Quoting Statistics May Undermine Truth, part I
Ronnie Rogers is senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Norman, Okla., a university city cited by the North American Mission Board in 2006 as the most unchurched in the state. Pastor Rogers’ expositional sermons draw large collegiate crowds during the school year as he preaches and teaches (and writes) from a biblical perspective that boldly challenges popular culture.
In the quest to seem with it in our present scientistic milieu, preachers and Christians often pursue fluency regarding the latest polls, statistics, and studies (punctiliar thinking) more than they seek understanding of the Scripture and linear thinking. This quest is often characterized by indiscriminate reliance upon and usage of these tools, which actually leads people farther from the truth both in their thinking processes and in their conclusions. Although these tools are useful at times, they should be used judiciously and sparingly lest one unwittingly becomes a scientistic myrmidon, and by his example leads others to do likewise.
Science proper is the systematic study of the physical nature, relationships, and interactions of physical phenomena.[i] Thus, the benefit of science is the knowledge it provides about the physicality of life; however, when scientific inquiry seeks to explain or comment upon more than that or limit knowable existence to that, it is no longer science, but scientism—naturalism.
Huston Smith, who taught for thirty years at several prestigious universities including MIT and Berkley, cogently distinguishes between scientism and science when he says, “Scientism adds to science two corollaries: first, that the scientific method is, if not the only reliable method of getting at truth, then at least the most reliable method; and second, that the things science deals with—material entities—are the most fundamental things that exist…. Unsupported by facts, they are at best philosophical assumptions and at worst merely opinions.”[ii]
He also spoke in reference to the attitude of some prominent scientists who are unwilling to limit the scientific method in determining truth: “This is the kind of misreading of science…(that) belittles art, religion, love, and the bulk of the life we directly live by denying that those elements yield insights that are needed to complement what science tells us.”[iii] Therefore, the science vs. religion conflict is usually not between religion and science, but religion and scientism because scientism—naturalism—defines reality as the sum of physical properties and the epiphenomenal (that which emanates from physical properties).
An example of science subtly transgressing its legitimate domanial authority, which many scientists do quotidianly, would be when science concludes that eating certain foods predisposes people to various health risks, which is in fact the proper domain of science; then based on that knowledge, science says that people should not eat those foods. This recommendation is beyond the domain of science; therefore, it is a philosophical statement based upon naturalism, and/or religion, i.e. scientism. Note that such moralizing is not only beyond the scope of science, it is directly connected to one’s view of man. Now, the scientist can make such recommendations, but when he does, it is not as a scientist, with the authority of science; consequently, the scientist’s recommendation has no more authority (and may not have as much as philosophers and preachers) than anyone else.
If preachers and Christians rely too heavily upon science to vindicate a biblical claim, it furthers the unwarranted popular perception that science is the final arbitrator of what is true and what is not. I believe that many Christians have accepted that premise more pervasively than is often recognized. For science to be the supreme authority (or perceived as the necessary authenticator) in all areas of existence, e.g. the latest study, poll, survey, etc., is not only a change in what we think, but how we think.[iv] With the evanescing of the publicly acknowledged[v] existence of the final or fixed (much less the superiority of the final or fixed), we are wittingly or unwittingly trained to think in temporary and transitory ways because whatever we believe today is really only for today or until the next poll, study, etc. Therefore, Christians must be trained to recognize this subtle shift and to think more deeply than scientific culture esteems and help others do the same.
Far too often, pastors, when preaching or teaching, can find themselves relying on science rather than Scripture to drive home their point. Again, I do believe there is a place for using such information, but Scripture relies on eternal wisdom, understanding the past, whereas science needs to know little history because what really matters is the next study, poll, etc. Consequently, when the latest data—which will probably be obsolete soon—is used to convince people of the intellectual reliability of Scripture or why they should follow Scripture, the long-term effect will be an erosion of a passion to be a Biblicist. Sometimes, quite unwittingly, science becomes the evidence of the message and Jesus becomes the illustration. This is disastrously backwards.
[i] This is my definition of science in which I seek to express the full breadth of science proper without morphing it into naturalism.
[ii] Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2001), 59-60. He gives as an example Freud’s statement, “Our science is not illusion, but an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere.” This goes far beyond the realm of science into ‘epistemic naturalism’ or ‘scientism.’ Smith notes on page 62 that not all scientists accept the “epistemological privilege of science,” like the French microbiologist Francois Jacob and others. Scientism is not the belief that science will be able to “predict everything” as noted on page 63, which would make it held by only a few.
[iii] Smith, Why Religion Matters, 187.
[iv] There is no longer the acknowledged existence or much less the superiority of the final or fixed. Consequently, we are wittingly or unwittingly trained to think in temporary and transitory ways because whatever we believe today is really only for today or until the next poll, study, etc.
[v] I am referring here to acknowledged in the sense of publically imposable knowledge, e.g. the Declaration of Independence being premised upon the existence of God, and public education prior to the installation of progressive education.