Are religion and science closer than we think?

ScienceA Missouri pastor recently sent me a Huffington Post article in which MIT Astrophysicist Max Tegmark assures us that religion and science are much closer than one might suspect, as evidenced by the results of a new MIT Survey on Science, Religion and Origins.

You can read the results and view the survey questions on MIT’s website.

Tegmark and his colleagues present a detailed survey of how different U.S. faith communities view the science of origins, particularly evolution and Big Bang cosmology.

Their conclusion: “We find a striking gap between people’s personal beliefs and the official views of the faiths to which they belong. Whereas Gallup reports that 46% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form less than 10,000 years ago, we find that only 11% belong to religions openly rejecting evolution.”

For example, the Roman Catholic Church endorses evolution; yet only 58 percent of Catholics say evolution is the best explanation for life on earth.

Tegmark’s conclusion: “The main divide in the origins debate is not between science and religion, but between a small fundamentalist minority and mainstream religious communities who embrace science.”

By the way, Southern Baptists are solidly in the “small fundamentalist minority” according to the survey and therefore stand accused of not embracing science.

Contributing to confusion

This is unfair for two reasons. First, it falsely paints many evangelical Christians as modern-day Neanderthals who still believe the sun revolves around a flat earth.

But more importantly, the MIT colleagues deliberately avoid defining their terms in the survey, resulting in much confusion.

For example, the first question reads: “What is the relationship between your religious beliefs and the theory of evolution/Big Bang cosmology?”

Nowhere does the survey provide a definition of “evolution” or “Big Bang cosmology.”

So I sent an email to Tegmark, who graciously responded within 24 hours. “For the purpose of the survey, you can simply define those terms in whatever way you personally feel is reasonable,” he wrote.

Therein lies the problem. There are numerous and sometimes contradictory definitions of evolution and Big Bang cosmology. Getting scientists to agree on these terms is like asking John Calvin and Jacobus Arminius to hold hands and sing Kum Ba Yah.

Think of it this way: I might be in complete theological agreement with my pastor with respect to the doctrine of creation but answer the question differently than he does based on our separate understandings of evolution.

For example, I might be thinking of microevolution, which defines small-scale changes within species. This is not in conflict with God’s creation of creatures “according to their kinds.” Further, we can observe changes within species as a mechanism God built into His creatures to help them adapt to the rigors of surviving in a sinful and fallen world.

But suppose my pastor is thinking of macroevolution, which entails the descent of all life from a single living cell. Or he could be thinking in much broader terms of atheistic evolution or theistic evolution.

In any case, our presuppositions lead us to answer the question differently. This undermines the statistical validity of the survey.

Tegmark notes, “The fact that the gap between personal and official beliefs is so large suggests that part of the controversy might be defused by people learning more about their own religious doctrine and the science it endorses, thereby bridging this belief gap.”

Agreed. But of equal value is for the scientific community to avoid using terms it is not willing to define.

In addition, it would help if many scientists did not cling so desperately to naturalism (the doctrine that nature is all there is) or materialism (the belief that material reality is the only reality). Certainly, many of our nation’s leading scientific minds are more open to following the evidence wherever it leads than Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin, who wrote, “Materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

Three simple rules

So, how do we talk with our friends about the subject of origins? Here are three simple rules.

First, state our belief that God’s revelation in scripture is consistent with His revelation in nature. When there is an apparent conflict, it’s likely due to an improper reading of the Bible or a misapplication of scientific principles.

Second, state that we are willing to go where the evidence leads, and ask if our friends are willing to do the same.

Third, talk less and listen more. Ask your friends to define evolution, the Big Bang, and other terms. Ask them how they came to their conclusions, and ask for their understanding of the biblical teachings of origins.

Perhaps our friends will come to the same conclusion as Astronomer Robert Jastrow, who wrote, “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak. As he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

This column first appeared Feb. 26, 2013, in The Pathway, the news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.