NOTE: While the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham debate specifically focused on the truth or falsity of evolution and creationism, this post addresses the bigger question of the relationship between science and religion.
Several weeks ago a highly publicized debate took place between evolutionist, Bill Nye and young-earth creationist, Ken Ham. Now while there is a wide range of opinions held by evangelical Christians with respect to Ham's understanding of Genesis 1-11, how he performed in the debate and whether a debate of this kind should be had at all, a tired old question has resurfaced. What is the interface of science and religion? Specifically, from this debate we are asked to consider whether Bible-believing Christians are even capable of doing good science without checking their Christianity at the door. They can for at least four reasons.
1. Christianity affirms scientific discovery
Biblical passages such as Psalm 111:2 describe the wonder that man has upon discovering the beauty with which God has created the natural world. For centuries, Christians have devoted themselves to scientific undertakings precisely because they saw it as a way of understanding their Creator in a greater way. Believers have founded institutions of higher learning, established hospitals and contributed to the scholarly community in undeniable ways. The notion that science is somehow at odds with the Christian message is absurd.
2. Science is not the property of atheism
Nor, does it count in favor of atheism. Listen to the archives of the Don Johnson Radio Show and you will discover that often when a skeptic is asked to produce a piece of data that counts in favor of atheism and is opposed to Christianity they will (with glib certainty) say, "science." The idea was repeated liberally in the Nye-Ham debate. What the atheist/agnostic means to say is that science works. It is incredibly efficient for studying the natural world. Yet, here there is a gross leap in logic to the idea that all that exists is the natural world.
Just because there is a natural world and science does a good job studying it does not mean that there is not a supernatural world (or supernatural aspects of the natural world). In other words, Christians agree that science is a great tool for doing an investigation of the natural world. Thus, the effectiveness of science doesn't count as a point in favor or atheism, it is something that atheists and Christians agree upon.
A popular analogy in use by Christian defenders of this involves the effectiveness of metal-detectors at locating metal. Metal-detectors are great tools. However, if one had the best metal-detector in the world it would not mean that because that device was so good at locating metal that rocks and trees and wood must not exist also. Science is great at what it does, but this no more means that the natural world is all that exists than the great metal-detector means that metal is all that exists.
3. Many scientists are Christians
I would have done several things differently if I were debating Bill Nye, but there was at least one thing Ken Ham presented that I thought was spot-on. We were treated to a video presentation of several accomplished scientists that were also Christians. If the question is whether or not certain Christian beliefs hinder the progress of science, this should count strongly in favor of the Christian position. Moreover, whether Ham's testimonials were cherry-picked or not, the idea that there are very few professional scientists who are religious is demonstrably false. Below is an excerpt from a recent book chronicling the research into this very question:
The public’s view that science and religion can’t work in collaboration is a misconception that stunts progress, according to a new survey of more than 10,000 Americans, scientists and evangelical Protestants. The study by Rice University also found that scientists and the general public are surprisingly similar in their religious practices.
The study, “Religious Understandings of Science (RUS),” was conducted by sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund and presented today in Chicago during the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference. Ecklund is the Autrey Professor of Sociology and director of Rice’s Religion and Public Life Program.
“We found that nearly 50 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work together and support one another,” Ecklund said. “That’s in contrast to the fact that only 38 percent of Americans feel that science and religion can work in collaboration.”
The study also found that 18 percent of scientists attended weekly religious services, compared with 20 percent of the general U.S. population; 15 percent consider themselves very religious (versus 19 percent of the general U.S. population); 13.5 percent read religious texts weekly (compared with 17 percent of the U.S. population); and 19 percent pray several times a day (versus 26 percent of the U.S. population).
[...]RUS is the largest study of American views on religion and science.
Simply put, there is little difference between average americans and professional scientists when it comes to the percentage who are "religious."
4. The scientific methodology isn't necessarily different
Methodological naturalism has to do with the assumption a scientist (or anyone else) must make when doing a scientific investigation that the explanation of a given natural fact or phenomenon is a natural (not supernatural) one. In other words, atheistic scientists and Christians who are scientists alike will be unlikely to assume that a supernatural explanation for the development of sea-foam, for example, is better than a natural one. But metaphysical naturalism is quite different. This is the view that the natural world is all there is. Clearly, a Christian has no problem with methodological naturalism. And, thus, can happily do science along-side his atheist colleague.
I say all of this for two reasons. First, I fear that there is an unconscious defensiveness on the parts of many Christians when it comes to science because they have unknowingly adopted the false impression that science and faith are at odds. They are not. If Christianity is true then true facts about the natural world will not contradict the Christian message. Like our forbearers Christians should confidently approach science with enthusiasm and interest. Second, the conflict really exists between Christian values and worldly values, Christian philosophy and false worldly philosophies, political views that spring forth from a Christian worldview and political ideas that arise from non-Christian worldviews. Can non-Christian scientists be guided by their personal philosophies and produce biased conclusions? Certainly! And when this happens Christians should be prepared to point it out. For this very reason, I pray that God will raise up a generation of professional Christian scientists who are enthusiastic about the truth.