Wednesday, July 06, 2011

5 Kinds of Scientists: The Theists

The most provocative kind of scientist mentioned by the National Academy in Science, Evolution and Creationism are theists. As I've presented to audiences around the country on how to teach evolution inclusively, seeing theists as a credible group of scientists has been a game-changer for many people. It was for me. As a theist myself, I always had a tendency to duck my head every time supernatural beliefs and science came up. I was always on the defensive, feeling like I had to explain how I was still rational and believing. The National Academy changed that for me and many in my audiences, however, when they stated unequivocally that theists can be good scientists: "Others are theists, who believe that God actively intervenes in the world" (p. 15).
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Francis Collins stands as a modern example of a theist who is a great scientist. Great is a strong word, but how else would you describe the scientist who led the Human Genome Project and now heads the National Institute of Medicine? He's a great scientist, and he's quite clear about his belief in the supernatural. In his book, The Language of God, Collins traces his move from atheism to Christian belief. He founded the BioLogos Foundation, an effort at integrating science and faith. He has recently co-authored The Language of Science and Faith

(Collins's work reads to me like theistic evolution, but please don't be confused. Theistic sciences are not necessarily theistic evolutionists. I am a theist, but I have serious doubts about the appropriateness of trying to integrate science and faith into one nice, neat picture of agreement, especially since most theistic evolutionists work from a Christian perspective. They then are dangerously close to imposing any integration they achieve on scientists who are not Christian, since what theistic evolutionists seek is a search for ultimate truth.)

Theists have always been in the mix among scientists. Before the 19th century, theists were prominent among scientists, as they were prominent in all fields in Europe. As an example, Isaac Newton consistently wrote on religious issues as well as scientific ones. In the transitions of the 19th century, fewer mainstream scientists ascribed clearly to a theistic position, but many clearly did. Louis Aggisz is one of my favorites. As I studied the history of science in American, Aggisz as a great scientist and a devout Chritian became a role model for me. 

The New Atheists get it wrong when they insinuate that theism clouds scientists' judgment and bars them from practicing science well.  The National Academy got it right by including theists among scientists, and the history of science clearly shows the contribution that theistic scientists have made. The challenge for theistic scientists is maintaining their commitment to methodological naturalism in their scientific publications. They can't bring their beliefs about the supernatural into their scientific explanations, or they cross the line into the error of Creationists. Talk about supernatural actions and the hidden hand of Providence in the natural order are great conversations to have over beers after work or while tromping around collecting data in the field, but those speculations can't find their way into the write up of the data and still be scientific. 

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