Good Questions: Is Science the friend or enemy of religion?

Reflections from Dr. Howell

When I was a young man, I overheard plenty of contention among Christians about whether the Bible and science could fit together. A handful of semi-credentialed scientists resifted the evidence to “prove Genesis.” Many more tossed faith in the trash can as embarrassingly out of sync with simple facts.

More interesting questions have emerged lately. Can science explain everything – including spirituality? And so are we really just complex organisms, and there isn’t any mystical dimension? And then, progressives plant yard signs including the quip, “Science is real,” jittery over climate change and the politicization of global warming. Is there a Christian slant on science and public policy?

Is science the enemy or friend of faith? Depends on what we mean by faith. If it’s a narrow biblicism, shunning anything not explicitly in the literal Scriptures, then maybe science threatens. But if faith is a reverence before the wonder of God and the things of God, being caught up in something far beyond what we can manage, then science is faith’s best friend. The best preaching on TV has never been the televangelists, but the likes of Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye the Science Guy, tour guides of the universe, docents in the museum of all that is, gently exploding shrunken ideas of what is, blowing our minds with novae and nebulae, subatomic particles and the speed of light, a string of zeroes after every number.

Now we have the James Webb telescope, through which we see tony pinpricks of light, each one a galaxy that’s been waiting billions of years for us to notice. A physicist and neighbor of mine used to call in the wee hours, urging me to wrestle my children out of bed to peer through his telescope at the moons of Saturn or some other celestial marvel. He told me it made him feel at home in the universe.

We’re all blessed by the naturalists who miraculously find words for what’s in and on the ground, buzzing about in the air, out in the woods, under the water. Richard Dawkins, on a ferocious quest to debunk religion, still makes me smile as an eye-opening guide to the wonders of the world. Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is my personal favorite. She graces us by having spent much time paying attention out there, and then finding lovely words: “Look at the horsehair worm, a yard long and thin as a thread, whipping through the duck pond. Look at a turtle under ice breathing through its pumping cloaca. Look at the fruit of the osage orange tree, big as a grapefruit, green, convoluted as any human brain. Look, in short, at practically anything – the coot’s feet, the mantis’s face, a banana, the human ear – and see that not only did the creator create everything, but that he is apt to create anything. He’ll stop at nothing. There is no one standing over evolution with a blue pencil to say ‘Not that one, there, is absolutely ridiculous, and I won’t have it.’”

Her consistent, alluring counsel? After watching a mockingbird swooping downward, she compares his free fall to “the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” Later she adds, “I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.” Ours is simply to notice. I want to add “and to praise God,” but I wonder: isn’t it the case that God is actually praised when anyone’s jaw drops when a flower or cloud or a horse standing out in a field is noticed, and admired, or analyzed by a scientist, even if God is not explicitly named by the one doing the noticing and studying?

Fitting to ponder this on the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, the master of noticing, putting himself in the beam, adoring the author of it all. On Thursday we’ll explore why the Bible would cram 15 billion years into just 6 days…