There are many slippery words—words that appear to mean so many things, you begin to wonder if they mean anything.
Even ‘science’ can be one that gets quite greasy. It seems pretty slippery in some New Atheist discussion. Without knowing much about science—or Christianity, for that matter—some ordinary people feel that one stamps out the other—or, at least, that they are in serious conflict. On the other hand, a whole string of famous intellectuals (e.g. HG Wells, Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, Max Planck, Freeman Dyson, Stephen Jay Gould) have, according to New Atheist Sam Harris, “declared the war between reason and faith to be long over”.1 But Harris is not happy with these intellectuals. He is even less happy with the US National Academy of Sciences, suggesting that science and Christianity should get along, because they are answering different kinds of questions about the world.2 For Sam, this is not good enough; he wants the conflict to continue because, in his mind, science has already won.
The trouble with the appeal to ‘science’—or to other commodities such as ‘fact’, ‘insight’ or ‘understanding’, which are somehow beefed up with the adjective ‘scientific’—is that the more it is done, the more troublesome it becomes. If we are told that Christianity is demolished because of ‘science’, without discussion of the actual evidence or argument that purportedly pulls the destructive pin, then this appeal becomes anti-science, because it is little more than an appeal to authority. Once upon a time, a medieval Roman Catholic believer might appeal to ‘the church’; now a secularist appeals to ‘science’ to silence the discussion.
Then there is the problem of overuse. The more the word ‘science’ is invoked— (without careful definition, or the assembly of the particular evidence or argument that supposedly has such power), the more the term ‘science’ is in danger of becoming “Vacuous. Devoid of content. A non-subject”3—to re-apply Richard Dawkins’s statement about Christian theology.
Let me explain. When someone says, “Science has shown …”, the first thing to ask is “Which branch of science?”, or “What kind of science?”. As scientific men, the New Atheists are well aware of the range of the meaning of the word and the variety of disciplines covered by it—despite rarely nuancing the word appropriately when it is used as a cipher for ‘Christianity’s nemesis’.
Sam Harris, for example, knows quite clearly (at least) four usages of the word. He is aware that it can refer to ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science, or it can represent “our best efforts to know what is true about our world”, and he is even clear that “a branch of the humanities like history” can also be ‘science’.4 His writings show that he is quite happy to use the opinion polls of ‘soft’ science—even calling the polls of Gallup and PEW ‘scientific surveys’.5 He is clear that the kind of processes found in ‘hard’ science do not apply to all kinds of knowledge. No, for “the core of science is not controlled experiment or mathematical modeling; it is intellectual honesty”.6 He also has no qualms about saying that a historical fact, once established, “forms part of the worldview of scientific rationality”.7
Well, that is good, because the truth claims of Christianity are, at their base, historical claims. If it is “intellectual honesty that is the key to science”, along with “an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments”,8 then such scientific inquiry will lead to questions like, “Hey, did Jesus rise from the dead, or didn’t he?”, “Was a crucified man worshipped as God, or wasn’t he?”, and, “If he was, how in heaven’s name did that happen?”
Such historical inquiries are certainly there for the taking by those who are honest seekers after truth. And if, at least, one meaning of ‘science’ boils down to ‘honest inquiry’, then how can Christianity be automatically regarded as in opposition to science? Didn’t Jesus call upon people to just this enterprise? With such a promise as “seek, and you will find” (Matt 7:7), the only real question becomes “Who is really committed to honest scientific inquiry?”
1 Sam Harris, The End of Faith, WW Norton, New York, 2004, p. 15
2 Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, Vintage, 2008 (2006), Random House, New York, p. 62.
3 Marianna Krejci-Papa, ‘Taking On Dawkins’ God: An interview with Alister McGrath’, Science & Theology News, 25 April, 2005.
4 Letter to a Christian Nation, p. 65.
5 ibid., pp. viii, 93.
6 ibid., p. 64.
7 ibid., p. 65.