Maintaining integrity; my response to Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has weighed in on the science vs religion debate. In a recent interview he proclaimed that he doesn’t see faith and reason being reconciled. One website seemed to get very excited about it. Like many newspaper articles however, the headline doesn’t seem to match the rest of it.

As he explains his position, it becomes clear his difficulty is with a literalistic interpretation of scripture put forward by certain Christian groups; interpretations he openly acknowledges that are not held by everyone. If you take the Bible and try overlay modern scientific discoveries and terminology, then you are absolutely going to run into a lot of problems. This isn’t the fault of science or the Bible, but of the person using them in such a manner.  As Peter Enns puts it:

These are ancient stories that ask ancient questions and give ancient answers to those questions and it’s our obligation to find out what those are…’s a matter of expectations. The assumption that science and bible need to be in some meaningful conversation from my point of view that’s exactly the problem. When we begin there we’re creating problems for ourselves that we would otherwise wisely avoid.

When approaching the Bible, the question should be what is the Bible trying to say, what were the authors trying to convey? It’s not as simple as saying “oh it’s figurative, myth etc”, the Bible authors simply were not asking the questions we are. We should engage with it in the context of the ancient world.

The moment you say “the Bible says” you are no longer dealing in science; you’re talking theology and biblical scholarship, but it’s not about accepting science over the Bible, or believing one to be more “true” than the other, it’s about maintaining the integrity of both.

Following on from the point of maintaining integrity, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s main concern seems to be with what is being pushed as science and is trying to be smuggled into science classes. On this he will find support from many religious scientists, who have been on the receiving end of abuse from those who do not hold to the evolution paradigm. We need to distinguish between the claims of young earth creationists for example, and saying that God is responsible for the creation of the universe. Young earth creationists take Genesis as literal history and a scientific account and anything that disagrees with it is wrong, including the age of the earth, decay rates, etc. They start with presupposing what the findings should be and interpret from there. As Francis Collins puts it in his book The Language of God,

If these claims were actually true, it would lead to a complete and irreversible collapse of the sciences of physics, chemistry, cosmology, geology and biology

Simply saying that God is responsible for the creation of the universe is very different. This is not re-interpreting or ignoring the scientific data; and it’s not a conclusion that comes out of what we don’t know but out of what we do. What science finds regarding age of the universe, evolution of species etc, in no way threatens believing God is ultimately behind it all.  Much like when they found the Higgs Boson, the more science finds out the more I go ““wow, how amazing is God to design that?” The more I know about anything, the more I appreciate those with the skills to design or create it, but I’m not invoking that person as an explanation to cover over what I don’t know. If science hasn’t answered yet then so be it, I don’t feel the need to have to insert God to fill the gap, though I will consider the possibility that it’s a question that science can’t answer because it’s not designed to (which is another massive topic in itself). I don’t have to choose between God and science. So whilst I think the Bible and science are separate and possibly should be kept that way, they are not in conflict or incompatible and should be interpreted in light of the fields they belong to, i.e they should critique themselves as opposed to each other. Some standpoints are just as bad theologically as they are scientifically.

Neil deGrasse Tyson does touch on a massively important point regarding the basis of faith, which I think sums up everything so far:

“….if that’s where you’re going to put your God in this world, then God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance…….If you’re going to stay religious at the end of the conversation, God has to mean more to you than just where science has yet to tread”

He is absolutely right, and this is a position too many Christians find themselves in even though it’s not a faith advocated by Jesus and the Bible. This kind of faith is blind faith and absolutely is incompatible with reason by its definition; but it’s not a faith that is universally applicable. As I have argued elsewhere (here, here and here), the Christian faith has evidence to support it and is based on evidence. As Paul Davies has argued, faith plays a part in science

Even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith that the universe is not absurd, that there is a rational basis to physical existence manifested as a lawlike order in nature that is at least in part comprehensible to us. So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is obviously a very passionate scientist, committed to seeing science carried out correctly. So are many scientists who are religious, who share similar concerns that he expressed. Whilst I disagree with his overall conclusion, he has raised and brought to light some issues that are very well worth exploring and need addressing; and many Christians are already doing so, with this being my partial attempt. For the conversation to be worthwhile, the integrity of the relevant fields should be maintained and discussed on their own terms. Then we can start having a discussion.


3 thoughts on “Maintaining integrity; my response to Neil deGrasse Tyson

  1. Sam says:

    Yes. Scripture is not a science text book. It was not so intended. I probably read the Genesis accounts of creation much less literally than many do. Those accounts re beautiful, almost poetic. To me, they express the confidence that the universe is not a chaotic mess, but well- designed by the master designer we call God. So are we.

    Trying to use those texts to prove the age of the earth, whether or not dinosaurs existed and those sorts of things doesn’t work. That was not the intention of those texts.

    Scripture has been used by people to prove their point of view on many things. That exposes a very basic misunderstanding of the purpose of Scripture, especially when it is used as a club against other people.

  2. […] on the one side and some Christians saying we should discard evolution on the other. As I’ve written, I think the integrity of both should be maintained which does put me in the middle of both, […]

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