Righting America

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Fundamentalists Create Fake War between Science and Religion | Righting America

by Rodney Kennedy

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is also putting the finishing touches on his sixth book: The Immaculate Mistake: How Southern Baptists and Other Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump

David Ray Griffin argues that science and Christian faith embody a great truth, but “both of these truths have been distorted.” These distortions have made it seem as if science and religion have been at war. 

I contend that there is no war. When there is truth and distortion on both sides of a debate, the tendency to resort to fake dualism is great.

Both sides of this debate have members claiming to have the whole truth. There are scientists who line up to insist that Christianity is riddled with nothing but myth, illusion, and error. Stephen Jay Gould insisted that there didn’t need to be conflict between science and religion if only religious folk would accept the proper division of labor, i.e., science provides us with truth, while religion’s task is to provide moral motivation. But one has only to read Francis S. Collins and Kenneth R. Miller, for starters, to know that many scientists do not agree with Gould.

On the other side of the imaginary war are preachers and philosophers insisting that science is completely false, and that the conflict between science and religion will be resolved only by the scientific community bowing the knee to faith and returning to a supernaturalistic framework. Sophisticated thinkers like attorney Philip Johnson and philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga continue to insist on the necessary repentance of science. Less sophisticated thinkers – best epitomized by Ken Ham – burnish their faith credentials by appearing ferocious and courageous against mainstream science. But as Charles Taylor makes clear in A Secular Age, this naïve point of view has been undone and will not be making a comeback, since the default setting in Western culture is no longer belief in God. 

It is important to keep in mind that the notion that science originated in the 19th century ignores a long tradition of scientific naturalism that began in 600 BCE. David Lindberg’s definitive work, The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450, traces the scientific mentality from its birthplace in Greece. Known at first as natural philosophy, modern science emerged from the support of the Church. Lindberg traces the appreciation and employment of the Greek heritage in the church, and he demonstrates how the church became the incubator of modern science with her preservation and transmission of Hellenistic schools and the preservation of manuscripts and learning in the monasteries. Regarding the latter, David Ray Griffin points out that “this task of preservation and transmission was an essential task, without which the emergence of modern natural science. . .. would have been impossible.” 

The alleged war between science and faith is fake. It is the concoction of a witch’s brew of dedicated fundamentalists on both sides throwing huge rocks at one another in the vain hope that one glass house will disintegrate before the other. 

Black and white portrait of Orville Wright in a black tuxedo and curly mustache.
Orville Wright. Image in Public Domain.

Rather than continue to pretend there is a war, perhaps we could work toward a reconciliation and coalesce around shared beliefs, in the process helping to make it possible for people to participate fully in both communities. While I hesitate to use anecdotal material in an argument, in this case I think it is justified. When I served in Dayton, Ohio, I observed that the two worlds of faith and science could be situated in a geographical analogy. Dayton, Ohio, the birthplace of aviation with the Wright Brothers (apologies to North Carolina), represents the coming wave of scientific technology. Three hundred eighty miles due South lies Dayton, Tennessee, the site of the famous Scopes Trial, with the prosecution led by the Bible-quoting Christian William Jennings Bryan. While the fundamentalists won the trial, in the court of public opinion Mr. Bryan was humiliated and roundly defeated by Clarence Darrow. 

Black and white portrait of William Jennings Bryan in a black tuxedo and black bowtie.
William Jennings Bryan. Wikimedia Commons.

But I preached that Christians can and should participate in both communities of science and faith – doing physics and math at a Wright Patterson Air Force base lab, and saying prayers and singing songs of praise to God in the First Baptist Church of Dayton. That is to say, we don’t have to hold one worldview on Sunday and a different one during the week. There is room under the giant umbrella of truth for quarks and Quakers, black holes and heaven, science and faith. As Kenneth R. Miller says in Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul: “Theology does not and cannot pretend to be scientific, but it can require of itself that it be consistent with science and conversant with it.” 

My hope lies in the conviction that the universe, in a certain sense, had us in mind from the very beginning. In the moving words of physicist Freeman Dyson, ours is a “universe that knew we were coming.”