by Vern S. Poythress, Ph.D., Th.D.
[Originally published online at https://www.truthaboutangelsanddemons.com/questions-in-angels-and-demons/does-religion-fear-science.html May 13, 2009. Used with permission.]
Do we love science or fear it?
Dan Brown’s book Angels and Demons draws us in by its fast-moving plot. But it also contains fascinating examples of our modern struggles to come to terms with science. Ambivalent attitudes come to the surface as we read.
On the one hand, we admire the progress of science, the almost magical character of some of its great achievements. It offers the power not only to understand the world but to spin off technological products like high-speed jets and retinal pattern identifiers.
On the other hand, we fear science. Will it get out of bounds? Memories of the Frankenstein monster and mad scientists and the atomic bomb rise in our minds. And even if the scientists are decent people, will their pride or their secrecy or their desire for achievement push them? Will they, like father and daughter Vetra, make risky judgments that end up endangering the world?
The most haunting image comes from near the end of Brown’s book. Will the son, whose artificial insemination symbolically represents the science spawned in our modern world, be able to come to terms with himself and with science? Or will he destroy the father, who can symbolically represent the Western civilization that spawned him? Will the son destroy himself as well?
Why the fear?
Why do we fear? Partly we fear what we do not know. Much of the most advanced science requires advanced training. And science as a whole has become so so vast and so technical that no one can master all of it.
But we also fear what the scientists themselves do not know. On the edge of knowledge they cannot know for certain what are the limits or the dangers within the areas within which they work. Marie Curie made great contributions to the study of radioactivity. But no one knew at the time the biological dangers of long-term exposure to radioactivity. Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia, probably a result of her repeated exposure to radioactivity.
What are the long-term effects of the use of chemical pesticides? No one knew at the time they first came into use.
We also fear that the technological power in modern science will fall into the wrong hands. How long will it be until some terrorist manages to steal or construct a nuclear bomb?
So let us think about the deeper sources for our fears.
A source for fear: fear of failure
For some of us, fear arises because of bad experiences in science education. At a certain point, we did not understand the science we were taught, and we got bad grades. We failed. And failure has left a bitter aftertaste about science as a whole. What can we do about it?
The God of the Bible comes to pick up those who fall down into failure. “The Lord upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down” (Psalm 145:14). “A bruised reed he will not break” (Isaiah 42:3).
If your value depends only on what you can achieve in comparison with others, your value drops low when others excel in science. If, on the other hand, you receive God’s love, you come to understand that he values you as a person, not for what you can achieve. You can admire others’ achievements without yourself being deflated.
A source for fear: the mystery of deep knowledge
Another source for fear is the awe that we may feel for deep knowledge, knowledge beyond our grasp. Science has a capacity to evoke this kind of fear, partly because it has over the last century grown incredibly rich in its extent. But in addition, the question always remains, “Why this instead of something else?” The answer to one question only leads to another, just as the small child can stump his parent by continuing to ask “Why?” and pushing the trail of explanation further and further back.
The awe we feel, we feel because science confronts us with the outskirts of the mind and the plan of God in his governance of the world. Awe toward science is a reflection of the awe for the infinity of God, who is infinite in knowledge. His “why’s” go on forever.
A source for fear: human finitness
We also fear because scientists themselves, for all their skill, can make ghastly mistakes when they are stretching beyond the limits of our present knowledge. They stretch into the unknown, and the unknown can have unpleasant surprises in the form of radiation damage from radioactivity or cancer from chemical pesticides.
In short, we are finite. We are limited in knowledge. Human finiteness reminds us of our dependence on the infinity of God. We cannot, in and of ourselves, protect ourselves and master our fate in every dimension. Eventually we die, whether it be prematurely from cancer or in ripe old age. And what then? We cannot master life after death.
Not to be masters of our fate points to the One who is. And that One can miraculously or providentially protect us from sad consequences of ignorance or folly, if he so chooses. But the final protection is a life other than this one, an eternal life unthreatened by death or disease:
I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyon who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this? (John 11:25-26)
A source for fear: human perversion and sin
Finally, we fear because we know that human beings can misuse the power that technology increasingly puts in our hands. We may be progressing technologically, but are we progressing morally? If not, we are progressing not only in the ability to do good but in the ability to do evil. And sometimes it seems that the evil is much easier. It is easier to destroy a whole city with one bomb than to build it through the labors of decades.
What is the remedy for human perversity? Is it just to be good? Some people think so. But I suggest that they have not yet become aware of the deeper shadows of pride and hatred and selfishness that hide deep down beneath our veneer of niceness.
The Bible is realistic. It is realistic about human failure (Matt. 11:28-30). It is realistic about the awe of deep knowledge (Rom. 11:33-36; Ps. 139). It is realistic about the limitations of human finiteness (Job 38:4). It is realistic about human perversity–“sin” is the name for it. All four of these strands come together in what the Bible calls “the fear of the Lord”: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. 111:10). “Fear” is not just dread, but reverence. It ends in worship. But it cannot end in proper worship with confronting the fourth of our four fears, human sin. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). In the very next line the Bible offers us a remedy for this deepest of fears: “But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).
Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006. See especially chapters 11-12 on human beings and their redemption.
Vern S. Poythress, “God and Science.”