We shouldn't confuse roles of science and faith

Published August 4, 2005

In 391 A.D., the library of Alexandria was sacked by Christian mobs, its priceless contents destroyed and its burnt-out shell converted into a church. The losses to knowledge and understanding were unprecedented. Gone, for a thousand years, were the facts and theories of the best minds of the ancient world, including the teachings of Ptolemy, who theorized that the earth was a sphere and who used the information of explorers to create maps more accurate than any to be drawn for a millennium.

The triumph of faith over reason symbolized by the burning of the library of Alexandria signaled the beginning of a thousand years of the intellectual stagnation known as the Dark Ages. It wasn't until the mid-15th century that world maps once again began to be drawn based on information rather than ecclesiastical argument.

For a thousand years, Christian clerics in Europe produced maps which purported to show where Paradise was, where the Anti-Christ lived, how the earth was rectangular, flat and surrounded by monsters. Most of this rank nonsense was based on the physical interpretation of the Holy Scripture, which was quoted at length to support cartographic fantasy.

One might think that the notion that we should rely on imaginative interpretations of the Holy Scripture to draw our maps is a sad relic of the superstitious past - but we would be wrong to think so, for this is precisely what is still happening in the almost medieval debate between evolutionary theory and "creationism," or "intelligent design." We are, it seems, not quite out of the Dark Ages.

The fallacy of such a debate is that theology and the Bible are not properly or usefully used to tell us how things are: Their role is to tell us why things are. Faith is not an alternative to reason: It is a different way of knowing a different thing.

The Christian world view exquisitely developed in the New Testament captured the heart and imagination of Western culture for 2,000 years because of the power of its answers to ultimate philosophical questions: How does the good person live his or her life? What are our obligations to others? What are the duties of a just life?

Neither the New nor the Old Testament, however, was written to be translated into either maps or scientific arguments, and it is a misuse of the Scripture to suggest they were. The theory of evolution, like our contemporary maps of the world (and the universe), is the best compilation of what we know (so far) through observation and analysis of fact.

Faith, and scripture, have no rightful argument with these observations and facts. The so-called argument from design may be valid, but it is an argument based on faith, not on facts or observation. The argument from design is a matter of belief without facts, which is what faith is: As such, it is perfectly reasonable, but it is not factual, scientific or intellectual knowledge.

Our schools at every level - elementary, middle and high school, as well as our colleges - need to resist those who would confuse science and faith, facts and belief. Both are ways of knowing, but they know different things. If we let faith supersede science as we try to know the physical world, we permit a new kind of Dark Ages for ourselves and our children.

- Donald Eastman is president of Eckerd College, a national, private liberal arts college related by covenant to the Presbyterian Church (USA) in St. Petersburg, Florida.