I mean specifically, should Christians who teach at public schools to partially-secular audiences teach science differently? And if so, what should be distinct about their teaching? As usual, I don’t know the answer to this question – otherwise it wouldn’t be fun to write about!
A little while ago I read the very well-penned book The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, by Peter Hitchens. Peter is, in fact, the brother of better-known atheist writer Christopher Hitchens. In a chapter titled “The Seeds of Atheism”, Peter talks about how he became an atheist around the age of twelve. And, despite the fact that he attended a conservative Christian school, it was the science courses of said school that drove his conversion. Because, while no teacher ever stood up and said “God is dead and here is how you know that”, pure naturalism was implied in the statements they made, and gradually he came to believe that pure naturalism was all that was required to explain the world. He says,
The Christian conservatism of my schools did not protect me from the rather Victorian faith in something called science that was then very common. Perhaps this is because Christianity was not implied in every statement and action of my teachers, while materialist, naturalistic faith was. This faith did not require any great understanding. Mainly, it was just an assumption, a received opinion we all accepted. At the age of fifteen, despite an almost complete inability to learn the most basic parts of the school science curriculum, I was wholly convinced that evolution by natural selection – which I did not understand because it was not thought necessary to explain this holy mystery – fully explained the current shape of the realm of nature.
Why then should any reasoning, informed person need the idea of God? What would he have explained that was not known among the Bunsen burners, the jars of acid, and the pickled embryos in brownish fluid, in the Science Block…. But I should stress that I was not actually taught these articles of the materialist faith, let alone the arguments that continue to rage around them. I was simply given the impression by adults that these things were the case, and that this was all settled forever.
Obviously as a Christian I don’t want to be inadvertently giving the impression that God is not necessary to explain this world, something I most assuredly do not believe! But I do not know what practical difference, if any, that should make in my teaching. Especially when it comes to teaching pure science courses (versus a philosophy of science course, say).
If you know me personally, you might be thinking “wait a minute, haven’t you taught at least one such course? What did you do differently?” The answer is that, practically speaking, I did nothing or almost-nothing that any other instructor wouldn’t have done. Oh, I think I tossed out a couple of quotations which, if not Christian, at least had some theistic import. For example, on the first or second day of class, our Powerpoint began with a slide quoting Einstein,
The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is at all comprehensible.
That is not a question only Christians consider, obviously – although we do think we have an answer to that question. But I didn’t give a lecture on that answer! I just wanted to provoke thought. But maybe little things like that are enough when it comes to dispelling the faith of materialism (or avoiding inadvertently giving the impression that you hold to that faith). Because I was reading an essay by C.S. Lewis today called “Is Theology Poetry”, part of The Weight of Glory collection. And in it, he talks about how he gave up his belief that science could explain everything before he ever became a Christian, and the *reason* he gave up this belief is because it depended on reason to comprehend the world, but at the same time said that reason could not be trusted. To quote the man himself,
The whole picture professes to depend on inferences from observed facts. Unless inference is valid, the whole picture disappears. Unless we can be sure that reality in the remotest nebula obeys the thought laws of the human scientist here and now in his laboratory – in other words, unless Reason is an absolute – all is in ruins. Yet those who ask me to believe this world picture also ask me to believe that Reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of mindless matter at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. Here is a flat contradiction. They ask me at the same moment to accept a conclusion and to discredit the only testimony on which that conclusion can be based. The difficult is to me a fatal one; and the fact that when you put it to many scientists, far from having an answer, they seem not even to understand what the difficulty is, assures me that I have not found a mare’s nest but detected a radical disease in their whole mode of thought from the very beginning.
And he later says,
When I accept Theology I may find difficulties, at this point or that, in harmonising it with some particular truths which are imbedded in the mythical cosmology derived from science. But I can get in, or allow for, science as a whole. Granted that Reason is prior to matter and that the light of that primal Reason illuminates finite minds, I can understand how man should come, by observation and inference, to know a lot about the universe they live in. If, on the other hand, I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.
As always, when I write posts as full of questions as these, any comments are very much welcome!