Christians and methodological naturalism (1)

Over on BioLogos I’ve been involved (possibly too much) in a couple of quite fruitful exchanges based on blog series appearing there about the sociology and philosophy of science. If I’d been aware of this two part essay by Alvin Plantinga I’d probably just have given the link and bowed out, since he makes virtually the same arguments as I did, only better. I’d like to say it’s a case of great minds thinking alike, but more likely I’ve just picked up the ideas through the filter of people who have read him more than I have.

One of Plantinga’s most provocative points (and slightly tangential to the BioLogos thread) is that methodological naturalism is a poorly argued concept, of no real utility and cuts across the ability of Christians (specifically) to do the best science they can. Amen, I say. His essay is therefore a must-read, especially part 2 in which he unpacks these ideas in some detail. As one of the foremost living philosophers of science, and a Christian, his arguments should be taken seriously by all Christians in science. But it’s clear from his infrequent mention on BioLogos that many are unfamiliar with him, which is surprising given its mission. Where he is mentioned, it is more often than not to dismiss him summarily.

I could usefully reiterate his reasoning here, but having provided the links would prefer to address some different questions. These centre on why it is that Christians in science, who might be expected to rejoice in a fellow-believer of such note within the field, should reject his ideas and prefer to support methodological naturalism. This despite the fact that MN originated as the practical wing of metaphysical naturalism, is frequently used within science to deny God’s existence, and prevents consideration in science of many central Christian truths that bear on its subject matter.
The usual answer given is that science is “properly” conducted in a neutral way, excluding personal faith commitments. I shall return to why this is said later, as it’s only half an answer. But at face value it’s strange, when as Plantiga makes very clear, science overall is very far from metaphysically neutral in practice, and the bias towards metaphysical naturalism ought to be obvious to anyone, and considered a serious matter by Christians. Let me, though, assume for the moment that science has specific valid reasons for forbidding any reference to Christian truth commitments. It is presumably unique in this … but is it? Coming from outside science proper, I’m all too familiar with the same imposition of secularism elsewhere.

My old medical practice had been started, back in 1947, as a Christian “mission”. But throughout my career it became increasingly unacceptable to discuss faith with patients. The “special” grounds were that sick people are “vulnerable” and ought to be protected from religion. Nowadays even independent practitioners have been suspended for offering to pray with sick people.

My wife was a teacher. When she started, it was fine for her to start a “Christian Club” at her primary school. She would lose her job if she did it nowadays, for the “special” reason that children are too impressionable to be taught religion. She never taught RE as a subject, but I know many teachers who did. It was made clear to them (and surprisingly many concurred) that personal expressions of faith were not permissible, the “special” reason being that all faiths (meaning those few on the syllabus rather than, say, animism or Mormonism) ought to be given equal status. Nobody seemed bothered that this actually meant no “faith” was taught at all, but only an uncommitted and secularist “comparative religion.”

One of my best Christian friends was in the music business. Although self-expression is what music is all about, it was axiomatic in the industry that lyrics arising from Christian commitment were the wrong kind of self-expression. That’s for the “special” reason that people want to be entertained by music, not indoctrinated. “Sing if you’re glad to be gay”, you must understand, is entertainment, whereas “Sing if you love the Lord” is indoctrination.

BBC journalist Jeremy Vine said in an interview:

One of the things I think, which may sound bizarre, is that Christ is who he said he was. I don’t think I’d put that out on my show; I suppose there is a bit of a firewall between thinking that and doing the job I do.

Strangely enough, it was quite acceptable for that other BBC Jeremy, Paxman (not Clarkson!) to call Creationists “stupid people” when interviewing Richard Dawkins. The “special” reason for the difference there is … well, broadcasting standards should cover it. Jeremy the Clarkson, being an iconoclast, usually gets away with insults to any religion. He just hasn’t got round to mocking atheism yet.

The “special” reason for nurses being dismissed for wearing crosses is hygiene. The “special” reason for office workers being forbidden to mention their faith is that those other faiths might be offended. That’s the same “special” reason why a kids’ beach mission, which a church in our nearby Jurassic Coast resort has operated every summer since time immemorial, is now to be refused permission to operate – only in this case the “other faiths” being offended is, I gather, one atheist.

When one puts all these examples together, the “special reasons” why religion should be excluded begin to look like “any excuse.” The overall impression is that any situation in which one might wish to employ or express ones Christian faith is the wrong situation. Or you could express that as, “We who are in power wish to suppress religion.” Returning to science, that seems not a million miles from the spirit of Richard Lewontin’s phrase about “not letting God get a foot in the door”. Nor indeed is it far from the stated motives of some of the most celebrated names in science. I’ve just this moment heard Richard Dawkins say, unchallenged, on the BBC news that Christopher Hitchens was not only a great atheist (fair comment in an obituary) but also a champion “against all tyrants, including God.”

That being the case, why might it be that so many Christians in science, rather than looking around and saying, “Something’s very wrong here,” instead nod sagely and say, “They’re absolutely right – the integrity of science requires that we leave our faith at the laboratory door”?

I’ll make some tentative suggestions on that in my next post.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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6 Responses to Christians and methodological naturalism (1)

  1. Cal says:

    I think you meant to write Christopher, unless I miss the irony of the comment on Hitchens.

    I’d agree in a sense against allowing a certain worldview commitment to be doled out as “neutral” and “true” without consideration.

    I guess I’m not so worried or upset about all the people in your country banning religious iconography of any stripe or making it the bizarre conglomerate “religious studies”. It’s bound to happen and the memory of a at time corrupt, culturally domineering state-church still floats through the history books. It is pendulum swing. No servant is greater than his master, maybe the ripping down of the facade of cultural-christendom will actually allow the message of the Gospel to interact with people. I like to think it is a good thing for the spreading of the Word.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Cal, you’re right on both counts – I’ll quickly correct the confusion of Christopher with his (very different) brother.

    Of course, though, even the image of the domineering state Church needs to take into account who is now writing the history. At every stage of state-religion repression, there were also Christians speaking for freedom and themselves objects of repression. When push comes to shove, for the state to suppress the religious expression of individuals in the name of secularism does little to make up for the state’s suppressing the religious expression of individuals in the name of religion.

    And most of those joining in the jollity now can boast of no more persecution by the Church than having to sing hymns in boring school assemblies.

  3. Cal says:

    It doesn’t make up for it, and it won’t make anything better. I guess the thing is that what else would you expect? Before I was regenerate, when I heard the word ‘Church’ or ‘Christian’ I looked for all the physical, sociological expressions of it. The great cathedrals and building projects and all that type of stuff. I couldn’t understand the reality of what Jesus was saying and it sure didn’t help I had no incentive to open a Bible.

    Plenty of Christians refused the Canterybury and refused Rome and paid with their lives, and in the cause of Christ Himself no less. The secular state will collapse in on itself because tyranny is apart of sin, man is bound to have his tower fall. But atleast, without the facade of ‘christendom’, people will now not be neutral to the message of the Gospel. The less it sounds like a cultural fable, the better.

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Well, it’s sure an incentive to witness despite any prohibitions and damn the torpedoes. Anecdote to follow on the blog, I think, when I’ve a moment…

  5. Cal says:

    Looking forward to it! 🙂

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