Science, Religion, and the Governor General

In Blogs by Jesse Robertson0 Comments

Canada’s new Governor General, the Right Honourable Julie Payette, recently gave a speech to the Canadian Science Policy Convention, and in the process she took some shots at climate change denial, alternative medicine, and astrology, and expressed surprise that they are still debated “in learned society.” But what’s attracted the most attention is her incredulity “that we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, lo and behold, random process?”

It is not terribly surprising that she finds arguments for divine intervention unconvincing. Many people these days are similarly unconvinced, and for all sorts of reasons. As CSCA’s Secretary/Treasurer Bob Geddes observes, “It must be acknowledged that the Governor General’s comments reveal the frustrations that many scientists feel when good work is being thwarted by bogus science that emanates from some religious elements.”

What’s disappointing is her quick dismissal of people who hold such a view, many of whom would have been in her audience at the convention. Surveys consistently show that religious believers are active throughout the sciences,1 and organizations like the CSCA and the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) exist because so many scientists believe that it’s possible to be theologically and scientifically rigorous at the same time. “There are very many practising scientists in Canadian universities, companies, and hospitals who believe in God,” says CSCA Past President Arnold Sikkema (Professor of Physics, Trinity Western University), “and who believe that God is active in the world in many ways, including in the origin of life.” Mark McEwan, CSCA’s Project Development Officer, warns against oversimplifying the conversation:

To characterize Canadian Christians as merely debating evolution versus divine intervention greatly oversimplifies things. From young-earth to evolutionary creationists, all are interested in how best to understand biblical authority along with science. It’s a complex business. Very few of us would take the extreme view that we must entirely choose either the Bible or science. To simply stop the conversation would imply that one or the other (the Bible or science) is not worth taking seriously in any respect. Believing that both Scripture and nature are from God, Canadian Christians are not prepared to cease exploring both.

CSCA President Janet Warren has some further comments:

Governor General Payette states that we can all benefit from “learned debate” and that we should be vocal in order to “deconstruct misinformation.” I completely agree. One of the commonest misunderstandings I have encountered is that science has all the answers. Yet the majority of scientists agree that science is a method of studying the world that often results not only in awe but in discoveries that can improve our planet and its inhabitants. Science does not address questions of ultimacy, such as the “why” questions or the meaning and purpose of life. Furthermore, science has limitations: knowledge is constantly changing, theories and paradigms change with new information, many events are unpredictable, and paradoxes are inherent in some parts of nature. There is much we do not know. For example, although sugar pills do not cure cancer, the placebo effect is a well-known legitimate phenomenon; many so-called “alternative therapies” have been shown to be effective in certain conditions. All scientists need to remain humble in the face of the limits of the scientific process. Finally, rational or scientific means are not the only way to obtain knowledge. Governor Payette herself praises the wisdom of indigenous people in an earlier speech. We can learn through intuition, the expertise of others, and faith.

To that end, the CSCA has a number of resources available, from our live lectures and events, to the recordings of them that we post on YouTube, to our upcoming conference in Langley, BC (May 2018). Alongside our organization, there are resources such as the free online course developed by Dr. Denis Lamoureux (Associate Professor of Science & Religion, St. Joseph’s College, University of Alberta), which aims to “to dispel the popular myth that science and religion are entrenched in a never-ending conflict”; rather, “if the limits of both science and religion are respected, then their relationship can be complementary” (more on the course here).

On Thursday, November 30th, our local CSCA chapter in Ottawa is hosting a free, public talk by Dr. Dennis Venema (Professor of Biology, Trinity Western University), for whom evolution itself is God’s design. This talk takes up themes from his recent book on Christianity and evolution, Adam & the Genome. Her Excellency would be more than welcome to attend this event as our honoured guest. She may not change her mind about divine intervention, but she will meet people who take science just as seriously as she does, and who take their faith seriously as well.

Jesse Robertson is currently completing a Master of Arts in Theological Studies at Regent College, focusing on religion and public life, and is a student member of the CSCA Edmonton Local Chapter.

Notes:

  1. Elaine H. Ecklund, David R. Johnson, Christopher P. Scheitle, Kirstin R. W. Matthews, and Steven W. Lewis, “Religion Among Scientists in International Context,” Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World 2 (2016): 1-9. Online: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2378023116664353; Elaine Ecklund, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (Oxford University Press, 2010); Edward Larsen and Larry Witham, “Scientists are Still Keeping the Faith,” Nature 386 (April 3, 1997): 435-36.