Are Religion and Science Compatible?

Are Religion and Science Compatible?

Scientific instruments with a light pink background

Recently, I wrote a post about how science and Christianity could be compatible – despite what certain anti-vax churches might tell you – using some quotes from John Lennox to help.

In this post, I’m going to go one step further. I’m going to discuss the important role our Christian faith can play if we as Christians cooperate with science.

The Tower of Babel and Science

In the story of the tower of Babel, we see humans behaving rather familiarly – to those of us also watching modern scientific pursuits, at least. We see a group of people who, like the space agencies of the 1960s or Elon Musk with SpaceX, wanted to make realms accessible to humans that previously weren’t.

They wanted to build a tower with ‘its top in the heavens’ and make a name for themselves over all the earth in the process.

And yet, God put a stop to it. He made it so that they couldn’t understand each other’s speech and, in doing so, created all kinds of confusion which prevented them from being able to continue their work.

Are Religion and Science Compatible: Answers from the Tower of Babel

Why did God see such a threat in the construction of the tower of Babel?

And why did He intervene and confuse their efforts in this way?

Genesis 11:6 suggests that it was because He saw how powerful humans were getting: ‘nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.’

Nowadays, reading this passage in the 21st century, these words have certainly been confirmed. Modern science has made endless things possible that previously were unimaginable.

Who would’ve ever thought that humans would be capable of cooking up a strange concoction that could halt the progress of a worldwide pandemic?

Who would’ve ever thought that humans could conjure up this mysterious, airy world of the internet through portals we carry around in our pockets?

It’s extraordinary. It’s wonderful. But it’s also … well, just a bit terrifying.

At this point in Genesis, we’ve already seen the evil humans are capable of with even the slightest slither of power.

God has sent out His judgement on humanity for the things that they’ve done once already, through the great flood. He knows all about the ‘wickedness’ of humans. He knows that: ‘every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.’

It was true then and it’s true now. The more power humans have at their fingertips, the greater the potential evil they can commit.

And it’s not just Christians who can see this threat.

Oxford University has started a department for the interdisciplinary study of the humanities with artificial intelligence, for precisely that reason.

We’re in such unknown territory with artificial intelligence that many have recognised that we need Philosophers, Historians, and other people from the humanities to come alongside those who are at the cutting edge of this technology. We need them to have conversations together about the ethical implications of these new developments – what it means for the societies we’re building through these innovations.

Ethics and Science

These concerns might seem strange to you if you’ve never thought of science and ethics being linked.

Surely science has nothing to do with what’s right and wrong and messy moral questions like that? Surely science is about the objective things in life – facts, evidence, and so on?

It turns out, not quite so. While the scientific method is objective, the way humans use science is anything but.

I’ve definitely felt the truth of that here in Colombia during the pandemic. I’ve seen how political and economic factors have affected the UK government’s ‘science-based’ decisions over which countries are on their ‘red’, ‘amber’ and ‘green’ travel lists, for example.

Colombia has been particularly bizarrely treated by the UK government’s decisions – to the point that The Independent wrote an article asking whether there was a conspiracy against Colombia.

At one point, the UK government didn’t acknowledge Colombian-government-issued vaccination certificates. This essentially meant that were I to have travelled back to the UK I would have had to quarantine for ten days while somebody with a vaccination certificate from the USA who had got exactly the same vaccine as me (Moderna) wouldn’t have.

Either the UK government was saying that Moderna vaccines are only effective when administered in certain countries, or some non-scientific factors had mixed into their decision-making process.

George Macdonald and Whether Religion and Science are Compatible

George Macdonald (a Scottish Christian author who influenced C.S. Lewis) could see the dangers of science being led by the wrong forces. He could see the messy alliances being formed in his day between science and a deeply disturbing moral system through the emergence of ‘eugenics’.

He explores this through Thomas Wingfold, Curate, a novel I read for the first time recently.

In it, he presents a man named George Bascombe. He is a man of science and as such has some good qualities and bad qualities about him.

At first, his influence in the book is mostly positive. His passion for truth challenges the curate (who is the main character) and in doing so forces him to ‘wake up’ intellectually and finally investigate his faith seriously. As a result, the curate goes on a long journey of examining whether he really does believe the things he gets up to preach in church on a Sunday.

Nevertheless, there are some areas where he shows that the belief system springing up around the science of Macdonald’s day are incompatible with the beliefs of Christianity.

This incompatibility comes from the theory of evolution.

Are Religion and Science Compatible: The Evolution Debate

And I don’t mean the whole – ‘did we really come from monkeys?’ debate.

Instead, I mean how people in Macdonald’s day were interpreting the ethical implications of this theory.

For George Bascombe, this theory meant that physically stronger members of the human species were superior to weaker members.

Stronger members would pass their strong characteristics to their children and thereby strengthen the human species.

Weaker members, in turn, would weaken the species.

This kind of thinking had a racial component to it too. Some races were seen as superior to others and ‘scientific’ reasons based on examinations of people from different races were given to support this idea.

Eventually, Hitler would also be influenced by this kind of thinking and claim that the Aryan race was the most superior of them all – and we all know how that went.

The thing I love about Thomas Winfold, Curate, is that George Macdonald could immediately see how wrong this kind of thinking was from a Christian perspective.

He presents two disabled people in the story, an uncle and niece, who turn out to be the most kind-hearted and Godly people in the book.

George Bascombe looks on them both with disdain and the very sight of them makes him uncomfortable. Their physical weakness is offensive to him because they represent a threat to the survival of the species.

The curate on the other hand finds great wisdom in the pair of them and undergoes massive spiritual growth under the guidance of the uncle.

The point Macdonald makes is that, from the Christian perspective, we’re all broken, and our frail human bodies are part of that brokenness.

Moreover, far from our bodies determining our value to the human species, Jesus was much more concerned about other characteristics. He claimed that:

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

The state of our hearts, our relationship with God – these are the really important things to Christians.

Christians and Science.

And so, as Christians, we have something extremely important to offer the world of science.

We know that the state of the human heart is crucial in determining whether the power wielded by humans is used for good or for evil.

Through science, humans have an extraordinary power at their disposal.

We should, therefore, join the conversation around how we should use it – looking out for signs that unruly hearts might be leading scientific thoughts astray, as we do so.

And when we do, don’t expect the benefit all to be one way.

The curate’s confrontation with science had a two-way benefit. Science challenged him. He challenged science.

And through both facets of the confrontation, he grew closer to God.

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