Science and Faith: An Encounter with A Brief History of Time

BriefHistoryTime  I have just finished rereading A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking. What a marvelous book! Hawking explains ideas beautifully, almost convincing me that I understand what he is saying.

Actually, there is a lot in this little book that I don’t really understand.  For example, I don’t get quantum mechanics at all, but since Feynman said “nobody understands quantum mechanics”, I don’t feel too bad about it.  Though I can follow along with Hawking’s clearly written presentation, I know that behind the curtain is a whole bunch of mysterious math, which I am grateful that he left that out. He could say pretty much anything, I would accept it. And he says some pretty outlandish stuff:

There are a number of different varieties of quarks: there are thought to be at least six “flavors”, which we call up, down, strange, charmed, bottom, and top. Each flavor comes in the three “colors”, red, green, and blue. [pg. 65]

Real [as opposed to virtual] gravitons make up what classical physicists would call gravitational waves, which are very weak — and so difficult to detect that they have never yet been observed. [pg. 70]

The fact that confinement prevents one from observing an isolated quark or gluon might seem to make the whole notion of quarks and gluons as particles somewhat metaphysical. [pg. 73]

The suggestion is that the other dimensions are curved up into a space of very small size, something like a million million million million millionth of an inch. [pg. 163]

This is science? I can imagine a Monty Python skit giving a better explanation of some of this than I could. To those of us who have not made the observations for ourselves and do not understand the underlying mathematics, this stuff is pretty close to revealed Truth. We accept it on faith, faith in the high priests of the scientific establishment, faith that if there are flaws in any of this, the experts will find them and come up with something closer to the truth.

Adam01   I read Hawking’s book in part as an antidote to the Answers in Genesis website, where I had been spending far too much time since I had started this blog. For the most part, I understand what these young earth creationists are saying all too well, usually well enough to refute it. Needless to say, I am not prepared to challenge much of anything Hawking says.

My point is this: A Brief History of Time, I believe, even though I don’t really comprehend it, while Answers in Genesis, I fully understand but reject out of hand. I think the young earth creationists are ridiculous. But, is my own position not equally so? Accepting Hawking as I do, can I not understand how someone could accept Ken Ham and his reading of the Bible in the same way?

To the layman, or to the young student, science is handed down from on high. Yes, I did experiments in science lab, sometimes even getting them to work. However, if the experiment didn’t work out as it was supposed to, I assumed that I did something wrong and accepted the bad grade. Scientific theory remained intact, unaffected by my actual results.

Especially when it comes to scientific work on the fundamental properties of the universe, there is much that we who are not experts accept on trust. Fundamentalist Christians put their trust in the Bible. They have devised Young Earth Creationism in an attempt to hold fast to the religion of their forefathers and reconcile a particular reading of the Bible with the observations of modern science. Despite its sometimes tortured logic, this pseudo science is easier for some people to buy into than the abstruse concepts that Hawking describes, no matter how clear his prose.  To the fundamentalist, Young Earth Creationism simply has more truthiness.

Orion Nebula, from Hubble

Orion Nebula, from Hubble

Part of what has made Hawking’s book so popular is that he deals explicitly with the theological implications of his work. Although he mentions that the Catholic Church has declared the Big Bang compatible with the Bible, he is acutely aware of that he leaves little room for the creator God of traditional Christianity.

One possible answer is to say that God chose the initial configuration of the universe for reasons that we cannot hope to understand. This would certainly have been within the power of an omnipotent being, but if he had started it off in such an incomprehensible way, why did he choose to let it evolve according to laws that we could understand? The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired. … There ought to be some principle that picks out one initial state, and hence one model, to represent our universe.
[pg. 122-123]

There would be no singularities at which the laws of science broke down and no edge of space-time at which one would have to appeal to God or some new law to set the boundary conditions for space-time ….. The universe would be self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself. It would neither be created nor destroyed. It would just BE. [pg. 136]

Though Hawking carefully avoids ever denying the existence of a Creator, any explanation of the world that relies on the existence of such a God seems, for him, to be a failure of human understanding. It is here that I begin to be able to challenge what he says. Take, especially the final paragraph:

However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we would know the mind of God. [pg. 175]

This is a beautiful sentiment and a powerful conclusion to this marvelous little book, but it is pure hubris. I believe the scientific method to be a powerful tool. With this tool, we are perhaps even capable of discovering a complete theory of the physics underlying our universe. As marvelous as that triumph would be, I do not think it will help us much with the day to day problems of life. Human reason has it’s limits, limits that fall well short of knowing whatever it is that we refer to as the Mind of God. For mere mortals like ourselves, that will remain a mystery.

“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” – Albert Einstein

Open Letter to Young Earth Creationists

michelangelo-creation-of-adam  If you have welcomed Divine Love into your heart, Hallelujah! Please believe that I have no wish to get between you and Jesus. What you have experienced is yours, and no mere argument, no matter how logical or scientific, can diminish the transforming power of your experience in any way.

However, you have entombed the Living Word in a tower of pseudo scientific babble. Answers in Genesis, for example, displays admirable inventiveness, craftsmanship, and intelligence, but the entire effort is misguided, mocking the ancient wisdom of the Bible by transforming it into a collection of propositions that, though they sound scientific, are obviously false.

hs-2001-12-c-small_webMartin LutherThe observations of modern science show the earth to be billions of years old, and the universe to be billions of years older. There are raging debates in science, but the idea that the earth is a few thousand years old was discarded long ago.

Relying on Biblical authority, Martin Luther and others freed much of Europe from the corrupt, apostate church of Rome. In so doing, they opened the door to a world where ordinary people realized that they could learn the Truth, the universal Truth that applies to all places and all times. In many ways, this made the scientific revolution that followed possible. However, while science continued to develop, thinking in some parts of Christendom ossified. Scientists have discovered much more about so many things that adhering to the sixteenth and seventeenth century ideas about origins appears silly. I expect that in a few hundred years, people will see the ideas of present day scientists as rather quaint in some respects. But people will still read the Bible.

We may no longer think that the earth is flat, with heaven above and hell below, or that our little planet is at the center of everything, or that our species is quite so unique, but the essential human condition has not changed. It is here in our everyday lives that the ancient, divine wisdom of the Bible is invaluable. “Love one another, as I have loved you” is needed just as much now as ever.

In attempting to transform ancient wisdom into a fake science, Answers in Genesis undermines the authority of the Bible. This has devastating consequences. It makes it appear that Christ is opposed to Truth. It leads many to reject the Bible and indeed all religion, thinking that it has nothing to offer in our modern age. Worse, those who subscribe to Young Earth Creationism find themselves at war with modern science, casting scientists, who are simply searching for the truth, as villains, instruments of the devil. This imaginary war is poisoning the politics in America and making it nearly impossible for us to be good stewards of the earth or address any of the other challenges facing our nation.

Expulsion_from_EdenIt appears that the crux of the problem is the Fall of Man. Some Christians seem to think that if we acknowledge that the story of Adam and Eve is mythic, the human condition, which we have experienced directly all of our lives, would somehow be changed.

Let me describe my own version of the allegory of the Fall of Man. Before the Fall, we were like the beasts in the Garden of Eden, fully engaged in the present, without an awareness of our own mortality, and, though capable of doing harm to others, innocent of sinfulness, in the same sense that a lion asserting dominance over his pride is innocent. As our amazing brain developed, the complexity crossed a threshold. We woke up. We consumed the forbidden fruit of knowledge and awareness. We developed language. We planned for the future. Suddenly, mortality was not just a flight or fight reflex in a moment of danger, but a constant reality. Sin and selfishness entered into our experience. Into this world, Jesus Christ came, taught, and offered his precious sacrifice.

I do not assert that my understanding of the Fall is the correct one; my insight is limited, flawed. However, you don’t need to believe the particular details of the account in Genesis in order to find evidence of the Fall of Man. It is all around us, and throughout written history. (There is evidence of an essential goodness of man as well.)

BibleThe Bible is a wondrous gift. We need it today. Science is never going to adequately address the questions as to how to live in peace with one another. We need to open our hearts to the Divine. We need the teachings of Jesus. Do not undermine the authority of this wondrous gift by attempting to make it into a bad science text.

If the Bible has helped bring you to Christ, rejoice! Thank the Lord that your life has been so transformed! Believe the Truth of your experience. Do not turn this blessing into a curse by adhering to what is false. Cease this abominable war with modern science.

May we live together in the peace of God, which passes all understanding,

jp lund

Willful Denial


Taung Child Fossil

Answers in Genesis describes the crux of the problem this way: “Willful denial of God’s Word (2 Peter 3:3-7) lies at the root of many disputes over historical science”.  They are right about the willful denial, but totally misguided about who is denying what.

I recently came across a delightful example of what the creationists call “historical science” in a Radio Lab article on the Taung Child fossil, a 2 million year old skull found in southern Africa in 1924.  Raymond Dart identified this as a new species of extinct hominid, which he named Australopithecus Africanus.  He referred to this find as “the missing link”.  The Radio Lab chronicles the history surrounding this object, including some conclusions that are relatively recent.  Here are real scientists at work, imperfect people wading though preconceived notions, ethnic prejudice, flawed analysis, and an outright hoax, to get ever closer to the truth.  Throughout the controversies, the Genesis creation stories never came up, not because of a willful denial of the Word of God, but because, among scientists, even as early as the 1920s, such an idea was ridiculous.

In rural America in the 1920s, however, it was not ridiculous.  The same year that Dart was publishing his findings on the Taung Child, Tennessee prosecuted John Scopes for teaching Evolution in public school.  One can sympathize with the citizens of Tennessee at that time. Darwin’s ideas, still relatively new to rural America, directly contradicted the myths preserved in Genesis, sacred myths that these people placed at the very foundation of their faith.

However, since then, we have had a century of incredible progress in the sciences.  Whole new fields of investigation have emerged.  We know much more about our universe as a whole, about our planet, and about our species than Darwin could ever have imagined, and yet his basic premise has survived.

In the face of this mountain of evidence, the Young Earth Creationists cling to the scientific conclusions of religious leaders from the sixteenth century: the earth, in fact the whole universe, is approximately 6,000 to 10,000 years old. They have the Bible, which they believe is the inerrant, divine revelation of God.  They view everything through this Biblical lens, seeing nothing that contradicts their reading of the sacred text.  They put the evidence of the Bible, which was obviously written by man, selected by man, translated by man, and interpreted by man, over the evidence of Nature, the Earth, and the stars, which they believe were created by God.  They would rather believe in a devious God, a God that created a world appearing to be billions of years old but really quite young, rather than acknowledge that the stories of creation recorded in Genesis are myths explaining the human condition and not scientific explanations of origins.  They have constructed a vast pseudo scientific catalog demonstrating how everything from dinosaurs to distant galaxies came into existence in the last few thousand years.

At the heart of all of this is willful denial, denial of the same ilk as shown by the Flat Earth Society, which is still active in the twenty first century. Because we live in a democracy, because these zealots are so numerous, and because science is so important to our modern society, this willful denial is significant to all of us.

To be clear, there is nothing in the Bible that requires this foolishness.  Old Earth Ministries, for example, finds no conflict between their Biblical Christianity and modern science: “The scientific evidence of this world and universe can be used to understand how God created.”  It is only the insistence on the young earth that presents a problem.

Naturally, people who adhere so ardently to a false dogma see those who are seeking the truth as the enemy.  Willful denial turns to spite, as shown in an editorial in the June, 2014 edition of Creation Magazine:


Creation Magazine illustration

“There is a war on! And it seems the opposition isn’t so much interested in debating what Christianity teaches about origins, but rather in suppressing it—just as you’d expect from Romans 1:18. They want to silence the Christian voice (proclaiming creation), and replace it with their own (promoting long ages and evolution).”

It is true that scientists are not interested in debating what Genesis teaches about origins.  Among scientists, this debate was over long ago, notwithstanding the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham side show.  It has also been decided in courts, where creationists have repeatedly failed to demonstrate that their ideas have any scientific foundation at all.  Of course, scientists want to suppress the teaching of ideas that have been thoroughly refuted, unless, taught to show how science has progressed, rejecting explanations, like spontaneous generation, that once seemed plausible but were eventually refuted by the evidence.

However, the war rages on, not only in the local schools, but in the halls of Congress.  Here is what Paul Broun, the Chairman of the US House Science Subcommittee on Oversight, has to say:

Paul Broun

Paul Broun

“All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the big bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. …It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior.”

The election of such misguided people is going to continue for some time to come: fully one-third of Americans, and a majority of those who consider themselves evangelical Christians, reject the theory of Evolution.

We are facing tremendously complex problems in our modern world, and, since we live in a democracy, we need a scientifically literate public to participate in evaluating our situation and deciding what to do.  Care for the environment, i.e. climate change, presents a particularly difficult challenge, but there are other issues facing us as well.  How can we successfully address such challenges when so many people believe that those  best able to inform them about the threats and the solutions are in league with the devil?

This war between scientific truth and ancient myth is poisoning the political environment in this country.    The war is certainly not with the teachings of Jesus, but with a twisted Christianity that idolizes scientific theories conceived during the Reformation, before modern science had developed.

I believe that, eventually, Truth will prevail and the young earth creationists, like the flat earthers, will gradually dwindle in number, though never quite disappear.   However, people like me would have said much the same thing at the time of the Scopes Monkey Trial.  With all of the unbelievable changes that have taken place since then, who would have thought that this debate over the Genesis myths would still be going on?  No proof, no matter how clear and obvious, seems powerful enough to overcome the willful denial of people whose faith is based on this misguided reading of the ancient texts.




What Bill Nye Missed in the Debate

Debate Stage

The Skeptical Enquirer recently published an interesting article by Bill Nye, the Science Guy, where he discusses the big debate with creationist Ken Ham.  Nye points to the YouTube video, Bill Nye: Creationism Is Not Appropriate For Children, that prompted the challenge from Ken Ham.  Ken Ham has responded, with a somewhat different version of the events.  Of course, Answers In Genesis had already created their own YouTube video, Bill Nye, Creationism is Highly Appropriate for our Children.

Nye also explains his strategy for handling the encounter. The article is full of cogent observations about the nature of such an  event, which is more of a television show than a debate.  I particularly appreciate  “My actor’s preparation helped me keep things civil and be respectful of Mr. Ham despite what struck me as his thoughtless point of view.”  For the readers of the Skeptical Enquirer, the scientific debate was a slam dunk, and Nye slammed his points home with authority.

However, the most important point, to my way of thinking, was one he totally neglects in his comments.  In the debate, he made reference to Christians who believe in evolution, but he was really not very effective in delivering this message.  Perhaps, he had not included this in his preparation.  To Nye, a man of science, the question is whether a given theory is a reasonable explanation of the evidence, not whether a Christian can accept a reasonable explanation.

However, to the Creationists in the audience, it is the the salvation of their souls that is most significant.  Their experience of life has been been transformed by Divine Love.  This is what they want to pass on to their children.  So, when someone like Nye, who evidently doesn’t give a damn about his eternal soul, says that “Creationism is not appropriate for children”, they rise up in fury.  They see fundamental precepts of their faith undermined in the name of science and atheism forced down the throats of their children.

For both Nye and Ham, the debate was about a well crafted question:  “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”  Ham is devoting his life to maintaining the illusion that there is a scientific question to be answered.  Nye looks at Ham’s answers, and sees nonsense dressed up as science.

However, for the Evangelical Christian, the real question is not about science at all.  It is religious: “Can I be saved, even in this modern era?”  I suspect Nye would respond to this with a puzzled look, perhaps followed with a reference to Biologus.  Ken Ham’s answer to this question is a resounding “Yes!”, but only if you embrace the willful ignorance of his pseudo-scientific doctrine.

It is the Young Earth Creationists’ religion, not the pseudo-science, that is the source of the problem.  They have exalted the scientific conclusions of men who lived during the Reformation, when Biblical Christianity first began to take shape, lifting these human concepts to the high altar of Divine Revelation.  This is idolatry.  It has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus, or his death on the cross.

As one who believes that the Truth will triumph in the end, I am confident that this misbegotten theology will eventually dwindle and die.  However, I don’t know how much damage they might do in the meantime.

Debating Creationists

“Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” After watching the video of the entire Feb. 4th debate between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and Ken Ham, CEO of the Creation Museum, and reading various responses ranging from Phil Plait to Answers in Genesis, I thought I had something to contribute to all this chatter.

The result was decided before the event began.  I don’t think either debater converted anyone. Some think “Not only did Nye annihilate Ham in the debate…, but he helped expose Ham, and in turn, his creationist model as being completely fraudulent.”  However, these people think that the question was resolved over a century ago.  Ken Ham managed to make his ridiculous point of view seem reasonable, and I am quite confident that people who accept Creationism were confirmed in that belief.  In my opinion, Ken Ham won the battle.

Particularly compelling were Ham’s references to people with bona fide scientific credentials who embrace the idea that the earth is around 6,000 years old.  At first, I thought it was incredible that, for example, an astronomer would find nothing in his field that would contradict the story found in Genesis.  But there are such people.

Think of the scientists working in the oil industry, or funded by the oil industry, or simply aware of how dependent our civilization is on burning fossil fuels, who deny that human pollution is contributing to a change in the global climate.  Or think of the scientists working in the tobacco industry half a century ago who spent years attempting to refute the proposition that tobacco was harmful and addictive.  They would hold to their position despite overwhelming evidence.  For these people, what was at stake was merely their career.

Now imagine that you believe that what is at stake is your eternal soul, that questioning  what you read in Bible, the Word of God, would lead to questioning the entire premise of the faith, and ultimately, to damnation.  Faced with such a consequence, wouldn’t you grasp at any straw that enabled you to maintain your faith?  Who are we to question God?  What evidence, what reasonable argument can possibly stand up to the divine revelation?  It is not surprising that there are people trained in the sciences who cling to  any argument, no matter how far fetched, that confirms their faith in the Bible and in Jesus.

Thus, for many, the topic of the debate could be rephrased: “Has modern science refuted Christianity?”.  Some answer a resounding “Yes!”; most of these people think Nye clearly won the debate.  However, to the Creationists, their faith is more important than science, and nothing Nye could say would convince them.

The choice presented in the debate was between godless science on one hand, and a ludicrous reading of the Bible on the other.  Obviously, those are not the only choices.  Although Nye, several times, said that there are Christians, such as Francis Collins, founder of Biologus, who fully support Evolution, he was not effective in delivering this message.  Nye seemed to think of religion as a sort a social club that provides support and comfort to its members.  Nye did not acknowledge the deep spiritual, transforming power of Christianity.

Thus, one of the most important reactions to the debate was by Pat Robertson, someone I almost never agree with. Speaking about the young earth theory at the heart of Creationism, he said “There ain’t no way. … Let’s not make a joke of ourselves.”

It is my hope that there will be more debates like this in the future, but ones where the point of view of mainstream science is presented by Christians who understand and believe the Bible.  It is these people who can speak to the Creationists where they live and who have a realistic hope getting them to realize the folly of this pseudo scientific fiction, without destroying their faith in Jesus.

In the end, Nye did exactly what Richard Dawkins warned about: he gave the Creationists “the oxygen of respectability in the world of real science“.  However, the Creationists have been smoldering without this oxygen for a long time, and they have been doing quite well.  Perhaps they need some oxygen in order to finally burn out.  Nye treated them with dignity and respect; this can have positive results.  Once the Creationists know that they have been heard, perhaps that they will be able to listen to reason.  So, although he was on a fool’s errand, Nye did good.