Does Science Disprove Faith?
A sermon from John Ortberg addresses many of the questions that people often struggle with when confronted with the science & faith discussion.
Before You Read
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This piece has been adapted from the transcript of a sermon delivered by John Ortberg at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church on January 5, 2014, and has been edited for length. You can read the full sermon here at the Menlo Park website. Used by permission.
We’re looking at whether science disproves faith. Has the rise of modern science shown that faith is really irrational? It’s a really important topic. I want to start with a quote from C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity. Lewis writes, “Ever since men were able to think, they have been wondering what this universe really is and how it came to be there.”
He goes on to write, “And, very roughly, two views have been held. First, there is what is called the materialist view. People who take that view think that matter and space just happen to exist, and always have existed, nobody knows why; and that the matter, behaving in certain fixed ways, has just happened, by a sort of fluke, to produce creatures like ourselves who are able to think.” That’s one view, the materialist view. Just a random event. It can’t be explained. It’s kind of a giant machine.
“The other view is the religious view. According to it, what is behind the universe is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know. That is to say, it is conscious, and has purposes, and prefers one thing to another.” To paraphrase, Lewis also writes, “Don’t think that one of these views is old and one is new. They’ve been around as long as people can think.”
Now in our day, many thoughtful people wonder, “Has science proven that what Lewis calls the materialist view is correct, that the universe is a machine, that God does not exist, that faith is irrational?” I want to [consider] a number of key questions. We have some material we just have to plow through. One caveat: I am not a scientist. I know I am not a scientist. I know in a crowd like this a lot of you have forgotten way more about many branches of science than I will ever know, so I just want to ask for grace.
Science has great prestige in our day, so this is a really important question. Are there any other kinds of knowledge besides scientific knowledge? The short answer is there are other kinds of knowledge, and if we don’t recognize it, it really limits what we have to know to be able to live.
A lot of us remember in school learning about something called the scientific method. Actually it’s a little tricky to define precisely, but it has to do with the notion that we make observations, and they lead to theories, and then there will be a hypothesis designed to test the theory, and we’ll run an experiment, and we’ll be able to measure stuff, and the outcome will either confirm or fail to confirm the hypothesis.
Because science has made such amazing progress in certain fields like medicine or technology, some people claim this scientific method, or empirical verification, is the only way to reliable knowledge. That would mean, by the way, there is no such thing as moral knowledge or spiritual knowledge or personal knowledge. This view that the only knowledge that counts comes from the scientific method is sometimes called scientism. Not science, but scientism.
There is a guy named Sir John Polkinghorne. He is a Cambridge physicist and an Anglican priest. He may be the greatest thinker about faith/science issues in our day. He has a really helpful illustration. He says imagine somebody asking, “Why is water boiling in that kettle?” One person answers, “Because burning gas is heating the water,” and another person answers, “Because I want a cup of tea.” Which answer is right? Well, they’re both right. One person is talking about non-personal causes, mechanical forces. That’s what science tends to do.
The other answer talks in terms of a person and purpose and intention. It is not scientific in a mechanistic way, but it’s true and it’s terribly important. See, science involves a method that is enormously useful to investigate large chunks of reality, but it is not the only way to know truth. Human life is of great value. That’s true. You know that, but you can’t put it in a test tube. It is wrong to live for selfish greed. That is true. That is moral truth. A society that is unable to recognize the existence of moral truth is headed for serious problems.
Scientism is a dogma that says any dimension that cannot be exhaustibly explained by the scientific method doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. By the way, scientism itself as an ideology, which is rampant in our day, could never be proven or established by the scientific method. Is science the only way to reliably know something? No, it’s not. It’s very important, but it’s not the only way.
I’ve watched when very often those really bright young people go off and pursue education, go to college, begin to read, and discover they were misinformed. Then they think they have to choose between the Bible and truth. You don’t. We have to do better than that. I think that’s part of God’s calling on our church, to be a place of thoughtful faith, where we’re humble before truth.
Again, this is a really important issue for us to think about if we’re going to be people of faith or consider faith. This idea also is quite rampant in our day. I’ll give you one quote about it. This is from a guy in the field of science who teaches at Cornell University. His name is William Provine. Consider the claims he makes in this statement:
He says, “Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear.” This is a claim that the field of evolutionary biology has established. “There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead… There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.”
Just as a matter of scientific inquiry, if you were to ask, “What is a single article in a single peer-reviewed journal confirmed by a single double-blind study that establishes or even addresses a single one of any of these mammoth claims?” there is nothing in all the literature of evolutionary biology that is even in that neighborhood. Those are not the kinds of claims that get studied or written about in those kinds of journals. None of those questions fall in that discipline or are investigated by those methods. Yet there’s just this idea out there in the ether that somehow something has been found out that has discredited faith.
This is from astronomer Carl Sagan: “We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.” Notice there are all of these really loaded words: insignificant, humdrum, lost, tucked away, forgotten. Those are not scientific terms, but they’re weighted with meaning. The idea of statements like this is that somehow science, by showing us how immense the size and the age of the universe is, has shown us that little tiny human beings do not have unique dignity or value or worth in ways that faith has taught.
The idea that there’s a contrast between the immensity of nature and the tininess and brevity of human life… We didn’t invent that idea. We did not discover that contrast. People have been thinking about that one for a long time. The psalmist said thousands of years ago, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?”
Precisely the same contrast was the object of real serious reflection a long time ago. We get so arrogant about ourselves. The psalmist does not go on to say, “The way to settle this one is to look at the scale of stuff in terms of physical size. I think people are huge. I think the earth is huge and the sun and the moon and the stars are tiny, so we win.”
The psalm says, “Yet, God, you have created human beings with glory and honor. You’ve crowned them, made them something like transcendent beings.” (Psalm 8:5) Human beings are invested with a divinity, a divine image. They have this capacity to learn and create. They have the weight that comes with being a moral agent, being able to make decisions and be responsible for them, being able to care for creation. It’s staggering.
If significance were measured by size, whales would be the most important creatures on the planet. I don’t hear anybody arguing that. Any worldview or system of thought that cannot account for the inescapable weight, dignity, and value of human beings must simply be found wanting by any sane, rational evaluation. You have to decide what you think about that. I just think that’s inescapable. Any worldview, any system of thought, that cannot account for the inescapable weight, dignity, and value of a human being must simply be found wanting by any sane, rational evaluation.
Because it’s there. I’ll give you another quote. This is from a guy named Curtis White. Curtis White is not a believer, but he has written a fascinating book. It’s called The Science Delusion. It is critiquing this whole notion of scientism, that the scientific method can tell us everything there is to know about existence.
There is a very similar book by philosopher Thomas Nagel at Princeton. Again, not a believer but critiquing the same idea. Part of what happens with scientism is you end up not only in a universe where there’s no God; you end up in a universe where there’s no personhood. Curtis White in his book quotes Jim Watson. Jim Watson won the Nobel Prize along with Francis Crick for their work on the DNA double helix.
Watson asked one time, “What are human beings for? What’s their purpose?” His argument is they have no purpose. Jim Watson says, “Well, I don’t think we are for anything. We’re just products of evolution.” Notice it’s not simply “we’re products.” We’re just products. Nothing more. “You can say, ‘Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don’t think there’s a purpose.’ But I’m having a good lunch.” The idea is, “There’s no purpose, but I can get along fine without any sense of purpose.” But can I? Can anybody? Can Jim Watson?
Curtis White in this book goes on to point out that while Jim Watson claimed that human life is nothing more than jiggling atoms, he did not seem to think his accomplishments were nothing more than jiggling atoms. The story of how he fought and struggled and did a bunch of stuff to get the recognition of a Nobel Prize is actually quite interesting, as White spells it out. It’s as if Jim Watson were saying, “The earth is insignificant, people are transient, existence is random, life is meaningless, but I won the Nobel Prize. Mom, look.”
The universe evokes a sense of wonder in us that is remarkably stubborn. Over the Christmas break I was surfing at Huntington Beach. Does anybody ever go down to Huntington Beach? I saw something I’d never seen before. Dolphins kept swimming by a few feet away from where I was, and a couple of them had a little calf. Just seeing a little dolphin calf on the ocean was quite extraordinary, but that wasn’t the best.
At one point I looked up, and there was a big wave coming in (relative to my surfing skills, there was a big wave coming in), and at the top of it was this silhouette of a dolphin. I had never seen anything like this. You know, you see those posters where they Photoshop a bunch of dolphins in. This was the real deal. This was a dolphin on a wave. Then the wave broke, and the dolphin turned parallel to the shore and body-waved that whole wave while I just watched it go by. Then it popped out and said, “Hi, John.” No, it didn’t do that, but it did the rest of it. I’ll never forget that. It was phenomenal.
Wonder is this indistinguishable realization not just that something is, but that it is good. It’s the human heart echoing those words way back in Genesis: “God spoke and it was so, and God saw that it was good.” And it is. We know that. Wonder moves us dangerously close to worship. If you’re thoughtful, you have to ask, “Is our hunger for wonder and meaning a clue to something just beyond material reality?”
C.S. Lewis writes that he thinks it is in a very provocative passage. He writes, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. [People] feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
This warfare view is a very common one. Here’s a classic example of this. In about 1633 the Catholic Church found the scientist Galileo guilty of heresy because he wrote and taught that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way around. That did happen, and that kind of event can happen.
People of faith, Christians, can and do get into trouble if they assume too quickly that they understand the way the Bible should be interpreted around an issue where God actually wants human beings to do scientific investigation. So you have these statements in the faith, “The earth is firmly established on its foundation; it cannot be moved.” There were people who figured, “Well, that means we don’t have to try to examine it scientifically because it’s there in the Bible.” But they were not interpreting the Bible rightly.
Christians and thoughtful people in general will be cautious about assuming too quickly that we can infer scientific knowledge based on biblical statements. However, the notion that science and religion historically have been at war with each other is actually a myth. As a matter of fact, historically (again, in our day people tend not to know this), science emerged primarily from people of faith.
A guy by the name of Rodney Stark at Baylor University did a study on this about seventeenth-century Europe. Out of the 52 leading scientists (he did a study about their thoughts), 62 percent of them were what he called devout believers, 34 percent of them were conventionally religious, and only 2 out of the 52 were religious skeptics. Of course, by that time, seventeenth-century Europe, there were a fair number of skeptics. Only 2 of the leading 52 scientists were among them.
Not only were science and faith not enemies, there are a bunch of folks who work in the history of science. One of them is named Paul Chamberlain. He puts it this way: “…the scientific enterprise as we know it would probably not exist had it not been for Christianity.” Again, this is widely not known or thought about in our day at the popular level. It runs counter to a lot of current understanding.
A scientist by the name of John Houghton points out there’s this false idea in our day that belief in God actually got started out of our inability to understand things scientifically. There’s this false belief that that’s where faith comes from. People didn’t know what caused thunder so they made up Thor. People didn’t know what governed the moon so they made up the goddess Diana. Faith in God is not based on gaps that science hasn’t yet filled in. Folks who are nonbelievers sometimes think it is. Sadly, believers sometimes think, “Oh, if we can find an area where science hasn’t explained it yet, we can say God did that, and then that’s evidence for faith.” The “God of the gaps” deal is a really, really bad foundation to build a faith on, because then every time a gap gets filled in, faith gets shaky. Faith in God is based on observations of meaning and value and order that actually underlie the rise of science itself. The rise of science happened at a particular point in a particular history in a particular civilization. It didn’t exist in the ancient world as we know it. Historically, the rise of science required a worldview that involves the notion our world is orderly and will reward rational investigation.
In the ancient world, they thought the earth was involved in this endless cycle of existence. Things go up and down, get better and worse. It’s this constant tug-of-war between “the gods,” or whatever kinds of forces, and then chaos. The notion that the world is orderly and will reward rational investigation came from a worldview that began with faith in an all-powerful, rational God. A prize-winning biochemist by the name of Melvin Calvin (Nobel winner) said, “This monotheistic view seems to be the historical foundation for modern science.”
Of course, there are many other ingredients required for science to emerge, but a certain kind of worldview that the world is orderly and will repay orderly investigation was part of what was needed for science to arise. Alfred North Whitehead, one of the dominant thinkers of the twentieth century, when he was asked for the causes of the rise of science when it came about said it was the medieval insistence on the rationality of God.
This has become a huge hot-button topic. Evolution is a really controversial thing. I’ll say a word first about Genesis and then about evolution. The best book I have ever read about the Genesis creation account is from a Wheaton College Old Testament professor by the name of John Walton. He notes that in studying the Bible you always have to begin by asking how it would be understood by the audience reading it in that day when it was written.
You have to start by asking about the historical context of the intended audience, because the Bible always emerges out of a conversation in its day. For us as a church, to be wise readers, wise students of the Bible, we really have to be grounded in this. In our day, even in the church, very often people get off track with the Bible, especially the very beginning in Genesis and the very end in Revelation.
People get into all kinds of goofy ideas about them if they assume, “I don’t have to begin by looking at the historical context and asking what the initial readers would have understood this to mean. I can just read into it whatever I would happen to read into it out of my own time and culture and agenda.” There’s a kind of arrogance to that, a failure in humility to say, “I’ll pay attention to the historical context.”
Walton spent a lot of time taking a look at this. There was a conversation, as there always is among human beings, in the ancient Mesopotamian world. “Where did we come from? How did the earth get here?” But it was very different than the conversation or the agenda in our day, and it’s critical to understand Genesis.
I grew up in the church. I didn’t know about that ancient conversation. I just assumed the Bible was this magic Book and Genesis just got dropped down out of heaven. It was actually kind of threatening to me to find out there was a very rich conversation going on, and of course the language and concepts of that conversation were part of what God used by the writer of Genesis, because it got written in the context of this discussion. In the ancient world, they weren’t particularly concerned about how something got here from nothing. They were very concerned with how order triumphed over chaos. That was the big thing their stories were about.
He writes primarily in Genesis about how the one true God, the good God, was inaugurating the cosmos into a functioning temple (there’s all kind of temple imagery in Genesis 1-2; that’s why), where he would take up residence and then deploy his image bearers (that’s all human beings made in God’s image) to extend his reign to exercise dominion so that all the earth could be ordered and become sacred space where God could dwell with his community.
Of course, in our day, different Christians interpret Genesis 1-2 differently. For my part, I believe the best reading of it, just on biblical terms, is that it’s not about how or how long or the role of mutation (or natural selection, in twenty-first century terms). Those questions were not around back then. Genesis is addressing questions that were around back then in ways that have laid out the identity of human beings and our place in the cosmos with matchless, world-changing truth. Therefore, it’s very legitimate for science to explore all of those kinds of questions about how and how long.
I want to say a personal word here. I have seen too many young people in too many churches exposed to bad science, shoddy thinking, false claims, and the misguided idea (maybe well-intended but misguided) that somebody was defending the Bible when what they were really defending was a wrong interpretation of the Bible. Then I’ve watched when very often those really bright young people go off and pursue education, go to college, begin to read, and discover they were misinformed. Then they think they have to choose between the Bible and truth. You don’t. We have to do better than that. I think that’s part of God’s calling on our church, to be a place of thoughtful faith, where we’re humble before truth.
On the other hand, I want to say this. Sometimes secularists will misuse the language or theory of evolution to make claims about human identity that are false and destructive. For example, a few years ago, a study found that chimps share 99.4 percent of DNA with human beings. One researcher said about this, “We humans appear as only slightly remodeled chimpanzee-like apes.” Only slightly remodeled. One guy writing about this actually titled his book The Third Chimpanzee. There are two species of chimps, and the title was essentially implying, based on the percentage of shared DNA, that human beings are simply a third species of chimps, that there’s really not much difference between human beings and chimps.
If you really believe yourself, or if you wonder if that’s really true, just ask yourself if you would have a chimpanzee babysit one of your children. Would you elect one to Congress? (You can make up your own joke here.) Would you date one? Would you put one on trial for an ethical breach and hold one morally accountable for its behavior? See, human identity, the human condition, human worth, are huge questions. They’re not going to be answered by analyses of shared percentage of DNA with other creatures. They’re not that kind of a question. When they get expressed as if they were, it is not right; it is not bright.
The Bible says, in the wonderful words of Dallas Willard, that you are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe. Now you have to decide…Is that true, or are you a third chimpanzee? Again, I understand there are really bright people who wrestle and struggle with that. I don’t say it to demean anybody. But they’re going to lead down two really different paths.
A lot of you have heard about the idea of the big bang, that the universe had a beginning. Actually, it’s almost the opposite. It’s really interesting stuff. A hundred years ago, scientists just assumed the universe has always existed. They did not think there was a beginning to it. They thought matter and space had always been around.
Scientists now believe the universe is actually about 13.798 billion years old and that it was begun with something that has commonly become known as the big bang. It’s this astounding, amazing notion of a point of singularity and then everything coming out of that. It’s wild stuff when you read about it. For scientists to come to grips over the last century with the notion that there was a beginning was quite astounding.
Francis Collins was the head of the Human Genome Project. He’s now the head of the National Institute of Health. By the way, he used to be an atheist. He is now a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. A major turning point in his conversion was when he read Mere Christianity. He writes about this in another wonderful book about science and faith called The Language of God. Here’s what Francis Collins wrote: “The existence of the Big Bang begs the question of what came before that, and who or what was responsible. It certainly demonstrates the limits of science as no other phenomenon has done.” The sense of awe created by these realizations has caused more than a few agnostic scientists to sound downright theological.
In God and the Astronomers, the astrophysicist Robert Jastrow wrote this final paragraph: “At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”
That little phrase, in the beginning, starts to look a whole lot different than it did a century or two ago. There is something even more staggering than just the existence of the big bang itself. There is this fact that the universe appears in the strangest way to have been designed to support life. This is sometimes called the anthropic principle. It’s talked about a lot by folks in cosmology and physics. Anthropos is the Greek word for man.
The universe seems strangely fine-tuned for life in a bunch of ways. I will tell you one. I’ll do my best to describe this, but I’ve had a really hard time with it, so stay with me for the next two minutes. About one millisecond after the big bang, the universe cooled down enough for what are called quarks and antiquarks to condense out. The way that worked, as I understand it, is any quark encountering an antiquark would result in the complete annihilation of them both and the release of a little photon of energy. That’s all that was left, just annihilation. But as it turns out, there’s not an equal number of quarks and antiquarks. As it turns out, the symmetry you’d probably expect between quarks and antiquarks was off by the tiniest bit that nobody could have predicted.
For every one billion antiquarks, there is one leftover lonely little quark. Now why there is this asymmetry nobody knows, but it turns out if there had been an equal number of quarks and antiquarks they would have annihilated each other and there would be no universe. It turns out that that one-in-a- billion, lonely, leftover little quark made it possible for there to be galaxies and stars and planets and oh, by the way, you. Turn to the person next to you and say, “You’re one in a billion.” Literally, you actually are.
It’s not just this. There turn out to be 15 different constants. Like the precise force of gravity, such that if it was altered enough that you’d weigh a hundredth of a pound less one way or the other, the universe and your life could not exist. It is exactly what it needed to be. There are 15 different constants whose values would have to be exactly what they are for the universe to support life, and oh, by the way, it turns out that’s exactly what they are.
This is so striking that Stephen Hawking, who is not a person of faith, a physicist a lot of you will know, writes, “It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun [the way it did], except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.” That’s a remarkable statement. What you end up having to believe in if you don’t believe in a God, because our universe is so improbable, is in what’s called the multiverse. Some of you will have heard about that. That there are thousands, millions of other kinds of universes we’re not able to detect, so it just turns out, as a random throw of the dice, that there ends up being this one universe we live in that’s livable.
To put it mildly, the notion that there are multiple universes has not been proven. Another Nobel-winning scientist, who co-discovered the cosmic radiation that helped support the notion of the big bang in the first place, wrote, “The best data we have [from science] are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, and the Bible as a whole.” So has science proven that faith is irrational and God doesn’t exist? Well, you’ll need to think about that one on your own. You can do a lot more reading about it. I would say, not by a long, long, long shot. Just personally, even thinking, reading, researching about this stuff gives me such a sense of wonder and awe about a God who could do this.
Two more personal words. I was at a conference [put on by] BioLogos. Francis Collins and a number of scientists who are also people of faith were there. I wanted to tell you about this at some point when I came back. I was struck in talking with them about how lonely so many of them said they were spiritually. I can’t tell you how often I’d sit down with somebody at that conference at a table and they would just get really sad. They would say, “You know, when I’m at work and I’m with a bunch of scientists, they’re really skeptical about my faith. They’re suspicious about me.” Then they’d say, “When I go to my church, they’re really skeptical about me because of my science. I feel like I don’t have any place where I really belong.” We want to be that place.
I want to say today (I’ve wanted to say this to you guys for a couple of years now), all of you who do science, all of you who teach or research or are involved in engineering or medicine or education or biology or chemistry or physics or neuroscience, you’re doing a noble thing. You are thinking God’s thoughts after him. You are reading the big book of creation while you’re reading the little Book of the Scriptures. You are obeying God’s command given way back in Genesis to exercise dominion, to learn about, to be curious and discover and steward the earth. Those of us who are not scientists just shake our heads. We are grateful and admiring and humbled, and we cheer you on. We are so glad you are a part of us.
You scientists are thinkers and not feelers, so you don’t care that we cheer you on, but we cheer you on anyhow. We’re so glad and grateful and proud to be part of a community with you. You keep learning and keep teaching us, and be patient with us. Let’s be our best selves around this one. That’s the other personal thing I want to say.
For everybody, whether you consider yourself a person of faith around this one or not, let’s be a place of people who are humbly submitted to the truth. You must understand this about Jesus, if you understand nothing else about him: Jesus is the kind of person who would be the first to tell you you must ruthlessly follow truth wherever it leads.
I say this because so often in our day there’s this misguided notion that some people, secularists or scientists, are open to truth and that faith is about being a community where you can’t listen to reason and you have to believe whatever is written down in a book because it got written down in a book someplace. That is simply not true. The Book did not come into existence that way. It was part of a great thoughtful conversation that went on for a long time with real thoughtful people.
Jesus is the first person who would tell you, “You must follow the truth ruthlessly wherever it leads.” Here’s the last quote from C.S. Lewis: “God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you, you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all.” We want to have the whole of us, brains and all, on this journey.
Hear what somebody wrote about Jesus 2,000 years ago and be awed: “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible. All things were created by him and for him.” God, help every one of us to be open and humble before truth. How awed we are, how humbled we are by this reality in which we find ourselves living. Thank you for Jesus who made it. God, when we think he cares about our little lives, he notices us, actually became one of us, died on a cross for us to give us a hope, how grateful we are. We give you our worship.
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