Rock’Em Sock’Em Science


I feel a lecture coming on… Run away while you still can.

Recently, I was browsing a debate on Facebook about the place of Darwin’s theory of evolution within the Christian paradigm.  One final thought on the matter (and I’m  paraphrasing) was by a colleague named Rod White, who said “Well, Christianity has been around for 2000 years. Let’s see how science stands up 2000 years from now.”

It immediately struck me as an odd proposition, that Christianity and Science are like those Rock’em Sock’em boxers I played with as children.

In this ring... Christianity Vs. Science...

Remember these? No? Well good. You shouldn’t have been playing with violent toys like these, and cap pistols and GI Joes. I played with them all, and look how I turned out.

At any rate, the idea that Christianity and Science are mutually incompatible ideas really, really bothered me.  I’m not saying Rod meant this, by the way.  He probably didn’t. But that’s the thought that stayed with me after reading, and something I feel I can contribute a thousand words about.  I’ll spend the rest of this blog trying to explain why.

As usual, I’ll admit at the outset that I’m no scientist. I work for a science agency, and work among geologists. I’ve seen such tee shirts as “Geologists don’t have to take schist from anyone, but they do.” and “Petrologists do it gneiss.” So, nerds like me. What I know about science, a squirrel could carry around in a thimble. Thank God– I couldn’t afford to wear those lame tee shirts.

But, that said, I understand how scientists think, or how a person does science. It’s quite easy, and we do it every day. It’s a constant flow of predicting, testing, and reporting. My son is a good example of this.  He likes to bake bread.  One day, he thought “If I get a large loaf of bread with two teaspoons of yeast, what if i put SIX teaspoons of yeast in this bread? The bread should be ENORMOUS then!” (Predicting)  So he did.  (We’re rather lax about kitchen experiments).  If you’ve cooked bread, you know what happens if you measure out too much yeast.  It looks great until it comes time to actually cook.  It rises and rises and rises and… falls flat, stonelike in texture (and flavor), and has a big dent in the middle, like a giant’s footprint.  It happened to him, just like that (Testing). Next thing I know, he’s abashedly walking up to me, and says, “Dad! My bread SUCKS!” (Reporting)  Then I made him clean the kitchen and eat his nasty bread himself.  That’s the fourth step in the Scientific Method I guess–living with the consequences…

The point I’m getting across is: science isn’t some monolithic red beast out to get Christianity and knock its blue plastic head into the sky.  It’s just a systematic way of thinking about questions of the known universe. Scientists are quite happy to admit they’re wrong; in fact, some see each failure as a small victory–one more thing to cross off the list. So, science is predictive, not prescriptive. Everything is up for grabs, and nothing is to sacred to test.

Christianity, or religion in general, approaches the world with postulates, but assumes some may be inviolable. Usually they touch entirely different parts of the universe.  Religion governs the soul, while science visualizes the earth. Where they come into conflict is when Holy Writ disagrees with the observable universe. The biggie for the last 180 years is the idea of evolution, and the 6-day Christian narrative of creation (Genesis chapters 1-3, in the Judeo-Christian Bible, in case you wanted to read about it). Cosmologists put the birth of the universe at–just heard this somewhere–5.7 billion years ago, maybe? Going by the genealogies provided in the Bible elsewhere, and birth dates, the world was created roughly 6,000 years ago. Thus, we occasionally hear Doomsday folk using their scriptures to predict The End (in all-caps). Or debating the existence of dinosaurs, or… You’ve all heard the arguments.

But Scientific Method is just thinking and predicting, which, in my not-very-informed opinion, is a perfectly acceptable way to use our minds. Religious minds as well.  I wouldn’t be so stupid as to say you don’t use your mind if you don’t agree with me; in fact, it takes considerably MORE brain power (and far more struggling) to find justification, if you have a religious foundation upon which you build your science. It’s easy to build a straw man, and attack it. It’s much harder to confront the real issues, which are usually why the straw man had to be built in the first place.

Yet, the two can and should coexist in a friendly tension. It doesn’t ultimately affect your life if the world is 6,000 or 6,000,000,000 years old. It doesn’t matter if the dinosaurs existed.  It is more painful to be called wrong than to be wrong.  I blogged recently about the “Wrongologist,” Kathryn Schulz. She notes that a huge problem with the world is when we’re wrong, we feel exactly the same way as when we’re right. Finding out you’re wrong, on the other hand, is obnoxious, embarrassing, and perhaps even debilitating. But we all do it. We all get something wrong. Nobody–neither scientists, nor theologians–like to admit wrongness, although scientists should be better at it, seeing as it’s their stock in trade.

I’m going off track here. My point is this:  don’t count science as a coordinated beast to destroy Christianity. If Christianity is supposed to stand (as I believe it is), then it shouldn’t have any problem weathering “attacks” by science. Shouldn’t it? The pieces that don’t–well, maybe they weren’t all that important to the Faith to begin with. Just my opinions.

Oh. I also had an Evel Knievel action figure, motorcycle and launch stand, and the accompanying Snake River Jump lunch pail.

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4 thoughts on “Rock’Em Sock’Em Science”

  1. Since Brian knows this, and so do frequent readers of his blog and my comments know…I am not a Christian, nor any other religionist of any kind (yeah, it’s not a word, deal with it.)

    So if you get offended, be forewarned – I’m not nice.

    When I was growing up, my father (a pentecostal minister – ’nuff said) insisted that dinosaurs never existed and that the bones found were put there by Satan to test our faith. Oi vey! Really?

    I have always found it to be totally ridiculous to believe everything written in a book that was written several centuries AFTER the events and trust it implicitly when there is no empirical proof – yet solid, provable bones are all fakes?

    Sorry, but logic and science trumps out mythology every time in my life. Mistakes in science happen, I can admit that. To put it politely “feces transpires” in science and we get over it, correct it and move on. Why is it that Christians (or more likely Paulists since they ignore Christ and latch on to that lunatic Paul’s words) can’t ever admit that the “Bible” is just a collection of stories written by people with their own agenda? Or that they, as humans, might be wrong now and again?

    No one has all of the answers, but at least science tries logic to the unknowns instead of blind belief.

    *end rant – you can go back to your “faith” now and bury your head in the sand.*

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    1. Out of curiosity, Mikhail, why do you consider Paul to be a lunatic? On the whole, if I were to compare Paul and Jesus as mere humans, I’d come to the conclusion that Paul was significantly more sane than Jesus. Paul rarely if ever talks about hell; Jesus talked about it all the time. Jesus encouraged people to cut their nuts and hands off and rip their eyes out; Paul mildly suggested, “If you have trouble with temptation, get married.” Paul said, “Obey the authorities,” while Jesus said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Paul never said anything remotely approaching the staggering hubris of “Nobody comes to the father except through me.” The phrase “Jesus meek and mild” seems astonishingly wrongheaded: but there’s a great deal to be said for “Paul meek and mild”.

      And of course, there’s a reason for that. Simply seen as a human being, Jesus was a wild-eyed apocalyptic preacher, a close cousin to John the Baptist, and maybe half a step from the ascetical Qumran schismatics. He had no organization to speak of, and never bothered to make his message relevant or liveable for any audience greater than a few close followers. Paul, in contrast, was the great popularizer, the one who figured out how to make the message of an executed rabble-rouser from Galilee relevant and indeed compelling to the entire Roman empire. You’d expect Jesus to be wild and strange and fanatical; and you’d expect Paul (by contrast at least) to be rational, accommodating, and, well, normal. And in fact, I think that’s what we do find.

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  2. Your point about science not being a monolithic beast is well taken. There’s been a lot of work done in philosophy of science in the 20th and 21st centuries, and the gist of it is that science isn’t *quite* as reliable as maybe we once hoped. Science is, of course, run by scientists, who are (last I checked) generally human beings; and more precisely, fallen human beings. They’re not perfect, any more than theologians are, of either the fundamentalist or liberal stripe. And of course, many experiments are decidedly imperfect as well (see http://xkcd.com/882/), and the mainstream press is decidedly bad at assessing the significance of experimental results.

    That said, I think science has a better (though not perfect) feedback mechanism. If a particular school of theology is entirely wrongheaded, it’s quite possible that no amount of argument and debate will ever convince its followers to change their mind: hence, after thousands of years, we still have Protestants vs. Catholics vs. Orthodox. (Though we also have the counter-examples of the Arians, the Pelagians, and the Manichees.) But if a particular scientific school of thought is wrong, over time, enough evidence accumulates that eventually the scientists who continue holding to their incorrect beliefs get more-and-more marginalized. They might still have their own journal, but fewer and fewer people will read their articles, and fewer interesting experiments will get done.

    In other words, I’m not in a hurry to be ahead of science. I don’t think that scientists are always right. And I’m not completely convinced that scientists are in a hurry to change their minds when they’re wrong. But on the whole, the evidence backs the theory that generally accepted conclusions in science are reliable enough for practical purposes.

    And of course, this is why I accept both evolution and anthropogenic global warming, despite a minority of scientists who dispute both.

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  3. I think of George Washington Carver and his discovery of all the things the mighty peanut could do. There’s room for Christian scientists and every other kind, too. Discoveries and inventions enrich us all.

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