Theology and falsification: can science disprove Christian belief?

In a recent New York Times feature, Darwin’s God, the question is asked: Can science explain the origins of religion? If so, what does that mean for religion? The following paragraph from the article is especially interesting:
Which is the better biological explanation for a belief in God — evolutionary adaptation or neurological accident? Is there something about the cognitive functioning of humans that makes us receptive to belief in a supernatural deity? And if scientists are able to explain God, what then? Is explaining religion the same thing as explaining it away? Are the nonbelievers right, and is religion at its core an empty undertaking, a misdirection, a vestigial artifact of a primitive mind? Or are the believers right, and does the fact that we have the mental capacities for discerning God suggest that it was God who put them there?
The article raises some important issues and questions, and it is worth our time to at least give them our attention. The key question it seems to me is the following: Is explaining religion the same thing as explaining it away? This is a question that concerns us in a number of different ways. Here are a few of my own follow-up thoughts and questions:

1. We might rephrase the question in a number of different ways, for example: Is explaining the origins of Scripture the same thing as explaining it away? The work of Bart Ehrman is one such example of a person who has made this particular question the work of his whole career. And it is rather common nowadays to hear people speak the political context in which, say, the Bible came into being or the institution of the Church arose—as if explaining the political climate is the same as explaining away the Bible and the church. For me, John Webster offers a substantial theological response to Ehrman on the basis of a doctrine of divine providence. So Webster writes:
God’s work of overseeing such processes as tradition-history, redaction, authorship and canonisation could well be described in terms of the divine providential acts of preserving, accompanying and ruling creaturely activities, annexing them to his self-revelation.
But this leads us to another important issue ...

2. Can all things that appear suspect from a human perspective simply be explained on the basis of some divine providential activity? In other words, is there anything that could possibly cast doubt on Christian faith? As the NYT article puts it, “Or are the believers right, and does the fact that we have the mental capacities for discerning God suggest that it was God who put them there?” This article assumes (rightly, I think) that believers will respond by saying, God did it! And while this makes perfect sense theologically speaking, it also makes me wonder: is that too easy? Are we capable of turning every potential problem into something that fits our system of belief? Can anything break us from our convictions?

This brings us to the important issue of falsification: What would falsify the Christian faith or any other religious belief? Are Christians guilty of what Anthony Flew calls “death by a thousand qualifications”? In his essay, “Theology and Falsification,” Flew asks the pressing question: “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God?” More Christians need to wrestle with this problem. Recently, the question has been raised in light of the so-called “tomb of Jesus,” as John Drury so helpfully pointed out in his excellent post. Drury writes:
What would it take to disprove Christianity? Or, more narrowly, what would it take to disprove that Jesus rose from the dead? It seems to me that Christian claims about Jesus require that they can be disproved, at least in principle. I do not think this requirement is thrust upon Christianity by the world, so that Christians must be accountable to some sort of "universally recognized foundations" (whatever they may be). Rather, this requirement is entailed by the kinds of claims Christians make. Some (though perhaps not all) Christian beliefs are claims about states of affairs in the known universe.
When I was in youth group, I remember our leaders asking us if finding the bones of Jesus would force me to give up faith in Christianity. And I remember that all the kids said, No. At the time, I felt that this was a sign of our great faith. No matter what the world threw at us, we could handle it, because our faith in God could not be shaken by the most damaging evidence against us. Now I am not so sure.

On one hand, I have my issues with insisting upon the bodily resurrection, and I am not entirely convinced that a flesh-and-blood resurrection is actually essential. But on the other hand, I question myself as to why I have doubts about its essential nature. Am I falling into the trap of trying to arbitrate between theology and science? It seems to me there are two ways in which we might rethink the resurrection: (1) the route of Bultmann and Schleiermacher, in which our faith is protected from science by making a pact with science, so that religion and faith never conflict with each other; or (2) the route of Barth, in which our faith is not grounded in something of this world but rather in the self-revelation of God (though Barth, of course, accepts a bodily resurrection). Both routes, that of Bultmann and that of Barth, intend to protect religion from scientific inquiry. Bultmann does this by wedding religion and science—so that religion conforms to science—while Barth does this by divorcing them—so that Christian faith is not of this world at all. Science cannot inform us about the God who became incarnate.

My point is not to question the bodily resurrection or even to make this center-stage. The question is rather: Can science disprove the Christian faith? Is there any way science can falsify the Christian religion or any other religion? Or are all religions, including the most material of religions, Christianity, inherently protected from scientific inquiry? And if they are, is this a good thing, a bad thing, or simply a neutral state of fact?


Dave Shedden said…
I've asked 'the bones of Jesus' question while leading a seminar group on the nature of truth. The group didn't respond at all. They just looked at me as if I was talking nonsense. Don't you think the reaction to 'the tomb of Jesus' thing reveals the deep insecurity among (evangelical) Christians? Or do the responses amount to defending the faith once given?
MarkC said…
Science can speak convincingly about the natural, observable world; but not about anything else.

God, and the works of God, (and here I'm using "God" in a general sense of pretty much all theistic belief systems) are outside the natural, observable world.

Christianity, however, is different. The incarnation is unique. The extra-natural became the natural.

So, Christianity makes various claims about the life of Jesus who was God. If those claims are not true, then Christianity is not true. If it could be proved that Jesus (who was widely known in the world of his time) was not crucified by the Romans, for example, Christianity would be proved to be false.

This is limited falsification, certainly, but it is more potential for falsification than most religions provide. :)

We probably disagree on the necessity of the flesh-and-blood resurrection, but I'll leave that alone.

WTM said…
"Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart...And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the hospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord...But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, sot aht the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves"

2 Corinthians 4.1-7
Matt said…
My reaction swings in two ways. In principle, I don't feel like science can falsify Christian belief, as science is inherently merely natural, whereas, if Christianity is true, it transcends the scope of science to prove or disprove.

And yet, there is the resurrection. I think that discovering Jesus' bones would have to falsify Christianity.
MarkC said…

I'm curious about your youth group experience growing up. When they asked if finding the bones of Jesus would force you to give up your faith, on what basis were you all saying No? I can think of three reasons to say No to that question:

(1) The physical resurrection isn't necessary to your faith. This, however, would be a very liberal position, not fundamentalist at all, so unlikely to be what your church was advocating.

(2) Distrust of science, so that the assumption would be that science really DIDN'T find the bones of Jesus, but was just claiming to, regardless of what evidence science might provide.

(3) Pure reflexive non-thinking "nothing will shake my faith".

If that last is the case, it makes me wonder why they would ask the question in the first place.

Anyway, just wondering if you can remember what was going on in the context of that situation. Thanks!

Halden said…
Isn't the whole vocabulary of "science" being able or not able to disproove religion a fairly modernist way of talking about what science and relgion are? And it certainly leaves blank what particular kind of scientific inquiry this article is talking about. Paleontology? Archeology? Biology? All of these are very different discussions with different degrees of relevance as to what might proove or disproove Christian faith.

Obviously if one were to say that religion is immune from scientific inquiry it would seem like the most blatant act of fideistic sectarianism. But, that's simply on the basis of the enlightenment notion of objective scientific inquiry, which I think we have good reason to question.

But does science have a bearing on the justifiability of Christian claims? That I think is a good question. But, I am convinced that we cannot step outside the world we inhabit in order to justify that world on other grounds. So, insofar as we are committed to the Christian story, the only way we can evalutate its merits is from within - though cetrainly not ignoring that which comes to us from outside.

But, in the interest of breaking this whole discussion out of the enlightenment notion of science, I think there are other questions that are just as pertinent: Could the arts disproove the Christian faith, for example?
D.W. Congdon said…
First, a clarification:

Just so I'm clear, I accept the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. But I do think we need to be careful about insisting upon the tangible, historical, physical empty tomb/resurrected body, as if we need something empirically graspable in order for our faith to stand. It seems to me that the resurrection is on a wholly different order than our human reality. The resurrection is not a resuscitation; Jesus' resurrected body is not something that can be identified or produced or analyzed by rational human inquiry. It is, to use Barth's phrase, "wholly other." This I think opens up the possibility of a non-bodily resurrection without simply capitulating to modern science or being Gnostic about the faith. I think it's simply an attempt to think critically about what we mean by the resurrection.

Now on to the main concerns!

Mark, I certainly agree that Christianity is more falsifiable (theoretically, at least) than other religions. Christian faith is, or at least should be, a realistic one. That is, Christianity is grounded in human reality; it is not grounded in idealism. We have a stake in human history.

And yet, what is essential to Christian faith -- viz., that God became incarnate in a human person, Jesus of Nazareth -- is something that remains unaccessible to historical inquiry. The so-called historical Jesus, as long as this remains the construction of historians, can never inform us about the essence of Christian faith. History can only reproduce a historical figure; it cannot bring us into contact with the Lord himself, God incarnate.

With regard to my youth group experience, I think it was probably option #3. The leaders asked this question presumably in order to test the strength of our faith. I think they were trying to lay the groundwork for the possibility of us hearing scientific attacks on Christian belief so that we would be able to withstand any kind of critique.
D.W. Congdon said…

You are right (as always) to question our Enlightenment assumptions regarding science. A few thoughts on that:

(1) We need to deal with science as we currently know and practice it. If people think that science and theology/religion (there is a distinction there, but let's get into that later) conflict, then we need to really address this conflict. And I am not convinced that telling people this conflict is simply born out of the Enlightenment really answers anybody's concerns. We live in a post-Enlightenment age, and there is no going back. We might go forward, but we should at least be able to give an account of how we understand Christianity and science to coexist in the present time.

(2) I am not so sure the discussion really rests on science. In other words, I raised two main questions in my blog post: (a) Does science explain away religion by explaining its origin and development? and (b) Can science falsify religion?

The latter question does not need to be limited to the hard sciences. I mean science quite broadly here, and the example of the bones of Jesus is an instance of this. Would holding biological-archaeological evidence that Christ's body is still in the ground falsify Christianity? I don't think this is really an Enlightenment problem; but do you? It seems to me that we might ask: Could any human discipline (including the arts, which you bring up) falsify Christian faith? In other words, is Christian belief an entirely "in-house" enterprise, completely sectioned off from all other human disciplines and forms of intellectual inquiry?

Now the reason why your question about the arts is a difficult one is precisely because it is the historical nature of Christianity that makes historical questions of such crucial importance. I honestly cannot imagine how the arts could possibly disprove anything! It is only because Christianity has some stake in history that we can ask these questions about science at all.

Halden, you write: "the only way we can evalutate its merits is from within - though cetrainly [sic] not ignoring that which comes to us from outside."

How might you order the relation between "from within" and "from without"? How does Christian belief take into account the "from without" side while "only" evaluating its ground "from within"? How do you order those two in a reasonable manner? Is Christianity falsifiable for you? If not, is that because it is entirely based "from within"?

These are just some questions to ponder.
MarkC said…

Thanks for your reply. I agree with you. History can't access (to prove, disprove, etc.) what is central to the Christian faith. It can only falsify it because of the ways the incarnation intersects with human history in such specific, unambiguous ways.

Looking at it from another angle, the theoretical possibility of history falsifying Christian faith is easier to discuss than the realistic possibility of such. I have a hard time imagining the historical evidence that would be clear and definitive enough to overcome the existing historical evidence in favor of the human particulars of the incarnation.