The Challenge of Bringing Unsettled Science to the Church

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Sir Fred Hoyle, the Cambridge astronomer who helped formulate how nuclear reactions inside stars form heavier elements, famously defended the steady state theory of the universe against mounting evidence for the Big Bang. In fact, the term “Big Bang” was coined by Hoyle, who used it in a BBC Radio program to dismiss an idea which he felt was too friendly to the notion of a creator God.  It’s an example of how one’s worldview—atheism for Hoyle—can impact how we approach science.

And it’s also a risk for believers tempted to celebrate particular discoveries of science, because of the unsettled nature of nearly all scientific claims.

We Must Follow the Evidence

Recently Greg, assisted by neurorehabilitation psychologist Leonard Matheson, wrote about oxytocin in creating human bonds and facilitating loving connections. A friendly neuroscientist—one who is theologically trained and known to bring science into the church—reached out to us and noted that the science around oxytocin is not settled. Popular accounts focus on studies that show its role in bonding, building trust, and connecting mothers with their infants. Headlines have called oxytocin a “love drug” or the “moral molecule.”

What the popular accounts miss is the levels of complexity regarding oxytocin. Our friend wrote, “The story of oxytocin is fraught and linked to problems of replication, measurement, and to antisocial phenomena such as outgroup aggression and certain forms of male aggression.” This makes him uncomfortable identifying it as a “sure sign of divine grace.”

I discovered similar issues a few years ago after making several claims around mirror neurons during a church program. In researching those claims further for a newsletter, I discovered there was new evidence that was changing the narrative about mirror neurons (such as their link to empathy). That led to this newsletter: “A Slice of Humble Pie.”

The early, headline-grabbing claims around mirror neurons fit nicely with my understanding of God and how I wanted to believe God knit humans in our mother’s wombs. But if we take the God-given ability to do science seriously—which we most definitely do—we must follow the evidence which all too often is incomplete. Usually the deeper we enquire, the more complex things become. Some studies simply fail to replicate results, but others show that initial claims may only be partly correct or may have missed the mark entirely.



God of the Gaps and its Flipside

Any decent Science and Faith 101 course will teach the dangers of the God of the Gaps. When we use the Creator to plug the holes in current scientific understanding, we do the gospel a great disservice as future science will likely come along and fill those gaps making God unnecessary.  We don’t want to give critics of faith ammunition in their claims against believers.

But the flip side can be every bit as dangerous: we can link aspects of our Christian belief too closely to any single scientific claim. If our doctrine of creation requires a Big Bang, what would happen if Fred Hoyle 2.0 comes along and not only find cracks in the Big Bang but outlines a theory that better accounts for the evidence.

This, I think, was part of the concern of our friendly neuroscientist. Making claims about oxytocin and linking them too closely to beliefs that God created us creatures capable of love, would be problematic if those studies linking oxytocin to aggression became the consensus understanding.

The Temptation at Hand

Personally, I easily avoid the God of the Gaps—I’m not tempted to claim God as the source of dark energy that is causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate. Nor do I feel we need to posit God as the proximate cause for the origin of life.

The harder temptation for me is those claims in science that are very friendly to my understanding of God and match what I expect things to look like if Christianity is true.

Much of my excitement in engaging science as a believer is to understand specific claims of science and to put them in conversation with the specific claims of our faith. I resonate a lot with the two-book preacher we interviewed last week. For example, I love the question, “What kind of God would create the world in the ways reflected by this or that scientific claim?”

However, when engaging with specific scientific claims, it is essential to always follow the evidence. We should avoid anchoring our core beliefs to any particular claim, as any claim can change with new evidence.

Mitigating the Risk

Let me offer two ways to mitigate the risks in engaging scientific claims.

First, follow our Standard Model approach. The best way to engage science in the church is with scientific partners who are conversant with the relevant science and who can be our guides. This won’t eliminate the risk—not all scientists will agree on all scientific claims—but having friendly neuroscientists or physicists or anthropologists involved will reduce the chance of a mistake and, at the same time, greatly enrich our conversations around science.

Second, approach the interface of science and theology with a healthy dose of humility. Both domains are big and complicated, even more so when we bring them together for dialogue. Enter the conversation knowing that science can change and demands us to follow the evidence and that theology is trying to understand the One who by definition is beyond comprehension.

Greg always avoids the God of the Gaps, and he mitigated the theological risks in his piece on oxytocin. He writes, “Am I proclaiming the gospel of oxytocin? Not really.” We still believe the claim of the gospel that God is love and, to again quote Greg, “[humans] are created for love.” We expect there to be evidence of this in the brain. Maybe it’s oxytocin but maybe not.

It’s not the first time we have brought an unsettled scientific assertion alongside core Christian claims. What’s important is that, like any decent scientist, we follow the evidence and, as needed, have the humility to walk back unwarranted claims.

Conversations with Matheson and our friendly neuroscientist will continue. We take seriously our Standard Model and always approach our work with humility. We also trust that the Spirit is at work as we follow the evidence.

That appears to have been the case with Fred Hoyle. He eventually walked back his claims for the steady state theory and accepted the Big Bang. Moreover, he later admitted evidence he discovered on how carbon atoms form in stars led him to question the very atheism that motivated his rejection of the Big Bang in the first place.

Cheers,
Drew

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