Posted: August 3rd, 2015

Orthodox Christian Science?

By, Fr. Mark Sietsema
Every year at Camp, someone asks during the "Night with God" campfire talk about whether Orthodox Christianity is at odds with modern science, and whether a young person can accept the theories on which modern science operates without betraying his or her faith.

Orthodox Christian Science?


Q. Is there a conflict between our Orthodox Faith and modern science?  If I pursue a career in sciences will I compromise the integrity of my religion?


The short answer to this question—the campfire answer—is No.  The Orthodox Church historically has never (to my knowledge) persecuted any kind of scientific inquiry, banned any line of questioning, or insisted on any particular cosmology, geology, anthropology, or psychology.   We always take the Bible seriously, but often not literally.  As a result, we do not enforce ancient expressions as articles of faith.  When the Scriptures speak, for example, of the “four corners of the earth” (Isaiah 11:12), we take that as a figure of speech.  (I’m sure Isaiah did, too.)  You are free to pursue studies in the sciences without feeling impeded by any theological commitments about the age of the earth, the origin of species, or the diversity of languages.


Okay, that was the short answer.  Many of you over the years, dear campers, have come up to me to express relief and gratitude after hearing this, and have gone on to careers in medicine and physics and biology.


Now for the long answer, which has two parts.


1. Yes, there IS a conflict between the Orthodox faith and science; or more precisely, the way the business of science is plied today. 


If you watch science shows on TV, you are led to think that scientists are like detectives solving a murder. They find clues, piece the evidence together, and with patience and grit come to that single, unquestionable conclusion.  You measure data, you construct a theory, and then you prove it, et voilà! 


This is not the reality at all.  In real science, theory precedes facts. This is something they drilled into us at MIT.  It is your theory, after all, that tells you what counts as a fact and what may be deemed irrelevant. The choice to view phenomena in one way or another has to do with assumptions and values that one brings to the data, not from some “objective” examination of the data. A theoretician brings certain frames of mind to the table before he ever touches a test tube or a telescope.  Often, however, these frames of mind (i.e. prejudices) are unspoken and unacknowledged. In contrast, an Orthodox Christian in the sciences has the duty to be conscious of and forthcoming about the metaphysical premises of his or her models and methods. 


Theories are not proved or disproved; they merely show their strengths and weaknesses.  The question is how many weaknesses a scientist is willing to put up with before adopting a different theory.  Usually there is no limit: scientists do not change their mind very readily, even in the face of innumerable difficulties for their theory. Banesh Hoffmann, a physicist, wrote regarding Einstein’s quantum idea of the wave-particle duality of light and its reception at the 1911 Solvay Conference: “Let us not imagine that scientists accepted these new ideas with cries of joy. They fought them and resisted them as much as they could, inventing all sorts of traps and alternative hypotheses in vain attempts to escape them.” (The Strange Story of the Quantum, p. 170)  “Science advances one funeral at a time,” said Max Planck.  Science "progresses" not so much by a constant slow accretion of facts, but by generational change, as younger scientists switch to new theories that their mentors spurned.  


Science at the highest levels is more like cloud-watching: you observe something and come up with the simplest way to analogize it.  Every description captures certain aspects of the cloud's shape, but leaves out others. “That looks like a rabbit.”  “No, it has the ears of a kangaroo.”  “Now it looks like a wombat.”  … Nothing is ever truly settled.  No theory celebrates its centennial anniversary unchanged (meaning, without considerable reworking).  As theories change, data that used to have a neat explanation no longer do. 


The pop-cult view of science ignores this part of intellectual history: that scientific progress is a seesaw motion in terms of ultimate understanding.  We appear to gain on one side, but lose on the other.  It is not the case that humankind has basically figured out the universe and it just fine-tuning the details.  On the contrary, it is sometimes the most basic assumptions that prove to have been wrong all along.


Few scientists seem actually to know this; of those that do, few seem willing to publicly acknowledge it.   In the clash between generations of scientists, between paradigms, there is often very little rational or objective analysis from one side towards the other.  There is, rather, name-calling, summary dismissal, persecution, black-balling, and heresy-hunting, just like something out of the Spanish Inquisition.  “Men of science” persecute dissenters and innovators with, shall we say, a religious fervor.


Don’t take my word for it!  Look up the life of any these science mavericks to learn about the way their colleagues treated them: Arrhenius, Hans Alfven, John L. Baird, Robert Bakker, J. Harlen Bretz, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Ernst Chladni, C.J. Doppler, Robert L. Folk, Luigi Galvani, William Harvey, Karl F. Gauss, Lynn Margulis, Julius R. Mayer, Barry Marshall, Josiah C. Nott, Fernando Nottebohm, George S. Ohm, Louis Pasteur, Eugene Parker, Stanley Prusiner, Stanford R. Ovshinsky, Ignaz Semmelweis, Dan Shechtman, Virginia Steen-McIntyre, Nicola Tesla, Jacobus Henricus van't Hoff, Alfred Wegener, Warren S. Warren, Wilbur and Orville Wright, George Zweig, Fritz Zwicky. To name but a few …


Academics in general, and scientists in particular, behave like the Crips and the Bloods when their turf is crossed. Coercion, of course, and even intellectual coercion, is always a mark of insecurity and fear.  A Chinese scholar once quipped, “In China we can criticize Darwin but not the government. In America you can criticize the government, but not Darwin.” (Jun-Yuan Chen in The Wall Street Journal, August 16, 1999) Just watch what happens when a person today raises a reasonable objection to Evolution or Climate Change or the Arbitrariness of the Sign.  The intellectual goon squads vilify first and answer questions later. Doubt me?  Go on a science forum and try it.  An Orthodox Christian cannot in good conscience participate in the kind of gang warfare that so characterizes the sciences today.


Going along with the herd mentality, one finds nowadays also a high degree of dishonesty and fabrication in medical and scientific publications.  Peer review is not a safeguard against anything anymore.  Richard Horton, the editor in chief of the esteemed medical journal Lancet, recently wrote (April 11, 2015), “The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue.”  This problem is perhaps worst in the field of medical research: see Carl Elliot’s opinion piece in the New York Times of May 26, 2015.  Shoddy standards are surpassed in vileness only by the naked greed of researchers who live in the pocket of Big Pharma, taking dollars from the pill-pushers to vouch for the safety of killer drugs.  An Orthodox Christian can take no part in this kind of institutional deception that parades around in lab coats under the name of science.


Part and parcel of the problem of greed and deception is the scandal of science departments regarding their treatment of grad students and junior faculty.  These people are worked like dogs, while so often the lead researcher gets all the glory.  It is a cruel system that produces skewed results and twisted human lives.  An Orthodox Christian cannot participate in this kind of exploitation of others, nor acquiesce willingly to such treatment. (We will not even scratch at the vile topic of animal experimentation …)


Don’t you see it?!?  All the evils that scientific minds blame on religion—ignorance, deceitfulness, greed, exploitation—all these things modern “science” is guilty of itself!  Science is not different from religion: science has become a religion, one whose credo is “There is no God, and ours are the profits.” 


For this, above all, makes it difficult for a Christian to succeed in the sciences. There is an all-out, dedicated, anti-theistic agenda of many leading theoreticians and thinkers.  Does religion teach that human beings are the crown of God’s creation? This idea is resisted at all costs.  And every so often, one of them makes the mistake of being honest enough to say so.  They admit that the earth appears, by all observations, to occupy a privileged place—if not to say a central place—in the universe.  But rather than accept the obvious, they construct theories that precisely exclude this possibility.  Here it is from the mouth of the man after whom they named the telescope, Edwin Hubble:


Such a condition would imply that we occupy a unique position in the universe, analogous, in a sense, to the ancient conception of a central earth. The hypothesis cannot be disproved but it is unwelcome and would be accepted only as a last resort in order to save the phenomena. Therefore, we disregard this possibility and consider the alternative … Such a favoured position, of course, is intolerable … Therefore, in order to restore homogeneity, and to escape the horror of a unique position, the departures from uniformity, which are introduced by the recession factors, must be compensated by the second term representing effects of spatial curvature. There seems to be no other escape." On Geocentrism. Rhodes Memorial Lectures, Oxford, 1936, in The Observational Approach to Cosmology, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1937, pp. 50-51, 58-59.  [emphasis added]


One finds similar statements from Stephen Hawking and astrophysicist George Ellis.  They are, in a word, horrified to recognize that the Creation points to the existence of a Creator and not to the idol god Random Chance.  Needless to say, this is pure intellectual dishonesty, which no Orthodox Christian can go along with.  And it is clear, for that matter, that what the fields of science need now, more than ever, is the salt and light of committed Orthodox Christians in their ranks.  I am proud as a pastor that a number of our parishioners are counted as top-notch scientists in their fields and faithful adherents of the Faith.


And now for long answer, part 2 …


2. Yes, campers, there IS a conflict between modern science and your faith.  This is because your faith is deficient. I.e., what you believe is by and large not what the Orthodox Church teaches.


Orthodox Christianity is like a marble chess set—painstakingly polished and carved, solid and well-defined, ready to be deployed anew each day in the struggle against evil.  It is a set of values and life strategies for a process of personal transformation, for a journey towards the realm of God.  It is wisdom that is tried and true.


For most of you, my campers, your faith is a slurry of sentimentality, a farrago of feelings.  Church for you means the place where you get warm fuzzies as you light a candle, smell the incense, daydream through the Scripture readings, taste Communion, and chow down andidoron.  It brings back a flood of sensations formed in childhood that feel happy and safe: because you remember how Pappou lifted you up to put a candle in the sand, or how Nouna walked you to the chalice. 


In fact, for many of you, dear campers, your faith boils down to this and this alone: family is big deal.  And you judge your faithfulness as a Christian not by your daily participation in the lifestyle of the Church (prayer, fasting, alms, morality, discernment, learning), but by your sense of closeness with your family.  I have heard some of you say precisely this.  Which is no surprise, because I have even heard priests articulate this idea: “The Orthodox Church exists to support Greek families.”  For many people, the Orthodox Faith is not about eternal truths, growth in holiness, and salvation: it is simply an extension of Family Loyalty. 


(Jesus Christ had a different idea about family loyalty.  If you were to open a Bible, you could read for yourself what He had to say: Matthew 8:21-22, 10:34-37, 12:48-50, 19:28-29, 23:9; Mark 3:31-35, 10:28-30,  Luke 14:26)


Aside from your idolization of normal familial affection, campers, your faith is largely a jumble of childish notions.

            You conceive of God as an oversized human being, translucent and sparkly-glowy like dead Obiwan Kenobi; He lives in the sky somewhere and craves our flattery.   He has three faces; or He is three beings; or He works three jobs; and that’s the Trinity.

You think that we should believe this God made the universe in six 24-hour days. 

You think that we teach that this happened about 6000 years ago.

You think that we practice ritualized cannibalism in our Liturgy. 

You think that men with black robes and long beards have a direct line to God and take care of all the mystical, churchy stuff so you don’t have to.


It is not your fault that you think this: this is what you were taught by the well-meaning but uninformed adults around you.  But if there is a contradiction between your faith and science, it is because your faith is a meaningless mush. I’m not sure it can even be called a “faith” at all.  In truth, it is more a kind of wishiness, a vague optimism that if you give God a shred of attention now and then, He will make good things happen for you, tit for tat.  Your faith has little to do with first principles, ways of thinking, or even a basic familiarity with the Bible or the Church’s way of reading it.  Your faith has little to do with enduring hardship, overcoming temptation, renouncing materialism, or striving for personal transformation. And the worst part is: you don’t even begin to know how much there is you don’t know. 


Alas, this is how we raised you.  Then we send you off to college to meet people who hate Christianity … and who know what it stands for better than you do.  As they teach you, along with actual science, they slip in a lot of hidden philosophy and anti-theology (see part 1 above).  But you don’t have the spiritual know-how to sort out science from ideology.  It is like we are sending you into a gunfight armed with a knife.  And not a real knife, either, but a crayon-drawing of a knife that you made in first grade. 


Many of you, by the time you leave school, will have stopped practicing your faith. Because you are still adored by your families (especially if you have a high-paying science job), you will think you are still an Orthodox Christian, though you never darken the threshold of a church with any regularity.  You might even be unaware that the immoralities of the Science-Industrial complex—bullying, duplicity, deception, exploitation, philosophical materialism—are diametrically opposed to the Christian faith; and you might cluelessly make a career of engaging in just these sins and thus denying your faith.


Please know, though, that what you lost was not the Orthodox Faith.  What you lost was a pastiche of “spiritual” memes from movies, TV shows, pop songs, and email glurge that you imbibed over the years—a collage of emotions that coalesce into an image of the idol god that is at the heart of our society’s civil religion, one who expects little of you while promising an afterlife of delights (for everyone but Hitler and Bin Laden).  It is good that you lose this false faith, but sad that so many of you will embrace “science” as your new religion. Random Chance is a brutal deity, whose sacraments are genocide, totalitarianism, addiction, and abortion. 


Jesus Christ truly has something better for your life.  You are old enough now to start looking into it for yourself. For the love of God and for your own well-being, please do so!



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