The Sons of God: Faith v. Science

The best way to describe my debut novel, "The Sons of God," is as a peace treaty in the war between science and religion.

NASA/ESA, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The great myth of our time is the rumor of a war between science and religion. It is sometimes explicitly taught, but more often simply passively imbibed, that the culture in which we live arose only after many long centuries during which the spirit of scientific enlightenment was oppressed by the dark forces of superstition and the religious institutions that upheld it. Dogmatic mysticism lay like a heavy fog over the medieval world, before the Scientific Revolution cast off its oppressor, ushering in an era of rational freethinking. So the story goes.

In Newtonian fashion, an equal and opposite story is often told, in which the dominance of Christianity built up all the glories of Western civilization, among the foremost of these the belief that the world, though (contra the paganism that had dominated before Christianity) not itself divine, had been created by a divine intelligence, and was therefore at the most basic ontological level a intelligible creature, subject to scrutiny of the human intellect. This fundamentally religious belief gave birth to the modern sciences. These sciences, the children of religion, proved so successful in their own realm that they forgot their origin, and were soon wielded as tools in the hands of atheistic and even demonic forces to attack the very stem from which they sprang.

Nowhere has this conflict been more pointed than in the discussion of evolution and human origins. What clearer case could there be? To the ordinary observer, open-minded by disposition and not especially passionate about the debate, it seems there are two sides, presenting a prefect microcosm of the science vs. religion divide. The debate has been replayed over and over by two characters commonly called the Darwinist and the Creationist.

What these two figures think about themselves is hardly as relevant as what they think of each other. The Darwinist thinks the Creationist is a fool who believes the world is only 6,000 years old and thinks dinosaur bones were put there by the Devil to test our faith. The Creationist, on the other hand, considers the Darwinist a depraved and evil man who thinks life is meaningless and believes his great-great-grandfather was a Rhesus monkey.

Despite their low opinions of one another, the conversation may begin philosophically enough. The Darwinist might point out that the explanatory power of evolution by natural selection far exceeds any other theory, and should therefore be accepted, as any theory based on the scientific method is to be preferred to an unfalsifiable legend. The Creationist will respond that if the human mind arose solely from ultimately meaningless evolutionary forces, then any thoughts or arguments it produces must be equally meaningless, including the thoughts and arguments of the Darwinist.

Changing tack, the Darwinist may attempt to tread into theological territory, pointing out apparent contradictions in the Bible. How, exactly, were the first three days measured, if the sun was not created until the fourth? The Creationist may likewise try to dabble in science, pointing out that the evolution of one species into another is, to this day, unsupported by the fossil record. But these arguments are seldom long sustained, as the relevant expertise lies with the other side.

At this point things get ugly. The Darwinist declares the Creationist a fanatical, women-oppressing jihadist bent on burning heretics at the stake. The Creationist reciprocates, calling the Darwinist a heartless, weed-smoking communist who wants to round up all the wrong-thinkers and send them to the gulag for mandatory euthanasia.

Is the discussion doomed to collapse in this way? Are religion and science, the heart and mind of Western civilization, truly the intractable enemies they seem? Or is there perhaps a more intelligent way to consider both sides of the argument?

My first novel, "The Sons of God," through the indirect method that only fiction can provide, is an attempt to answer precisely these questions. Consider this passage from the opening chapter:

“Long ago, a man was walking along the riverbank, returning from a long journey. He had been three days without food or rest. His muscles ached and his stomach wrung with pain.”

I rolled my eyes, but my father did not see.

“Just ahead,” he continued, “the man spied a herd of waterbuck, bellowing low, ears twitching, dozens of hooves clopping softly in the silt. Their furry manes rustled as they shook their horned heads to drive the flies away.

“The man scowled, and asked the flies, ‘How is it that you eat your fill while I go hungry?’ The flies answered, 'We are so small that we float on the breeze, and bite as we like.’ The man said, ‘I cannot do that.’”

I began rapping my fingers down the shaft of my wooden javelin. My father did see that. A glance from him and I stopped. He went on.

“At that very instant, a spotted cat rushed out of the brush and flew after one of the beasts. The waterbuck reared and tried to run away, but was quickly outpaced. As the cat dragged its quarry away, the man asked it, ‘How is it that you eat while I go hungry?’ The cat answered, ‘I used my great speed to overtake my prey.’ The man said, ‘I cannot do that.’

“A moment later, a lion leapt forth from the grassland. With a mighty roar, it fell upon one of the waterbucks, killing it with a single swipe of its enormous paw. As the lion devoured its meal, the man asked it, ‘How is it that you eat while I go hungry?’ The lion answered, ‘I used my great strength to overpower my prey.’ The man said, ‘I cannot do that.’

“There was a great splash, and a black-scaled koakh burst out of the river, dragging a waterbuck down in its jaws. The man asked it, ‘How is it that you eat while I go hungry?’ The koakh answered, 'I waited with stealth and patience until my prey was within my grasp.’ The man said, ‘That I can do.’”

“That story isn’t true,” I murmured.

“Oh?” whispered my father. “Why do you say that?”

“Lions and koakhiym can’t talk.”

“I know that, Ruakh. You’re missing the point.”

“What’s the point?”

“The story isn’t claiming they can talk.”

“They all talked in the story.”

“Yes, and if you are too dense to see past that, you will learn nothing from it.”

“Why learn a story that never happened?”

The conversation between the narrator and his father demonstrates the way that scientific and religious ways of seeing the world often talk past one another. The narrator has a probing, rational mind, seeing the empirical facts in a cold, evaluative way. He wants to know how things are, and has little time for his father's literary imagination. He stands in this scene for the scientific worldview, very good at seeing what is there, but in a narrow and limited way. The father, on the other hand, telling a legend of man walking among talking animals, is seeing the world figuratively, finding deeper meaning beneath everything he encounters. While not literal, his tale is nevertheless true in a number of very real senses: there are real lessons to be learned from the various animals, with real impact on one's self-evaluation, and real consequences for human behavior. As frustrated as the narrator is that his father's tale is not literally true, the father is frustrated that his son cannot see past that and find the deeper meaning.

I almost wrote that the father stands for the religious worldview, but that needs a careful clarification. There are two reasons for this.

First, the religious worldview is perfectly capable of handling things literally and empirically. The Book of Chronicles, for example, is a relatively straightforward ancient history; the Resurrection of Christ can bear up under forensic investigation. The father's foray into legend and animal fables, where the deeper truths are communicated through mainly figurative language, applies mainly to texts like the beginning of Genesis or the Book of Jonah, which are actually not the most common literary genre in the Bible.

The second reason is that the idea that there is deeper meaning beneath the quantitative, empircally observable surface of things extends beyond the specifically religious. The world's great literature, art, music, poetry, and rituals all have a great deal to teach us and are indispensable for the formation of the human person, without being proper objects of scientific investigation.

Having said that, the contrast in this brief passage between the narrator and his father is meant to be an illustration of one of the overarching themes in The Sons of God. Neither character is wrong. The son is right: lions can't talk. The father is right: hunters must be patient. Both the scientific and the religious are valid ways of looking at the world. Each can see things the other cannot, but they can readily encompass, or at least complement, each other. If the two sides have trouble seeing eye-to-eye, it is a result of narrow-minded focus on one particular method of seeing the world, rather than any flaw in either method itself.

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