New Scientist and Fresh Threats – The question of Religious Science

From The Presbyterian Banner, November 2005

The popular weekly British news and information magazine New Scientist has a special report on Fundamentalism in its 8 October 2005 issue.

The first article ‘End of the Enlightenment’ argues that reason, pluralism, democracy and freedom of thought are under threat from intolerant belief systems – the fundamentalists of Christian, Muslim and other persuasions. Unable to cope with modernity’s challenge to religious orthodoxy, and fearful of secularism’s cultural dominance, they fight back by asserting the infallibility of the sacred text, the superiority of their belief system to all others, the inadequacy of reason, and the subjugation of human freedom to God or his followers.

A second article affirms that, as individuals, fundamentalists – at least those of the Christian variety – tend to be happy, sincere and healthy. They have a sense of playing a part in God’s great story whereas secular western culture does not provide a ‘grand narrative’ in which one finds one’s identity. But anthropologist Scott Atran from the University of Michigan is cited in support of the proposition that, in a group, fundamentalist Christians struggle to fulfil the prophecies of the Bible, and thus validate their cherished beliefs, and that this has ignited a global holy war. Atran thinks Christian fundamentalism and the apocalyptic visions of the book of Revelation are the cause of Islamic fundamentalism.

A third article outlines the research and funding behind intelligent design and suggest some supporters want to discredit global warming, ozone depletion and pollution issues.

A final article by well-known columnist Bryan Appleyard is on the whole helpful in its reminder that scientists can be fundamentalists too.

The first reaction to this series of articles is that definitions are not well thought through so that confusion rather than clarity results. Second, there is no smoke without fire, and there is certainly cause for concern that a new Dark Ages could descend upon us if some fundamentalists have their way. To make it easier to see the issues, let’s look at faiths other than Christianity first.


(i) Islam
In his book Islam and Science (Zed Books, 1991), Pakistani physicist Perved Hoodbhoy writes:
‘About 700 years ago, Islamic civilization almost completely lost the will and ability to do science. Since that time, apart from attempts during the Ottoman period and in Mohammed Ali’s Egypt, there have been no significant efforts at recovery. Many Muslims acknowledge, and express profound regret at, this fact. Indeed, this is the major preoccupation of the modernist faction in Islam. But most traditionalists feel no regret – in fact, many welcome this loss because, in their view, keeping a distance from science helps preserve Islam from corrupting, secular influences.’

Hoodbhoy notes the influence of Maurice Bucaille, the French physician to the Saudi royal family who wrote The Bible, the Qur’an and Science in 1975, for which he was reportedly paid a nine figure sum. Bucaille is widely cited in Islamic material including A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam by I. A. Ibrahim. The Islamic Society of Victoria has published an edition of this latter book. Bucaille’s book was thoroughly refuted by Dr William F. Campbell, the physician to the Tunisian royal family, in a very interesting response [The Qur’an and the Bible in the light of History & Science] available on the web at <>

Bucaille and those like him wish to show that the Qur’an anticipated scientific discoveries that could not have been known at the time, and thus to prove the Qur’an is Divine revelation. For example, the statement in the Qur’an 96:15-16 “…We will take him by the front of the head, a lying, sinful front of the head!” is cited, since only in the 20th century did we discover that the pre-frontal region of the cerebrum is the area for planning, motivating and initiating good and bad behaviour. But one can only do this with appearance of being convincing by being quite arbitrary. What does one do with Qur’an 20:53, which speaks of God who has, “…made the earth for you like a carpet spread out…”? Are we to believe in a flat earth?

In some versions of Islamic science the Qur’an is held to contain all possible science. Examples of the pseudo-science includes existence of jinns as fiery beings possessing unlimited energy, and that this energy can be used as fuel; the claim that heaven is receding from earth at 1 centimetre per second less than the speed of light. Another author proposes that atomic charges are carved out of ‘spiritual forces’’ and “not simply the blind electromagnetic forces that the materialists would make us believe.’’

Another problem with claims that the Qur’an anticipated modern discoveries is that they lack an explanation for why quantum mechanics, molecular genetics, etc., had to await discovery by non-Muslims, or why antibiotics, aspirin, steam engines, electricity, aircraft, or computers were not first invented by Muslims. Nor is any kind of testable prediction ever made.

(ii) Hinduism
Hoodbhoy also writes: “…let me quote from a recently published book on the sciences of ancient India [Nem Kumar Jain, Science and Scientists in India, (Delhi, Indian Book Gallery, 1985). p.1]. The author, who appears to be an ardent believer in the Hindu faith as well as Hindu supremacy, asks his readers to ponder on Bhagavad Gita 2-16 which says: ‘What does not exist cannot come into existence, and what exists cannot be destroyed’. This line, proclaims the author triumphantly, is definitive proof that a pillar of modern physics – the law of conservation of matter and energy – was also known to the Ancients thousands of years ago. It establishes the divine nature of the Gita, and proves that there is nothing new which has been added to the stock of human wisdom since the time the scriptures were set down.”

(iii) Christianity
In Christianity, the same thing occurs. The statement of Isaiah 40:22, ‘It is he that sits upon the circle of the earth’ is regularly cited to prove Isaiah was aware of the global nature of the earth before such was known. Of course it is nothing of the kind but simply an observational way of describing the horizon, although to the ancients the world was more like a disc supported by pillars and floating on the sea (Psa 24:2; cf. Psa 75.3; Job 9.6). While we don’t usually hear Gen 3:15 taken at face value as if snakes were once upright legged creatures, we still have the ‘windows of heaven’ and the ‘fountains of the great deep’ taken as references to a water canopy above the earth and real subterranean caverns of water, with all the endeavour to establish scientific theories and proofs of a global flood. In fact these descriptions are pre-scientific depictions of the appearance of things – of heavy rain and overflowing flood waters. Scripture is not teaching us physics or geology and these statements are perfectly fine so long as we do not make them teach the sciences.

There certainly is an attitude in religious communities which wants to vindicate supposedly revealed texts by appeal to scientific proof. This has to be unconvincing to the believer since if a text is divine revelation it cannot be disproved. On the other hand, if there truly are in religious texts things intentionally taught that are contrary to reason, the status of the text as true has to be questioned.

Now Christians happen to believe that the Bible is reliable and without error in all it intends to convey, and this embraces historical facts. We may well at times have assumed too much of Scripture as if it taught us more about the natural sciences than it does. It is better as Herman Bavinck put it, to recognise the Bible as a book for science rather than a book of science. We may not understand parts of it well. I for one do not know how to understand some of the large numbers in the Old Testament. I suspect different symbols for writing numbers than were familiar to later copyists are a factor in enlarged numbers in our current text, especially given that something similar but much more exaggerated is found in records such as the Sumerian King List.


One can see from this very brief outline why this kind of fundamentalist approach threatens real science. And there are voices in the Christian community that are on a similar line. The disenchantment with and disengagement from scientific pursuits is not uncommon among some on the Christian right, even as they show an undue regard for scientific proofs of the Bible. In some cases the interest in home schooling reflects this disenchantment. There is no doubt in my mind that some of our Christian right, particularly those of literalist persuasion who subscribe to pre-millennial views, are prone to idealogues who will indeed lead us to a new dark age in some areas of science if they get their way.

On the other hand, intelligent design (ID) as discussed in the last issue of The Presbyterian Banner does not really seem such a major threat if the real point is to hold back those who in the name of science insist that reality is limited to the material or who, like Scott Atran named earlier in this article, are sure that there is no God other than the God created in our own minds. Still, the fear is that appeal to a Designer will excuse investigation and thus limit pushing forward the frontiers of science.

The New Scientist articles are not the most intelligent or helpful since they do not properly distinguish the issues. Nevertheless, there are aspects of concern that Christians of Reformed persuasion must share, I think.


For us the Biblical teaching is that the Triune God created all things and rules over all, so that all fulfils his perfect will. Creation reflects God’s wisdom, power, order and imagination. We may study it and make our science because creation is coherent, ordered, meaningful. Every scientist worthy of the name knows his work is fragmentary and provisional, and not the final word. But there is not a religious science as if there is Christian science or Islamic science, but there is a common method of investigation, and this science may be done Christianly or it may be done according to some other value system. Christian or atheist may, by employment of the scientific method, produce similar results, but the atheist cannot rule out the God of Scripture by the scientific method, while the Christian cannot help but rule God in, seeing in every process, simple or complex, the hand of the Creator behind it all. Yet it is a pity that after 300 years of scientific thought, and 150 years since Darwin, Bible loving Christians still have hang-ups that lead to over-reactions and simplistic solutions.

The author has served the PCEA in Melbourne since 1981.