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Fences for Tearing Down

The War of Science and Religion Originally published at Breakpoint

Suppose you woke up tomorrow morning to find that your neighbor had moved his chain-link fence all the way across your yard—right up against your door. So you call him on the phone. “What’s up with the fence?” you ask.

“Not to worry,” he says. “Just ignore the fence. You see, I’m only claiming physical reality for my domain. And since you’re such a spiritual person, you don’t care about that, right? Look, you still have your personal, subjective, religious yard. Isn’t that great? Now we won’t come into conflict with each other! Like the poet Robert Frost said, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ “

It sounds crazy. Yet this sort of arrangement is exactly what prominent scientists like Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould have proposed as the proper relationship between science and religion. In his new book, The Wedge of Truth, Christian thinker Phillip Johnson challenges scientists like Gould to admit that their fence-building proposal is a bad idea, both for religion and science. There can only be a proper balance between science and religion if there’s an open, honest relationship between them.

To see why, start with the quote from Frost: “Good fences make good neighbors.” We often hear this line quoted as if Frost thought it were true. But he actually used it as a shallow clichĂ©. In his poem, “Mending Wall,” he wrote:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

When a scientist like Stephen Jay Gould proposes to keep peace between science and religion by putting a fence between them, we need to look at where he wants to put the boundary.

As Johnson points out, Gould’s boundary line claims the whole realm of knowledge for science, effectively “walling out” religion, putting it into a private, subjective ghetto.

The old adage, “Science tells us how the heavens go, while religion tells us how to go to heaven,” might be reasonable only if there really is a place like heaven. And it makes sense only if there really are souls that might go to heaven, and a God who created them. In short, “religion tells us how to go to heaven” makes sense only if we genuinely know about God, souls, salvation, and heaven.

But, as Johnson explains, that’s exactly what Gould doesn’t want to hear. His definition of knowledge itself turns the whole of physical reality over to science, just like the neighbor’s fence that, one morning, swallows up your entire yard.

Religion, claims Gould, cannot include anything about real history, including the life of Jesus, because history belongs to science. Gould calls this his “first commandment” of the relationship of science and theology. It’s a view widely shared by scientists today.

In his excellent new book, Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson exposes Gould and others for “dressing up naturalistic philosophy as if it were science.” And he equips believers to challenge this specious argument wherever we encounter it–whether it’s in schools or in casual conversation with our neighbors. Which is precisely what we must do. Whether fences make good neighbors or not, they certainly do not encourage academic freedom in the pursuit of truth.

Copyright (c) 2000 Prison Fellowship Ministries

Charles Colson

Charles "Chuck" Colson (1931-2012) was an Evangelical Christian leader who founded Prison Fellowship and BreakPoint. Prior to his conversion to Christianity, he served as Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon from 1969-1973. He was the founder and chairman of The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, which is "a research, study, and networking center for growing in a Christian worldview." In 2008, President Bush conferred on him the second highest civilian award of the U.S. government, the Presidential Citizens Medal, for his humanitarian work with Prison Fellowship.