Who has pottered by this way, then?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

On why the Church should stand up for Science a little more.

I was reading an article on the Guardian's website about how scientists are fearing a 'return to the Dark Ages' as vested business interests effectively buy influence over governments (notably the US) in order to overlook overwhelming scientific evidence which is contrary to their commercial interests when developing legislation and public policy.

This change in culture may be one which defines a key difference between the 20th and 21st centuries: the former being partly characterised by western civilisation seeing science as a pro-active and largely positive tool for human advancement whereas the current century may well see those same western cultures becoming increasingly sceptical about scientific discoveries and returning to a model of merely asserting truths based on cherry-picked (if any) evidence as the basis of science without any kind of published, peer reviewed, controlled, duplicable experimental data. Indeed, the danger is that a culture of mistrust of science in general builds up so that any hint of scientific basis behind an argument is actually seen as a negative. The anti-science movement is in full swing and is in danger of building up momentum.

Why should the Church be concerned about this? Well, quite aside from the fact that I think everyone ought to be concerned about the specific issues under discussion in that article, the Church should be taking a lead in standing up for truth in all its forms. And by Church (with a capital letter), I mean its members and prevailing culture. Me and people like me, in other words.

There's a problem here, in that the wider presumption is that science and faith will always be on opposite sides of the fence. This is how it publicly plays out for the most part, at least in popular media portrayal and - sadly - in public utterances from some clergy, too. And there may well be good reason for arguments and discussions on issues where the two spheres overlap, but the right of science to explore truth is important because truth itself is. Interestingly, both science and faith suffer from either partial- or mis-reporting in the press. The problem basically is that kaleidoscopically technical arguments in both disciplines don't often translate into the simple, primary-coloured pictures of print media or the sound-bites needed for the breakfast TV sofa. Another reason why a more nuanced understanding of complex issues should be defended by all sides. For instance, it would have been good to see some significant Church figures wading in to point out the fatuousness of attacking Richard Dawkins on the basis of having slave-owners in his ancestry. The Church of England itself hardly has clean hands on that one, for a start, let alone the whole issue of "So what?". I mean, I'm no Darwinian expert, but I'm pretty sure that being a slave-owner is not a genetically transmissible trait.

Throughout the last century, science did indeed provide humankind with enormous benefits, but it unleashed monsters too: weapons of mass destruction at the extreme end, and things with unforeseen consequences or which we needed to devise new structures to control, or work out the moral side of at the other. For instance, contraception is one area in which faith and science have each had a lot to bring to the discussion. The contraceptive pill put women in greater control of their bodies and was broadly welcomed by the Church of England. However, contraception was keenly discussed as a potential tool in eugenics earlier in the same century. (And, having thus annoyed people on both sides of the argument, can I point out that these are just two of the plethora of points to be made on either side of that one - I'm not equating Christianity with one and Science with the other, here!).

The lesson from this is that neither Science nor the Church can appeal to its own history for justification and we should most probably stop beating each other with historically informed sticks. Glass-houses and stones, and all that.

So should the Church be on the side of science, come what may? Of course not. Issue by issue, discovery by discovery, we should be engaging in the discussion of the moral and social impact of science's discoveries and similarly, engaging in discussion about the limits of appropriate areas of research. But we must defend science as an honest, truthful human endeavour, and challenge where we see it being misrepresented through partial or incorrect use of data or distorting its conclusions to fit a different agenda. Frankly this is so widespread as to make it feel like you're wasting your time in pointing out errors, but a good start is to be a bit more critical and science-savvy yourself. Try to ask yourself "Where's the data for this?" when you read a science-based story, or to mentally at least question whether a claimed cause and effect can truly be said to be linked. I have to say that, having brought my daughters up with this approach, I've made a rod for my own back. They've been brought up on a mixture of the Bible and Ben Goldacre's 'Bad Science' when it comes to questioning the world around them which makes for keeping their Dad on his toes but also for some quite inspiring scepticism when it comes to cosmetic ads.
For an interesting take from a chemist on cosmetic ads, this is worth a read.

The flip side of that is that we should also be brave enough to challenge our theology in the light of science. My own denomination, the Church of England appeals to Scripture, Tradition and Reason in its approach to truth. As the blogger Archbishop Cranmer comments today, one of the reasons why Anglicans don't do unity particularly well is that we aren't papal in our decision-making structure, but rather have this more collegiate, synod-based model where local areas are left to prayerfully work out how their local tradition and their reasonings mix in with scripture to come to some kind of answer. A pig's ear? At times, yes. But one I am rather at home in.

As an Anglican, therefore, I defend Reason wherever it is found and, especially, where doing so makes me uncomfortable or challenges me to weigh what is discovered against scripture and tradition. This is a healthy tension to have in ones faith, but seldom a cosy one.

And may the Lord save us from being too cosy.


  1. This is an issue I've thought and written about quite a bit - in particular in my book (here) - and the somewhat ironic conclusion I reach is that we can only preserve science if we acknowledge its spiritual roots as a holy endeavour - in other words, contra Dawkins, it is the Christians who will be able to do science best in the long run.

  2. Thanks for your response Sam - and all the best with the book!