Banned Paper Topics: Science vs. Religion

By on April 10, 2017

I think I learned more from my students in my first semester as a college composition instructor than I taught them. One of the first lessons was to create a banned paper list.

Over the years, the list has evolved, but still topping off this list are the topics of legalizing drugs and pay for student athletes (I just can’t read any more of these), abortion and euthanasia (no matter how hard I try, the argument always devolves into the realm of personal belief systems), and the most recent addition, science versus religion. This also goes hand in hand with the sister topic, the dangers of religion.

I only had to read one of these papers to understand the reasoning behind why doing a good job of writing on this subject is an impossibility: science and religion exist for different reasons.

We need science to find a cure for cancer. We need religion to help us come to terms with our reality when that cure comes too late.

As an English instructor who also studies theology, this paper topic is particularly difficult to read, because it exposes all the misinformation and the misinterpretations that the student has swallowed and has shaped their negative view of religion. And a secular university is not exactly the appropriate place to delve into why their own church experiences have led them down a path where they feel they have to decide between the comfort found in scientific facts, or that found in the soul’s search for meaning.

Yesterday, as I paused on a Law and Order rerun, during the commercial break, Bill Nye the “Science Guy” popped onto the screen and informed the viewers of the crime that is taking place because (in his assessment) an entire generation of kids are being brought up—I think he used the term—“anti-science.” He stressed that in an economy based on innovation, this was dangerous.

Thank you, Bill Nye, for perpetuating the myth that one must stand at odds with the other. *insert eye rolling here*

But to be fair, in my studies, and as I have read some of these dreadful papers, I have come to the realization that Christians have largely done this to themselves, and it intensified during that time when believers with a modernist mindset suddenly found themselves in a position where they felt they needed to defend a gospel that, in their reading, was as black and white as their own worldview. Apologetics, the defense of Christianity, met every single one of these needs.

Then the landscape changed again.

It was not a subtle change, or a slow change; it did not creep up and tag along for a while before making its presence known. No. The shift from the black and white understanding that good things are from God and bad things are from Satan, to one that struggles even to define good or bad, happened in the space of a generation. Thousands of years of certainty scared into the shadows at the jump of the post-modern worldview.

The church, now thoroughly self-congratulatory in their apologetic haze, did not expect it, and they went on the defense, taking everything the enlightenment had offered and brandishing the new spiritual weapon named apologetics, one that the church had grown to depend on as if it were the missing piece in the armor of God. But the church did not consider the larger meaning. Ministers spoke louder, faster, traded the message for argument, the Spirit’s gentle persuasion for sales tactics, and relied on reason over revelation.

In the attempt to be heard over a din of the church’s own creation, believers failed to notice that they, too, had undergone a transformation. While America ran toward secularism, the church, immersed in their rational defense of Christianity, in their zeal for their government to reflect their own values, failed to realize that the victim of their defense was true discipleship. The hunger to know the word of God slipped from their grasp, replaced by witty soundbites from the most persuasive. The principles of Evangelicalism shifted from the hands of those who were students of the word to those who could package pieces of the word in seemingly meaningful, easy to digest bits. The church responded to the change about them with a change of their own, trading miracle for mundane, mystery for the easily explainable, and paradox for certainty. In the church’s attempt to shift, to partially adopt the secular worldview just enough to make the argument for Christianity sound by the unbeliever’s standards, they adopted a secular method to witness, and in doing so themselves forgot the marvel of salvation. Not so gradually, argument became the standard fare of youth groups, persuasion techniques were taught in the place of the Bible, and the church began the descent into “biblical illiteracy,” leaving young Christian adults without the spiritual foundation to understand their own miracle and at the mercy of those unbelievers who might be better trained in rhetoric.

And now the church stands, humbled by the realization that relying on reason as a method to make the necessity of faith more palatable to non-believers had the opposite effect, and stunned by the changes that had happened while they were engaged in a debate by whose terms they were destined to fail.

Christians embraced the modernist need for fact and definitive truth by creating a version of Christianity that served not only their needs, but also the needs they perceived were required by unbelievers. In the fading light of modernity, however, rose the post-modern requirement for things that moved beyond fact and reason, embracing the desire for things to make sense, regardless of whether they strictly adhered to the demands of logic.

Once again, secular culture changed before church culture, and the largely modernist church has been busy “proving” Christianity to an emptying room that could not care less. Many of the post-modernists already consider Christianity to be anti-science (see: Bill Nye), and therefore, not worth their consideration. In the Church’s desire to meet the needs of a secular society, and in their willingness to debate on that society’s black and white terms, the church lost, and as a way of evangelizing, is left with the methods that the Bible promotes: approach with love, care for others, and demonstrate how a king born in a stable is exactly what is needed.

Christians are to share in suffering, not to engage in the impossible task of explaining it away.

The post-modern generation stands as a reminder that all the reason, all the skills of persuasion, all the perfectly debated points still pale to the reality of a gentle Christ. And this conclusion should come as an unburdening relief to the church.

The stress of the task of defending Christianity is gone. The worry over offense or saying the right thing is erased by simply letting go of the need to prove. This need to be right, and to base one’s personal value to the kingdom of God on the ability to argue religious points is a strategy that, even for the skilled debater, is fraught with a responsibility whose burden is self-administered. God never required man to explain the divine.

Hindsight allows the church to look back, make a rational assessment of the risks, and come to the understanding that the simplest answer, the one exemplified by Jesus, is the best one. As a result of the church’s dependence on debate and hardline truth claims, the secular society now expects judgement and irrationality wrapped up by the church in an ears-covered, back-turned kind of self-protective stance. A continued dependence on debate in the name of apologetics meets this expectation and brings with it the risk of further offense. The larger society does not want what the human side of the church offers, so maybe now it is time to show them the divine side. Maybe now it is time to show them Jesus.

The church needs to engage, not prove, to be curious, not forceful, to listen without the need to use the words of the speaker in a calculated manner. The church needs to surprise the world the way Jesus surprised the world as the Miracle King, the Redeemer, and the humble Savior no one expected.