Can Science Oppose Heresy?

In a sense, it’s as old as Galileo. In another, though, our question today shows the uniquely modern state of our current culture-war climate. Can someone stand up for science by opposing heresy? If we really want to understand culture-war thinking, we need to make sense of the ways they can, even if we don’t agree with them.

ramm science scripture

MUST science denial be heresy?

A conservative lament about gender-bending school policy brings this question to our attention. Ideas about gender fluidity, Margot Cleveland argues, turn otherwise intelligent people into thugs and morons. In her view, insisting that young people can and should be able to identify their own genders is both “science denial and heresy.”

I don’t agree, but that’s not the main point here. More important, I want to know how any idea can do those do things at once. How can an idea—any idea—claim to be both religiously and scientifically orthodox?

For secular people like me, it seems like a contradiction, a paradox. Yet for conservative religious intellectuals, this notion has long been both obvious and vitally true.

After all, in the street-level, Bill-Nye sense of the word, “Science” can’t really care about heresy or orthodoxy. As Neil deGrasse Tyson defines it, “Science” means the opposite of such things. In his words,

Science discovers objective truths. These are not established by any seated authority, nor by any single research paper. . . . Meanwhile, personal truths are what you may hold dear, but have no real way of convincing others who disagree, except by heated argument, coercion or by force. . . . in science, conformity is anathema to success.

Before we talk about Cleveland’s claims about heresy and science, let’s acknowledge a few things to start.

  • First, for the past fifty years or so, philosophers and historians have challenged Tyson’s simplistic definition of science. One person’s voodoo might be another’s science, and so on. Fair enough.
  • And some pundits might say that Cleveland was talking about a merely coincidental agreement between her idea of religious orthodoxy and science. That is, she might be saying that religious orthodoxies about eternal, unchanging, God-assigned gender identities happen to be biologically true as well. She might only be saying people are born with a certain set of sex characteristics and it is not scientifically nor religiously true that they can change their gender identity at will.

Those things make sense to me, but they don’t get to the heart of our dilemma. The interesting question, the difficult question is whether or not heresy and science denial can really go together as a general rule.

When it comes to the questions of evolution, climate change, sexuality, and now gender identity, conservative religious thinkers have long argued that they can. Indeed, that they must. To my mind, it is this point that is most important. If secular people like me want to really understand conservative religious thinking, we need to try harder to understand this logic. To me, it seems obviously false. To many people, though, it is compelling.

It is not only fundamentalist young-earthers who have made this case. Consider the most famous creationist dissenter from young-earth thinking, Bernard Ramm. In the 1950s, Ramm shattered the complacency of fundamentalist science with his blockbuster book, The Christian View of Science and Scripture.

In some ways, Ramm’s anti-young-earth work can be said to have sparked the modern young-earth renaissance. After all, it was in furious response to Ramm that John Whitcomb Jr. penned the young-earth counter-blockbuster The Genesis Flood in 1961.

Ramm denounced young-earth fundamentalist thinking in no uncertain terms. Young-earthers, whom Ramm called the “hyperorthodox,” missed the point of both science and scripture. Ramm explained,

If the theologian teaches that the earth is the center of the solar system, or that man first appeared on the earth at 4004 BC, or that all the world was submerged under water at 4004 BC and had been for unknown millennia, he is misinterpreting Scripture and bringing Scripture into needless conflict with science.

Instead, Ramm argued religious thinkers needed to reclaim their roles as scientific leaders. Real science, decent science, productive science, Ramm insisted, needed to be guided by the “light of revelation.” Without it, science could only be either “cheap or ironical.”

What does any of this have to do with gender-identity curriculum in California or Indiana? The way I see it, we have two ways to interpret arguments like the one made by Margot Cleveland. Either she is saying that religious truth and scientific inquiry happen to agree about gender identity, or she is making the much stronger case that religious truth and scientific truth must always agree about everything.

For those of us outside the world of conservative religious thinking, this second argument is very difficult to comprehend or even to recognize. Many of us default to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s heresy-promoting vision of true science. If we want to understand our religious friends and neighbors, though, we need to understand a world in which heresy is the very heart of science denialism.

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1 Comment

  1. Agellius

     /  February 22, 2018

    For what it’s worth, Aquinas taught that science and revelation can never contradict each other because God is the source of both, that is, he created the things that science studies, and he is also the source of revelation. Both science and revelation are methods of discovering truth, and truth can’t contradict truth.

    Now obviously people can get science wrong, and can just as easily get revelation wrong. Wrong science can disagree with right revelation, and wrong revelation can disagree with correct science. But in principle, science and revelation should never disagree.


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