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Engaging science

ACCORDING TO the most recent census statistics, atheism is the fastest growing “religion” in Australia.

So often science is blamed for undermining the faith of people. It is still popularly believed that science and religion are in opposition.

However historians of science argue that the rise of natural science, what we in the west describe as “modern science”, grew out of a new way of viewing the scriptures and the world as a result of the reformation.

Christian thinkers who argued that God was revealing himself to his people through the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature, engaged in the study of the natural world in order to know and understand its creator.

Even Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was not rejected by all Christian thinkers at the time. They sought to understand how this theory might throw light on the processes of creation.

There are many Christian scientists who accept the evolutionary processes as the most satisfactory explanation of the way the natural world has developed.

It doesn’t take much effort to show that many of the popular beliefs that pit science against religion are false.

For example there is a popular belief that everybody believed the world was flat until Columbus sailed to America. Columbus’ argument with the prevailing beliefs was about the circumference of the globe, rather than that the earth was flat.

People had believed from many years before Christ that the earth was spherical.

Remember the ancient Greek myth of Atlas who carried the globe on his shoulder.

The American novelist Washington Irving popularised the idea that Columbus set out to show that the earth was not flat.

His book The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus is primarily a work of fiction, yet is often cited as historical.

It is true that the development of modern science has caused us to re-think the way we interpreted the scriptures.

However it is worth remembering that it was the close alignment of scriptural interpretation to the current cosmology that led to the conflict between Galileo and the church.

The Christian church had interpreted the scriptures from the perspective that the sun and planets revolved around the earth, because this was the prevailing scientific view. The theories of Galileo challenged that idea and he had trouble convincing the scientific community, who had the support of the church, that his theory was accurate and that scripture could be interpreted in a different way.

Of course we know that the Galilean view won and the church finally apologised for their treatment of Galileo. However it is false to characterise this as a conflict between science and religion. Rather it shows what happens when the church attaches its faith to the prevailing scientific view.

The rise of the “new atheists” has re-invigorated the notion that science is at odds with religious faith. Many people find their faith threatened by most popular conversations about science.

Some come to accept the notion that Christian faith is outmoded in the face of scientific knowledge. Some try to accommodate their faith to current scientific knowledge, while others try to ignore all science and hold onto what they have always believed.

Rather than retreat from the discoveries of modern science, it is imperative that Christians engage with current scientific thinking.

Not only does this expand our ideas about the world we live in and our responsibility for the stewardship of this planet, but it also enables Christians to bring some ethical thinking to bear on the way in which scientific knowledge is used.

The tension between science and Christian faith can enrich the community.

If you want a couple of books to help your exploration of these issues Alister E. McGrath has an easily readable book entitled Science & Religion, Blackwell Publishing, 1999, and Keith Ward has a good book entitled The Big Questions in Science and Religion, Templeton Press, 2008.