Scientific Discovery and Religious Dogma

There was a time when theology was considered to be the ‘Queen of the sciences’. In those days ‘science’ was essentially a euphemism for knowledge. In more recent times there is a general perception that science and religion are uncomfortable bedfellows. Over a century after Darwin’s discoveries, there is an alarming growth in pseudo-scientific movements such as ‘young earth creationism’ or its more recent manifestation Intelligent Design. The problem with some of these approaches to the exploration of cosmic and human origins is that there is an almost paranoid scepticism applied to any scientific evidence that comes into conflict with their (fallible) biblical hermeneutics. I say biblical hermeneutics because, I would challenge the claim often made by creationists/ Intelligent design proponents that a literal reading, or even some kind of allegorical reading of the Genesis creation narrative is normative, or some kind of marker of Christian orthodoxy. There are many hermeneutical options available, and it seems to me that naïve biblical literalism is the poorest.
The question of whether science and religion are compatible has been explored ad nauseam. Creationists reject any scientific evidence that is incompatible with their biblical hermeneutic. Philosophical naturalists like Richard Dawkins can often have an ideological rejection of theology as essentially a waste of university resources at best, and at worst the root of all evil in the world. For me a more appropriate attitude, which is more consistent with the spirit of science, is to at least leave the door of dialogue open. Not to retreat down the blind alley of a ‘God of the gaps’ perspective, but a healthy openness to truth, knowledge and discovery no matter what the source. Scholars like Sir John Polkinghorne are to be applauded for reflecting such an attitude.
In practical terms, what is the Christian to do when new scientific knowledge emerges that appears to contradict our theological beliefs? After all, this is exactly what has happened on a number of occasions historically. Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin were all perceived (at least in some quarters), as heretics. The earth is not the centre of the universe? Heresy! The bible clearly teaches that it is. Human evolution from ‘lower’ species? Heresy! Mankind was specially created in the image of God! The trouble is; these scientific discoveries are now established fact (as much as anything can be). What are we to do then? Abandon our faith when a new discovery seems incompatible with our dogma? Bury our heads in the sand and pretend it’s not happening, or employ a silly paranoid scepticism that perceives such ‘discoveries’ as part of an evil atheistic conspiracy? Both of these responses are not an option. We must face up to truth whenever we see it. Are we still pulling our hair out over the fact that the Earth is not the centre of the universe? Are we losing sleep that the Earth is not flat? I hope not! We need to remind ourselves that theology is a human endeavour, and that our dogmas, as human products are subject to error. If we a new scientific discovery is made (and I say discovery rather than theory that remains controversial) we should in the first instance re-examine our theology. We must never confuse our interpretation of scripture or doctrines as the word of God itself.

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Balaam’s Ass

Yesterday my philosophy students and I were looking at the argument from religious experience. An argument that is concerned with establishing the ‘fact’ of God’s existence based on… you’ve guessed it, religious experience. We all agreed that from a philosophical perspective it was a poor argument. Why: because it is too subjective. How can we know for sure that someone has had an encounter with God? How can we even know that we ourselves have had such an experience? Could it not be a hallucination, or self-delusion? Richard Swinburne of the University of Oxford has suggested two principles in relation to religious experiences: The principle of credulity, and the principle of testimony. In essence the former suggests that one should believe experience to be genuine unless one has good reason to think otherwise; and the latter that one should likewise accept the testimony of others unless one has reason to doubt. Personally I don’t find these principles particularly useful as the notion of what would constitute ‘good reason’ is rather vague.

From the perspective of faith however, religious experience is a rather compelling reason to believe in God. It isn’t hard to think of famous conversion stories that reflect life changing ‘encounters’ that have radically changed the trajectory of the person in question’s life. This experience not only had a transformative impact on their lives, but made the existence of God unquestionable. Why do we turn our noses up at such religious experiences? Why do we find them so intellectually unsatisfactory? It seems that in the age we live in we have made a virtue of scepticism. I think this reflects the paradox of the modern intellectual climate in general. We live in a postmodern era characterized by scepticism in relation to meta-narratives, but at the same time revere the scientific requirement of empirical evidence to support what we accept as valid. We are cautious to acknowledge that we cannot be fully detached and objective when it comes to interpreting sense perception and evaluating evidence, and yet we proceed as if this were in fact possible.

Is it possible that there is a tendency for people to supress religious experiences? Many years ago I had what could be described as a religious experience. Was it Freudian wish fulfilment? Was it more hormonal than heavenly in nature? How can I know? My mind tells me that this was probably the delusion of a religiously zealous teenager. Because I cannot empirically verify that this experience was genuine should I just dismiss it offhand? What would it take to ‘prove’ that such an experience was genuine? I was thinking about the story in Numbers about the prophet Balaam. An angel comes to confront Balaam, and only the donkey he is riding is able to see it. The donkey stopped in its tracks and Balaam became furious. Famously (and rather bizarrely) the donkey is enabled to speak, and protests about his harsh and cruel treatment. They begin to argue! Even a talking donkey was not enough to fill Balaam with a sense of awe and wonder. How many arguments have I had with an ass?

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Why talk about God and Therapy?

It may sound a little self indulgent, but my only justification (as if I need one) is that I want to find a way to live out theology.  As a trainee counsellor/therapist I am convinced that there is a fruitful dialogue that can take place here. I have been influenced by the psychologist Carl Rogers and his Person-centred model of psychotherapy, but have just begun to branch out into Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (Aaron Beck et al.). This is a very exciting approach. It’s emphasis on the significance of cognitions when it comes to our emotions and subsequent behaviour greatly resonates with me, as well as the very practical and directive solutions it suggests. I think that people of faith are very comfortable engaging in theology emotionally and behaviourally. What I am interested in is exploring a cognitive faith. For me, checking one’s brain at the door is not an option. I have suggested this to some friends and they immediately became very defensive. I wonder what is really going on here? Is there a lot of intellectual insecurity when it comes to faith? What are we afraid of?

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