Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Science of Christmas Future

An estimated 62% of our country will attend Christmas services this month, and right at the center of the message they’ll hear are angels singing about Jesus, the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, and a baby born to a young virgin. For many who want to believe—or at least be inspired by the Christmas story—it’s hard to accept these decidedly strange teachings in an increasingly technological and scientific world. That’s especially the case if you’re part of the 30% of 18-30 year olds in our country that list “None” when presented with the question, “What religion are you?” 
      Having just finished teaching a college course on science and religion, certain related questions fascinate me. Can my students still believe today? And, if they do, what accommodations will be made for their faith and vice versa? 

    There are some challenging statistics. According the noted researchers Christian Smith and Kyle Longest, 70% of 18-23 year olds “agree” or “strongly agree” that the teachings of religion and science conflict. In addition, a complementary study by David Kinnaman found that one of the six top reasons that the infamous 30% of young adults have left the church is that the latter is seen as “antiscience.”
      Congregations are going to have to engage science and its insights. There is a science to Christmas’s future.
      I’m currently working on a research project where I analyze these and other surveys and interview young adults (18-30 years old) on how they formed their ideas about religion and science and how these attitudes change. So, over cappuccinos and chai at Starbucks, or across the desk in my office, or lounging at the student center, I talked with students one-on-one.
      Partly this research arises from a personal interest in figuring out where this interaction is headed. If religion and science are going to be with us for a while (and there’s no indication that either is going away), then minimally we’ve got to find a way for them to coexist. And who is going to lead this discussion? Put another way, who’s going to attend Christmas services (or not) in 20 years? It’s emerging adults. Or not.
      On how to relate religion and science people usually fall something into three categories: warfare (religion and science will never agree), independence (they are two different ways to look at the world that ought to go separate ways), and integration (they need to make a difference to each other.)
      The result of my study of young adults? Along with Longest and Smith, some students are hardcore adherents to what’s known in my business as the “warfare thesis.” As one student, Elaine, commented, “I think that science and religion will always be in conflict because science and religion will never be able to agree, and there are such contradicting views.” But most emerging adults I’ve interviewed, however, aren’t themselves convinced religion and science are incompatible. Instead, they’ve heard about the conflict between the two (maybe they caught Bill Nye and Ken Ham on TV or Richard Dawkins on YouTube), but individually, they are quite interested in coming to a détente and not fighting a war of attrition.
      The second view, independence, is a quite reasonable response to a pluralistic and contentious world in which emerging adults are fatigued by rancor. My study indicates that students take this approach when they’re not really sure what they believe. And that’s a fairly large category.
      Finally, young adults endorse and integration of science and religion. Some recommend exploration or a creative choosing of components from each. The Buddhist-Christian-Wiccan. The hardcore biochemistry student who can’t deny that he prayed and the request was granted, but he’s not sure if it’s not simply coincidence. And continues to pray. That sort of thing.
      But many want to integrate science with reasonably standard beliefs, and some follow thought leaders like the 20th century Oxford intellectual C.S. Lewis, who knew that belief in God allowed for—even necessitated—an ability to work around laws that God himself created. In this sense, miracles like virginal conceptions and fulfilled prophecies do not, in fact, break the laws of nature. The more certain we know these law, Lewis argued, “the more clearly we know that if new factors have been introduced the results will vary accordingly.” What we don’t know if a supernatural power might not be this new factor. Nonetheless, Lewis also warned a group of Anglican priests, that Christianity must be careful about using science glibly, “Science twisted in the interests of apologetics would be a sin and a folly.” In any event, an increasing number of young adults remain such a God, or any supernatural power, exists. And that brings me to a prediction.

      If I were to predict a future based on these studies and others, I would say that the boundary between science and religion is by no means fixed and that this conversation will go on for some time. It seems then, for the short term, most Americans will go to Christmas services. The future of Christmas may depend on if they will be able to take their science with them.


Anonymous said...

As long as we keep asking about the divide between "science & religion" we will perpetuate it. We have to be on the forefront of changing the issue. Looking at statistics can be good to measure a preconceived idea...But too much heed to statistics means you will by the narrow presumptions of the questioner. If youth are putting more trust i "science" than "religion" it is probably for several reasons other than the church being "scientifically illiterate." It is because these are presented as two separate "ways of knowing"...and science is seen as verifiable and productive in producing things wanted (like technology). Religion is seen as unverifiable or often wrong and not effective in producing what "I want."

Confirming or denying the consensus of "science" of our day will not lead youth to Christ. The Church must be effective in offering a dynamic relationship with God through the community of Christ "body." This is what must be the desire to be satisfied...not "accommodations to science." On the other hand, the Church should not set up undo roadblocks to this relationship by making some view of science a prerequisite (i.e accepting or rejecting "evolution"). The Church should strongly denounce the "scientism" that undermines the gospel...that is prevalent throughout public education and popular entertainment. Confirming or deny the consensus "science" of the day is all too prone to what Lewis warned against: “Science twisted in the interests of apologetics would be a sin and a folly.”
-Bill Jackson, Oroville

Greg Cootsona said...

Thanks. These are good points. I tried to be careful not to say that science is the only thing the church needs to engage, but I've become increasingly convinced it is necessary.

Anonymous said...

True consilience is seeing all theologians as scientists and all sciences as branches of theology. This is not hierarchal...the "church" holds no say over the "sciences"...but rather points back to relationship with God and each other..."Christians" should be involved in all "sciences"....but the "church" has nothing to proclaim "scientifically" to the world...that would be an adoption of narrowed minded thinking and an indulgence in the 'spirit of the age."

As I have said, Science is an expression of the supernatural in that it makes nature it's subject rather than being subject to Nature. In other words it objectifies Nature so that it may control nature...and it is only through our use of language that we initiate this supernatural re-creation. We are creatures of immense discontent with the natural world...We are never "at home" in the world as it is.

-Nietzsche noted: "Science itself henceforth requires justification (which is not to say there is any such justification).….A philosophy, a “faith”, must always be there first of all, so that science can acquire from it a direction, a meaning, a limit, a right to exist. ...It is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests – even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire from the flame that was lit by a faith thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine. – But what if this should become more and more incredible, if nothing should prove to be divine anymore unless it were error, blindness, the lie – if God himself were to prove to be our most enduring lie?....all these pale atheists, anti-Christians, immoralists, nihilists, these skeptics,...they certainly believe they are as completely liberated from the ascetic ideal as possible, these 'free, very free spirits'; and yet they themselves embody it today and perhaps they alone. They are far from being free spirits: for they still have faith in truth..."

I walked the ocean shore this week while in Oregon, and felt it froth at me in green-eyed envy...seeing a son of dust had become a son of God who is to rule over the stars. Humility is not a clinging to our adamic nature, but to the One who is twice our Father. As Chesterton wrote: "'The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister."
-Bill Jackson, Oroville

Greg Cootsona said...

I've read this a few times, and it seems primarily like an addition to the blog post and therefore should stand on its own. Unless I've misunderstood you...
I will say this: my main point in the post is that the church (that is, the collection of all Christians throughout the globe) distorts the Gospel when we don't take in the insights of science. And that is particularly accurate in the United States, where Christianity is losing its credibility because it's being unreasonable (by which I mean, it's not engaging reason sufficiently). Obviously, these are generalizations, but when I talk with emerging adults--especially those outside the church--they don't want to engage with the Christian message because it contradicts so much they already know to be true.
Is science the only thing? Of course not. In other words, better engagement with science is a necessary, but not by itself, sufficient, task of the Christian church.

Anonymous said...

Greg, not to draw this posts were expressing a concern and a caution in that some things are not clearly stated (for example, I can't really picture what it might mean to "ntegrate science with reasonably standard beliefs.." that we are not already doing).
. Perhaps probing the premises a bit will clarify.
You wrote: "Congregations are going to have to engage science and its insights..." The premise is that churches have not been engaging. Yet, part of the reason for the perception of the "war against science" IS because church HAVE been engaging. The average congregation is not likely to be anymore scientifically literate than the average population...yet there are Christians very scientifically informed who are considered "unscientific" because they do not conform to the consensus of community of scientists. They acknowledge and embrace all the data of science, but reject most of the evolutionary premise. Too often these scientists are rejected merely for there biblical interpretation rather than the actual science. Does "engaging with science" merely me conforming more to consensus?

As long as the questions is "finding a way for science and religion to coexist," then there is the assumption they are already separate. What I contend is that there communities that have become separate..communities going different directions because of their premises...While to often the church has been dogmatic on things it should not have been..and excluded those it shouldn't (the Ken Hams and Francis Collins' in the church need to embrace...then debate the science...not theology as such)...the church should alway be involved in challenging the worlds premises...Which is the point of my other is not a "science" problem young people have with the church (although science is being used as a cultural wedge) is a relational problem.

As Jeff Hardin pointed out in his article posted on the Biologos forum "Forget Evolution vs Creation, There Are (At Least) 6 Different Views"
"Strictly speaking, all Christians and most non-Christians are creationists, Hardin pointed out,... Evangelicals do not reject science. Per capita, Evangelicals have taken more science classes that other types of students.... attitudes about science may be as much about social and relational considerations as they are about information..."

-Bill Jackson, Oroville

Greg Cootsona said...

Bill, you make some good points (as does Jeff Hardin).
I suppose one key element in this conversation is that many Christians reject evolution, which is a scientific theory that has been around for 150 years and guides a variety of scientific disciplines. So, despite controversy about it (which is true of any form of science), I think stubborn resistance to evolution makes the church look pig-headed. Simply put, Ken Ham is not a good witness.
But there's more than that. There's also a pervasive sense that to be a faithful Christian means we don't take seriously many of the disciplines and virtues of good science like patience, repeatability, honesty, good reasoning, etc. Too often "faith" is the smoke screen that means "don't go deeper," "don't tell the truth," and "don't think." I for one don't think faith and reason ultimately conflict in this way, but I've heard this too many times to think that everyone agrees.
Maybe we're on the same page, but I can't quite tell. Let me know your thoughts (via blog or in person).

Anonymous said...

Christians should not be "pig-headed" and reject something like "a theory of evolution" simply because it does not agree with their theology. ...But "Pig-headed" might be a desirable for a scientist more interested in the truth than peer pressure.

I don't know if Ken Ham is a good witness or not...I know I disagree with much of his theology and approach to science...but he often makes good points that should be heard and taken seriously... But it's not really about him, but a host of scientists who are also Christian brothers who question, with good reason, much that is being assumed in the promotion of evolutionary theory. They DO "take seriously many of the disciplines and virtues of good science like patience, repeatability, honesty, good reasoning, etc..." I see no merit in disparaging or marginalizing those with oppositional views on the science. The dialogue should be full and open.

I also see nothing wrong with theology motivating their scientific view...the problem I see is when a theology closes the dialogue...or a "scientific community" has decided it is closed to such discussion. One can agree that the evidence supporting evolutionary theory is a reasonable and natural conclusion. That does not mean should not be challenge with an accumulation of contrary evidence. The contrary evidence may not at this time add up as nicely with a theory a community us quite comfortable with...but both science and the church is about challenging such assumptions. Neither community should be about marginalizing those who bring the challenge.

As Chesterton said,
“Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction where it was never meant to be... The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping: not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.” ― G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

This is why "the church" should not promote any current theory of science or tie it's theology too closely to it...Yet, the church should welcome all evidence both for and against such theories and provide a space of brotherhood in Christ to discuss them. I am not convinced of all the claims assumed in our current "evolutionary theories," but I don't oppose them or find them a theological threat...I do find evolution a cultural currency for promoting a lot of godless ideas. I applaud any brother or sister in Christ who can see God's hand in their science and bare witness to that...if that be an evolutionary one...all the more for divesting it of the current cultural monopoly...but from what I read, the scientific community is continuing to narrow it's ranks as it take the mantle of conferring "true scientist" to those it wishes...and from my reading "theistic evolution" will not fair much better treatment than any other kind of creationist from them. -Bill Jackson, Oroville

Greg Cootsona said...

Bill, you've offered some really thoughtful comments. It's obvious that we assess the truth of evolutionary science differently. Since you've made great points here--and I think I've written my key ideas--it might be more fruitful to have further interchange in person. Nonetheless, the one thing I don't want to miss is that evolution is not the only place to discuss on how theology and science relate! There are so many other topics--which is one huge emphasis of the Scientists in Congregations project--like, for example, the call by God to do science.

Greg Cootsona said...

PS On evolution and its relative truth or truthiness--and this is also for anyone out there listening--I think Gary Fugle's new book is one good place to go,, as is his talk at our February 6-7 religion and science conference,

Michael F said...

Gary Fugle's book is coming out!?!? Yay!!! Highly recommended; this is coming form a reader of the early manuscript.