By Charlie Clauss
A current story line, hyped by many, is the stance of conservative Christians towards the COVID-19 pandemic. This has played out as opposition to mask mandates and hesitancy toward, if not complete refusal of, vaccination. This is spun as one more example of Christianity’s opposition to reason and anti-science history. It does not make Christianity attractive to large segments of society. As Christians we must do a better job of publicly embracing the God-given gifts of both reason and science, as a service to the aims of public health as well as our witness to the gospel.
This is not a new concern. St Augustine, writing in the fifth century, noted:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.
Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion [1 Timothy 1:7].” (The Literal Meaning of Genesis 1.19.39)
The logical conclusion is to listen to the people who are knowledgeable about any given subject, otherwise we will certainly be an “ignorant individual [who] is derided.”
A word should be spoken in defense of Christians who distrust science. Over the course of history, science has been misused to attack faith. Yes, Christians have gravely erred in many cases by using power to attack those who they thought were teaching something threatening to their faith. The so-called “conflict of faith and reason” has been used as a weapon to attack faith, especially Christianity.
And in many cases, the anti-science said to be in play in Christian’s actions needs to be seen in a broader context. For example, it must be pointed out that in the book that got Galileo in trouble (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems), he made fun of the man (Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, later Pope Urban VIII ) who had been his benefactor. It can be argued that, with greater tact, Galileo could have advanced his teaching, but instead he alienated a man dealing with the Reformation burning Europe.
The Catholic Church’s unjust dealing with Galileo, the myth of Columbus and a flat Earth (thank you, Washington Irving, who made up the story that Columbus was setting out to prove the earth is round), and more recently the creation/evolution debate — these have all been used to show the “inherent” conflict between science and faith.
Again, Christians are not without blame. In the evolution/creation debate, the insistence that Genesis is “literally” true has led down a plethora of rabbit holes. Genesis 1 is no more a scientific textbook on cosmology then Blake’s Songs of Innocence is a zoology textbook on the nature of sheep or Songs of Experience a textbook on tigers. Poetry (both Genesis 1 and Blake) serves a very different purpose. We should spend more time talking about how Genesis 1 was a poke in the eye to the surrounding Near Eastern cultures and their cosmologies.
The conflict narrative has justifiably made Christians leery of science, but it was not science that was the problem, it was the use made of a (mis)reading of history that is thrown in Christian faces. Of more concern is the misunderstanding of science rampant in the world that has tried to use science itself as a weapon.
Modernity has flooded the culture with wrongheaded notions of the nature of science itself. People associate words like “exact” and “settled” and “assured” when science is none of these. Here is a thought experiment you can perform: when you hear the words “weather forecast,” what do you think? Do you scoff and think, “weather forecasting isn’t real (or good) science”? If you do, then I’d suggest you misunderstand science. Weather science is some of the best science out there! They are solving numerically the equations for heat and mass transfer in a context that is highly complex. And they are getting better and better all the time. On the other hand, if you think that science will tell you with absolute certainty that it is going to rain tomorrow at your house at noon and how much rain will fall, you have been misled about science.
This misguided idea that science is “real” knowledge has leavened the whole of society. Secular purveyor of the all-knowing and all-powerful version of science (many of them scientists who should know better) have said things like “modern science has disproven the Resurrection” (as if first-century people didn’t know that people don’t rise from the dead).
David Salsburg’s The Lady Tasting Tea: How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the Twentieth Century is a must-read to begin to understand that science is a statistical world where the laws of probability reign. The statements of science are always provisional and have a “standard of deviation” attached to them.
Where does this leave Christians in the age of pandemic? First, they can rightly reject the pronouncements that purport to be science but are a misuse of the idea of science. Second, they can embrace science as a God-given calling. Finally, because science itself is not the enemy, they can trust scientists when they are speaking about their area of expertise. Usually, you trust the plumber to fix your pipes, the car mechanic to fix your vehicle, the doctor to set your broken bones; you can trust the climatologist to tell you about climate change, the epidemiologist to tell you about pandemics, and immunologists to tell you about vaccines. It turns out that this is a primary way for us to fulfill the commandment, “Love you neighbor as yourself.”