Science or Theology: Which Would You Rather Do Without?

In an article for The Guardian a few years back, secularist Terry Sanderson claimed:

I look at it this way. If science disappeared from human memory, we would soon be living in caves again. If theology disappeared from human memory, no one would notice. Theology is a completely and utterly useless pursuit. It is self-indulgence of the first order.

This kind of assertion is, no doubt, convincing to many. It’s easy to see the benefits of science: modern medicine, improvements in transportation and communication. The list could go on. To those in the West, theology, on the other hand, seems far less consequential to modern life, if not outright irrelevant. I suspect that if you were to survey westerners, the percentage of people who would choose science over theology would be in the high nineties. I even suspect that the numbers would likely be quite similar among Christians as well. But this survey would say nothing about the social value of science over theology. It would only reveal an ignorant perception about science that is popular in western culture. This perception, however, betrays a misunderstanding of both science and theology. The dichotomy created by Sanderson is a false one. The choice between science or theology isn’t a real choice. We wouldn’t have had science without theology in the first place, and we won’t continue to have the benefits of science long without it.

According to Sanderson, without science we’d end up living in caves, and without theology, society would move along unchanged. But, there are several ways for us to all end up in caves. One way is by forgetting science, as Sanderson mentions. Another and far more likely way for us to end up in caves comes by using science. It’s interesting to note that we are keenly aware of the second possibility. In every film in which all of human society collapses, it’s never because society forgot science. It’s always because we used science to destory ourselves. It’s always because of science, not the lack of it. Humans do not merely appreciate what science has done for them, they also fear what science can do to them. And rightly so. Science can neither guarantee its own progress nor its positive use. Whether science is used for good or for evil, and whether it progresses or regresses cannot be determined by any scientific study. Science is no more inclined to work toward human benefit than it is toward human destruction. Sanderson thinks the thing that he values is pure science, but he’s confused. What he really values is the good ends for which scientific study has been used. However, were science to be used to bring about ends he didn’t like (and it certainly can be), he’d curse it and wish for its demise as much as he does theology.

Science itself can’t guarantee that it will be used for good things. The only thing that can guarantee this is a particular world view context which encourages both good uses for science and scientific development. Whether he knows it or not, what Sanderson actually values is the world view and not the science, since science has no inherent value. It is a world view that has delivered the good uses for science rather than the evil ones and not science itself. And what world view is it that does this? It’s the same world view that delivered science in the first place: the Judeo-Christian world view in general, and the Christian worldview in particular. Science is almost entirely the product of western culture, and the part of western culture is largely the product of Christianity. My claim is that Christian theology is more than just compatible with science. It is the primary system of belief which has motivated scientific study and made it possible both historically and ideologically, and thus one isn’t allowed to choose to let go of theology from social memory while still holding onto science.

The great achievements and discoveries in science were not the product of Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or secular cultures. Secularism likes to co-opt science as it’s accomplishment, but the history of science just doesn’t support this agenda. We owe the existence of science largely to a host of Jewish and Christian scientists. Science grew out of the belief that God created an orderly and understandable world, that he gave us kingly dominion over the world in order that we may serve it, care for it, and develop it. It was made for God’s glory and as we learn about the wonders of God’s world we can praise him for what he has done. Before this world view came on the scene, humankind was busy thinking of the parts of nature as either gods, or the whimsical behavior of the gods. They worshiped it in an attempt to appease the gods rather than studied it as the handiwork of a creator who exists outside of his creation.

The modern scientific view of nature seems so obvious to us now, but what is obvious to us wasn’t at all obvious before. It came about through careful thought, and careful experimentation. It developed gradually, with various people filling in the picture little by little over centuries. Sanderson is ignorant of how science got to the point where he appreciates it. He starts the story in the present, where we already have science that delivers us modern medicine and iPods. He seems to think of contemporary science as an inevitable part of our destiny. It was not inevitable. There are still civilizations of millions of people who have existed for thousands of years and they’re still busy worshiping the Sun, thinking that thunder is the anger of a god or gods, and they dance to get it to rain. Science hasn’t occurred to them and it didn’t have to occur to us. In fact, from what I can tell, if his world view of chaos and random chance had had its way, science would have never existed. Without Christian theology in which it grew, there’s a fairly good chance he’d view of nature as the ancients did.

A man (Sanderson, in this case) living in the twenty-first century telling us that we don’t need Christian theology when we’ve got science is like an arrogant teenager telling us that he never needed his parents since he already exists and can provide for himself. And just how does he think he got here, and how did he come to be able to provide for himself? Actually Sanderson’s statement is worse. It may well be true that the teenager has reached a point of independence from his parents, but science has not reached and never could reach this kind of independence from theology.

In the twentieth century, we were only given a glimpse of the evil for which science can be used to perpetrate on the human race (Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao, to name a few). Outside of the theological context which motivated science in the first place to pursue the things which Sanderson likes, science can become the bain of human existence, an embarrassing example of the danger we pose to ourselves when we think that we can despense with theology. The same goes for scientific advancement. The kind of advancement we’ve seen is parasitic on a culture that values aggressive academic study, curiosity, creativity, and self-motivation. Right now scientific practice and research enjoys living in the afterglow of belief in orthodox Christian theology which proved that it could deliver on what is necessary for scientific progresss. But everyone of these qualities is on the decline in western culture that increasingly despises Christian theology, and the progress we assume will continue could easily screech to hault in future generations. Furthermore, aggressive scientific study is depenedent upon economic strength, and economic strength is dependent upon personal responsibility and trust of one’s neighbor. Once again, western culture has thrived economically under the values of Christian theology, but where these decline, so will scientific progress.

Ultimately, we can’t chose between science and theology because we can’t have science in the way we appreciate without theology. And where we have a rich theological tradition, it yields a fruitful science that benefits humankind — even those like Sanderson who want to despense with the the very theology which science so desperately needs.

About Pastor John Fraiser

Pastor Fraiser didn't begin as a Lutheran, but he became one as soon as he could. He grew up as a Baptist and received his M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. With time on his hands following his seminary studies, he began reading the writings of Martin Luther and became convinced that Lutheran doctrine was a faithful presentation of the doctrine of Scripture and answered many of his perplexing Baptist questions. After joining the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, he went on for graduate philosophy studies, while also taking post-graduate courses at Concordia Seminary. Though he intended to teach philosophy in a university setting, he also applied as a candidate for ordination through the Synod’s colloquy program with the plans of bi-vocational parish ministry. Following colloquy, he assisted in a vacancy at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in LaGrange, Kentucky where he was eventually called as pastor. He said 'no' to a philosophy PhD fellowship and was ordained on Luther’s ordination date – April 3rd – in 2011. Pr. Fraiser is married to Emily, and they have a four-year-old daughter named Jillian.


Science or Theology: Which Would You Rather Do Without? — 9 Comments

  1. At first I thought I would not want to do without either science or theology as both are examples of God’s gifts to us. But then I thought if forced to make a choice I would give up science, because man uses it sometimes to go against God and His Will.

  2. @Bruce Kintz #1
    Yes, it’s most definitely a false dilemma. The science that we appreciate grew from the soil of Christian theology. Lose the theology from cultural consciousness, and we’ll end up with either a science used for destructive purposes or the loss of science itself.

  3. Has it occurred to Mr. Sanderson that one cannot find morality in science? The gospel itself aside, you cannot find morality outside of religion. In this sense, atheism is parasitic, as it cannot formulate its own morality in an absolute manner.

  4. Here’s the thing: in this world science, as Luther said, is God’s gift, but in regard to the world to come it is a whore. If this world is all there is, then let reason and sense perception rule without restraint (which would satisfy 55% of Great Britain, but maybe 30 % of the world).

    I don’t want that because as a rational human I find atheism–however much I adored the late Christopher Hitchens–to be a despairing and circular dead-end.

    But if atheists must prevail in this world, Xians, by their very faith and hope, can and will concede. For when this age ends and the next begins, then we shall live. Enjoy your party.

    Bene note: I think the proposal offers a false alternative…just sayin’

  5. @Qaliph #4
    Qaliph, if you think that what I’ve done is offer a proposal that we choose between science or theology, then you haven’t read the post carefully at all.

  6. The tendency to look down on the past with disdain and glorify in present achievements is such a disturbing trend in our present world.

    Thank you for a great article and one I will share with my students.

  7. Falseness of Naturalism and Ignorance

    The “falseness” is when Naturalism is allowed to present itself as a “True Science” when in fact it is blind emotionalism and irrational pseudo-science. To accuse non-proponents of Naturalism as “Zealots” is pure intolerance.

    My experience as a holder of three graduate degrees in Science (PhD, MA, and MS and about 250 Graduate units) is that I earned respect from everyone in my programs by out-working them and excelling! I have successfully and rationally defended Intelligent Design to even my most radical professors in Biochemistry and Molecular Bio-sciences.

    What is amazing (and amusing) to me is the people with the most advice on how I should believe about science and faith, often have little or no background in science. I teach Chemistry and Mathematics, yet they know better than I! This reminds me of what Luther says about lazy preachers in the LC Introduction:

    “But for myself I say this: I am also a doctor and preacher, yea, as learned and experienced as all those may be who have such presumption and security; yet I do as a child who is being taught the Catechism, and ever morning, and whenever I have time, I read and say, word for word, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, etc. And I must still read and study daily, and yet I cannot master it as I wish, but must remain a child and pupil of the Catechism, and am glad so to remain. And yet these delicate, fastidious fellows would with one reading promptly be doctors above all doctors, know everything and be in need of nothing. Well, this, too, is indeed a sure sign that they despise both their office and the souls of the people, yea, even God and His Word. They do not have to fall, they are already fallen all too horribly; they would need to become children, and begin to learn their alphabet, which they imagine that they have long since outgrown.”

    “O LORD, thy word * endureth for ever in heaven.
    Thy truth also remaineth from one generation to another; * thou hast laid the foundation of the earth, and it abideth.
    They continue this day according to thine ordinance; * for all things serve thee.
    If my delight had not been in thy law, * I should have perished in my trouble.
    I will never forget thy commandments; * for with them thou hast quickened me.
    I am thine: O save me, * for I have sought thy commandments.

    Psalm 119:89-94 (Coverdale, 1535 based on Luther)

  8. Although this debate is typically posed as science vs theology, what many people really believe in is not science but technology. How many people recognize that the Bohr model of the atom used as the ‘science’ illustration was rejected long ago (was the irony intentional in that the illustration for science is an invalidated model, while the illustration for theology presumably is intended to show the unchanging nature of Biblical study?) What people want are not more accurate models of the atom, but better medicines, faster computers, bigger TV screens and so forth. That’s why engineers are generally paid more than basic scientists.

    My point is that while this debate is typically posed by secularists as a choice between science and theology, in reality people aren’t really choosing between two intellectual philosophies (a false dichotomy, as noted), they are choosing the tangible benefits derived from application of scientific knowledge over the intangible benefits of theology. Since most people don’t understand science, but rather they know how to use technology, it would be accurate to state that many people are choosing to put their faith in science (more accurately, scientific materialism) over a faith in God. But it’s a conceit on the part of most secularists to assert that they have made the choice of a more rational way of viewing the world over a less rational one. Rather they are more comfortable with a faith in science because they consider the technology derived from it as a tangible proof of their faith over a faith derived from theology, whose proof is intangible.

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