Is Christian faith unscientific? Well, it’s complicated. In a previous post, I discussed the way in which skeptics will sometimes employ “science” to discredit the resurrection of Jesus, and I explained that what was really at stake is not so much science, but unspoken philosophical assumptions. And in the philosophical arena, Christians have nothing to fear.
In a certain sense, of course Christianity is “unscientific.” Historical Christians have believed that the one God, who exists beyond space and time, has revealed Himself through sacred scripture and tradition and that God became man in order to save mankind from sin. These beliefs do not compose a scientific theory or a new philosophy. Rather Christians profess a supernatural mystery.
Now to be sure, the creed professed by Christians includes concrete, historical claims — this is very important in order to avoid the weak tea of Christian liberalism. At the same time, even the concrete events believed to be historical by Christians cannot be tested by the ordinary canons of historical enquiry. This is not because they are irrational or obvious superstitious but because of the character of the events in question; they are at once historical and supernatural, that is, they are concrete events brought about by supernatural power.
Christian faith is “unscientific” because of its supernatural character. As I argued in last week’s post, science quite obviously studies the natural world. It focuses on observable regularities and experimentation. A scientific hypothesis is formulated in order to explain a phenomenon that can be consistently and regularly observed. Once the hypothesis is formulated it is tested by experimentation, which by its very nature requires a controllable sample. Finally the test results must be repeatable, that is, it must be possible to reproduce the outcome. Given these requirements it should be obvious that science cannot test, support, verify, or refute Christianity. In this context, Christianity is “unscientific” because its central tenets fall outside of the scope of scientific enquiry.
Does the “unscientific” character of Christian faith render it irrational or superstitious? Popular criticisms of Christianity sometimes takes this form, that is, some critics of Christianity will argue that Christianity is irrational because it is not supported or demonstrated by science. Now this line of criticism only makes sense if one claims that a belief is rational only if it is supported by science. To put it another way: a belief is rational if and only if it can be verified by science. This view is often rightly referred to as scientism.
Something similar to scientism was defended in the early part of the twentieth-century under the name of “logical positivism.” The proponents of logical positivism like A. J. Ayer argued vociferously that any belief that is neither true by definition nor empirically verifiable is non-sense — this is sometimes called the “verification principle.” Among professional philosophers it has long been recognized that logical positivism is self-contradictory and self-defeating.
The verification principle states that a belief is rational if and only if it is supported by science. But the verification principle itself cannot be supported by scientific evidence. It follows necessarily that the verification principle is irrational (non-sense!). The same thing can be be demonstrated about scientism. A belief is rational only if it can be verified scientifically. But this cannot be demonstrated by any scientific experiment. Therefore, scientism itself is irrational.
It is true that Christianity is not demonstrated by science, but this simply does not imply that Christianity is irrational. To think otherwise implies a line of reasoning that inevitably leads to absurdity and non-sense. As Saint Paul taught long ago, God has made foolish the wisdom of this world. (1 Cor. 20)