Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

Suggestions for Thinking and Talking about Science and Religion from the Soviet Resonance Controversy, a Chemical Counterpoint to Lysenkoism

Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

Suggestions for Thinking and Talking about Science and Religion from the Soviet Resonance Controversy, a Chemical Counterpoint to Lysenkoism

Article excerpt

One of us recently had the opportunity to examine a "creation-based" physical science textbook published by a Christian educational ministry. (1) Although the book used atoms to discuss matter, the author considered it important to point out that the scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) images commonly cited as evidence for their existence do not really show atoms. As the book's author correctly noted, the images are reconstructions calculated from the variation in the current between the microscope probe and surface, and there can be legitimate questions about their interpretation. (2) The author went beyond a salutary critique of naive scientific realism, however, in claiming that the images "may or may not be right" as they depended on two "big 'ifs'"--the "correctness" of quantum theory and the "theory" governing electron flow between the STM probe and tip.

At first glance, these rhetorical dismissals seemed surprising given that atoms, quantum mechanics, and theories of electron flow are hardly controversial in Christian circles. However, they are easier to understand if one considers that the parents who adopt such textbooks might have broad-ranging concerns over the implications of science's view of the world and its privileged status in contemporary culture.

Recent historical scholarship has done much to show how social factors can influence individual and communal responses to scientific claims. (3) For example, the Catholic response to Galileo is now known to be anything but an instance of religious bigotry standing in the way of well-established science. Instead, it represents a "Reformation-sensitive" response to the reasonable but as yet unestablished scientific hypotheses of a scientist who was also making theological claims about how the Bible should be interpreted. Similarly, Victorian Christian anxiety over Darwinian evolution, when present, had more to do with how evolution seemed to undercut eighteenth-century natural theology arguments and challenge contemporary perceptions of human uniqueness than it had to do with any feelings that evolution was fundamentally incompatible with Christianity. Furthermore, how particular communities responded depended heavily on local conditions and personalities. (4)

The influence of social factors is also apparent in evangelical approaches to evolution today. According to the sociologists Raymond Eve and Francis Harrold,

   [Young earth creationists] and their opponents
   tend not to differ over competing theories within
   the same intellectual framework, but in their
   most profound understandings of reality, religion,
   American society, and the nature of the scientific
   enterprise. (5)

Eve and Harrold also point out that young earth creationism has the characteristics of a movement ideology. (6) First, its ultimate aims are moral in that they are aimed at reforming science, education, and other elements of society around particular literal approaches to the Christian scriptures. Second, creationism "reevaluates the worth" of its adherents against that of its opponents by viewing them as defenders of truth and a morally good society over against the "villains" of secularism and liberal theology. Third, it has internally credible goals which include both tangible realizable short-term goals, such as enhancing the plausibility of the Christian message for evangelistic or apologetics purposes, and more nebulous, difficult-to-attain goals, such as establishing creationist ideas as the dominant con temporary intellectual framework. The intelligent design movement has similar characteristics, particularly in its "wedge strategy" for defeating "scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies" and replacing it with "the 'theistic' understanding that nature and human beings are created by God." (7) Religious opposition to mainstream climate change science can also fit this pattern when environmental claims, such as global warming, are identified with "antichristian" or "antihuman" forces in a larger culture war. …

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