Science or Theology: Which Would You Rather Do Without?
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.