on a person’s presuppositions, could be interpreted philosophically in a number of directions.

When Hawking talks about “why we are here” he is being a philosopher, not a scientist. This is important in framing the entire science v religion debate, which as far as I’m concerned is a load of hot air. The conflict between science and religion is something that seems to only be prevalent in the last one 100 or so years, and appears to be only lingering on in populist debates rather than true academic circles, particularly those who study the history of science.

We know that there are brilliant scientists who believe in God, and brilliant scientists who don’t. We also ought to know that there are brilliant theologians who believe the theory of evolution does not contradict the Bible, nor affirm it, because the Bible does not address it.

Students of theology would also know that there have been plenty of theologians who did not hold a fully literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 (the creation account) since the early centuries of Christianity. And finally, history also shows that many Christians put forward Darwin’s ideas and endorsed these when this whole theory of evolution began, because these Christians saw no conflict with what they believed about God presented in the natural sciences.

Historically, the conflict between science and religion has had more to do with politics, power and personality than theology and the quest for truth. Even the famous Galileo controversy had more to do with these things than anything else. We all know how religious ideologies are often used as a smokescreen to hide true motives — which is what has happened in many of the science v religion controversies — and it turns out that philosophical ideas about science have been used to do much the same.

As history shows, many scientists were responsible for the conflict to gain power over the clergy or finally “break free” from the binds of the church. On the other end, clergy reacted to the fact that they were losing power by perpetuating the myth that science and religion were at odds. It was all a power struggle.

Then when the fundamentalists came around and insisted on a literal interpretation of just about everything in the Bible, the entire thing was blown even more out of proportion, so that to this day there are Christians who question their or someone else’s faith on how they interpret Genesis 1 and 2. Meanwhile, generations of Christians long before Darwin and long before the fundamentalists had no such problem. And besides, Jesus never said “he who believes in a six-day creation will be saved” but rather said that whoever puts their trust in Him would be saved.

Now in terms of the actual debates, many atheists are always too quick to jump onto comments like “science is at odds with religion” or “science does not take religion seriously”. But these kinds of comments are false on every count. Besides the history mentioned above, science does not care for religion. Religion is a question of philosophy and theology, not science. Science is no more “at odds” with religion than it is “at odds” with my morning coffee. The only thing “at odds” with religion in this debate is the philosophy of atheism, which is not built as strictly on science as many atheists insist. Indeed, no worldview is built strictly on science.

On the other end, Christians are too quick to get defensive. So evolution says we evolved from lower forms of species? So what? That does not disprove God or the Bible any more than my coffee. Other Christians are inclined to try and use science to prove the Bible, or even the opposite, which is usually fruitless. God did not give us Genesis 1 and 2 so we could have the physics of the universe. Why would He? How would that help anyone? It provides no answers whatsoever to the person hurting.

If we think that God gave us the Bible as a scientific textbook we miss its true and deeper and more practical meaning. As CS Lewis once said, in Apologetics sentences beginning with “science now proves … ” should be avoided. Science is ever-changing and is hardly the right tool to use to convey everlasting and relational truths. It’s actually foolish to divulge in conversations about how complex the eye is when you probably know next to nothing about science anyway. Leave that debate to the scientists.

If Christians and atheists could both understand the roles of science, philosophy and theology — understanding the distinctions and where these can complement each other — we would all be able to at least speak more clearly, more humbly, more civilly and provide more value to our world. Right now, however, if both sides insist on this ridiculous so-called conflict between science and theology we’re never going to get anywhere.

Ryan Peter is a freelance writer and journalist and blogs regularly at ryanpeterwrites.com. He is the author of ALIVE: How to Enjoy Living and a fantasy book, When Twins War. He is also the deputy editor of gaming.do.co.za and hails from Johannesburg.