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Reviews

Science and God Review

Scott Petty. Little Black Books: Science and God. Kingsford, Australia: Matthias Media, 2011. 112 pp. $4.99.

Christians don’t have to choose between God and science. In fact, they are quite compatible. In his little book Science and God, Scott Petty succinctly, humorously, and helpfully makes just that point as he analyzes the modern tension between science and faith.

Science and God is a part of the Little Black Book series, authored by Petty, a youth minister in Australia. The series covers a wide range of topics for young people ages 15-20. The books are supposed to be fun and straight to the point, and Science and God is no exception. While it is simple, it is not simplistic or “dumbed-down.” I certainly learned a few things myself! The point of the book is simply to prove that science and God are not enemies. The book is not a complete resource on all things science, but it will certainly be a helpful resource for teens and even adults who are confused about the relationship of science and faith.

Petty gives three main reasons why we don’t need to choose between God or science. First, he says that science and God have historically been good friends. Second, he says that some of the world’s best scientists are professing Christians. Third, and most importantly, science and religion answer different questions. 

This third point is especially necessary for both Christians and skeptics to understand. Petty writes, “Can science tell me anything about the Fall of Rome, or World War II, or your summer holidays? Can I put the events of 11 September 2001 in a lab to examine them scientifically  No. Can I put the day I got married under a microscope so that I may thoroughly understand it. Not likely” (28). So is science unnecessary? Of course not! Science simply isn’t able to provide that sort of information; it cannot provide answers to every part of our existence. Simply put, science is not fit to answer questions of an ultimate kind, like those concerning purpose, meaning, beauty, and love.

So how do we reconcile science with theology? Petty proposes we adopt a layered approach. He gives the example of a book being created. A book came to exist because of the author’s know-how, expertise, and actually putting words on paper. But it also came to be through the invitation of the publisher, editing, and finally printing and binding, along with many other factors. These aspects work together, not against each other. In the same way, science explains some parts of our existence, and theology explains others. They are not opposed. They simply ask and answer different questions. Petty teases out this layered approach throughout the book. He also includes helpful sections on the Big Bang, Darwinian evolution, and evidence for God himself.

Are there any problems with the book? Some may criticize Petty for saying evolution is a scientific theory while ignoring the fact that it is an entire worldview that has become its own religion. Others may be upset that he does not clearly state his position on creation. These people miss the point of the book. This point is simply to show that science and God are not at odds. Regarding the first concern, Petty clearly understands that evolution is the lens through which some scientists interpret everything (chs. 1, 4), which is “a big mistake” (30).

Regarding the second, Petty clearly believes that God created the world from nothing (ch. 4). But is it necessary for him to say how he thinks that happened? No. He does admit that Bible-believing Christians differ on how to interpret Genesis 1. He notes that at least a dozen views have been proposed, and only one holds that God created everything in six literal 24-hour days. There is no way to be absolutely positive on how God created the world because Genesis 1 is not written as a science textbook for our 21st century questions (80). 

This is a solid book. Even if you don’t agree with everything, Petty will challenge your thinking, make you laugh, and put your mind at ease.

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Theology

Is Religion a Cognitive Mistake?

Mark Vernon is an agnostic journalist who writes for the Guardian in the U.K. His opinion column on October 19 was about a new book by a sociologist on the origin of religion. I can’t comment about the book, or Vernon’s comments about the book. I wanted to touch on the second paragraph in his column was about the “dominant evolutionary story for the origin of religions,” which is called “byproduct theory.”  He explains:

The human brain evolved a series of cognitive modules, a bit like a smartphone downloading applications. One was good for locomotion, another seeing, another empathy, and so on. However, different modules could interfere with one another, called “domain violation” in the literature. The app for locomotion might overrun the app for empathy and, as a result, the hapless owner of that brain might discern a spirit shifting in the rustling trees, because the branches sway a little like limbs moving. The anthropologist Pascal Boyer calls such interpretations “minimally counterintuitive”. They can’t be too random or they wouldn’t grip your imagination. But, clearly, they are not rational. Religion is, therefore, a cognitive mistake. It might once have delivered adaptive advantages: swaying branches could indicate a stalking predator, and so you’d be saved if you fled, even if you believed the threat was a ghost. But rational individuals such as, say, evolutionary theorists now see religious beliefs for what they really are.

Basically, this theory purports that all those who subscribe to a religion have had a download error in their brain. If my empathy “app” has a cyber battle with my locomotion “app” and there is a significant collision, I will take a blowing leaf as God (or “a” god) telling me to give more money to church. In other words, the only reason I go to a Sunday service or read my Bible or preach is because the rational part of my brain has been cursed with a religious blue screen of death.

To call religion a “cognitive mistake” means that only those who haven’t had this “domain violation” (i.e. those who don’t subscribe to any particular religion) are the “righteous” ones. Only they have arrived at truth. Only they know the true meaning of life. We lesser, primitive, traditional, and bigoted people are left to recover from own “smartphone” accidents.

Talk about exclusive. This doctrine is as arrogant as it gets. Its proponents are just as self-righteous as the church member who raises his nose at you if you missed the service last week.

Religion, however, is not a cognitive mistake. It is, as is any worldview (not unlike Vernon’s) an attempt to find meaning, purpose, fulfillment, and happiness that all people are hard-wired toward. Whether you are religious (“moralistic”) or not (“relativistic”), you seek for these things. I would argue that Vernon is an agnostic in order to be happy. If, in his own heart and mind, he thought himself miserable, would he remain an agnostic? Probably not.

Furthermore, every worldview is an attempt to appease the guilt of not measuring up to what our hearts know we should amount to. Everyone knows they should be better than they are. The sad truth is that we cannot make ourselves better and appease our guilt on our own. Neither moralism (“good living”) nor relativism (“do whatever I want”) will give us true meaning and atone for our failings. Is there a third way to live?

Thankfully, there is. We call this the gospel and it is altogether different than what Vernon would call “religion.” The rustling trees is not seen as a spirit shifting to woo or guide. Rather, the gospel says that God has broken into creation and spoken to us and acted on our behalf. He comes to mankind, rather than demanding service as all other religions and their “gods” do. This God became a servant, and a suffering one at that. The gospel climaxes in the person of Jesus, the God-Man, who dwelt among us. He gives true purpose, meaning, and eternal happiness to those who believe. He is more just than the religious type would claim and he is more loving than the moralist would believe. It cost God to love us. He is loving because he saves us by grace, not through our good deeds. He is just because he only removes our guilt and his wrath because his Son Jesus paid the penalty we deserved by dying on the cross. As Tim Keller puts it, “The gospel says you are more flawed and wicked than you ever dared believe; but at the same time you are more loved and accepted than you ever dared hope.”

Christianity is not a coloring book of creative cognitive accidents. It is based on a historical event that happened in time and space. The Bible testifies to it; history confirms it; and one day Jesus will return to his saints and restore all creation.

Even the faulty apps that plague my futile, mistaken human brain.

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Reviews Theology

The Reason for God (Chapter 2)

These are direct quotes from the book. If it is my paraphrase, it will marked by an asterisk (*) after the page number.

Chapter 2: How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?

Just because you can’t see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something to happen doesn’t mean there can’t be [a God]. Again we see lurking within supposedly hard-nosed skepticism an enormous faith in one’s own cognitive faculties. If our minds can’t plumb the depths of the universe for good answers to suffering, well, then, there can’t be any! This is blind faith of a high order. (23-24)

If you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn’t stopped evil and suffering in the world, then you have (at the same moment) a God great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing it to continue that you can’t know. Indeed, you can’t have it both ways. (25)

From C.S. Lewis:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of “just” and “unjust”?…What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?…Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too–for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies…Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. (26)

Therefore, though Christianity does not provide the reason for each experience of pain, it provides deep resources for actually facing suffering with hope and courage rather than bitterness and despair. (28)

Jesus, the God-man, underwent more evil and suffering than we could ever imagine, and he bore the agony of death on the cross. Therefore, we truly know God is Immanuel (God with us) even in our worst sufferings. (31*)

For the one who suffers, the Christian faith provides as a resource not just its teaching on the Cross but also the fact of the resurrection. The Bible teaches that the future is not an immaterial “paradise” but a new heaven and a new earth. In Revelation 21, we do not see human beings being taken out of this world into heaven, but rather heaven coming down and cleansing, renewing, and perfecting this material world….Embracing the Christian doctrines of the incarnation and the Cross brings profound consolation in the face of suffering. The doctrine of the resurrection can instill us with  a powerful hope. It promises that we will get the life we most longed for, but it will be an infinitely more glorious world than if there had never been the need for bravery, endurance, sacrifice, or salvation. (32, 33)

From C.S. Lewis:

They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. (34)

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Reviews Theology

The Reason for God (Chapter 1)

I recently finished Tim Keller’s The Reason for God and over the next several weeks, I’ll be reviewing and summarizing each chapter. I know this book is a few years old, so these posts are more intended to help me remember what I read. Most of these posts will simply be direct quotes from the book. If it is my paraphrase, it will marked by an asterisk (*) after the page number.

At the same time, I hope these chapter reviews will 1) benefit Christians to help them form intellectual arguments for their faith and 2) challenge non-Christians to think more deeply about the nature and reality of God, his word, and the world. So let’s get into chapter 1.

Chapter 1: There Can’t Be Just One True Religion

During my nearly two decades in New York City, I’ve had numerous opportunities to ask people, “What is your biggest problem with Christianity?”…One of the most frequent answers I have heard over the years can be summed up in one word: exclusivity. (p. 3)

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Theology

Atheism Doesn’t Do Much for Beauty, Art, and Love

If there is no God, and everything in this world is the product of (as Bertrand Russell famously put it) “an accidental collocation of atoms,” then there is no actual purpose for which we were made–we are accidents. If we are the product of accidental natural forces, then what we call “beauty” is nothing but a neurological hardwired response to particular data.  You only find certain scenery to be beautiful because you had ancestors who knew you would find food there and they dsurvived because of that neurological feature and now we have it too. In the same way, though music feels significant, that significance is an illusion. Love too must be seen in this light. If we are the result of blind natural forces, then what we call “love” is simply a biochemical response, inherited from ancestors who survived because this trait helped them survive.

– Tim Keller in The Reason for God, p. 138