Hasn't science disproved God? - Genesis 1:1-13

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 3rd February 2013.

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I guess that behind our title is the common view that somehow science and Christianity are deadly enemies, a view popularised of course by Professor Richard Dawkins. But what I want to show this morning is that nothing could be further from the truth. And I want to do this by arguing that if Christianity and Science were fundamentally opposed to each other, then three things would follow: 1. Science and Christianity would contradict each other. 2. From the very beginning science would have had no truck with Christianity and 3. As science has progressed fewer scientists would be religious. That sounds fair enough doesn’t it? Well, let’s see how things how we get on in answering those three key questions.

 

Ø  Does science and Christianity contradict each other? 

Let’s take the first one: does science and Christianity contradict each other?  In order to answer this question it might be helpful if I tell you a little parable: Imagine it is a warm summer evening. Two people are walking independently along the beach listening to the gentle lapping of the waves and looking at the star-studded sky. They both spot a light flashing out at sea. One of them is a retired physicist, the kind of scientist who thought of nothing but his work, who rushes to his car where, being the geek he is, keeps all kinds of scientific equipment. He takes out a stop watch and times the flashes. He sets up a photometer and measured the brightness of the flashes. He organises a spectrometer and record their spectrum. He notes the position of the light against the background stars. When he gets home his wife she says, ‘You look excited dear, did you see something interesting tonight?’ ‘Yes’ he replies, ‘I saw what I deduced was a heated tungsten filament, enclosed in a silica envelope, emitting a regular pattern of flashes of  visible radiation at an intensity of 2,500 lumens from a distance of 850 metres off shore.’

The other person on the beach that night is a teenager going home from the Sea Scouts. When he gets home his mother says, ‘You look excited dear, did you see something interesting tonight?’ ‘Yes’ he replies, ‘I saw a boat signalling SOS and so I telephoned the coast guard, and they sent out the lifeboat.’

So here’s the question: which of the two people gave the most accurate description of what they saw that night?

The answer is-neither. They each gave a perfectly accurate description but in quite different terms. The scientist gave a description in the language of science. You see, his language knows nothing of Morse code and calling out the lifeboat! His approach strictly lie outside his sphere of interests as a scientist. The Scout’s description was ‘unscientific’ to be sure but, from the point of view of those in need, it was the most important-for this was the language of rescue. And as we shall see in a moment that is a picture of the difference between science and Christianity- science is the language of the ‘what’ and ‘how’ and Christianity is the language of the ‘why’ - the language of rescue.

So let’s ask: what is science? Science involves a specialised method and approach which, in a highly organised way, seeks to explain natural phenomena and those explanations are always subject to modification through further observations. This means that science has two parts: theory and research. The theory is made up of abstract statements about why and how some portion of nature fits together and works. From these scientists are able to make predictions about what should and shouldn’t be observed. This is where research comes in- it makes those observations that are relevant to the testable predictions.

This flags up a very important point to remember, namely science does have limits both in terms of its methods and ideas. Scientists are concerned with the physical world of matter and energy -with mechanisms-how things work- ‘how?’ questions- e.g. ‘How were the flashes of light produced?’ This means that some things lie outside the realm of science, not least the question of the existence and nature of God. If God is the supreme being who exists outside space and time and upon whom space and time exist, then to claim there can’t be a God because science cannot find him in the universe is like saying that Shakespeare doesn’t exist because he can’t be identified anywhere in Denmark in the play Hamlet. God is the author of the whole show, like Shakespeare is the author or Hamlet. How we find out about God will involve other questions and methods which are beyond science. The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks puts the difference between the two like this: ‘Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.’

Now don’t think I am cheating trying to get God off the hook by saying as far as science is concerned- ‘hands off God.’ Let’s go back to our parable. If science deals effectively with the ‘how’ questions- how does the light flash? There are other questions which it doesn’t answer and can’t answer- namely, the’ ‘why’ questions –matters of meaning and purpose- ‘It is a distress signal.’ Questions of value, morality and purpose lie outside the realm of science. This is common sense

But these are the kinds of questions the Bible seeks to answer- the ‘why’ questions. Why is there a universe at all and what is our place in it? How are we meant to relate to God,  to each other and to the world? The Bible claims that there is an infinite-personal God who has brought this universe into being (and leaves the question open as to ‘how’ he has done that). What is more he sustains it, by the ‘word hof his power’ according to the writer to the Hebrews. This means that if God were to withdraw that sustaining power, you wouldn’t have chaos, with one planet flying over here and another colliding with a moon over there. In fact you would have nothing. You have this in the opening words of Genesis 1, ‘In the Beginning God created the heavens and the earth’. That God is the sustainer and provider of all things is the great theme of that wonderful Psalm, Psalm 104, v10 ‘He (God) makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. 11They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. 12The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among the branches. 13He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. 14He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate-- bringing forth food from the earth: 15wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart.’ Now of course you can give scientific descriptions of all of those things in terms of meteorology and biology- using scientific language like photosynthesis, enzyme production and the like, but that would not rule out this deeper theological explanation using poetic language as we have it here in God’s Word. So we can and should pray ‘Give us our daily bread’ for as the Psalmist goes on to write: ‘These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good.’

You see, from a Christian point of view science is simply the proper means and method of exploring and understanding God’s creation. No more and no less. Or, in the words of the first person to produce the first accurate working model of the solar system- Johannes Kepler, science is a matter of ‘thinking God’s thoughts after him.’ So science and Christianity are not contradictory but complementary- the two need each other. For instance, did you know that the term ‘scientist’ was actually coined by a 19th century Vicar called William Whewell? Before him they were called ‘natural philosophers’. Whewell was a double professor at Cambridge University holding a chair in mineralogy and one in moral philosophy. He also coined many other terms which are now part of our language-like ‘physicist’, ‘anode’, and ‘cathode’. He saw no conflict between what the Bible taught and what science taught because there isn’t one. 

Ø  Have science and Christianity been enemies from the beginning?

 

Secondly, if there is this battle between science and Christianity then that would have been the case from the beginning, but it was not so. In fact it was Christianity that gave rise to modern science. It was the view of reality given in the first few chapters of Genesis that there is a rational God who has created a rational world. What is more he is a reliable God and so it is reasonable to expect his world to be reliable too. So if water boils at 100 degree centigrade under set conditions one day you can expect the same another day.  If that is the case then, unlike the claims of the Greek philosophers like Aristotle who looked down upon empirical observation and believed that you could simply philosophise what should be the case from basic principles, this view said ‘no’ we can’t say beforehand what God could or should do, you have to go out and look and see what he has done and is doing. Indeed, they went further and said it was our duty to examine how God’s world works and harness its fruits for God’s glory and people’s benefits- they took Genesis 1: 28 seriously, ‘God blessed them (human beings) and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it (that is harness it or tame it). Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." The pioneer of what came to be known as the scientific method, was Sir Francis Bacon  and in 1605 in his ‘Advancement of Learning’ he spoke of God giving us two books to read, the Book of God’s Word-the Bible and the book of God’s works- nature. Both, he said, are to be studied with diligence as both are given by God. Here are the words of one leading historian of science S Jaki, ‘The scientific quest found fertile soil only when faith in a personal, rational Creator had truly permeated a whole culture, beginning with the centuries of the High Middle Ages. It was that faith which provided, in sufficient measure, confidence in the rationality of the universe, trust in progress, and an appreciation of the qualitative method, all indispensable ingredients of the scientific quest.’ Back in 1925 in his Lowell lectures, the non-Christian and co-author with the atheist Bertrand Russell of Principia Mathematica (1910-1913), A.N. Whitehead made the same point- he said you had to have a sufficient basis for believing that the scientific enterprise would be worthwhile and Christianity supplied it. He pointed out that the images of gods found in other religions, especially Asia are too impersonal or too irrational to have sustained science. You see, if you believed that there were gods who are fickle and kept changing their minds, then you could never do science because that is dependent upon things being stable and not being changed at whim. The God of the Bible provides such stability for he is a faithful and trustworthy God.  As a matter of historical fact Christianity is the root and science the fruit.

Ø  Do we have less religious scientists than in the past?

Thirdly,  if the science versus religion thesis is correct then it is reasonable to expect that with the passage of time and the development of science there would be significantly less professional scientists who would be religious. But that is not so. Back in 1914 an American psychologist called James Leuba sent questionnaires to a random sample of people listed in ‘American Men of Science’- the top scientists of his day. He hoped to show that scientific thinking people would not be very religious and that in due course society as a whole would grow out if such superstitious nonesense. Each was asked to select one of the following statements: 1. I believe in a God to whom one may pray in the expectation of receiving an answer. 2. I do not believe in God as defined above. 3. I have no definite belief regarding this question. This is so stringent it would exclude some clergy! To his dismay Leuba found that 41.8% of these prominent scientists selected option one. 41.5 (many whom Leuba acknowledged did believe in a supreme being) opted for 2. And 16.7% took the third vague alternative. The exact same study was repeated in 1996 and the results were unchanged. More significant was the Carnegie Commissions study of 1969 when 60,000 college professors were surveyed. This included questions such as ‘What is your present religion?’; ‘How religious do you consider yourself?’ and ‘Do you consider yourself religiously conservative?’ Two striking findings came out which challenged the view that religion and science were incompatible. First, levels of religiousness were found to be relatively high. Second, the most religious (and most conservative) were to be found amongst the hard sciences- physics, chemistry etc over and against the least religious being in the social sciences and psychology. So you have highly intelligent and successful scientists who are more than comfortable with their religion and see no conflict between the two. And just in case you think that I am being selective, let me quote Stephen Jay Gould an atheist proponent of the theory of evolution who does not see an inevitable clash between science and Christianity. Responding to Dawkins he says, ‘Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs- and equally compatible with atheism.’ That is, some Christians see the theory of evolution as being equivalent to the tungsten filaments and silicon envelopes of our parable- the means whereby God brought into being life.

Well, so much for the book of nature which we need to read carefully to answer the ‘how?’ questions. But what of the ‘why?’ questions? What is our purpose on earth if any? If there is a God, what is he like and how can we get in touch with him?  Well, to find the answers to those sorts of questions scientists like Francis Bacon, Galileo, Newton, Kepler, Faraday, Boyle and many others went to the other book, the Bible. Here we discover the infinite-personal God who moment by moment is intimately and passionately involved with that which he has made. He is the author of the whole show. What is more, he has made us primarily for relationships. This is where we find true meaning and value, and supremely being rightly related to him. The problem is that we have turned our backs on him and broken that relationship. But unlike Shakespeare as the author of Hamlet was ‘outside’ Hamlet’s Denmark, the Bible makes the amazing claim that some 2,000 years ago God the author became a character in his creation, the God-man Jesus Christ. How does John put it at the beginning of his biography of Jesus? ‘1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning. 3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4In him was life, and that life was the light of men….. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ Jesus shows us what God is really like, how we are meant to live, and went on to die on a cross as a sacrifice to enable God to be put in his rightful place, back at the centre of our lives. He is alive and reigns as ruler of the world. In fact the Bible claims that through this person- the world was originally made- ‘it was made by him and for him.’ And as a scientist would look at the data and opt for the theory which best makes sense of it all, so Christians invite others to look at the data of Jesus and decide for themselves. But unlike obtaining scientific knowledge, which involves some degree of keeping a distance, this knowledge of God is more like having the personal knowledge of a friend, at some point you have to get close and make a commitment. Then you start to see things differently through new eyes. You see yourself as someone precious in God’s sight, someone with a purpose -to know, love and serve and enjoy him- even as a scientist maybe, and a destination- to live with this wonderful and beautiful God for ever.

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