Monday, October 17, 2011

Is the church antiscience?

World magazine has an article out on why young people are leaving the church, and it's a bit too succinct for my taste:
Casualties in the Battle between Science and Faith

The article opens with statistics from a recent Barna poll:
According to the findings of a research study recently released by the Barna Group, 59 percent of young adults disconnect from the church in their teen years. Many study participants told researchers they disagreed with the church's stance against science. Of those, ... Twenty-five percent described Christianity as "anti-science," and 23 percent said they had been turned off by the debate over creation and evolution.
Let's put that in context. Of the 59% of respondents who "disconnected" from the church as teens, 25% said Christianity was anti-science. That's 14.75% of the respondents. Not exactly a majority.

Addendum: Since writing that paragraph, I've been provided a link to a description of the original research, which I think muddles the picture a little. The Barna website confirms that "nearly three out of every five young Christians (59%) disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15." In the context of why these individuals leave the church, they say that "one-quarter embrace the perception that 'Christianity is anti-science' (25%)." What is still unclear (at least to me) is whether the 25% that think Christianity is anti-science is limited to those who have left the church or whether that's a general statistic.

Whatever the statistics, the author of the article, Caroline Ryan, interviewed a few folks at Wheaton College for a response. They immediately connect this anti-science attitude to the creation/evolution debate, which is a reasonable connection since many people believe creationists are anti-science. But what about climate change? As I look through World's archives, I see plenty of articles sympathetic to critics of human-caused "global warming" (here and here). And wait a minute, isn't this the same World magazine that named ID advocate Stephen Meyer the 2009 "Daniel of the Year?" Oddly enough, just ten days before publishing this article linking anti-evolutionism to anti-science, World also published an opinion piece titled "The consequences of evolutionary racism." So where could these young people be getting the idea that Christianity is anti-science? Where could it be coming from? It's such a mystery!

Anyway, leaving aside the painfully obvious IRONY of the article, I think Wheaton student Torunn Sweers makes a good point:
Torunn Sweers, a sophomore at Wheaton ... said church leaders should exchange broad statements about science, which almost always are negative, for more nuanced explanations of the physical world. "'Science' is not an enemy of the church," Sweers said. "[But when] the church makes a blanket statement denying the validity of "evolution" as a theory, you've just disinterested millions of students who have seen for themselves an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary."
That sounds familiar, doesn't it? Sure it does.

The article closes with some quotes from Wheaton science prof Peter Walhout. Walhout emphasizes that historically, the church has always been quite favorably inclined towards science. While I agree with that, I find it pretty impotent to refute the perception of anti-science in the modern church. All those scientist Christians like Newton, Copernicus, Boyle, Ray, Linnaeus, Owen, etc. (but not Einstein - how did he get in that article?) just make me wonder what happened to Christianity? Where did all our scientists go? (I should point out that even though I don't know Walhout, I am absolutely positive that his response to the perceived anti-science attitude of Christians is a bit more nuanced and insightful than just saying, "Hey, Newton was a Christian!")

Is the church antiscientific? I won't argue that the church is definitely perceived to be anti-scientific. I would also affirm that the church doesn't have to be anti-scientific. At the same time, I recognize a strong distrust or suspicion of science held by many (especially conservative) Christians. This attitude has taken generations to develop, from the early antievolutionism of nineteenth-century America to the later Fundamentalist/modernist controversies. It continues to be stoked by those who want to use science to argue against Christianity or those who want to use Christianity to argue against science. Is there an easy way out? Not even close. This situation will take just as many generations to resolve as to develop. My main concern is that Christians are becoming too polarized in the debate, with one faction becoming blatantly and openly anti-scientific and anti-scholarly while the other side seems content to just redefine their beliefs to accommodate whatever the latest science is. I see both reactions as unhelpful. We need a far more careful consideration of the origin of knowledge, the meaning and value of special revelation, and the inherent limitations of human discovery. Of course, if we do that, we run the risk of becoming some kind of post-modern, relativistic knowledge-deniers, and that would be a big mistake too. See? No easy way out.

But that doesn't excuse us from trying, does it? Christ calls us to follow Him, even when it seems like a completely foolish thing to do. And so we follow with faith that the foolishness of God is wiser than anything we could come up with.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.