Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Essence of Christianity

Right now there's a conference going on in Oxford, United Kingdom—that hotbed of Christian apologetics (and Richard Dawkins). John Wilkins is there. One of the topics is defining religion [Ruminations in Oxford].

John's "ruminations" remind me of the ongoing debate over the conflict between science and religion. Everyone knows that the conflict exists but everyone has their own idea about how far it penetrates into religion. As you all know, various accommodationists are trying hard to wall off a protected area of religion that science cannot enter. That allows science and religion to co-exist peacefully.

In order to do this, the accommodationists have to define the essence of a religion. They agree that belief in a six thousand year old Earth conflicts with science but, according to them, that's not an essential belief in Christianity. The people who believe that sort of nonsense don't represent the serious "sophisticated" Christians (like the ones in theology at Oxford). So, what are the essential beliefs that don't conflict with the scientific way of acquiring knowledge?

Here's how Michael Ruse describes them in his latest book, Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science (p. 182). I wonder how many of the people at the conference will agree with Ruse about the four items that are essential for Christians? I wonder how many of them agree with Ruse that none of these four conflict with the scientific way of thinking?
With an eye to the discussion of the previous chapters, I want to pick out four items or claims that are central to Christian belief—four items that the Christian takes on faith. If you do not believe in these, then you should not call yourself a Christian. First, that there is a God who is creator, "maker of heaven and earth." Second, we humans have duties, moral tasks here on earth, in the execution of which we are going to be judged. Hence, God stands behind morality. Third, Jesus Christ came to earth and suffered because we humans are special, we are worth the effort by God. The usual way of expressing this is to say that we are "made in the image of God." We have "souls." Fourth and finally, there is the promise of "life everlasting." We can go to heaven, what ever that means.

Let me spell out carefully what I see as the task in this and the next chapter. It is not to defend Christianity as a true or compelling belief system. I take it that you can enter these chapters as an agnostic or an atheist and depart in the same frame of mind. I do not want to dissuade people from Christianity, nor do I want to convince them of it. I want to explain in a fair manner what is meant by Christianity in terms of the four points introduced in the last paragraph. I also want to show that you could hold these, if you so wish, in the light of modern science—if you prefer, in the face of modern science. In other words, the Christian's claims are not refuted by modern science—or indeed threatened or made less probable by modern science.
Here's my quick take on the four items.

1. God the creator: It's possible to imagine a Deist God who starts off the known universe then goes off somewhere to watch perpetual reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show. (Where does he go?) This sort of God does not conflict directly with science, even if you define science as a way of knowing that requires evidence, skepticism, and rationality. It's an unnecessary God but a relatively harmless one compared to some others. Nobody I know believes in such a God, including Keith Ward, Ken Miller and Francis Collins.

2. God stands behind morality and He will judge us: There's no scientific evidence to support the notion that morality has anything to do with supernatural beings and plenty of evidence against it. There's no scientific evidence that you will be judged by anyone except other humans. This belief conflicts with science.

3. Jesus Christ is/was God: The idea that a supernatural being appeared on Earth in the form of a real human and lived among a group of primitive farmers in some obscure part of the world is not consistent with anything we know by applying scientific reasoning. It conflicts with science big time. So does the idea that we have something called a "soul" that no other animal possesses.

4. When you die you go to heaven: Totally inconsistent with a scientific way of thinking. In spite of several thousand years of tying, no evidence of heaven has ever been produced. Or hell, for that matter. There is nothing about this silly belief that's even remotely consistent with science.


  1. Nobody I know believes in such a God, including Keith Miller and Francis Collins.

    You mean Ken, right?


  2. To my estimation, the great problem that modern science poses for Christian thought is the meaning of Original Sin/Redemption in the light of natural history-- it was largely this issue that motivated Fundamentalist rejection of Darwin at the start of the 20th century.

    Unlike Judaism, which can largely get away with viewing Genesis as a parable about Man's place in the universe, in Christianity even the most figurative interpretations of Genesis would seem to be badly undermined by the reality of common descent. I've never seen this satisfactorily answered by mainline apologists, all of whom seem compelled to fall back on on one sort or another of human exceptionalism, which usually look rather shaky in the light of current knowledge of animal behaviour.

    This seems to me a possibly fatal problem, as it cuts right at the heart of most Christian doctrine as formulated since the time of Augustine.

  3. People are not rational; we make almost all our decisions emotionally even if we rationalise them later. This applies in science too; I am convinced most scientists choose their position on contentious issues in their domain on the basis of what "feels" right even if their formal arguments are rational; it is post hoc rationalisation.

    So the question for the Christians is not "does science tolerate a Christian worldview?" as "does Christianity tolerate a scientific worldview?". And that's an uncomfortable decision for those who have accepted any form of Christianity wholeheartedly but know intellectually that the scientists must be right... or rather, in their minds, must be right too.

    They have a difficult journey to make; accepting the correctness of the scientific approach and worldview is one huge step, even if it does not lead them to the sensible conclusion that the Christian stories were of and for a long disappeared world.

  4. John Farrell asks,

    You mean Ken, right?

    Actually I meant Keith Ward and Ken Miller. I've been reading Keith Ward's book "The Big Questions in Science and Religion." Ward is the Regius Professor Emeritus at Oxford and an ordained priest of the Church of England.

  5. Third, Jesus Christ came to earth and suffered because we humans are special

    This is really the worst part, because while the others are mostly harmless (although not always), the belief in human specialness is not only unscientific but is directly and extremely threatening our own survival. If there is a really serious practical argument why we should be actively fighting religion, this is it, but unfortunately it is rarely raised even by the "New Atheists"