Re: Playing the game (was Re: [asa] Wells and traditional Christianity)

From: Ted Davis <>
Date: Mon Sep 11 2006 - 19:45:14 EDT


You ask an excellent question, as follows:
Why is it that _supernaturalists_ have a strong tendency to behave as
naturalists? Having received a broader understanding of reality, why do
Christians - whether TE, OEC, YEC or ID - participate in a _game_ devised by
materialists and fellow travellers who live by the fiction that _science_ is
all-in-all, is completely free of constraint, and is immune to preternatural
influence? The principal rule of this game is clear enough: _nothing
supernatural please_!

You then go on to suggest some sociological factors that are (you imply)
relevant to answering it:
Of course, one can understand why many feel obliged to play this game: fear
of career setbacks, rejection of papers by learned journals, loss of
funding, and the ultimate sanction of dismissal, are powerful disincentives
to venture too far from current scientific orthodoxy. <big SNIP>

Please allow me to focus here only on this part of your post, Vernon. It's
the most interesting part, at least to me, and I have what I think is a good

I'll begin by agreeing with you that the sociological factors spelled out
above have some role in formulating an answer. However, not nearly IMO the
role you probably envision for them. I would suggest this: those Christian
scientists who agree with the "rules of the game" of science are much more
likely to be hired by institutions that also play by the same rules. They
aren't fearful of career setbacks by placing a "supernatural" science over
naturalism, b/c they already agree that naturalism is appropriate in the
sciences. etc. To word things as you did--and some ID friends of mine have
put it similarly to me sometimes, so I've heard this more than you might
think--is IMO both inaccurate to the actual state of affairs and also
insulting to many Christian scientists.

Let me offer a case in point: Francis Collins. You can fill in lots of
other Christian scientists instead, but Collins' recent book and his very
well publicized religious activities prior to writing the book certainly do
not gain him "bonus points" with the secular scientific establishment. He
has courage, and so do many other Christian scientists who openly live their
faith in secular settings. I do not see such folks as fearful of reprisals
for challenging rules they agree with. However, they might worry that they
will be subjected to subtle (or even not so subtle) discrimation for having
Christian lives on display so openly.

Thus, I see your implicit answer to your own question as more than a little
ironic. However, I do hear it quite often. More than a few IDs of my
acquaintance say this type of thing in my hearing range, perhaps b/c they
see themselves as potentially being in the very type of situation that they
imagine other Chrsitian scientists to be in: one of denying their faith
commitments in order to be "respectable" scientifically. They are wrong,
however, to extend this to many others, esp to those who are not persuaded
that ID is the best interpretation of scientific information.

Where have they gone wrong? This brings us back to your question.

Let me start to answer it by pointing out that I have actually written about
this formally, to some degree. Several years ago, with my colleague Robin
Collins (a philosopher of science), I wrote an essay on "Scientific
Naturalism" for an encyclopedia of science and religion. It has recently
been reprinted in a volume that consists of selections from the larger work,
a volume published by Johns Hopkins University Press and designed as a
college text. (Details are on my webpage at I also
recommend the essay by Ronald Numbers in the recent book, "When Science and
Christianity Meet," from the Univ of Chicago Press. Ron talks about the
history of methodological naturalism, right down to the present day, and
shows the degree to which Christians (not secularists) have constructed this
notion, as a way of putting appropriate boundaries on science rather than as
a way of denigrating religion. Likewise, my essay details the role that
Christians played in advancing the study of nature using methodological

Let me add these general comments, and then I'll quit, with the
recommendation to go out and read the essays just mentioned. First, so many
Christian scientists accept naturalism (in a limited way, as mentioned
above) not b/c they are fearful of their careers, but b/c they believe it
has been so successful at explaining (and not just describing) the natural
world. In parallel with this, they also have believed that appealing to
supernatural agency in order to explain natural phenomena is rather like
being a witch doctor. Even the most devout Christian scientists have seen
it this way. Robert Boyle, for example, rejected appeals to God's absolute
power in science--though he believed God to be omnipotent and to have acted
out of omnipotence in biblical history. As he put it in an argument he had
with the Jesuit philosopher Francis Line, we must not fly unto God's
absolute power; we must seek to discover what God actually has done, not
what God has the power to do if He wishes. Boyle and most of his
contemporaries were not, as your question implies, atheists or materialists
who were seeking to rid the world of religion. Rather, they were strong
theists--indeed, supernaturalists--who still saw that the goal of science
was to *understand* nature in order to control it and use it for the
improvement of the human condition. This is not a contradiction. There is
in fact a splendid essay from many years ago, by Keith Hutchinson (sp?),
called "Supernaturalism and the Mechanical Philosophy," in which he argues
that the mechanical philosophy was actually advanced by a belief in
supernatural divine creation of the matter out of which all other things
were made. But the search for the properties and powers imposed on matter
by the creator is to be conducted at the level of natural causes.

This is yet another reason, Vernon, why I often say that the crucial issues
in science and religion were those of the seventeenth century, not the
nineteenth century. If more IDs and YECs understood this--and if more
secularists understood the theological aspects and subtleties of 17th
century science--then we might not find such heated controversies today over
origins and such.


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Received on Mon Sep 11 19:46:35 2006

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