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Christianity, science and truth

Here are some objections to Christianity that are common today:

  • Modern technology has made religion unnecessary. Instead of trying to get things out of God we have scientists and technologists to provide them for us. Who needs miraculous healings when we have modern medicine?
  • Science has refuted the Bible. None of the miracles in the Bible makes sense to us today because we have a better understanding of how things work. There was no Garden of Eden, and plants, animals and man arose through blind natural causes.
  • Modern textual scholarship has destroyed the unity and authority of the Bible. It’s not the word of God or even the word of anyone in particular, it’s a collection of texts that a variety of men and communities put together for their own purposes long ago and far away. What the texts meant is a matter for scholarly speculation, although we of course are free to draw on them for inspiration or anything else according to taste.
  • Outside the natural sciences, there’s no such thing as truth, only personal opinion. In any event, the notion of “truth” is exclusive and intolerant and therefore bad.

Each of these objections can be dealt with on its own terms. It’s also important, though, to consider whether there’s something in the background that makes people find them so persuasive. One thing they have in common is that they reflect the modern view of truth as something we can speak of only to the extent we fully possess it. If a truth can’t be rigorously defined and demonstrated by observations others can repeat, it’s just opinion, and one man’s opinion is as good as another’s.

That view of course is connected to the extremely critical attitude toward claims of truth that has led to the triumphs of modern natural science. Taken as an absolute, however, it has led to scientism, the view that the results of modern natural science are the only truths worthy of the name. The latter view makes thought go haywire:

  • The world must be viewed as fully knowable through scientific method, since otherwise it might include truths of an unscientific kind. That demand is treated as if it proved certain scientific theories, for example the theory that evolution through random variation and natural selection is a sufficient explanation for the origin of man and other living creatures. The theory so “proved” is then treated as a refutation of divine creation.
  • Since truth can only be something we possess fully, and since religious and moral propositions can’t be defined and tested by the methods of modern natural science, a claim that such a proposition is true is treated as rejection of rationality, and thus as a claim that the proposition is miraculously infallible and all objection and discussion is ruled out. Claims of truth in morality and religion thus come to seem aggressive, tyrannical, and implicitly violent.
  • Nonetheless, life can’t be carried on rationally without making claims that can’t be scientifically tested, so the consequence of the scientistic view is that life becomes irrational. In fact, however, it is scientism that turns arbitrary assumptions into unquestionable conclusions. If the only possible truths are the truths of modern natural science, then propositions that can’t be settled by the natural scientific method (e.g., “murder is wrong”) can’t be viewed as true. They must either be put aside or dealt with by some method that ignores truth (e.g., social consensus). Unfortunately, such propositions include things like “science is good.” The result is that science itself can’t be investigated critically, since to do so would be to step outside itself and thus into a realm where truth does not exist. Science must therefore be accepted without regard to truth or rationality.
  • From the standpoint of modern scientific method, all an ancient text can be is a collection of words that somehow got tossed together. It can’t be treated as the voice of an author, let alone of Authority, since there is little or no evidence for the attribution other than the text itself, and we usually know more about the general conditions and trends of thought that gave rise to the text than about the particular person who wrote it. To say “the text says what it says because that’s what the author intended to tell us” seems a cop-out, rather like saying “man has an opposable thumb because that’s what God wanted.” Present-day scholarship treats Biblical texts in such a manner, and speculates how and why they might have come together. The resulting speculations are then treated as presumptive truths that refute traditional understandings of the Bible.

It seems, then, that the fundamental intellectual issue Christians should press in dealing with an unbelieving world is the issue of truth and reality. What is the world like? What can it contain? What sorts of things can we know about it? What approaches to truth involve an a priori dogma that the world must be a certain way, and what approaches accommodate themselves to the way we actually find the world to be? Until such fundamental issues are dealt with, responses to particular questions will always seem weak and beside the point. And to fail to contest accepted understandings on these issues is to concede defeat in advance.

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Comments

I agree. The fundamental crisis of our time is not so much theological as philosophical. Culture has become so skewed by scientism and rationalism that people can’t understand religion anymore. Religious ways of thinking and acting are becoming more and more alien to the common person’s understanding. If it’s true that man is essentially a religious being, then secular culture is enduring one dark coma.