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Scientific Wonder: Religion and Science in Conversation

Benjamin Barnhart

On February 4, 2014, a debate was broadcast over YouTube, between Bill Nye, of the popular show Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis, a young earth creationist organization. The topic of discussion was none other than the age of the universe. Ken Ham, armed with passages from the Christian Bible, interpreted the results of some scientific studies largely in efforts to refute the points made by Bill Nye, who was concerned mainly with the Earth’s geology. All in all, the finer points of the debate were lost amidst the speculations as to which—science or religion—would “win” in the end.

The word “win” is in quotes above because in one sense, the purpose of this paper is to argue that they need not compete. In another sense, however, science and religion have actually been fighting the greatest heavyweight match in human history. One year before the Nye/Ham debate, Neil DeGrasse Tyson said, “Science is a philosophy of discovery. Intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance.”[ii] As harsh as his language may be toward religion, it stands as an artistic portrayal of the apparent controversy. The universe demands an explanation. At the point where humankind begins to examine the world around him, he must begin to employ one of these ways of thinking and being, science or religion, however many forms and shapes it may take. This is one way in which Tyson is mistaken. Neither science nor religion is a mere philosophy. They are practices that shape themselves more like Heidegger’s ways-of-being-in-the-world, meaning they become embodied in our entire existence. As Stephen J. Gould so well explained, science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria.”[iii] (More on “non-overlapping” later.) They are authoritative philosophies wrapped in attitudes, prejudices, and passions that rule a person’s whole existence, rather than just her intellectual life. The struggle appears when it seems a choice exists between ignorance and discovery, between wonder and research, awe and determination.

I choose to use words such as ‘wonder’ and ‘awe’ because these are theologically charged. Worship, the very heart of religion, is not simply a lack, a “not-knowing”. It is pure awe, a state of mysterious reverence, profound, and emotional wonder. Though ‘ignorance’ does indeed describe the human condition in the face of the infinite, it does not tell the whole story. In fact, the difference between ignorance and wonder is where lies the real story of science and religion. Contrary to how science sees religion on the spectrum between ignorance and apathy, religion travels to meet science in the determination of discovery through wonder. Put simply, science and religion share a philosophy of curiosity and wonder.

Wonder is a philosophy of both religion and science, for, as was stated earlier, religion and science supersede the categorization of philosophy. Wonder transforms the practice that it accompanies into a worshipful art. Through wonder, science is transformed from an adversarial conquest of knowledge against Nature into the humble art of uncovering Truth. Because this art is undertaken for its own sake, science appears to be a form of worshipping Truth. Religion, for its part, is prompted by wonder to be a self-giving service to God, humanity and the rest of creation. Here we see more similarities exist between religion and science. Wonder both humbles and motivates the wonder-struck. And what is the object of this wonder? In both science and religion, wonder is found to worship truth, whether it be found in God or in nature.

In an article of Theology and Science, David H. Glass and Mark McCartney elaborate on the definition of the argument that they see as most pervasive in atheistic thought, that of “explaining away.”[iv] By “explaining away” Glass and McCartney mean to address the idea that if science can describe the universe from its very beginning, and through all its inner workings, then there is no reason to also resort to describing God as the reason for the universe. If science explains away the need for God, this means that God and science are redundant hypotheses. If we can always use science to explain the universe, then there is no need for God.

However, for Glass and McCartney, this is not necessarily the case. Although they admit that evolution does speak much to the effect that human beings are not the result of a guided process, they conclude that the most science can explain away is the biological design argument. They write, “While aspects of the arguments could certainly be disputed, it should be clear that there is no easy way to move from ‘science explains’ to ‘science explains away God.’” This is predominantly because, while there is some disputable credence to the redundancy of what is explained by God and Science, there is not necessarily incompatibility between them.

While this is true, I would like to go a step further. If science and religion seem to explain the same universe, then there must be some significant common ground. But so often they seem to be describing different universes. Holy books say many things that, when taken literally, contradict natural science. Steven Pinker even posits that science can explain the evolutionary origins belief in god, morality, and other religious ideas. But all holy books are in the process of constantly being interpreted and reinterpreted, and science can only seek explanations, not proofs, about the metaphysical. Thus, it comes to be seen that these “non-overlapping magisteria,” mutually inform each other. Science provides empirical insight about the natural world, while religion imparts metaphysical wisdom about spiritual reality. This is why Gould says they are “non-overlapping.” Science describes aspects of that universe to which religion is all but blind to, and vice versa. Humankind’s searching for personal, communal and universal fulfillment in God is mimicked in the pursuit of scientific truth. Similarly, the ever-evolving, discovery-driven struggle to observe and describe the physical reality that is Science is ultimately justified by the wisdom and the love of God.

 

Sources:

“Watch the Creationism Vs. Evolution Debate: Ken Ham and Bill Nye,” on NPR News, published February 4th, 2014. Retrieved February 5th, 2014. <http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/02/04/271648691/watch-the-creationism-vs-evolution-debate-bill-nye-and-ken-ham>

[ii] deGrasse Tyson, Neil. Death by black hole: And other cosmic quandaries. WW Norton & Company, 2007.

[iii] Gould, Stephen Jay. “Nonoverlapping magisteria.” Natural history 106, no. 2 (1997): 16-22.

[iv] Glass, David H., and Mark McCartney. “Explaining and Explaining Away in Science and Religion.” Theology and Science 12, no. 4 (2014): 338-361.