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Christians Must Confront Scientific Illiteracy

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Where science is concerned, responsible Christians are caught in the vice grip of two extremes. On the one hand, there is the defiant and willful ignorance of persons like Congressman Paul Broun (R-Ga.), who famously declared during last fall's election cycle that "evolution and the big bang theory are lies straight from the pit of hell." And on the other hand, there is the cool atheism of someone like Richard Dawkins, contentedly dismissing the whole of religious experience as the magical thinking of the great superstitious mass of humankind.

Christians must provide effective witness against both extremes. But before Christianity can engage atheism it must first address the scientific illiteracy in its own house. For the greatest danger Christianity confronts at the present moment is not incipient persecution, but increasing marginalization and irrelevance. If Christians cannot engage reasonably and responsibly with science, there will be no place for them in the public life of advanced societies.

I recently had my attention called to the work of Ken Ham. I must confess that I had not heard of him, but I soon learned that he is a figure of some influence in fundamentalist circles. He was born in Australia, where he took an undergraduate degree in environmental biology. He has since immigrated to the United States, settling in Cincinnati.

He expounds a doctrine known as "young earth creationism," which promotes the view that the first chapters of Genesis must be seen as scientifically valid. The Earth was created just 6,000 years ago. Dinosaurs and human beings walked together in those early days.

"The Bible,' Ham declares, "clearly teaches that God created [Earth] in six literal, 24-hour days a few thousand years ago" (Ken Ham, "The New Answers Book, No. 1," p. 26). He then twists and turns all of the tools and findings of modern science to support this thesis. Radiocarbon dating is unreliable, Ham asserts. When "a scientist's interpretation of data does not match the clear meaning of the text in the Bible, we should never reinterpret the Bible" (p. 78). What about the "ice ages"? We need to be vigilant against those "secular/uniformitarian scientists" who understand glacial periods in terms of hundreds of thousands or millions of years (pp. 212-213).

Creation scientists, however, know better. At best, there was only one ice age, directly after Noah's Flood, and it lasted for only a few hundred years (p. 214). There never was a big bang (p. 245), and the speed of light is variable, meaning that accurate dating of the universe is impossible (p. 247).

It is easy to dismiss this stuff, but there is real danger in treating it lightly. In the secular imagination, this fantasy view of the world is fast becoming the public face of Christianity. Certainly, Ken Ham is a respected figure in his own community. He recently received an honorary degree from Liberty University. His website promotes a mix of pseudo-science and survivalism. (Check out the blog entry, "Noah the Super Prepper," May 16, 2013, AnswersinGenesis.org, for a cheerful mix of both strains of thought.) In 2007, he opened the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky, just outside of Cincinnati. In its first three years of operation, the Museum received more than 1 million visitors. Even though attendance has recently declined, more than a quarter-million annually still visit it.

Christians have not always been such enemies of science. Aside from the occasional embarrassment, such as the persecution of Galileo, science often thrived in explicitly Christian settings. In early Christianity, there was the Bishop Synesius (373- ca. 414). In his student days, Synesius, with his pagan instructor, the woman philosopher Hypatia, he explored the deep mathematical structure of the universe.

Then there is Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). A brilliant man and a Catholic monk, Copernicus held important positions in both secular and ecclesiastical government, all the while writing voluminously. A sophisticated economic thinker, Copernicus was the first to propose that increases in the money supply have a tendency to drive price inflation. But what he is remembered for today is his heliocentric theory of the solar system. Through patient observation and calculation, Copernicus displaced the earth from the center of things, reorienting the way we view everything and thereby ushering in the modern world.

Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) was an Augustinian monk and professor of natural philosophy and eventually became the abbot of his monastery. And today he is recalled for his path-breaking studies of pea plants which showed the existence of recessive and dominant genes, an essential cornerstone of modern genetics.

But of them all, my own favorite is the unjustly obscure Georges Lemaitre (1894-1966), the "father of the big bang." A Belgian priest, Fr. Lemaitre did his graduate work in theoretical physics at Cambridge University and Harvard. In 1927, while still a junior lecturer at the Catholic University of Louvain, he proposed an expansionary theory of the universe at odds with the then-prevailing belief that the universe had always existed in a steady state. Four years later, in 1931, he asserted that the entire universe began with what he called a "cosmic egg" or "primeval atom" -- a theory that Sir Fred Hoyle derisively dismissed as "the big bang." Later that same year, Fr. Lemaitre argued that not only was the universe expanding, its expansion was accelerating in speed. While it has taken decades, Lemaitre's theories have been confirmed in every major particular.

This is the heritage that Christians must reclaim and reassert. Science and religion are not opposites. Faith and reason can be reconciled in truth. And Christians, furthermore, must police their ranks. When someone like Congressman Broun -- who sits on the House Committee on Science and Technology -- denounces scientific knowledge in the name of misguided fundamentalism, Christians should be the first to call him out.