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.