Posts Tagged ‘Ken Ham’

How Methodists deal with questions of science and the Bible

March 9, 2018

I’m a member of a theologically conservative United Methodist group on Facebook. Yesterday, a member of the group, perhaps a student in seminary, said he was uncomfortable with the idea that Genesis 1–11 should be viewed as a “true myth.” Everyone in the group shared his discomfort, although there was little consensus on the extent to which these chapters report literal history. Notice I said “the extent to which”: no one denied that they were historical to some extent.

One frustrated member, a layperson, asked the following:

So, what’s an impressionable, non-seminary educated lay person and new Christian like myself to do? How do I explain this to non-believers?

I replied as follows (emphasis added):

You should hold fast to the complete truthfulness of Genesis 1-11 and be open to ways in which Christians of good faith interpret these events (i.e., “Does the text itself allow for a more figurative interpretation of some or all of these events?”), yet utterly reject any interpretation that says, in so many words, “The Bible got it wrong.”

Be charitable toward brothers and sisters who disagree with your position, wherever you land on the question.

Don’t be overly impressed with the latest scientific theory, whatever it may be. It will be overturned by some later theory. This happens all the time in science. When it comes to questions of origins, there is often a lot speculation and guesswork based on little hard evidence. I believe, by contrast, that the Spirit inspired the Bible’s authors to write in such a way that the Bible’s truthful accounts could be understood by people of all times and in all places. That’s part of its genius.

An abstract thing called “science” doesn’t “say” anything, despite what’s usually reported in the media. Nearly everything we think we know within the realm of science is contested by specialists all the time.

Most of what most people know about evolution and cosmology they learned in a ninth- or tenth-grade textbook: which is to say, they know next to nothing, personally, about these things—including the most stridently skeptical voices speaking against the historicity of the Bible’s early chapters. Nearly everyone “takes on faith” that evolution, for example, happened in a particular way. Ken Ham, to his credit, the most stubbornly “young earth” of young earth creationists, knows far more about evolution and cosmology than the vast majority of people who disagree with and vilify him.

Also, for people who do interpret these chapters more figuratively, please concede that there’s no harm whatsoever in interpreting them more literally.

I should have known that even mentioning a polarizing “young earth creationist” like Ken Ham would distract people from my point. Someone said Ham was “uncredentialed,” as was Billy Nye (“the Science Guy”), the engineer and TV personality who debated him several years ago. Neither person, according to a commenter, was qualified to debate scientific issues pertaining to the origins of the universe or human beings. I disagreed, saying, Read the rest of this entry »

Debating God and science

February 6, 2014

In the wake of Tuesday night’s debate between Bill Nye “the Science Guy” and young-earth creationist Ken Ham, I noticed many of my clergy colleagues on social media linked to our United Methodist Church’s position on science and faith:

¶ 160 F) Science and Technology —We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world. We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world and in determining what is scientific. We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues and theology from making authoritative claims about scientific issues. We find that science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology. We recognize medical, technical, and scientific technologies as legitimate uses of God’s natural world when such use enhances human life and enables all of God’s children to develop their God-given creative potential without violating our ethical convictions about the relationship of humanity to the natural world. We reexamine our ethical convictions as our understanding of the natural world increases. We find that as science expands human understanding of the natural world, our understanding of the mysteries of God’s creation and word are enhanced.

In acknowledging the important roles of science and technology, however, we also believe that theological understandings of human experience are crucial to a full understanding of the place of humanity in the universe. Science and theology are complementary rather than mutually incompatible. We therefore encourage dialogue between the scientific and theological communities and seek the kind of participation that will enable humanity to sustain life on earth and, by God’s grace, increase the quality of our common lives together.

While I agree with much of this statement in principle, in practice “science,” as popularly understood and debated, often makes claims that far exceed its authority. I suspect that every time a new Gallup survey shows that nearly half of Americans don’t believe in evolution, Americans are rightly reacting against these claims. Heck, I don’t believe in evolution if one consequence of doing so means accepting the philosophical materialism that says, in so many words, “See… we don’t need God to explain anything that happens in the natural world.”

Many of us mainline Protestants have swallowed this lie—that any appeal to God for something so prosaic as explanations is resorting to the dreaded “God of the gaps.” Don’t we Christians know that science is rapidly filling those gaps, and once science has figured everything out, what room will be left for faith? So liberal Christians—going all the way back to the “father of liberal Christianity,” Friedrich Schleiermacher—insulate themselves from this fearful prospect by saying, “God is over here in this non-overlapping compartment, science is over there in that non-overlapping compartment—now can’t we all just get along?”

Needless to say, I believe we’ve ceded way too much ground to science.

First, it’s understandable that science has been successful in describing our natural world without resorting to God, because science rules out God before it begins its work. William Lane Craig explains this nicely in this podcast on creation and evolution:

Science seeks only natural causes of the phenomena in the world. It is part of the methodology of science to simply look for natural causes of the phenomena that it investigates. Therefore, supernatural explanations of phenomena would simply be methodologically excluded from the pool of live explanatory options. So, if we had a body of empirical data to be explained, the natural scientist will assemble a pool of live explanatory options to choose from and methodologically he would include in this pool of live explanatory options only hypotheses that are appealing to purely natural causes. That is not to say that there are not non-natural or supernatural entities that exist that might provide other sorts of explanations but simply that methodologically these don’t enter into the project of science. The project of science is to find the best natural explanation of the phenomena that it seeks to explain. So these supernaturalistic hypotheses wouldn’t even come into consideration – they are not even in the pool of live explanatory options. This would hold for the Christian scientist as well. The Christian scientist must be methodologically restricted to naturalistic explanations.

There is an important difference, Craig argues, between this “methodological naturalism,” which constrains scientific inquiry to consider only natural causes, and “epistemological naturalism,” which says natural causes are all there are. By all means, as the Methodist position says, scientific descriptions of the universe, constrained as they are by methodological naturalism, aren’t in conflict with theology. I hasten to add, however, that scientific descriptions, by their nature, will always be inadequate to describe reality.

Craig says that many scientists justify their epistemological naturalism by appealing to science’s “success” at describing reality. In other words, as Hawking and Dawkins have both said, science is so good at describing reality that we don’t need to resort to anything else—be it philosophy or theology.

About this, Craig writes:

What I would say to that is that that goes no distance whatsoever in showing that science is the only source of knowledge and truth. What it does is show that natural science is the best way of discovering truth about the physical world. It is what will give us knowledge of the physical world. But to say that, therefore, there are no ethical truths, there are no aesthetic truths, there are no mathematical or logical truths, and there are no metaphysical truths (like that the past has existed longer than 5 minutes or that the external world is real) would be, I think, an overly restricted theory of truth and knowledge. We can know things even though they can’t be scientifically proven. And, indeed, this kind of epistemological naturalism would actually undermine science itself because science is, itself, permeated by assumptions that cannot be scientifically proven. So if you adopt this view, it would in fact undermine the very project of science.

Craig describes the presumptuousness of epistemological naturalism using this nice analogy:

The philosopher Ed Feser gives a wonderful analogy.[7] He says imagine you have a metal detector which is so calibrated that it will detect anything metal – it is so infallible that it is the best metal detector you could find. He asks, “Would that prove that there are no non-metallic objects? That the only things that exists are metallic things?” Well, obviously not. And that is exactly the same error that the epistemological naturalist is making. Because his metal detector, so to speak, is so good and so efficient at discovering empirical physical truth he concludes there is no other kind of truth and that there is no other source of knowledge. That is as silly as the person who thinks the metal detector would show there are no non-metallic objects. That would be epistemological naturalism.

Besides—and this is my second point—science doesn’t come close to “filling the gaps” for which supposedly weak-minded Christians appeal to God. This was a central theme of that David Berlinski book I blogged about: scientists, along with everyone else, ought to be very humble about what we think we know about our universe. Contrary to popular belief, we simply don’t know much.

One gap that science can’t explain, for example, is why the universe appears finely tuned to support life. As Craig explains in this podcast:

Earlier in discussing the fine-tuning of the universe, we saw that in order for life to exist anywhere in the universe there has to be these exquisitely finely tuned constants and quantities present in the Big Bang as initial conditions. These initial conditions are required for the existence and evolution of life anywhere in the cosmos. In the absence of the fine-tuning of these initial conditions, there would not even be galaxies, there wouldn’t be stars, there wouldn’t be planets where life could evolve and exist!

Any explanation for fine tuning that people like Stephen Hawking put forward in the name of science is metaphysical—which is beyond the realm of science to know. As our Methodist statement says, “We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues.”

As Craig argues, however, even a finely tuned universe necessary to support life—however improbable that is—isn’t sufficient for explaining life.

These are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the existence and evolution of life. In order for life to originate somewhere in the universe, other conditions have to be in place and these also turn out to be astronomically improbable.

If you are like me, you were probably taught in high school or in grade school that the way that life originated on earth is through chemical interactions in the so-called “primordial soup.” Chance chemical reactions in the early oceans, perhaps fueled by lightning strikes, originated living organisms. Back in the 1950s, a graduate student named Stanley Miller was able to synthesize amino acids in the laboratory by passing electric sparks through a methane gas in one of his experimental apparatuses in the laboratory. He was able to obtain amino acids by electrical charges passed through the methane gas. Now, amino acids aren’t alive but proteins are made out of amino acids and proteins are found in living things and so the hope was that somehow the origin of life might be explained on the basis of these chemical reactions. You might be saying to yourself that that seems like a pretty big extrapolation – he was able to get amino acids, amino acids make up proteins, proteins are found in living things, therefore living things can be explained through chemical evolution. I would agree with you – I think that is a pretty big extrapolation and is really something that goes so far beyond the evidence as to be a non sequitur. But, nevertheless, that is what most of us were taught, right? In the primordial soup that covered the earth, in the warm oceans or else perhaps in pools that were isolated, through lightning strikes and chemical reactions, somehow primitive life was birthed and formed.

What you may not know is that all of these old chemical origin of life scenarios have broken down and are now widely rejected by the scientific community.

The bottom line is, “science,” as it’s popularly understood, overpromises and under-delivers. While science is good at explaining what it can explain, that leaves out way too much reality. Re-insert God into the mix, and things make much more sense.