What, Exactly, is the Secular World? A Response to Mark Mann

| By Karl Giberson

In Part I of his series "Let's Not Surrender Science to the Secular World," Mark Mann critiques a particular assumption made in Karl Giberson and Randall Stephenson's recent op-ed in the New York Times. "I am concerned," Mann says, "that one of their central assumptions—that there is a divide between ‘secular knowledge’ and Christian faith that must be overcome—essentially undermines their very pursuit of a middle ground." 

"Science belongs," he goes on to say, "just as much to the church of Christ as it does to some so-called secular realm of knowledge. To treat the conversation otherwise is to give in to both the secular fundamentalists, who wish to see Christians surrender their faith in God for faith in science as the fount of all truth, and the Christian fundamentalists, who fear that any compromise with the secular ultimately amounts to selling out their fidelity to God." This is Dr. Giberson's response to Part I of Dr. Mann's series.

I would like to thank Mark Mann for his thoughtful response (Part I and Part II) to the op-ed piece that Randall Stephens and I published in the NY Times titled—provocatively and by our editor at the Times rather than us—“The Evangelical Rejection of Reason.”

Mark—I must use his first name since I know him so well—offers the following objection to the way we set up the discussion in the op-ed.

“To talk about ‘secular knowledge’ and the ‘integration’ of science and faith is to buy into a problematic bifurcation of knowledge. The basic assumption lying behind such a distinction is that the world of knowledge can be divided into two discrete realms.”

This is a reasonable interpretation of what we wrote but it builds too heavily on an overly simplistic interpretation of our argument. We had 1000 words to make an important point, which left little room for nuance. Let me provide some of that nuance now.

I want to start by rejecting the idea that knowledge can be divided into two—or any number—of “discrete” realms. Such divisions are practical constructions that help us organize the world, but they don’t reflect the way the world actually is. An alien anthropologist might conclude that physics and biology are somehow “different and separate” because of the way they function in our universities and laboratories. But we know that the world is not adorned with little flags labeled “biological phenomena” and “physical phenomena” to help us assign the problems to the right department. The arrangement in our great universities where these disciplines are housed in separate buildings, or at our colleges where they are on different floors, reflects the practical reality that the problems of those disciplines are sufficiently different that people tend to be drawn to one or the other. But we know that there can be no discrete separation, for those disciplines meet constantly to engage problems of optics, joint mechanics, blood pressure, and so on. And we know that it would be meaningless to dispute about whether the study of blood pressure or near-sightedness properly belonged to physics or biology.

In the same way—but far more importantly—we cannot divide the world on a large scale into “secular” and “religious.” If I were to offer a slightly less flawed—but still too simple--knowledge map, I would suggest that we create a continuum stretching from “religious knowledge claims” at one end to “anti-religious claims” at the other with “secular claims” somewhere in the middle. Such a continuum—limited because of its one-dimensionality—would accurately reflect the messy reality of the world as we actually encounter it, rather than the more tidy way we construct it in our systems. Such a continuum would also remind us that there are no boundaries to any type of knowledge and that we should expect to be puzzled as we try to make sense of the world.

I suspect at this point that Mark may be wondering if I have just caved in and conceded his point. But I don’t think I have. What I have done is clarified that I am not working from the assumption that there are two discrete knowledge worlds—the religious and the secular. Just because knowledge claims lie along the same continuum does not, in any simple sense, make them all the same. The paradise climate of San Diego smoothly morphs into the hostile Arctic as one travels up the West Coast, but this is hardly a reason to equate the two.

We can say—and I have said this—that “All Truth is God’s Truth,” but such a claim turns out to be quite empty in helping us figure out which claims are actually true. Thomas Aquinas conceived of God’s truth about the solar system much differently that Galileo. Believing that “All Truth is God’s Truth” was of no help to 17th century Christians fretting about the motion of the earth. If anything, that belief interfered with their ability to think clearly about astronomical proposals at odds with the biblical claim that the earth was fixed. (Psalm 93:1).

I want to suggest that the great achievement of modern science has been to move knowledge about the natural world from the religious end of the spectrum to a middle ground that we call, for lack of a better term, secular. We rightfully celebrate the achievements of medieval natural philosophers and the superstars of the scientific revolution. But we must avoid the temptation to make them too modern. Their science was done within a worldview where there was no secular knowledge and, consequently, they were far too quick to find theological object lessons in their work. They were also reluctant to accept simple facts that undermined their theological assumptions. Even something as benign as elliptical orbits troubled 17th century astronomers because their lack of symmetry seemed to insult the Creator.

Science requires the acknowledgment of simple facts without regard for their “value” in supporting any grand system. I think the separation of fact and value is what has empowered the great engine of knowledge-creation we call science. It is another of the important changes wrought by science as it matured. We must be able to pursue simple facts about the world—the mass of the proton, the mechanism of cell division, the age of the earth, the origin of life, the relationship between humans and other life—without an a priori assumption that these facts will nestle comfortably within our religious worldview. This is what secular means to me—finding facts without worrying about their value.

I mentioned earlier that the continuum of knowledge claims, although better than discrete divisions, was still too simple. Let me now partially address that. Another axis needs to be added to enable the discussion—that ofvalue. Some knowledge claims have positive value, some have no value, some have negative value. I think, for example, that our understanding of the importance of the mother-child bond is incredibly valuable knowledge. In contrast, it seems to me that our knowledge of how to build atomic bombs has negative value, in the sense that it would be better if we had not learned that. In between lies the atomic number of radium and the exact height of Kilimanjero—who cares about those? We could dispute about the details of such claims, of course, but I simply want to suggest that we need a clear way to talk about the value of knowledge claims apart from the truth of the those claims. (This conversation, by the way, informs granting agencies, as the value to society of undiscovered knowledge guides the allocation of research funds.)

The concern expressed in our new book that inspired the op-ed, The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, is that too many prominent evangelical leaders have insisted for too long that knowledge claims must correspond to their fundamentalist worldview based on a literal reading of the Bible. Ken Ham does not want to accept simple facts about the age of the earth because those facts undermine his assumption that all knowledge will fit comfortably into his biblical framework. He is deciding which facts to accept based on his perception of their value in the system he wants to protect. But, lest we move too quickly to a more “enlightened” theological foundation, I want to suggest that all of us—Christian or otherwise—are likely to have values that we hold so close that we will, like Ham, reject secular facts that undermine those values. Many people who accept biological evolution in general reject human evolution in particular. This is, in fact, the position held by Wheaton College.

It seems to me that we need a simple robust concept of the fact, understood as a secular claim about the way the world actually is, neither for or against religion, neither good or bad. Only by acknowledging the reality of simple facts and respecting the processes that discover such facts, can we hope to understand the world.


About the Author

Karl Giberson

Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.


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