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Are Science and Religion Compatible?

April 2018 Earth Stewards Blog

A Review of James Martin’s Book Revelation Through Science

Our former N.C. governor James G. Martin affirms his identity as a scientist (organic chemist) and as a Christian in his recent (2016) book, Revelation Through Science. He makes the case that modern science is compatible with Christian faith – though not with biblical literalism.

EST-Mich.jpgMartin takes a middle position between what he sees as two errors: one is anti-science, anti-evolution biblical literalism; the other is the idea that science makes God as Creator unnecessary (and so is atheistic).

Martin methodically exposes the fatal weaknesses in anti-evolution arguments. He cites the fossil record, DNA linkages among species, evidence on the age of the earth, and more. He also notes, among other comments on Christian history, that the early church father Augustine warned against literal reading of creation stories.

The other side of his two-pronged argument is that intelligent life in this universe is too improbable to have occurred by chance. One tenet of science is to explain nature without invoking supernatural causes. Fair enough. (It is more than fair, it is crucial to modern science.) Yet, Martin implies, random chance of very low likelihood is the only non-supernatural explanation for crucial steps nature took that led to intelligent life. Martin thinks low-probability random-chance is a poor reason to rule out a divine creator. Further, he sees little evidence to support the random-chance hypothesis. (And reliance on evidence is another key tenet of modern science.)

Martin lists a full 50 highly improbable “anthropic” conditions that allowed life to emerge in this universe (pp. 389-90). His list starts with the fine-tuned forces of nature (such as gravity and electromagnetic forces) and goes on to organic compounds crucial to life. Martin infers at about zero the chance for purely random chance to get all these just right. And for Martin, that leaves room for divine guidance to the whole process.

As an organic chemist, Martin marvels at the "ease with which [complex organic compounds] are synthesized in plant and animal cells ... in sharp contrast to the extreme difficulty of synthesizing them in the best equipped organic chemistry laboratory” (p.168; see a similar statement on p. 260). That is, as I read Martin, it seems very unlikely that pure chance could produce the organic compounds needed for life. Yet nature seems to have been guided to do what the labs find so difficult to do. This is the gist of his book-length argument.

EST-earth.jpgWe may welcome a scientist’s argument for religious faith, but we must ask questions. Does Martin have the probabilities right? Are certain events in our universe so very, very improbable that random chance as an explanation is unconvincing?

Does the difficulty of synthesizing certain organic compounds in present-day laboratories necessarily imply that nature could not, over vast amounts of time, eventually have achieved this by random chance? Martin implies he would change his mind if evidence existed to show he is wrong – just as he accepts Darwinian evolution because of the accumulating evidence.

Indeed, finding evidence concerning processes that occurred so very far before Darwinian time is very difficult. Lacking direct evidence, our best recourse is expert opinion. Even giving Martin’s expertise due credit, I easily found an expert who diverged from his assessment of how unlikely some things are to happen in nature.

Of course, compelling evidence could emerge at any time that the odds are much higher for a random process to produce intelligent life than Martin believes. Ironically, Martin puts himself in the same vulnerable position as anti-evolutionists were a century and a half ago – just waiting for evidence to accumulate to contradict him. A related question: should the burden of finding evidence even fall on the random-chance advocates, or on Martin’s side?

At least for now, Martin argues that the random-chance hypothesis is as much faith as religious faith is. In fact, he says this explicitly: One may hold that a crucial, aspect of DNA “could have occurred without a purposeful choice. [However, this requires] a leap of faith at least as ballistic as any theistic believer ever had to make” (pp.276-277). And this statement, attached to a discussion of DNA, seems to sum up Martin’s entire argument, after covering many fields of science. At the extreme limits of our knowledge, science’s usually reliable methodology seems to depend on faith as much as religious belief does.

One is reminded of the apostle Paul’s words: “we live by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). This text surely applies in everyday living as well as in pondering creation. For the believer, Martin also gives a new layer of interpretation to the ancient psalmist’s praise of God’s handiwork in nature: “The heavens are telling the glory of God” (Ps.19:1). And, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139):14).

James Martin’s book Revelation Through Science is available at the Forsyth County Public Library. A similar, shorter and less technical, book is Francis Collins’s work The Language of God. Collins headed the 1990s project that mapped the entire human genome for the first time.

Reviewed for Earth Stewards by Donald Frey