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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Seeing God In Science

Ready for another controversial post?  I'm sure this one will generate thought and comments, as it's another "hot-button" topic.  

I'm not shy about my Christian faith, but I also make a point not to shove it down anyone's throat.  But since it's an integral part of who I am, and because this blog is as much about the personal life of a vet as it is about the profession, I don't avoid the topic when it comes up.  When I've discussed Christianity in the past it has usually been because a reader has asked me a question, as happened in a recent email from Milly...

I just stumbled upon your blog whilst looking up all sorts of science-religion questions. I'm a Vet Nurse and also studying Zoology and Biology at University and the more I've been studying the less and less I've found reason to believe in God or any religion. Not due to an aversion to religion, I was raised a Christian (I'm now 24), but just from the evidence presented to me I find it hard to detach humans from animals and our evolutionary history. It just seems more and more like we are just animals that live and die and that this whole universe was just one happy accident. I hate this outlook on life as it makes me feel like it is meaningless and now death petrifies me - I don't want to use religion as a crux for this fear though, I want something tangible to help me feel comfortable in my belief (that is, I don't want to be a Christian just because I'm too scared of the alternative, that is I will just die and that's the end of that). Whilst I understand having Faith is a huge part of what it takes to be religious, I know you will understand my viewpoint as a Scientist in questioning some of these things! Strangely enough too, the places that I research these questions (what is the point of life? why are we here? what are the differences between humans and animals? etc etc etc) it is the Atheists that come across more adamantly than any religious person; atheists for some reason feel the need to aggressively remind everyone that there is no God so I was hoping to find someone else's opinion for once. 

Sorry again, I know this is more of a personal question and not something necessarily related to your veterinary work but I'm yearning to speak to people who are educated and intelligent and not just blindly following a religion (please don't think I'm being disrespectful) - in your work in Science have you found ways that your faith and your understanding of science can be harmonious? Do many others in your position have a personal God?

Buckle up, folks, as this will be a long one.

I have a unique perspective as I wasn't always a Christian.  I grew up Lutheran and went through confirmation in the church, but it didn't really mean much to me.  We prayed over meals and sometimes for each other, but God wasn't a central part of my life like it is today.  By the time I got to college I had become very agnostic and explored other aspects of religion, thinking that no one religion was right.  During that time I received my Bachelor's in Biology, my Master's in Ethology, and my veterinary degree.  When I was 28 I had a serious experience and was "saved", giving myself to Christ.  Since then I have committed myself to following God.

I only mention my religious background to point out that I didn't always see the world and science through a Christian lens.  Because of my education I took for granted all of the things taught about evolution and held that at my core.  I was decidedly against the Biblical view of science, animals, and humans.  But becoming deeply Christian actually took my blinders off.  I started looking at the evidence and both sides of the arguments with open eyes.  And I found my perspective changing.

I'm not going to convince many die-hard scientists and those who are skeptical of religion.  But the more I've learned about science, biology, and astronomy, the more it has supported and deepened my belief in God.  The sheer detail and intricacies of creation are amazing, and the more I look at those details down to a subatomic level the harder I have believing that it all happened by random chance.  In fact, the odds are beyond belief.

"But it must have happened that way.  After all, we're here now, aren't we?"  That's not real science or analytical  thinking.  This is assuming that a certain way is true because of where it ends up, rather than looking at the process.  How exactly do we go from inorganic chemicals to multicellular organisms?  We must have done so, right?  Yet there are numerous problems with the process, namely that it hasn't been completely explained.  "Well, given enough time sheer random chance is going to allow it."  Really?  If you look at statistics at some point odds are so astronomical that they are effectively impossible.  For example, look at the odds of Jesus fulfilling 48 Old Testament prophecies as he did.  This has been calculated as a 1 in 10 raised to the 157th power.  Okay, 1 in a bajillion is still a chance, right?  Put that number perspective.  10 to that many power is approximately the number of electrons in the known universe.  So Jesus fulfilling 48 prophecies is equivalent to someone reaching out in the entire universe, picking a single electron, and it being the right one.  Oh, and Jesus actually fulfilled well over 300 prophecies about the messiah, so do the math on that one.

Also keep in mind that odds are per instance, not cumulative.  When you flip a coin, you have a 50% chance of it landing heads.  Flipping it 100 times doesn't increase your odds that a single flip will land heads.  When you flip the coin, there is a 50/50 chance of landing on heads, no matter how many times you try.  Now switch that to molecular bonds.  Let's say that a molecule has a 1 in 1 billion chance to bond differently to another molecule.  If you give it 100 million years, there is still that 1 in a billion chance every time the two molecules come together.  So the whole idea of enough time allowing anything at all to happen isn't necessarily true.

What about life on other planets?  Are we really that special?  I do follow astronomy to some degree as well and there has been a lot of talk about Earth-like planets being found that may be able to support life.  But it's not as simple as being a certain distance from a sun and having liquid water.  Each type of sun gives off different amount of heat and radiation.  The rotational speed of the planet and its axial tilt is vitally important.  The presence of other planets and their gravitational pull and radiation also matter.  Believe it or not, but the location within the galaxy is also a factor, as planets closer to the center of the galaxy are exposed to more radiation.  Put all of that together and the fact that our little globe exists at exactly the right location within the solar system and galaxy, as well as the right tilt and spin are all rather astronomical odds.  "But with about 300 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, the odds are good that there are at least a few planets capable of developing life."  Yes, that seems to make sense, but go back to the discussion on odds and that doesn't seem to be as likely.

There is a magic and wonder to nature, and to me that only grows as you look deeper and deeper into the details.  Let's go from galaxies to molecules and look at the intricacies of photosynthesis.  Here are a couple of images that describe and show the process of taking sunlight and converting it into oxygen and glucose.



I'm sure many of you are looking at this and completely lost.  I'm a zoologist, not a botanist, so this is even boring to me.  However, the details of the process down to the single electron are incredibly complex and intricate.  There is so much complexity that I find it hard to not believe that it was created by God!  The idea that two inorganic molecules can somehow over time bond and then bond again to get to the above is absolutely incredible and unbelievable to me.  And it's also unbelievable to some molecular biologists (more on that later).  So to me, the more I know of science the more my belief in God is strengthened!

All of this is just scratching the surface, and since entire books have been written on each of the above topics I'm certainly not going to cover all of it here. It also isn't all of the story, as we're talking about "head knowledge", not "heart knowledge".  Christianity isn't about a list of proofs as part of a scientific theory.  Though there is certainly an incredible amount of such proof, that's not what it's all about.  Christianity is about a personal, one-on-one relationship with Jesus.  It's about loving him and being friends with him, something that facts can't completely define.

Can you list everything that makes you fall in love with someone?  Sure, you can say that they're attractive, share the same likes, are funny, and so on.  But at some point there is an indefinable "something" that goes beyond any list.  Even in friendship this is true.  I have a friend that was one of my groomsmen, and he and I couldn't be more dissimilar.  He's tall, dark-skinned, athletic, and a very driven, focused business person.  I'm short, very pale, a bit out of shape, and don't think the world is all about Rolexes and BMWs.  Somehow we became friends though you couldn't point to many things we have in common.  A relationship with Jesus is very similar.  And that's where science can't go as it is about feelings and emotions which are not easily quantifiable (if it's even possible).

Milly, I completely agree that Christianity shouldn't be seen as "fire insurance" or a "Get our of Hell free" card.  We should have some concern about where we will end up after death, but Christianity is about hope and love, not fear.  It's about understanding, inclusion, and forgiveness, not condemnation (despite what you may hear from some radical groups such as Westboro Baptist Church and others).  And when you read the Bible you will find the answers that science can't give, the very ones you mentioned.

To answer your last questions, Milly, my faith in God and my understanding of science are 100% harmonious and my passion for science only strengthens my passion for God.  In fact, my detailed knowledge allows me to appreciate God in a different way than my wife who studied English and Drama in college.  And there are many, many people who share my view.

Let me give you some resources for further research and study.

Christian Veterinary Mission:  Veterinarians who use their profession to help people world-wide while sharing God.  I've been involved with this ministry for years and would love to go on a mission trip with them one day.
Darwin's Black Box (Michael Behe):  A biochemist's analysis of the molecular processes of living things and how it is impossible for them to have happened by chance.
The Case For... (Lee Strobel):  A journalist who set out to disprove Christianity, Strobel ended up coming to  faith in Christ as he actually found incredible evidence for the Bible and Jesus.  To tie in with this current discussion I would specifically recommend The Case For Christ and The Case For A Creator.  These are incredibly approachable and easy-to-read books and part of a whole series.
Evidence That Demands A Verdict (Josh McDowell):  McDowell is another author who was determined to disprove Christianity and in his research ended up having his mind and faith changed.  This book is for the scholarly-minded as it is very dry, but has an incredible amount of detail and evidence.
The Privileged Planet (Guillermo Gonzalez & Jay Richards):  Addressing the cosmological side of things, this book describes how truly special Earth is in the universe and how it seems to be perfectly created for intelligent residents.

Milly, I hope this helps in your search!  I'll keep you in my prayers.

6 comments:

  1. Thank you for this! This pretty much sums up what I have come to believe about creation and how amazing it all is.

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  2. I'm 26 and having always had a strong interest in science I've always had very similar questions as Milly as well. I grew up Catholic and will probably always hold Catholic traditions near and dear to my heart, but I don't really identify myself as religious anymore.

    My questioning didn't come from studying the natural sciences however, in fact I think science and religion have two completely different functions in society and one should not be used to justify or refute the other. Instead it was religion and comparative lit classes in college that really shifted my viewpoints on "God" and religion.

    I find the idea that Milly stated, that we are all just animals that live and die, to be very humbling. I think in many religions (particularly Western religions), humans are placed on a pedestal above all other living things that is used to justify some very destructive and unethical actions against other living things, but all the while claiming morality because there is benefit to other humans.

    For someone like Milly I would HIGHLY recommend works by Joseph Campbell, such as Follow Your Bliss or The Power of Myth. I particularly like this quote from him: "Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer." I think this quote is quite powerful and something we can all agree on, religious or not.

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  3. Thanks for your thoughtful remarks on this. At age 69 I still struggle daily to find where I stand faithwise (although the struggle may be more to try and reconcile my head with my heart). Anyone attempting to reconcile science and faith should look into the work of Dr. Hugh Ross. I have found his writings very helpful.

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  4. Although salvation is at the center of my beliefs as a Christian, it is not why I am a Christian. I am a Christian because I believe that I am inherently a sinner and that Christ lived and died and rose to atone for those sins. If you choose to follow a Christian faith for simply an explanation for life after death, I don't think you would be saved. In other words, faith comes first.

    In Biblical terms, in order to be saved you must:
    1) Hear the gospel (Romans 10:17)
    2) Believe (Mark 16:16)
    3) Repent (Luke 13:3)
    4) Confess Christ as your savior (Matthew 10:32)
    5) Be baptized (Acts 2:38)

    That being said, reconciling my beliefs with science has been difficult and challenging at times. As a zoology major at Oklahoma State University, I took Evolution as necessary part of my coursework. Contrary to how many Christians view the matter, evolution is not a belief but a strong theory of how life has changed. Evolution is real -- over time, animals and plants adapt for the survival of the fittest in their environment. Now, I don't think that monkeys turned into humans over time, but does a bird's beak change over 100's of years to be better at cracking the particular nut it eats? Of course it did.

    It sounds like Milly's biggest question is not necessarily about salvation but about the presence of God. The books that Dr. Bern listed are a wonderful selection(!), but my favorite is C.S. Lewis' "The Case for Christianity." He steps back and demonstrates the many real life scenarios that not only show the presence of a God but also Christ. I'm no English major, so I do recommend going and reading a few of these books -- as an introverted and educated person, I found reading a well-thought out essay much more satisfactory then talking with people at church.

    There is also a website http://biologos.org/ that consists of a team of scientists answering faith-based questions from a scientific perspective. It's free and you can access it from home :)

    Please feel free to contact me with any questions as well. I haven't dedicated time to creating a blog, but find it spiritually uplifting to have these discussions - it strengthens my faith and inspires me to spend more time in God's word.

    -Katie
    Katie Johnson, DVM
    kjj24@cornell.edu
    Ithaca, NY





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  5. Thank you everyone for taking the time to reply to this, it has been something really challenging for me at the moment but it's much more enjoyable hearing the views of open minded educated people - people seem to want to vehemently defend whatever they do (or more so do not) belief so I really appreciate all your honest remarks, it's refreshing :)
    - Milly

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  6. Katie, I completely forgot C.S. Lewis. "Mere Christianity" is one of the greatest Christian apologetics written. Thanks from bringing that up!

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