January 10, 2021
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
I HAVE A FRIEND WHO BELIEVES SCIENCE DISPROVES FAITH
Psalm 8, Genesis 1:1-3
The first in a series of four.
I think we know the routine. There’s a subject that’s a little uncomfortable for us to ask about. But we’re curious. We want to talk about it. We want to hear what someone else has to say about it. But we really don’t want to admit that we are the one who cares enough to ask. So rather than ask directly, we say, “I have a friend . . . ”
Maybe we really do have a friend we are asking for. More likely, we are the friend. We are the one who wants to know.
Today we start a series about some hard questions that your friends are probably asking. And maybe you are asking them, too. In fact, I chose these specific questions because I think they are on all of our minds. Or they should be. The question for today is, “Does science disprove faith?”
That’s a big question, so I’m going to break it down into smaller questions. Five smaller questions that are actually pretty big questions in themselves.
1) Is science the only reliable way to know things? Science is a reliable way to know things. The scientific method has been around for about 400 years now. It has stood the test of time. Here’s the scientific method: 1) We make observations, 2) we suggest a hypothesis to account for these observations, 3) we run experiments to test the hypothesis, 4) we make predictions that should be true if the hypothesis is true, 5) we run more experiments to test those predictions, 6) we develop a theory that accounts for what we have learned, and 7) this theory is always tentative and never final as we continue to apply the scientific method.
There is so much we know today that we could never have known without the scientific method. The advances we have seen and continue to see because of science are truly amazing. Science is a reliable way to know things. But it’s not the only reliable way.
Is anyone familiar with the word “scientism”? When you put an “ism” on the end of a word usually turns it into something bad. And that is true of scientism. Scientism is the belief that science is king and we can know nothing of any value apart from the scientific method.
Let’s see if you believe scientism. Do you think it is possible to know the difference between right and wrong? Do you think it is possible to feel something in your heart that you know is true but it could never be tested scientifically? Do you think it is possible to know things that are true about God and about the spiritual realm? If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, you do not believe in scientism. But you can, and I hope you do believe in science.
John Polkinghorne is a Cambridge physicist and also an Anglican priest. I got this from him. Imagine someone asking the question, “Why is water boiling in that kettle?” You could say, “Because burning gas is heating the water”, and that would be true. You could also say, “Because I want a cup of tea.” That would be equally true.
Science does really well in getting to the truth about physical things. Things we can see and touch and measure. Science does not do as well with human things. Things of the heart. Pascal was a Christian who was also a scientist. He said, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”
2) Has science proven that the universe operates by random chance? A lot of people think so. Including a lot of very smart people.
Richard Feynman, for example. He was a famous quantum physicist who said:
All things are made of atoms and everything we do can be understood in terms of the jigglings and wigglings of atoms.
Carl Sagan is a name you might be more likely to recognize. He was a famous astronomer. Here is one of his better known statements:
We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are more galaxies than people.
Both these men were atheists. They didn’t believe in God. They believed the universe operates by random chance. But how did they know this? Not by the scientific method. You can’t prove that God does or does not exist by the scientific method. It’s one of those things you know in other ways.
Carl Sagan’s statement reveals his bias. He used several loaded terms. Insignificant. Humdrum. Lost. Tucked away. Forgotten. Those aren’t objective scientific terms. They are subjective terms of value. He’s made an unscientific conclusion that in a universe as big and as old as we know ours is, creatures as small and as short-lived as we are couldn’t possibly have any inherent dignity and worth. He has every right to believe that. And we have every right to believe something else, also on an unscientific basis.
The Psalmist looked at the same stars that Carl Sagan looked at. They’ve hardly changed in all these years. The Psalmist then offered this prayer to God:
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them or human beings that you care for them? Psalm 8:3-4
He’s having the same reaction Carl Sagan had. This universe is so big and we are so small. How can we possibly matter? But the Psalmist thinks it over, prays about it, and reaches the opposite conclusion: Yet, God, you have created human beings with glory and honor. You have crowned us with significance. You have given to us and us alone the huge responsibility of caring for God’s creation.
That’s why we know people are so important. We don’t know that on a scientific basis. We know it on a faith basis. Our children, our grandchildren, the precious children of this church which of course includes the precious children of Kid’s Stuff – we look at them and we see God’s amazing handiwork. We don’t see a blob of jiggling, wiggling atoms. We see sons and daughters of God. Because there is more to this universe than random chance.
3) Does the human longing for meaning and purpose tell us anything important? Kind of a leading question. Yes, the human longing for meaning and purpose does tell us a lot!
There’s a book out called The Science Delusion by Curtis White. He tells an interesting story about Jim Watson, the man who figured out DNA. A very smart man. Jim Watson was asked once, “What is the purpose of human life?” He basically said that there is no purpose but that we can adapt to that realization and get along just fine without any real sense of meaning or purpose.
Then Jim Watson did all this amazing work with DNA that put himself in line for a Nobel Prize. The book tells how much he wanted it and how hard he worked and fought and connived to get it. Curtis White says it’s as if Jim Watson believed that, “the earth is insignificant, people are transient, existence is random, life is meaningless, but I just won the Nobel Prize. Mom, look!”
And it’s not just meaning and purpose in our own lives that we crave. We can’t help but see it in creation as well. Helen and I have been following the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Now Mercury has joined those two, but they are low in the horizon and getting more difficult to see. Especially on cloudy nights which we’ve had plenty of. But on December 21 we had a crystal clear sky. That was the night Jupiter and Saturn almost touched. Here is a picture someone took. (See featured image.) Isn’t that incredible! And that’s just the night sky. There are also the mountains. And the ocean. And flowers. And trees. And waterfalls. And rainbows. The heavens are just one part of God’s awesome creation that is telling the glory of God.
I think we were all born with a sixth sense – a sense of wonder. When we see things we see not just with our eyes but also with this sense of wonder. Not just that something is, but that something is good. As God said when he was creating all this. “It is good . . . it is very good!” The human heart by nature is forever echoing those very words back to God.
C.S. Lewis said this:
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. . . If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
4) Haven’t science and religion always been at war? Yes, pretty much. The classic story is Galileo who was found guilty of heresy for teaching that the earth moves around the sun and not the other way around. There is a verse in the Bible that says, “God set the earth on its foundation and it cannot be moved” (Psalm 104:5), so Galileo must be wrong. If we use the Bible as a science textbook to refute what the scientific method has shown to be true, the war between science and religion will be never-ending.
But here is something a lot of people don’t know. Science began with people of faith. Of the 52 leading scientists in seventeenth century Europe where science as we know it today was just getting starting, 32 of them were devout believers, 18 of them were conventionally religious, and only 2 of the 52 were religious skeptics. And this was in an age where religious skepticism was very much in fashion.
Why so many believers? The rise of science required an assumption that the universe is orderly and therefore will reward rational investigation. If gravity works once in a while but not all the time, then it is pointless to search for the laws that govern gravity. But these early scientists believed that there is a rational, orderly, predictable God who is behind all things and that therefore scientific investigation is worth the effort.
5) Hasn’t evolution disproven Genesis? In other words, can you be a Christian and still believe in evolution?
A little boy came up to his dad and asked, “Dad, where did human beings come from?” His dad said, “Well, we descended from apes.” So he went to his mom. Same question. She said, “We were created by God in God’s image.” The boy said, “But Dad said we descended from apes.” The mom said, “Well, I was talking about my side of the family.”
Here’s what I think about evolution. I think it is one thing to believe in what we have learned by using the scientific method regarding genetic mutations and natural selection. To argue against this is about as futile as arguing against Galileo and insisting that the earth is the center of the universe. It is one thing to believe in evolution but it is another thing entirely to believe that because of evolution there is no longer any need to believe in God.
Here’s a passage from a book that was made into a movie, called Ready Player One:
I wish someone had told me the truth right up front, as soon as I was old enough to understand it. I wish someone had said: “Here’s the deal, Wade. You’re something called a ‘human being.’ That’s a really smart kind of animal. Like every other animal on this planet, we’re descended from a single-celled organism that lived millions of years ago. This happened by a process called evolution, and you’ll learn more about it later. But trust me, that’s really how we all got here. There’s proof of it everywhere, buried in the rocks. That story you heard? About how we were all created by a super-powerful dude named God who lives up in the sky? Total BS. The whole God thing is actually an ancient fairy tale that people have been telling one another for thousands of years. We made it all up. Like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Oh, and by the way . . . there’s no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny. Also BS. Sorry, kid. Deal with it.” (pages 16 & 17)
Can you be a Christian and still believe in evolution? Yes, you can. But as this passage illustrates, you can also believe in evolution and use your belief in evolution to close the door on God. A lot of people have done that. Christians need to be a strong, clear, confident voice saying science, even evolutionary science, does not disprove faith.
But here’s what we don’t want to do. We don’t want to make up our own alternative science and fight tooth and nail conclusions that have been well tested by the scientific method.
In certain Christian circles, I have seen bad science masquerading as Christianity. I have seen well-meaning followers of Jesus working very hard to defend the Bible and ending up defending a questionable interpretation of the Bible. And then young Christians who have been raised on this go off to college and take a biology class and think they have to choose now between what they were taught in church and what the professor is teaching them. They think it’s a choice between the Bible and the truth.
That’s a false choice. The Bible is truth. So is science. You don’t have to choose one and reject the other. The Bible gets at truth in one way, science gets at truth in another way. But it’s the same truth.
And whether we are studying our Bibles or pursuing the scientific method, we have a lot to learn. There are frontiers to explore and to push back. Beyond those frontiers there is mystery. There always has been. There always will be. We don’t have all the answers, in faith or in science. So we need to be humble. And we need to be relentless. And we need to work together.
An astrophysicist named Robert Jastrow wrote the book, God and the Astronomers. The last paragraph of his book works pretty well as the last paragraph of this sermon.
At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.
Creator God, you who created the heavens and the earth, you who created each one of us, humbly we bow in awe and wonder at your handiwork. Thank you for minds that can take us so far in unlocking your secrets. And thank you for spirits that are able to know you and love you, which is so much more important. In Jesus’ name, Amen.