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The perils of scientific illiteracy


Casa Rosada, Wikipediapope-Franciscus
According to Pope Francis, God was limited in His act of creation.

This draws from material first published in Journal of Creation.1

When Pope Francis addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he argued that ideas like the ‘big bang’ and evolution are perfectly compatible with the Christian faith.2 Astonishingly, he declared

“When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so.”

That someone claiming to teach the Christian faith could have made such a statement beggars belief. Job said to God “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). According to Psalm 135:6, “Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps”. Jesus Himself declared, “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

Moreover, the Bible emphatically contradicts these naturalistic accounts of origins. Whereas in big bang cosmology, the stars come into being before the earth, in Genesis 1, God makes the earth before the stars. Whereas in big bang theory the earth arose from dust and gas, according to the Apostle Peter, God formed the earth from water (2 Peter 3:5). The theory of evolution maintains that people arose from ape-like creatures; but, according to Genesis, God made the first man from earth (Genesis 2:7).

Declaration of 1277

Pope Francis appears to be unaware of the history of his own denomination. In 1277, Etienne Tempier, Bishop of Paris, and Robert Kilwardby, Archbishop of Canterbury, formally condemned a list of 219 propositions as contrary to the Christian faith. These focussed particularly on the teaching of Greek philosophers, and the need to refute the idea that God was in any way limited in His absolute power to do whatever He wishes.

In the thinking of Plato, when ‘the Demiurge’ (the creator) shaped the world, he was not free to make it as he wished, but had to conform to certain rules and principles. In addition he had to use materials he had not created himself and these tended to resist his attempts to form them. Similarly, his pupil Aristotle saw the creator as having only limited power to impose his preferred order on the natural world. Galen was another influential Greek writer who rejected the Genesis account of creation because this was contrary to his understanding that the creator would be limited in his work by the nature of matter.3

Significantly, some historians of science have argued that it was the rejection of this Greek thinking, and its replacement with the Christian doctrine of God’s omnipotence, that paved the way for modern science.4,5,6,7 In biblical thinking, God would not have been constrained in His act of Creation, but would have made the universe entirely in accordance with His own will, its nature and operating principles being determined wholly by His choice. This suggested that the Greek approach to science, which had dominated among intellectuals for centuries, was wrong.

Plato sought to deduce facts about the universe based on his own reason. For example, to him planets must move in circular orbits as only this would be fitting and honourable to the gods. In contrast, Johannes Kepler discovered that planets move in elliptical orbits by making observations. Kepler justified his approach arguing that “God the Creator, since he is a mind, and does what he wants, is not prohibited … from having regard to things which are either immaterial or based on imagination.”8 Similarly, Isaac Newton, another biblical creationist, argued that “God is able … to vary the Laws of Nature and make Worlds of several sorts in several Parts of the Universe.”9 To the likes of Kepler and Newton, only by studying physical phenomena could the true nature of the universe be known—a realisation that underpins science today. It is therefore ironic that Pope Francis, when addressing a scientific symposium, should be advocating a view that held back scientific progress for many centuries.

God in nature?

Pope Francis continued,

“I only want to underline that God and Christ are walking with us and are also present in nature … God created beings and he let them develop according to the internal laws with which He endowed each one, that they might develop, and reach their fullness.”

Yet this was another error that had to be corrected before true scientific thinking could take hold.

According to the Greek philosophers, the laws which cause objects and living things to behave as they do arise from god-like powers within themselves. Planets follow orbital paths because their very nature gives them a tendency to do so; stones fall to the ground because this is their natural inclination. During the medieval period this kind of thinking was adopted by some Catholic theologians. Objects, they believed, had soul-like characteristics, which they sometimes referred to as ‘occult qualities’. These supposedly produced effects by ‘sympathy’ and ‘antipathy’.10 Sympathy, for example, was thought to explain the attraction of iron to a magnet. The doctrine of horror vacui (horror of a vacuum) was thought to explain why water rose in ‘suction’ or ‘vacuum’ pump barrels. Supposedly, this was because nature had an antipathy to empty space.11,12

The ideas of ‘God in nature’ and ‘internal laws’ were emphatically denied by the founders of modern science who argued from the Bible that natural laws act externally to objects, being imposed by God who is wholly separate from His creation. God is the one who gathered the waters together (Genesis 1:9) and “assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command” (Proverbs 8:29). He “made a decree for the rain and a way for the lightning of the thunder” (Job 28:26). He created the sun to govern the day and night (Genesis 1:16), “commanded the morning … and caused the dawn to know its place” (Job 38:12). He created the stars to mark the seasons (Genesis 1:14), knows “the ordinances of the heavens” and established “their rule on the earth” (Job 38:33). He continually “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3).

Natural laws imposed by God

In the Old Testament, God’s commands to nature are often expressed in legal language. For example, the Hebrew word huq is used in both Proverbs 8:29 and Job 28:26. It’s verbal form means to ‘engrave’ or ‘legislate’ and is often used in the context of God giving moral and ritual laws. In both these verses, the fourth century Vulgate translation uses the Latin word lex, meaning ‘law’. According to philosopher of science Edgar Zilsel, verses such as these “were quoted through the centuries again and again, and have decidedly contributed to the formation of concepts in rising natural science.”13 Galileo Galilei, for example, wrote that nature “never transgresses the bounds of the laws imposed to it”, being a “most careful executor of the orders of God” and argued for nature’s strict observance of God’s commands citing, among others, Job 28:26, Job 38:8–11 and Psalm 104:9.14

Drawing from the Bible, Newton wrote,

“This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being. … This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God or Universal Ruler”.15

In the preface to his greatest work, the Principia, he wrote of how modern thinkers, having discarded “occult qualities have endeavoured to subject the phenomena of nature to the laws of mathematics”. To him, the oceans were not drawn towards the moon because of a soul-like ‘sympathy’, but because of the impersonal law of gravity imposed on the natural world by God.

Again, it seems ironic that Pope Francis should be preaching to scientists the very doctrines of ‘God in nature’ and ‘internal laws’ that had to be rejected before true science could flourish.

Ignorance is unnecessary

My experience of many church leaders is that they are afraid of science and this partly explains why, like Pope Francis, they so easily capitulate to ‘experts’ who assure them that ideas like the big bang and evolution are true. They then perform theological summersaults in their attempts to incorporate these ‘scientific’ accounts of origins into the Bible—despite, in some cases, simultaneously admitting that they seem to be in conflict. There is, however, no need for this. Most educated people are well able to grasp the basic principles which would enable them to see through the pseudoscience and flawed theology being presented. With your prayers and support, we can continue to play our part in helping people to do this.

Published: 2 October 2018

References and notes

  1. Statham, D.R., Christian theology and the rise of Newtonian science: imposed law and the divine will, J. Creation 32(2):103–109, 2018. Return to text.
  2. Address of his holiness Pope Francis on the occasion of the inauguration of the bust in honour of Pope Benedict XV1, Plenary session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 27 October 2014. Return to text.
  3. Hooykass, R., Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, 1977. First printed 1972. Return to text.
  4. Stark, R., For the Glory of God: How monotheism led to reformations, science, witch-hunts and the end of slavery, Princeton University Press, USA, ch. 2, 2003. Return to text.
  5. Ref. 3, ch. 1. Return to text.
  6. Jaki, S.L., Science and Creation, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, 1986. Return to text.
  7. Foster, M.B., The Christian doctrine of creation and the rise of modern natural science, Mind 43(172):446–468, October 1934. Return to text.
  8. Harrison, P., The development of the concept of laws of nature; in Watts, F., ed., Creation: Law and probability, Ashgate, UK, 2008. Return to text.
  9. Newton, I., Opticks: A treatise on the reflections, refractions inflections and colours of light, Dover Publications, New York, pp. 403–404, 1952. Return to text.
  10. Zilsel, E., The Social Origins of Modern Science, Springer Science, p. 176, 2003; first published c. 1940. Return to text.
  11. Zilsel, ref. 10, p. 177. Return to text.
  12. Simonyi, K., A Cultural History of Physics, CRC Press, USA, pp. 233–234, English Translation 2012. Return to text.
  13. Zilsel, E., The Genesis of the concept of physical law, Philosophical Review 51(3):245–279, 1942. Return to text.
  14. Steinle, F., The amalgamation of a concept—laws of nature in the new sciences, in Weinert, F., ed., Laws of Nature: Essays on the philosophical, scientific and historical dimensions, Walter de Greyter, New York, pp. 316–368, 1995. Return to text.
  15. Newton, I., The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, Book III, 1687; translated by Motte, A., Daniel Adee, New York, p. 504, 1846; archive.org. Return to text.

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