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Avoiding Paradigm Blindness in Science and the Church

October 14, 2013

Read much these days on the topic of science and religion and you will get a sense that the two are in direct conflict. It was not this way for much of history up to the 20th century though; in fact most of the leading scientists prior to that point were Christians. Their faith is what gave them the expectation to see an ordered universe with laws that could be discovered! Is the recent conflict justified? How should Christians rightly think about science?

As a method, Science is only the exploration of God’s Creation

Science per se is only a tool – one technique for discovering new knowledge. It is not an enemy of religion. As a matter of fact, several Christian institutions are now funding scientific research and finding significant evidence to support specific claims in the Bible. Some ministries go so far as to claim that nature should be seen as the 67th book of the Bible, and what we learn from it treated no differently from what we learn in the other 66 (although I am not in support of going this far).

As a social institution, Science is captive to popular paradigms

Thomas Kuhn elucidated the role of paradigms in the scientific community in his 1962 work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Science is governed and influenced by people, most of whom rely on the field for their income, their professional reputations, their positions at prestigious institutions and universities, and funding for their research.

For this reason, inquiry aimed at supporting the commonly held “beliefs” among scientists tends to be supported, and rogue work that undermines those beliefs tends to be attacked. Attacked that is, until and unless these new ideas are so clearly true that they create a “revolution” in science and force everyone to acknowledge their own previous errors. This is more difficult and slower than scientists would like to admit.

Evolution is perhaps the most powerful of these paradigms today, and is clearly an area where “fit to the standard model” is treated as more important criteria for truth claims than “aligning to and confirmed by evidence”, as several persecuted Evolution opponents can attest. Paradigms have power because of the fallen nature of human beings, and not because of anything specific to science. They occur almost everywhere complex questions are explored to expand a growing body of knowledge.

Christianity has also fallen into error from the trap of paradigms

In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. — St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis

Before we get too prideful and pass judgment on the weakness of scientists in falling prey to blind spots, we should remove the log from our own eyes as Christians. Consider three examples where the Church’s paradigms led generations of believers to be blinded to truth. We eventually woke up and realized the error of previous generations, but that process took decades or even centuries:

Galileo Galilei was persecuted and imprisoned for believing and writing that the sun – not the earth – was the center of our solar system, thus going against a core paradigm the church had held for over a millenium. He was tried by a church court and found guilty because his teaching conflicted with two Bible verses (Joshua 10:13, Eccl 1:5).

In retrospect, it is tempting for us to throw this decision in with the corruption of the Catholic church rather than to allow that the Church authorities might have been acting completely consistent with their duties. After all, Galileo’s trial in 1632 was only 100 years after the Reformation. But this explanation puts too much distance between ourselves and them. Their judgment was not based on the pope’s teaching alone, but on the conflict they perceived between Galileo’s work and the teaching of the Bible on this topic.

Another paradigm error, less scientific but even more damaging to the world, was Christian support and Biblical justification of slavery in early US and UK history through the 19th century. Pointing to multiple references to how slaves should be treated or behave (Deut 15:12-15, Eph 6:9, Col 4:1), slavery supporters and even clergy claimed that God had ordained slavery of weaker races by the stronger.

Here again, it is tempting for us living now to distance ourselves from whatever thought process could have led any Christian to hold this view. How could they not have understood that slavery depicted in the Bible was a business/debt relationship and not kidnapping and forced labor (see Ex.21:16)? But in reading their direct quotes about searching the scriptures and striving to understand God’s teaching on the topic, it is clear that they were well-meaning but sadly blinded to the paradigm in which they were caught.

As another example, consider the Biblical justifications given for Prohibition in individual cities and finally as the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919. Earnest temperance preachers built on the growing fervor from the 2nd Great Awakening and pushed for the legislative ban using proof texts such as Ephesians 5:18: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit…”

It took over a decade (with the 21st Amendment in 1933) for the nation to realize the overreach of this step and its negative consequences for society. Here again from the benefit of our current perspective, we see clearly that the Biblical passages against drunkenness are not prohibiting alcohol altogether (which after all was Christ’s first miracle and is part of the Lord’s Supper). One hundred years ago, though, the vast majority of Christians were caught up in the certainty that prohibition was “God’s work”.

All of these errors, and others through time, should prove to us that Christians are just as much at risk of falling into the error of paradigm blindness as atheistic scientists or any other people. We are all fallen and fallible.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. — 1Cor. 13:12

All truth is God’s truth

So back to answer the question: How should Christians rightly think about science?

Christians come at the question of science from multiple angles, and therefore arrive at different conclusions. In formulating my own ideas about the topic, I have been at several points on the spectrum, and been comfortable each time that I have found the right answer, often to feel compelled to change my view on a future day. So it is with great humility that I articulate this approach:

Let me begin with a cliché: All truth is God’s truth. I want first to avoid postmodernism’s fallacy and realize that there is Truth, AND that it can be known. I also want to avoid the fallacy that all Progress must be right and older ideas wrong.

We know from clear teaching in the Bible that God is a God of order (1Cor 14:33), and that God’s Word is complete (Jude 3, 2Pet 1:3). So all things that actually are true must be in sync with the true meaning of the Bible. This will serve as my guiding principle.

When our Christian ancestors earnestly believed they were following God’s Word in imprisoning Galileo, in justifying slavery and in pushing for prohibition, we know this was due to their misunderstanding of certain parts of the Bible. They misunderstood the context of some verses, read poetic language as if it were literal, overextended a caution to a proscription, etc. From our vantage point now we see the correct understanding of those verses. Notice that our heliocentric model of the solar system, our understanding that forced slavery is evil and that alcohol can be appropriate in moderation are completely in sync with the correct reading of those passages.

Of course Biblical truth is also God’s truth, which protects against scientific paradigm blindness: where the Bible clearly records God suspending the normal operation of Creation (miracles), these events cannot be disproved by science. Science’s purpose is to discern the laws of the normal operation of Creation; it cannot disprove the temporary suspension of those laws by the Creator. It is not a conflict in the least to realize that One with the power to create the universe and its natural laws also has the power to alter them as He wishes, to cause any necessary offsetting forces to act as needed, etc. to achieve His will. Anyone who claims equal footing for nature as the 67th book of the Bible – and then uses natural law to disprove clearly-worded miracle passages in the other 66 books – is not putting them on equal footing at all.

On the Christian side conversely, passages which refer to Creation’s normal operation and structure present the most risk for paradigm blindness. These descriptions, if they are to be treated as general explanations of the natural world with continuity to our current times (as a “Science textbook”), should be confirmable by our observations of those same aspects of the natural world. Again – all things that actually are true must be in sync with the true meaning of the Bible. This is the type of error the Church fell into by setting itself against Galileo’s evidence for a sun-centered solar system. For both sides of this paradigm risk, I have adopted a hermeneutic humble on both sides but aimed always to stay in sync with God’s Word:

Trust the Bible where its teaching is understood with general unanimity – BUT consult Science to help choose among alternative understandings where they exist.

Alternative understandings of a particular passage of scripture are, after all, merely competing thoughts – the works of men. Following this approach would have saved the Church from an injustice and damaging error with Galileo, but would in no way open up the Bible for naturalistic redaction. It rightly places the authority of the Bible above nature in all cases, and only uses scientific findings at all to shed light where the Bible may not be clearly understood by men.

All things that actually are true must be in sync with the true meaning of the Bible.

My hope is that with this purposeful approach to considering both Science and the Bible, real Truth can be seen more clearly.


    The movie you cite as evidence of persecution is a very sleazy and dishonest film whose claims have been thoroughly debunked. For instance the quote they give from darwin supposedly showing that he laid the groundwork for nazi eugenics was completely distorted from the original quote which was about animal husbandry and specifically said it was not about people (which they edited out of the passage) and a few sentences later said that forced eugenics would be an “overwhelming present evil”. Darwin’s writings contradicted the nazis’ ideas so much they were in reality banned (and burned) in nazi germany. The discovery institute similarly villifies freud for being an atheist and claims he is responsible for the atrocities of the 20th century when he was actually hunted by the nazis and described his writings being burned in the streets. Atheists were actually one of the groups persecuted by the nazis, whose official religion was a sect called “positive christianity”. The claims that hitler was an atheist or that evolution had to do with nazi eugenics (forced systematic in-breeding which violates every darwinian principle) are just attempts to demonize and dehumanize people with whom evangelical christians do not agree.

  2. Thanks for the post agnophilo. I linked to Expelled in mentioning the persecution of professors at U.S. universities who attempt to teach or research Intelligent Design – which is the main theme of the movie. I understand there are other claims made by the movie which go further than where you’re comfortable, ascribing intent to Darwin, etc. – but I assume you agree that the interviews at least do show that professors outside of the Evolution paradigm are at times persecuted by those within it, including having their careers ended/damaged…?

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  1. Liberalism: Where Have You Gone, Square Deal? | Teaching My Kids
  2. Evolution: the Tower of Babel of our Age | Teaching My Kids

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