There were two public statements on science recently which seem to have disappeared into a vacuum. They were the ‘Public Statement Concerning Science and Christian Faith’ by New Zealand Religious Scientists and ‘A message to the Christian communities of New Zealand from scientists in their midst.’
I am not interested in the first statement. It’s basically a sour-grapes response to the recent visit of Richard Dawkins to New Zealand. I would think that those disagreeing with Dawkins’ religious views would attempt to ignore him. After all, he was on a promotion tour for his book “The Greatest show on Earth” which is not about religion. Bringing up the religion question only provides him a platform to pontificate on the subject. Mind you, these sorts of criticisms do help build the public interest in Dawkins’ lectures, which are always crowded. This, and the inevitable book sales, must be a good thing for the public understanding of science. So, in a sense, I am all for such irrelevant statements.
Are Christians “ignoring” science?
The second statement also seems to have been provoked by Dawkins’ vist. The Anglicantaonga website claims it was “made in the light” of his local lectures, coverage in newspapers and TV programmes. However, the statement itself limits its comment on Dawkins to just one sentence.
My interest in this second statement is that it is aimed at New Zealand Christians and seems to be expressing concerns about the attitude of many Christians towards science. It notes:
“We work within a secularised society which holds science in higher esteem than it does the Christian intellectual tradition, yet often takes note of that science only when it is convenient.“
“We note with deep concern the denial of rational thought which is taking place in both society and Church in relation to gathering environmental and ecological crises.”
“We earnestly ask the Christian communities of New Zealand to respect and affirm the work of scientists, and to act prudently and courageously on their conclusions, in the light of Christian faith and values.”
So the authors of the statement appear concerned but it is all rather vague. I expect vagueness from theological pronouncements – I often feel that trying to understand them is a bit like jelly wrestling. Perhaps one has to read between the lines here – a bit like Soviet times when western Soviet watchers attempted to understand Kremlin power struggles by reading between the lines of Pravda editorials.
However, he statement does convey the sense of a crisis within NZ’s Christian communities regarding acceptance of science. I wouldn’t have thought that was immediately obvious, nothing seems to have changed lately. However the signatories “speak as professional scientists who hold orthodox Christian faith” so there concern may be specifically about “orthodox Christians,” or perhaps “conservative Christians.”
Another strange thing is the refusal to be specific about “environmental and ecological crises” where Christians are denying rational thought. Perhaps they mean climate change – but why not be specific?
Certainly conservative Christian have been guilty of this. One has only to read the local conservative Christian blogs to see how eagerly they have jumped onto the hysterical “climategate” bandwagon and campaigned against our local climate scientists. But isn’t this a feature of their conservatism rather than their religion? I am sure, though, that some of them can justify their conservative using biblical quotes.
Probably the statement’s vagueness results from an unwillingness to do a detailed washing of their dirty linen in public. Another reason may be that it is the result of a committee of 11 Christians with different views and different concepts of science. For example, two of the signatories are Neil Bloom and Jeff Tallon. Having heard both of these speak on the nature of science I would have thought their views would be diametrically opposed. Most working scientists would agree with the physicist Jeff Tallon’s description of the scientific method (when he leaves his god out of it). But they wouldn’t agree with the engineer Neil Broom.
Broom is well known as an intelligent design (ID) activist and author of the book How Blind Is the Watchmaker?: Nature’s Design & the Limits of Naturalistic Science. The father of ID, Phillip Johnson, gave the book a glowing review describing it as “in the tradition of my own Darwin on Trial and Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box.” (Reviews on the Amazon site are far less complimentary). Broom is a fellow of the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design (ISCID) a web site formed by ID guru William Dembski which presents itself as an ID “think tank.” (Although this is possibly defunct now as the web site shows no activity for several years).
Naturalistic science straitjacket myth.
Neil Broom strongly argues that science is restricted by it’s “naturalistic rules.” It is not permitted to consider “supernatural” mechanisms and therefore is incapable of truly understanding reality. This artificial description conflicts strongly with the actual way science is done in practice, but is a popular criticism of science by ID proponents. Their Wedge Document, for example, argues for the overthrow of such modern “naturalistic” or “materialist” science and its replacement by a “theistic science” (see The wedge undermines Christianity). Their motives are obvious – to remove from science the requirements for evidence and testing and hence provide “scientific” endorsement of religious myths.
I think Tallon and Broom must have also had problems over including a reference to evolutionary science in their statement. “We, with contemporary theologians, affirm that historic Christian faith is compatible with an evolutionary unfolding of life.” The vagueness probably results from trying to accommodate most Christian scientists’ clear acceptance of evolutionary science together with the fact that Bloom is one of the three signatories of the notorious “Scientific Dissent from Darwinism” evolution denier list.
The actual list of signatories on the two statements is also interesting. There is a common core of 9 people on both statements. Two extra signed the “Message to Chrsitian Communities” which is described as a production of the Wellington Theological Consortium. This is made up of the Booth College of Mission, the Catholic Education Centre, the Wellington Pacific Bible College and the Wellington Theological Institute (Wellington Anglican Diocese). A separate 5 others signed the other statement. Why the difference?
Liberal Christians need clarity
I guess most of the signatories have their hearts in the right place. If there are problems with the attitudes of conservative Christians to science and scientific findings they are right to be concerned. And there is certainly a problem with their attitudes towards the science of climate change, and, in some cases, evolutionary science. But vague statements like this won’t solve these problems. Especially as they are compromised by the need to accommodate the anti-scientific attitudes of at least one of the signatories.
I think progressive, liberal and pro-science Christians should stop compromising with their anti-science brethren. They should openly and specifically challenge anti-science attitudes.
Why not clearly say that the sympathy many Christians have for creationisms/ID, and the accompanying hostility towards evolutionary science, is not acceptable in modern institutions?
Why not take issue with the hysterical and childish campaign to discredit climate scientists that some conservative Christians have willingly promoted?
Why not clearly challenge the anti-science arguments about “naturalistic’ or “materialistic” straitjackets on science? These attitudes are even promoted by many mainstream theologians and this helps push rank and file Christians into the arms of conservative and reactionary elements. While this continues how can Christians overcome their suspicion of science.
After all, if you can portray scientists as purposely avoiding the study of reality objectively you can then make wild and hysterical claims countering the findings of those scientists.
See also: Who are the “dissenters from Darwinism”?
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