Scientists and fundamentalists

Over the past several years, it has been hard to miss the controversy over ‘intelligent design.’ The origins of that debate, however, reach back in history, to the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859 and even before that, to the seemingly perpetual arguments over the boundaries between science and religion. Focusing on the evolution vs. creation argument, what strikes me is that in general, on the ‘creation’ side of the debate, you have Fundamentalist Protestants, while on the other side, the most vociferous debaters have been atheistic scientists. What is ironic is that both groups have a big problem with authority.

The Fundamentalist admits only one authority, of course, the Bible. What he doesn’t grasp is that the Bible doesn’t interpret itself, and nowhere delegates such high authority to itself. He also doesn’t seem to understand that the very group that he rails against the most (when not irate at a heathen evolutionist), the Catholic Church, collected the very books he idolizes. Why in the world would the Catholics have collected Scripture if it would sabotage their own Church? Surely in the 1,400+ years from the writing of Scriptures to their ‘discovery’ by Protestants, someone would have figured that out and suppressed them. They weren’t suppressed because they form one of the foundations of the Church, but when taken alone, they can be perverted as any words can be, to the uses of wicked, misled, or just plain ignorant men.

Being handicapped by a liiteralistic reading of the Bible, because to read it in any other way requires a teaching authority to avoid going very astray, very fast, leads inevitably to conflict with the other group in our original debate, scientists. Because Genesis must be literally, word-for-word scientifically accurate, scientists are liars that are determined to destroy faith. Since we can calculate back from genealogies and see that the world was created no more than 6,000 years ago, all this radiocarbon dating stuff must be made up. The ‘young-earth creationist’ that I have been describing is unable to come to grips with the truth that science is discovering, purely because he has a deficient understanding of the Bible.

But not all that scientists believe, teach, and publish should be taken as truth, because many scientists have their own authority problem. It manifests itself differently, but at the core, it’s almost exactly the same issue. If we have no magisterial teaching authority, mankind seeks out another rock upon which to stand. The fundamentalist stands on the Bible, for better or for worse. Some scientists, perhaps a vast majority, stand on another authority: the material universe. Only that which can be empirically tested exists. This has the convenient advantage of making the Church irrelevant, if only the gaping emptiness created by loss of a grander purpose in life could be alleviated somehow. What the materialist scientist does not grasp is that he cannot disprove the existence of something outside the material universe, he can only disregard it. Just because something cannot be tested does not mean it does not exist. It is an article of faith to believe otherwise, every bit as big a leap, if not bigger, than the leap we take as Christians.

But what are we to make of the newest chapter in the age-old creation/evolution debate, ‘intelligent design’? ‘ID’ proponents present a view of the world that at first glance seems more nuanced than their young-earth creationist rivals. They accept the age of the earth, most of them even accept some form of natural selection. But, for ID theorists, there comes some point at which God is invoked to explain something that at least seems to complicated to have been produced by natural means. I worry that this is just a rehash of a ‘God of the gaps’ argument that will end up undermining Christianity more than young-earth creationism ever could. The gaps will, mark my words, get smaller and smaller. They have been getting smaller since the beginning of time, and if we don’t realize that God upholds all of nature and no gap is needed to contain Him, all ID will end up doing is hastening our demise. I understand their motivation, and applaud it: materialism really can’t explain everything. But, it will inevitably explain all material causes, so the ID folks would be much better off to continue pointing out those philosophical holes, not the ever-closing corporeal ones.

Authority, or rejection of it, is the thread that links all these stories together: the Fundamentalist has his Bible and nothing else, the materialist has science and nothing else. The ID theorist recognizes the materialist’s weakness, that science can’t explain it all, but is trying and failing to fight that battle within the framework of science itself. ID realizes that there is an authority beyond science, but has trouble reconciling the authority of God and that of the material world. We all seek truth, and the truth that the Fundamentalist explicitly rejects, that of the Church, also heals the wounds of materialist science and intelligent design by giving equal weight to truth coming from all angles, linking it all together with the giver of Truth itself, our omnipotent and omniscient God.

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