Even as people have been reflecting on the recent Pew research noting the diminishing numbers of American Christians, a recent National Geographic cover article bemoaned another sort of unbelief, claiming that “we live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge - from climate change to vaccinations - faces furious opposition.” How do we account for the way that the corrosive unbelief of our age is not just limited to matters of religion, but of science as well?
One factor is the way proponents of modern notions of reason and science have overstated their case. The idea that only things established by science and reason are true is expressed in strong form by philosopher W.K. Clifford’s axiom: “It is wrong always, everywhere, for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Of course, Clifford doesn’t answer the pressing question of what counts as sufficient evidence. Taken in a straightforward way, then, his axiom creates a large problem for the scientific community, because unless someone has access to the necessary equipment or data, most of us have to believe the scientific authorities, whom Nietzsche scathingly derided as priests of the modern world. They are gatekeepers who speak from on high with access to special knowledge that most commoners can’t have and in terms the average person can’t completely follow. Nietzsche rightly saw that science, like Christianity, operates with a metaphysical commitment to truth that grounds all inquiry. Furthermore, for both science and Christianity to function, we have to believe what people tell us.
So our age is characterized by a curious mixture. On the one hand, we have the high priests of science, such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who exhibit a kind of old-fashioned, 19th-century naiveté about the ability of science and reason to track down the truth disinterestedly. On the other hand, under the tutelage of Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, we have become masters of suspicion, assuming that any search for so-called “truth” is really a power grab. Although all three of these thinkers attacked Christianity, their suspicion could not be contained; just as it undermined Christianity, it also demythologizes the notion of the purely disinterested scientist or scientific community pursuing truth for its own sake.
As Christians observe the conflicted juxtaposition of these two positions in our contemporary life and culture, we can follow neither of them wholeheartedly. We cannot support the naïve scientism that is unaware of how science rests on basic metaphysical assumptions, is often complicit in the exploitation of creation and is blind to any kind of truth that can’t be reduced to scientific assertions. In short, we cannot follow a science that knows nothing of sin and the fallenness of both individuals and structures of our society.
But neither can we give way to the absolute suspicion and cynicism that dominate our public discourse. A certain kind of suspicion and testing are part of the scientific method itself, and that is well and good. But Christians may actually be co-belligerents with scientists against a kind of radical suspicion that believes nothing, hopes nothing and endures nothing. Nietzsche was right: Christians and scientists both begin from a stance that believes there is such a thing as truth and both recognize that there are times we need to believe what the authority on a topic tells us. We dare not be naïve about the way sin affects our knowing and our science, but there is good reason to think that people of faith might actually lead the way in believing - in science.