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The GG, religion and science (I)

Many Christians believe that “a natural process” and “divine intervention” do not have to be mutually exclusive categories when it comes to creation.

Last fall Julie Payette, our new Governor General, attracted some attention from religious circles when, at a gathering of scientists, she said, “And we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process.”

For Christians, Payette’s comments were widely interpreted as indicating her doubt that one can both hold a belief that God created the cosmos and be a good scientist. She was contrasting religious beliefs with science in a way that pitted them against each other. However, many Christians believe that “a natural process” and “divine intervention” do not have to be mutually exclusive categories. Instead, scientists are simply unfolding and illuminating the methods that God used in creation – including “natural processes.” For example, Denis Lamoureux, a Christian scientist at St. Joseph’s College, University of Alberta, asserts, “If the limits of both science and religion are respected, then their relationship can be complementary.”

This perspective raises concerns for me. First, we believe that Christ is Lord over all creation; there is no square inch that is not our Lord’s. Therefore, science too is subject to our Lord’s ownership. Does this change how we do science? Do Christians and atheists approach science differently? Does our worldview matter in science? Second (a question for another time): we talk about the two books of God, his creation and his Word. What happens when our understanding of both conflict?

These are big questions that have engaged Christians, and others, for centuries. In the academy, the first set of questions is often raised as part of broader discussions about the role of diversity in science and learning. Do women and men differ in how they do science and in the questions they ask? Does a person with an Indigenous background add a different way of looking at the world? In my department a PhD student designed, as an academic exercise, a course in Indigenous Psychology. Does such a course make sense?

Two views
One response to these questions is to say that the diversity of scientists enriches the questions asked, reveals new perspectives and highlights aspects of the world that may have remained hidden, but it does not change the method and outcome of science. Having multiple worldviews present at the table enriches the potential for creativity and discovery, but the scientific discoveries that result are not fundamentally different and do not depend on the scientists’ worldviews.

A second response is to say that differing worldviews do result in science that is, at its core, fundamentally different. In other words, because Indigenous psychology is different from Western psychology and both are different from a Christian psychology, each view will fundamentally change how one does psychology. For example, it will shape which human characteristics are important. For Christians, concepts like sin and forgiveness are important constructs that need to play an important role in psychology, whereas for non-Christians they may be irrelevant except as beliefs that certain people hold.

Within the context of this second response, we argue that there is a difference between being a Christian scientist and doing Christian science – between being a scientist who holds Christian beliefs and being a scientist who does science Christianly. The latter is what drives Christian universities like The King’s and Redeemer, and why they are important and needed. They provide a context within which to explore what it means to do science Christianly and to actually try putting this distinct approach into practice.

For those who hold the first response to the questions of diverse worldviews, our Governor General was wrong in contrasting religious and scientific viewpoints; they can easily be complementary. She was confusing different starting points with equivalent methods. But for those who advocate for the second response, Payette was right in contrasting two views of the world, one that recognises this is God’s creation and one that argues this is a cosmos with no creator. The resulting sciences then are fundamentally incompatible.

But are these the only two ways of approaching the role diverse worldviews play in science? I’ll explore this question in my next column.

  • Rudy Eikelboom is a Professor of Psychology, at Wilfrid Laurier University, who has emerged from the dark side of the University after being department chair for 9 years and now teaches behavioural statistics to graduate and undergraduate psychology students. His retirement looms and he is looking forward to doing more writing on the implications of modern science for our Christian faith. Currently, he serves as a pastoral elder at the Waterloo Christian Reformed Church.

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