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Faith and Science — the Confused View of the United Methodist Church

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I’ve already written here about the recent dust-up between the United Methodist Church (UMC)and Discovery Institute. Being involved with this has caused me, as a United Methodist, to take a closer look at some of the official statements of the UMC on science. As regular UD readers will likely know, the church has banned Discovery Institute from exhibiting at the upcoming General Conference. Vince Torley has already written here that probably UMC co-founder John Wesley wouldn’t be welcome at this year’s General Conference, so I won’t rehash that aspect. Rather, I want to take a closer look at the official statements of the UMC on Science to which the Church appealed as rationale for denying Discovery Institute an information table at the General Conference.

By way of background, the UMC’s main governing document is known as the Book of Discipline (BoD) Among other things, the BoD contains the UMC’s foundational documents including the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, and the Social Principles and Social Creed. The BoD also contains the official statements and resolutions of the UMC on a broad range of topics, including science.
One section of the Social Principles is entitled Social Principles: The Natural World. It lays out the UMC’s official stance on several issues pertaining to our stewardship of the world and nature. One part of this section is the statement on Science and Technology and it is on that I wish to focus my attention.

The statement begins:

We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world. We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world and in determining what is scientific.

I, along with Discovery Institute Fellow Michael Flannery, have already written about how in banning intelligent design from discussion, our church violates this very principle. It is not for a church, any church, to determine what is or is not “scientific.” Yet that is exactly what the UMC, in excluding intelligent design, has done.

To be sure, precisely what the UMC means by “scientific” is not well defined. However, considering their conflation of creationism with intelligent design, along with the statement quoted above on science and technology, it seems that at least some UMC officials perceive science as being strictly limited by methodological naturalism (MN). Roughly speaking, MN is the idea that whether or not full-blown philosophical naturalism (PN) is true, for the sake of doing science we’ll pretend that it is. Stephen Meyer explains MN in Darwin’s Doubt as the proposition that “…Scientists should accept as a working assumption that all features of the natural world can be explained by material causes without recourse to purposive intelligence, mind, or conscious agency” (p. 19).

That makes the subsequent comments in the UMC statement even more puzzling. It says:

We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues and theology from making authoritative claims about scientific issues. We find that science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology.

So here is the puzzle: Some UMC leaders apparently see no conflict with a philosophical principle, MN, that says by definitional fiat that science can only appeal to natural causes. Yet, according to the UMC statement, “Science and theology are complementary rather than mutually incompatible.” Exactly how a science that excludes all but natural causes is “complementary” with UMC or any Judeo-Christian theology — including that, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” — isn’t at all clear.

In Darwin’s Doubt, Meyer further elaborates the problems with MN. He writes:

If researchers refuse as a matter of principle [that is, the principle of MN] to consider the design hypothesis, they will obviously miss any evidence that happens to support it.

Exactly so. How can the UMC assert the theology that God is the creator of all things, while tacitly denying that we could ever know that life is the product of design? How does the UMC justify thinking that such a view of science is “complementary” with their theology?

Of course it is true that intelligent design as science does not require a particular theological point of view, including a view of the identity of the designing intelligence. The materials that Discovery Institute would have had on hand at their information table in the exhibit hall would have made that unambiguous.

Yet while ID draws nothing from faith, a coherent account of theism expects evidence of intelligent design. Had the UMC allowed Discovery Institute to be present at the General Conference, delegates and attendees would have had access to resources that would strengthen their ability to discuss, explain, and teach accurately about nature in a way that supports theistic belief. That is a loss to church members, to which church leaders seem indifferent.

Discovery Institute is requesting interested parties to take action now on the UMC’s decision.

17 Replies to “Faith and Science — the Confused View of the United Methodist Church

  1. 1
    News says:

    Question: Does the UMC still need members, or is it surviving on the pious bequests of yesteryear, as many such churches probably are?

    I remember being at a discussion with a religious freedom expert, and when the topic of bequests came up, he alluded to today’s congregation and said, this, this is the bequest.

    The only one that matters. People looking for real answers, not people happy to suck up to political establishments, in science or anywhere else.

  2. 2
    DonaldM says:

    As you know, the UMC has been bleeding members for well over a decade. You’d think that sooner or later the leadership might make a connection between the exodus of members and the active replacement of Christian orthodoxy with political correctness.

  3. 3
    Flannery says:

    Well said, Donald, and an excellent post. Really the UMC leaders are making two metaphysical claims, one, as you point out, regarding MN, and the other regarding NOMA. They “preclude” science and theology from making “authoritative claims” on one another, but they’re perfectly comfortable with MN making an authoritative claim on both. How curious! This is not logic or rational thought it is raw secular ideology.

    So assuming a stance by certain UMC leaders on the appropriateness of MN, how do these same leaders reconcile the virgin birth? After all, the virgin birth is a very specific and clear biological claim that has been part of orthodox Christianity from the beginning. Perhaps this speaks directly to your comment on the “active replacement of Christian orthodoxy with political correctness,” or more accurately perhaps in this case, the “active replacement of Christian orthodoxy with scientism.”

  4. 4
    DonaldM says:

    Flannery in #3 – Exactly! I think you’re correct it is replacement of orthodoxy with scientism. I’m going to do another post addressing the NOMA issue you mentioned and show how that one completely fails.

  5. 5
    Mung says:

    I should see if they will permit me to sponsor a table on virgin births.

  6. 6
    GaryGaulin says:

    Donald, do you know what the premise of the “theory of intelligent design” is exactly?

  7. 7
  8. 8
    tjguy says:

    The UMC is taking the brunt of the criticism here, but in reality, I’m afraid that many main line traditional denominations are taking the same road and suffering the same problem of attrition.

    And it is not only in the area of science. Sexual morality is another symptom of the same problem – they are re-interpreting everything to try and appeal to 21st century minds, thinking this is the way to go. Liberalism and a compromise on the authority of God’s Word leads people away from God, not towards God.

    The US is becoming less and less Christian every year. Attrition from these liberal denominations is not necessarily a bad thing – as long as people don’t completely throw away their faith. If they end up in churches that are still faithful to God’s Word, I’m all for attrition, but I’m afraid, that because of what they have been taught at these churches, people do not end up moving towards God, but actually further away from God.

    That is concerning! When we deny the clear teaching of the Word of God, why should we expect God’s blessings?

    Instead of the Bible being God’s truth, God’s truth is always amended to fit the currently in vogue view of man’s truth. This is NOT what the Creator intended.

    When liberals re-interpret the US Constitution to fit what they want the US to be like, they are doing the same thing. This is a bit different as the Constitution was written by men and is not inspired, so there is nothing inherently wrong with changing the constitution, but they dishonor the country’s founding fathers, their sacrifices, their beliefs and desires in doing so.

    As sad and misguided as that is, it is not as bad as dishonoring and rejecting the commands and truth of the Creator though.

    Sorry for the rant!

  9. 9
    GaryGaulin says:

    I have very good scientific reasons to believe that the hypothesis “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause” is true. But my opinion would only add to a clutter of clever ways to say “it looks designed to me” that have already been boringly repeated again and again and again as though that is a scientific theory, when it honestly is not.

    Believing that a hypothesis is a theory helps show the lack of genuine scientific leadership Larry Moran noted in regard to the “ID the Future” podcasts:

    Listen to the very best minds in the Intelligent Design Creationist community … and weep for them. This is all they’ve got.

    Having to change the subject away from “theory of intelligent design” by instead talking about Darwinian “evolution by natural selection” theory indicates a very serious problem. From my observations it stems from not being able to explain even the cognitive science basics of “intelligent” systems and not wanting to be inconvenienced by scientific details that require learning something new.

    You may believe that the Discovery Institute represents a theory that Methodists must accept. But in reality no theory even exists in their discussions. There is only the premise for one. And considering how my Methodist training and my love of science were always very much at odds with each other their falling for something like that would make me completely give-up on them. I at least have enough faith to see a brighter future for the youngest of the science minded likewise stuck in Sunday School when they would rather by working on their projects.

    Demonizing those who rightfully expect more than that from your “theory” only makes a whole lot of motivated enemies, who now want whatever it is that you’re representing made gone.

    And that’s my rant!
    But have a wonderful day.

  10. 10
    DonaldM says:

    Gary in #9. Larry Moran is playing games, as usual. He think that with a broad sweep of his hand he can just wave away the significant questions posed by both Berlinski and Denton in the ID the Future podcast. He says:

    It’s important to note that these are questions about the history of life. You could easily answer “I don’t know” to both questions and it would not affect our understanding of evolution and common descent one iota. The answers have nothing to do with “Darwinism” per se and nothing to do with evolutionary theory (which is not Darwinism).

    Poor Larry. If only it were that simple. Moving from one particular form to another over a long period of years with successive, slight adaptive modifications is precisely what evolution is all about, and precisely what Berlinski is talking about is asking for at least a ballpark estimate of how many such modifications are required to get from full functioning, well adapted land dwelling mammal to a fully functional sea dwelling mammal…a whale. That no evolutionary biologist has come even close to offering such an estimate IS the point, and it VERY much has to do with both Darwinism AND evolution, despite Moran’s vigorous hand-waving to the contrary. In typical Darwinist fashion, he just smugly tries to dodge the question.

    The same is true for the question that Denton asked. What, precisely IS the adaptive benefit of the ubiquitous insect body plan? All evolution supposedly requires is that any evolutionary change is either adaptationally neutral or beneficial. There’s no just obvious evolutionary reason why insect body plans, repeated throughout virtually all of insectdom, need be the way they are for adaptional purposes. Again, there simply is no answer to that in evolutionary biology, and again, contra Moran, it has EVERYTHING to do with both Darwinism AND evolution.

    One further point: You know that Moran is playing games when he starts out referring to Denton and Berlinski (and any other ID proponents) at intelligent design creationsists. Moran knows that ID and creationism are two completely different things and that ID proponents are NOT creationists. Certainly neither Berlinksi nor Denton are. Moran is being intentionally deceptive in using the term to critique the podcast.

    I wouldn’t rely too much on Moran as a credible source for critiquing ID.

  11. 11
    Mung says:

    Denton’s latest book is worth reading. The podcasts are awesome.

  12. 12
    GaryGaulin says:

    Donald, Mung’s post above helps indicate it’s more about making money selling books that complain about Darwinian theory.

    The Discovery Institute is still obliged to meet the challenge that they themselves created by having proposed a scientific theory. From my perspective the years and years of changing the subject to something else is looking more and more sinful all the time.

    Truly meeting scientific obligations makes it possible to write a lasting Christmas message for the future that at the same time respects the past. For example:

    Where I’m at with theory: science and religion are doing just fine together. Challenges from hard audiences are a good exercise, for both of us. And all aboard the dinosaur filled discovery train become part of an unfolding epic that follows the evidence wherever it leads throughout science.

    Controlling the fate of the Discovery Institute’s theory makes all this even more exciting to be in on. Though for those the theory had to like be rescued from there are now serious challenges ahead, where what worked before now only helps make the Discovery Institute fellows unwelcome trouble almost everywhere. Not my fault that happened.

  13. 13
    Mung says:

    Or you could be a critic of the book without reading it, or dismiss it out of hand because of it’s publisher.

  14. 14
    GaryGaulin says:

    People who already agree that intelligence is required are easily annoyed by those who next badger them as though they don’t.

  15. 15
    jstanley01 says:

    For theological reasons, which for me trump all, I have never believed that ID would be able to move beyond calling bulls**t on Darwin. Theological reasons based on Hebrews 11:3 (KJV):

    Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.

    If “how God did it” regarding the origins of the universe and life, for instance, cannot be seen beyond the appearance of design, then the nuts and bolts of those origins will remain forever beyond the ken of science based upon whatever premise. Which in my view, exactly describes the situation today.

    Lightning hitting pond scum? Bubbling multiverses? Give me a break. But if not then, “Where’s your alternative!!!???” And not surprisingly, to me anyway, there’s not much to go on but Genesis 1:1.

    If this situation upsets the insistence of a lot of natural men and carnal Christians, that everything which heaven and earth contains must be accessible to their reason, so much the worse for a lot of natural men and carnal Christians.

    A brick wall is what it is.

  16. 16
    GaryGaulin says:

    If “how God did it” regarding the origins of the universe and life, for instance, cannot be seen beyond the appearance of design, then the nuts and bolts of those origins will remain forever beyond the ken of science based upon whatever premise. Which in my view, exactly describes the situation today.

    It can be said that CERN is now studying the normally unseen nuts and bolts that help explain the origins of the universe:

    If it were not for science’s ability to detect the invisible then bell ringers would still be regularly fried during thunderstorms after ascending to one of the highest points in the village (steeple or bell tower) to ring the bell so that hopefully God will not accidentally strike the church with lightning again, and maybe for once finally zap a “sinner”, like they were supposed to.

  17. 17
    GaryGaulin says:

    And ironically:

    Abraham Bennet FRS (baptised 20 December 1749 – buried 9 May 1799) was an English clergyman and physicist, the inventor of the gold-leaf electroscope and developer of an improved magnetometer. Though he was cited by Alessandro Volta as a key influence on his own work, Bennet’s work was curtailed by the political turbulence of his time.
    Bennet described experiments with an electrophorus and the generation of electricity by evaporation. Bennet extended his thinking into various theories about electricity and weather, with electrical explanations of the aurora borealis and meteors. He interpreted lightning as the release of electrical charge from clouds,…

    Inductive Charging using an Electroscope

    Plastic bottle Electroscope experiment

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