God as Purpose or Cause

Educated Christians honor what they perceive as the prop­er role of science by not asking science to vali­date their reli­gious dogmas. Instead, they defend their beliefs, or at least their intellectual right to hold their beliefs, by in­sisting that religion has a legitimate sphere of expertise from which empirical thinking is inher­ently ex­cluded.

The old-Earth creationist Hugh Ross exemplifies the kind of edu­cated Chris­tian I’m talking about, though he dangles precar­iously at the lower end of the spectrum, like a moist dingleberry. Ross is foun­der of the Reasons to Believe Website, which features the oxymoronic tagline “Where Science and Faith Converge,” as if that ever happens.

Christians like Ross signal their reasonableness by latching onto points of agreement between Scripture and science, even those that arise through the gener­ous application of poetic license. They defend piety by insisting that faith is a distinct path to truth and that religion is free to define truth on its own terms.

It is these educated believers who have propagated the myth that science and faith are not ultimately in conflict. This myth arises from a combination of wishful thinking and conciliatory politics rather than logic. The truth is that no two mindsets could be more at odds.

The scientific method is the antithesis of faith. In science the prime virtue is adherence to the facts, whereas in faith the prime virtue is adherence to sacred beliefs, even (or especially) in the face of contrary evidence. Which of these two approaches you take determines how you respond when the evidence and your be­liefs part ways, as they inevitably do. Embrace faith and you’ll cling to your religious beliefs, facts be damned. Embrace science and you’ll abide the evi­dence, re­vising or jettisoning your religious doctrines.

Clinging to both faith and science is not an option. If you say that you accept science, but only up to the point where you exercise your faith, you in fact accept only selected findings of science, not science itself. Embracing science requires embracing its methods and prac­tices, re­gardless whether you like the results.

Believers seek refuge in the casuistry that, while science is about cause and effect, religion is about a deeper spiritual interpretation. This distinc­tion between causation and purpose resembles that made by Aristo­tle between sufficient and final causes. Stephen Jay Gould, in Rock of Ages, granted science its worldly purview and ceded a privileged role for religion, “The mag­isterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and morality.”

Likewise, Pope John Paul II, on Octo­ber 27, 1996, in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome, opined, “The sciences of observation describe and measure with ever greater precision the multiple manifestations of life…while the­ol­ogy ex­tracts…the final meaning according to the Creator’s designs.”

Science, according to this view, is strictly descriptive. It identifies and codifies the mechanistic patterns in nature. While science is con­cerned with what, religion is concerned with why. Religion re­linquishes to science the explanation of phenomena. It tries instead to explain the purpose behind the phenomena.

The problem is that religion has never relin­quished to science the expla­nation of phe­nom­ena. Consider, for example, the Genesis account of crea­tion, or even the claim that God exists. The assertion that there’s purpose in nature is an empiri­cal claim open to scientific scruti­ny, a point the intelligent design movement got right. To say the universe has a pur­pose is to implicitly in­voke the design argu­ment, which culminates in a significant factual claim.

Modern religionists are desperate to barricade God’s make-believe role as purpose-giver from our real-world knowledge of causation. Their strate­gy ex­emplifies Robert Frost’s maxim that good fences make good neigh­bors. Unfortunately, they’ve built the fence on property they don’t own, not the kind of behavior we normally asso­ciate with being a good neighbor.

The conflict between science and religion is not illusory. The conflict arises from their different methods, different ontologies, and different behavioral prescriptions.

Accommodationists on both sides of the divide recite a roster of luminaries who have engaged successfully in both science and faith, as though that demonstrated that science and faith are compat­ible. All that shows is that humans are un­skilled at thinking clearly and consistently.

Consider Isaac Newton. He was a renowned scientist, perhaps among the most brilliant humans who ever lived, a man who calcu­lated the elliptical planetary orbits and invented integral and differen­tial calculus at age 26. He also be­lieved in astrology and alchemy. Does that mean astrology is compati­ble with astronomy or that alchemy is compatible with chemistry? Certainly not. It means that people can be wondrous wizards in some aspects of their lives while being dim-witted dolts in other aspects of their lives.

Consider Robert Lee Yates Jr., a lifelong Christian and self-proclaimed family man, a decorated mili­tary helicopter pilot and father of five children. He was also convicted of fifteen murders and suspected of eighteen, had sex with his victims both before and after murdering them, and even buried the remains of one of his victims outside the bedroom window of his upper-middle-class suburban home. Does his case prove that cruelty, exemplified by serial rape and murder, is compatible with Christian precepts such as “love thy neighbor as thyself”? Certainly not. This case tells us that people can hold to completely incompatible value systems for years on end.

Holding contradictory opinions is something people are frustrat­ingly good at. Anyone who claims adherence to both science and faith is mired in a self-contradictory delusion.


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