An Unwinnable Debate

Michael Metzger

You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it.

Einstein’s axiom addresses a problem presented in a new book, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. At elite American universities, 50 percent of scientists claim to be religious yet keep silent. The problem is framed as science vs. religion. But this isn’t science. Nor is science opposed to religion. And religion isn’t supposed to be closeted. It’s an unwinnable debate.

Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund is the author of Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. Based on a survey of almost 1,700 scientists at elite American research universities and 275 follow-up interviews, Ecklund found that fully half of these top scientists claim to be religious. A third are atheists. Only five of the 275 interviewees actively oppose religion. Yet most of the religious scientists worry how peers would react to learning about their religious views. So they instead practice a “closeted faith.”

Their anxiety is understandable. But it has little to do with any facts on the ground. The problem is with frames or assumptions—what Einstein called “the mind.” In the first place, this isn’t about science as it has been historically understood. Western science is rooted in a confidence that there is something beyond material nature—the cosmos is the creation of a rational creator. It is comprehensible by the human mind. The cosmos is coherent, not chaos. We can know something about it. Science is the Greek word for knowledge of facts. All science, such as physics, operates inside a frame, or metaphysics.

Meta is Greek for beyond, physics means nature. Metaphysics goes beyond mere facts. A child’s hand getting slapped is a fact. But was it cruel or caring? It depends on how you frame the debate. The slap saves a life if the child is reaching for fire. Context is everything. Making sense of science—such as whether cloning a human being is good—requires a frame beyond science. Western science originally accepted limits; it deals with molecules. Religion deals with morality. Science is not opposed to religion.

This is why today’s debate isn’t about science—it’s about scientism. Big difference. In Webster’s standard dictionary, one definition of “scientism” reads: “a thesis that the methods of the natural sciences should be used in all areas of investigation including philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences: a belief that only such methods can fruitfully be used in the pursuit of knowledge.” Scientism claims to have knowledge of molecules and morality. The debate is between two competing metaphysical worldviews—scientism versus religion. It’s a debate that’s relatively recent in history, being framed by metaphysicians—philosophers—rather than scientists. That’s why it isn’t science versus religion.

C.S. Lewis saw this debate for what it actually is. In The Screwtape Letters, the experienced demon (Screwtape) advises his nephew Wormwood on how to keep “the Patient” from coming to faith. “Do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defense against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can’t touch and see.” Lewis knew science isn’t opposed to religion.

Lewis also reframed this debate in his space trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and concluding with That Hideous Strength. Late in his life, he admitted it “certainly is an attack, if not on scientists, yet on something which might be called ‘scientism’—a certain outlook on the world which is usually connected with the popularization of the sciences.” And in an essay published posthumously and contained in the collection The Discarded Image, Lewis wrote: “The mass media have in our time created a popular scientism, a caricature of the true sciences.” Only scientism is opposed to religion.

This is why a closeted religion is not a good solution. The word religion means “to re-bind.” In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it meant to rebind the broken cosmos to the Creator. This is how the ancients understood religion, as providing a moral universe, or a frame that made sense out of facts, or knowledge. It is only in the last 175 years that many American churches have embraced a gospel that allows religion to be “closeted.” This undercuts one of religion’s primary purposes, which is precisely to provide a sense of life’s overarching meaning. As Boston University sociologist Peter L. Berger writes, privatization “represents a severe rupture of the traditional task of religion, which was precisely the establishment of an integrated set of definitions of reality that could serve as a common universe of meaning for the members of a society.”1

It’s worth noting that some groups have paid attention to Einstein’s axiom. As described in After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90s, a group representing less then 2 percent of the population gained cultural clout well out of proportion to their size. The homosexual movement reframed sexuality “without reference to facts, logic or proof.”2 They knew they couldn’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it. So they reframed the issue as one of fairness. They built dense, overlapping networks of writers, educators, singers, playwrights, novelists, and politicians who changed the debate.

Today, “closet” has become part of the common coinage of our culture—an indicator of success in not only changing but winning the debate. The homosexual movement’s success raises a question about a group representing 50 percent of the scientific population that has not gained cultural clout in proportion to their size. It indicates that religious scientists are trying to solve a problem inside the frame of science vs. religion. They’d do better to remember Einstein’s axiom: You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it.

1 Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Random House, 1967), p. 134.
2 Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen, After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90’s (New York, NY: Plume, 1990), p. 152-153.


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  1. You have just articulated insight into to some of my very long standing and lingering questions…thank you for taking on this topic. Here is an example of a changed frame and it’s profound affect in the culture.
    As you said to me before, “we have to change the frame…everywhere”.
    Indeed, much work to be done.

  2. This is so helpful. You should come give a talk on this to the intervarsity group at Johns Hopkins. We’re basically piloting a new way for students (particularly science majors) to be living faithfully in their academic sphere. However, I have not given enough consideration to the research faculty element. I wonder what the stats are for Hopkins faculty…. anyway thanks.

  3. We’ve been framing our events as: “An invitation to explore the intersection of current academic thought and Christian thought.” You’re right, it’s not science vs. religion. It’s helpful to have the two words available as “labels” but discussion always brings out the details, so there’s no real worry in using the labels because when you spend time in discussion, you bring other things to light. We’re have Ecklund come in the spring. My guess is that profs closet their religion because real penalties have come to some who are open about their religion, and they don’t want to be the next test case. And there aren’t a lot of colleagues willing to fall on their own swords for you: it’s a “watch your own behind” kind of environment. Not much has been done well by Christians to create forums to decide “what’s worth losing one’s status over” in a university setting in case it might come to that. But all I’m saying here are just comments on your comments…I think a better route to success lies in being behind the vehicle that moves discussion forward. Persuading others of your openness to listen to others is better energy spent than deciding what to declare to others. Funny thing is, that’s not what the gay community did. They went frontal on “we’re okay.” They didn’t go frontal on “let’s talk about things.” They remain frontal in how they engage. They only know one track: full-bore win at all costs. That’s worldly. That’ll win in a worldly world. We don’t have to play that game, nor should we. We have been to some degree, but it doesn’t win us long-term success. It’s hardly a “die to self” or “die as a seed” in order to be born anew kind of approach.

  4. Dave:

    While I concur with many of your comments I strongly disagree with your assessment of a “full bore” frontal strategy by the homosexual movement. Read “After the Ball.” The homosexual community seems to somewhat understand Augustine’s maxim: the soul delights in particular what it learns indirectly. They reframed the debate by going at it more indirectly than “frontally” as you claim.

  5. Mike:

    As always, great thoughts on the topic. As an academic, having gone through the tenure process, I can testify that there certainly is a lot of implicit pressure to conform to perceived norms. However, I’ve found that personal relationships can blunt this pressure. I’ve certainly had ups and downs with this, but in my experience colleagues are willing to discuss faith if they observe one demonstrating Christ-like character (Phil 2:3-4), as it’s relatively rare to interact with academics that are genuinely concerned with the good of others over their own interests. So, perhaps the solution to the “closet” problem is a combination of re-framing the debate coupled with genuine character transformation.

  6. Thanks Mike- I have always viewed this in the same light as other wars with differing goals, such as the Civil War where the North believed they were ending slavery and the South believed in the sovereignty of the state and that the federal government shouldn’t meddle in their affairs. The same is true in our battles overseas. We are trying to set up a political system and our foes are fighting a holy war. They don’t match up and we’re not fighting the same war.

  7. I’m willing to be corrected. I guess I’m relying my impression. You’re saying they reframed things using indirect methods? I guess I could read “After the Ball” to learn more but that’s not my impression as a person simply experiencing things, here in Northeast university-town-settings. Well, I guess you’re suggesting that these at least similar indirect methods will help Christians re-frame and define and move forward with science & religion, and Life in general. I think I agree, and your commentary truly helps feed the conversation.

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