A Review by Fisher Humphreys
Two leaders in the Center for Science and Religion at Samford University have written A Little Book for New Scientists (InterVarsity Press). Steve Donaldson is a computer scientist, and Josh Reeves is a specialist in the history and philosophy of science.
They wrote their book “to help Christians studying and practicing in the sciences to connect their vocation with their Christian faith.” Although addressed to Christians, it includes an occasional defense of the Christian faith against challenges that arise from modern science.
The authors unpack a popular metaphor in which nature and the Bible are understood as the two books of God. The metaphor of nature as a book goes back to Augustine, and the two-books metaphor was used explicitly in the medieval period, centuries before the rise of modern science.
“The two-books metaphor implies that apparent inconsistencies [between nature and the Bible] are the result of human misinterpretation rather than a fundamental disagreement,” the authors note. They address those apparent inconsistences by providing explicit information for interpreting the Bible, including that literal interpretations are not always to be preferred.
The authors point out that “there is a prominent story in our culture” about the relationship of science and Christian faith that says the two have always been in conflict and that science has triumphed, thereby overturning the superstitions of the pre-scientific world.
They write: “Fortunately for those who are both Christians and scientists, this conflict story is almost completely wrong.”
The conflict story ignores the fact that most leading thinkers of the scientific revolution were devout Christians, and it omits “the supportive role Christianity played in the emergence of science.”
Late in the 19th century two changes altered the relationship of science and religion: science became professionalized, and it became committed to methodological naturalism. Scientists look only for natural causes. The authors distinguish this methodological principle, which they endorse, from what they call “scientific naturalism or scientism,” the unwarranted claim that a naturalistic account of things is the whole story.
For example, scientism might claim that parents’ love for their children is nothing but blind chemical reactions in the brain. Scientism explains away the reasoning that informs scientific work.
I was surprised to learn that some people believe the scientific method instills intellectual honesty and intellectual humility so effectively that scientists are morally superior to other persons. As an alternative, the authors suggest that scientists are experts whose work inspires confidence because it is routinely tested by the larger scientific community.
The authors reject the claim that the work of scientists is value-free. They say that scientists are not like computers that follow an algorithm but like detectives who make good decisions about which leads are most promising. They also point out that, though scientists understand climate change, for example, better than non-scientists, they have no special wisdom about what is wise for society to do about this or any other issue.
The authors call new scientists to embrace intellectual humility and to be open to changing their minds, and they remind readers that Einstein never accepted randomness in the behavior of sub-atomic particles, a view that today is almost universally accepted.
Since science is now so specialized, the authors encourage new scientists to develop the habit of “zooming in and out,” that is, of getting both the details and the big picture. They warn that single-mindedness can become narrow-mindedness and that science or one’s career in science can become an idol.
Having pointed out that many early modern scientists were Christians, the authors acknowledge that science can contribute to atheism, and they describe some of the reasons this happens. They close the book with some down-to-earth observations about the ways in which scientists can contribute to the life of the church today.
I am not a scientist, but found this brief book to be understandable and interesting. I am glad the authors decided not to re-tell the tired stories about the Galileo affair and the Scopes trial — and welcome their insistence that both science and religion are seeking truth.
They are courageous and correct to reject firmly the claim that truth is unavailable to us. I think it is self-contradictory to argue: “Truth is not available to us — that is the truth.”
Years ago some friends and I organized a group of scientists and theologians that meets six times a year to discuss books and articles on science and theology. The most rewarding discussions occur when we begin by accepting the standard model of the universe and the traditional understanding of Christian faith.
We are participating in a small way in an enormous international conversation, giving participants a more accurate and fruitful understanding of the relationships between the two disciplines. This book makes available to a wide audience much of the understanding generated by that conversation. NFJ
—Fisher Humphreys (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor of divinity, emeritus, of Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.