The post-truth world: clearing up confusion
by Abdu Murray
“Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.” This cleverly biting remark is sometimes attributed to atheist philosopher Victor Stenger and sometimes to vocal atheist scientist, Richard Dawkins. It’s an effective meme that perpetuates the culture’s current confusion that science is the opponent of faith and vice-versa. But it hardly qualifies as an in-depth understanding of the interaction of science and faith. It’s a bumper sticker at best and blatant mischaracterization at worst.
Science and faith are not enemies
The prevailing cultural view is that when religion has tried to force its way into the business of telling us about reality, it has been the enemy of science. We recall the lessons we learned in primary school about how the Catholic Church had imprisoned Galileo for trying to prove that the earth revolves around the sun for proof that religion has always been the enemy of science.
But this prevailing narrative pitting religion against science is wildly overstated. People of faith, particularly the Christian faith, have been at the forefront of scientific discoveries before and during the modern era. Christians founded the world’s most influential academic institutions. The giants of science were convinced that Christianity was true. Copernicus himself – whose theories Galileo championed – was a Christian man of faith. Scientific luminaries of both older and more recent vintages have been Christians: Tycho Brahe, Gregor Mendel, Johannes Kepler, Blaise Pascal, Robert Boyle, Michael Faraday, Francis Bacon, Louis Pasteur, James Maxwell, and the incomparable Isaac Newton to name a few. Contemporary thinkers and scientists credit their scientific drive and findings to their faith in the God of the Bible. Edward Larson and Larry Witham’s 1996 survey revealed that 40 percent of the working scientists they surveyed believe in a God who answers prayer. That significant number flies directly in the face of the commonly-held belief that almost no serious scientists believe in God.
The misunderstanding about science and faith stem from misunderstandings about both what science is and what faith is. Many believe that science is the sole way to discover truth. But science only helps us to explore the natural world. Thus, by definition, science isn’t equipped – or even meant – to study the non-physical world. Further, the belief that science is the sole means of discovering truth is unscientific. We cannot scientifically verify the claim that science is the sole way to know truth. And if that’s the case, then the whole claim is self-defeating. Science is a valuable tool for understanding the physical and natural world, but it is limited to that. Mistaking science’s keyhole for the panoramic window of reality keeps us from seeing the broader picture of existence.
Confusion about faith also helps to perpetuate the mistaken belief that religious faith is the enemy of science. The common view (even among Christians) is that faith is belief in the absence of evidence or even in the face of contradictory evidence. But such a view isn’t biblical.
In Hebrews 11:1, the Apostle Paul writes, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (ESV). The Greek word translated as faith is pistis, which means trust. Hebrews 11:3 then says, “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” In other words, faith is not blind. We see the evidence of the physical world around us, and this allows us to reasonably infer that it must have come from a nonphysical, unseeable source. And it is by faith – trust– that we understand God to be that source.
The fact is, everyone has a faith of some kind. Without it, life would be unlivable. If we only acted based on absolute certainty of knowledge, we could never actually do anything. When you drive to work, you don’t test your brakes to make certain that they won’t fail and plunge you into a fiery car wreck. You trust the brakes. But that trust isn’t blind. You have enough evidence that brakes tend not to fail without warning to warrant getting into your car without going through a multi-point inspection. Of course, we’ve all seen stories of brakes failing without warning. And yet we still get into our cars, thousands of times a year, putting our lives at risk based on our faith in auto parts. And when a person believes that science proves this or that theory, she has faith that the scientists who conducted the experiments or reported the findings did so competently and honestly. Faith is a part of every worldview.
I cannot speak for other religions, but biblical Christianity doesn’t discourage scientific discovery – it encourages it. Consider how God reacts to our discoveries:
“It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” (Prov. 25:2).
God has concealed things in this world so that we can experience the glory and delight of discovery. The glory of God in concealing things is His rejoicing over our discoveries just as a parent rejoices over a child’s learning. God has made the enormous, mysterious universe as a playground of discovery so that we can marvel at the very mind of God. The confused, false dichotomy between science and faith melts away and the majesty of God comes into focus.
Abdu Murray is the North American Director with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and the author of three books, including his latest, Saving Truth: Finding Meaning and Clarity in a Post-Truth World.