Sunday, April 27, 2008

Dr. James Kennedy on Science

Earlier today, in the Colorado motel in which I stayed the last few days, someone had tuned the breakfast room TV to a Christian station, and I was treated to a Coral Ridge diatribe against Darwin and evolutionary science. Dr. James Kennedy was featured in a posthumous appearance in which he confidently presented his Intelligent Design view, quoting Michael Behe liberally. Some of the inaccuracies astonished me, and I felt like jumping up in the room to declare to the breakfast crowd that not all Christians think this way. But it occurred to me that whoever tuned in this broadcast was likely still in the room, and I restrained myself.

Among Dr. Kennedy’s assertions was this one: the scientific enterprise, for hundred’s of years led by God-fearing scientists, was “hijacked” by atheists in the middle of the 19th century, and that since that time science has been the domain of godless naturalists and materialists.

My take on this bit of history is quite different, as readers of this blog already know. It is my observation that, toward the end of the 19th Century, many Christians chose to retreat from science, and largely deeded over the scientific enterprise to non-believers. As I have noted elsewhere, Charles Hodge saw Darwinism as a threat to his theology, and chose to include the evolution issue in the already brewing fundamentalism—liberalism wars. His friend and associate B.B. Warfield, and other early fundamentalists (e.g. James Orr) saw this as a mistake. They accepted much evolutionary science, and saw no reason to oppose it. But in the end, Hodge won out, and the result was that the 20th Century saw the conservative wings of the church opposing the vast majority of scientists (among them, many Bible-believing Christians.)

Which of these views is correct? How do you see the last 150 years? Did the atheists wrench science away from Christians? Is science now held hostage by non-believers who use it as a club to attack belief? Or did Christians largely abandon science and deed much of it over to atheists? Please comment ...


Steve Martin said...

Hi Cliff,
Your point that Evangelicals abandoned science in the early 20th century is bang on. Really, I don't think we should blaming others for something that was really our own mistake.

Tom said...

Wikipedia says, "A study has shown atheism to be particularly prevalent among scientists, a tendency already quite marked at the beginning of the 20th century, developing into a dominant one during the course of the century. In 1914, James H. Leuba found that 58% of 1,000 randomly selected U.S. natural scientists expressed "disbelief or doubt in the existence of God" (defined as a personal God which interacts directly with human beings). The same study, repeated in 1996, gave a similar percentage of 60.7%; this number is 93% among the members of the National Academy of Sciences. Expressions of positive disbelief rose from 52% to 72%."

Which came first: The atheists who hijacked science or scientists that then became atheist? The lore of the mad scientist has made for some fun Sci-Fi entertainment, but the people who really believe that stuff are probably the ones funding televangelists.

Steve said...

Interesting statistics, Tom, but such a correlation is not really very surprising for the theist. On this topic, I invite you (and everyone) to see my related post.

Steve Martin said...

Hi guys,
check out re: this topic. (Left the same comment at Steve D.'s undeception, but thought it is relavent here too).

Cliff Martin said...

Tom, did you check out the link that Steve M., left? Throws some interesting light on the statistics you quote, suggesting another "which came first?": the atheistic mindset, or the choice to pursue an scientific career. I would still suggest that Christians, especially conservative leaning Christians, largely abandoned the scientific enterprise in the 20th Century (a truly stupid move!) because of the way early fundamentalists cast Darwin and evolution and the resulting distrust of science. It is, in part, this abandonment that has led to the statistical imbalance you cite. I would take issue with the implication that a scientific education bodes well for atheistic conclusions.

Steve M., thanks for the link. Interesting post and the comment thread that follows. I appreciate how you scour the internet and find these things!

Steve D., good post over at Undeception. Thank you!

Tom said...

Thanks for the link, Steve M. That was an interesting perspective and a reminder of how to be careful when interpreting statistics. As one commentator on that site mentioned, it would be interesting to actually measure conversion rates to and from religion or in some other way glean a belief history from individuals in the scientific community.

Cliff Martin said...


I am currently reading The Dawkins Delusion? by Alister McGrath & Joanna Collicutt McGrath. (Just as The God Delusion should be required reading for all believers, the McGrath's wonderful little answer should be required reading for all atheists!!). On pages 42 and 43, McGrath (himself a highly regarded Oxford trained molecular biophysics research scientist and also an atheist turned Christian) sites some interesting statistics that, I think, gives us some insight into your question.

He sites two surveys of active scientists which asked identical questions about belief in God, the first conducted in 1916, the second in 1997. The question specified belief in God as belief in a personal God, one who would respond to prayer, etc. thus excluding desism from "belief in God". Here are the results:

Yes: 40%
No: 40%
Don 't know: 20%

Yes: 40%
No: 45%
Don 't know: 15%

Is the 5% shift statistically significant? Even if it is, there was very little change in the landscape of theism/atheism among working scientists in the 20th Century, suggesting that the conversion rates into our out of theism among scientists is roughly balanced ... a fact that took me by surprise, quite frankly.

Those who stick to a diet of Dawkins and his ilk will come away believing that theism is nearly extinct, and moving rapidly in that direction. The statistics simply demonstrate that this is not true. And there are many anecdotal personal stories of conversion from atheism to theism among highly regarded scientists and philosophers. Examples:

Alister McGrath
Francis Collins,
C.S. Lewis
Anthony Flew (though his theism is deistic.)

I'm sure this list could be greatly expanded. And judging by the statistics cited above, at least an equal list of the conversions to atheism could be assembled.

In the end, we should all be careful to avoid conclusions based upon the comparative popularity of competing ideas. And I am sure your were not attempting to draw any such conclusion.

Cliff Martin said...


I just realized the the studies I cited above are the same studies Tom cited (from Wikipeida) earlier in this thread. I have since looked at many websites that cite these same studies (the dates or 1914 or 1916 and 1996 and 1997 appear variously in the websites), and the statistic shown seem to depend upon who is doing the citing!

Repeating a survey 80 years later and successfully matching the survey pool is very tricky. I also learned that the survey was conducted using various pools of scientists, with the "higher" level of scientists consistently returning higher levels of doubt or disbelief in God.

Clearly this requires more study. I am doubtful that any meaningful statistics can be gleaned from these studies. The results, or how the results are read, are so very dependent upon the bias of the surveyor and or the interpreter. But I read enough to cede Tom's earlier point about atheism being disproportionately higher among scientists, and the more so as the scientist's qualifications rise.

So we are really back to Tom's first question.

Do these statistic suggest that atheists conspiratorially moved in to hijack science (and I take it Tom would scoff at this notion, as would I), or does scientific training and practice tend to move one toward disbelief?

Or, as I have suggested, do these statistics only say something about the sort of people who chose to become scientists in the 20th century?

Or, do we back off the numbers games entirely, and smile at the effort to prove anything by statistics? ala ...

"Torture numbers, and they'll confess to anything,"

"Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable," and

"98% of all statistics are made up."

Psiloiordinary said...


Nice blog.

I intend to have a delve about.

I noticed the link to my blog- thanks - but it is "think for yourself" not "thing for yourself".



Cliff Martin said...


I'm embarrassed. I have repaired your link.

Thanks for stopping by. I look forward to you weighing in.

Tom said...

"Thing for yourself" sounds like a great home shopping network channel!

Irrespective of the statistics, I'll say I'm in with the Dawkins ilk, having been a choir boy who now sees religion as culturally accepted irrationality. What us Dawkin ilkers have a tough time with is using the rational argument on people who are all rational except for when it comes to God! It's somewhat the same discussion, I think, that you evangelical evolutionists have with your creationist friends.

Cliff Martin said...


Maybe ...

But your argument would have more force with me if I you first read McGrath's book (The Dawkins Delusion?). If, after reading McGrath you still could contend seriously that Dawkins is "rational" and McGrath is not, then we could have a more meaningful exchange on the subject.

Dawkins is one of the most irrationally religious authors I have read of late. McGrath strikes me as being far more rational and sane. (May I say that you, Tom, strike me as far more rational and sane than Dawkins!) But, of course, this analysis could merely expose my bias.

Tom said...

It is fair to say that I need to read The Dawkins Delusion. Then again, I haven't yet read The God Delusion. I don't find Dawkins' passion for atheism unsettling nor do I find his rational arguments against religion wrong. I also find his descriptions of various Deities witty and succinct. Then again, I'm not in the camp that he's railing against.

The thing that frustrates me about Dawkins is his relentless pursuit with the rational argument. Now he only preaches to his own choir. I would like him to turn his efforts his original research of memetic evolution. Religiosity is one of the strongest memetic forces there is and it would be interesting to use it to develop his theory ever more strongly. It has interesting components of culture, coercion, conversion, deconversion, irrationality, and a gamut of emotions.