How a Climatologist Integrates Science and Faith

This summer climatologist Kevin Birdwell returned to RTB headquarters for his third stint as a visiting scholar. RTB editor Maureen Moser sat down for a chat with Kevin about the role science plays in his faith and his experiences as a Christian apologist.

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What piece of evidence do you view as the most powerful in support of Christianity’s truth?

I’ve never tried to narrow it down to just one—it’s a compiled case of many evidences. One of the reasons I got into Christian apologetics is because I wanted to find out how all the evidence fit together.

However, I believe there’s always a measure of faith involved. It is informed faith, not blind, but it’s also not just a bunch of facts.

Sun-cloudsNow, you study meteorology, climatology, and earth science. Where do you see evidence for design in those fields?

I certainly see it in the earth itself. Our planet possesses so many unique and fine-tuned features. We hear a lot about discoveries of “Earth-like” planets. These exoplanets might have one or two characteristics similar to Earth’s, but many others must be considered—from plate tectonics to the Moon impact to the nature of the atmosphere.

Obviously, the Moon impact had an influence on Earth’s atmosphere, so that affects meteorology. Without this event happening just the way it did, we would have a planet like Venus. It really is miraculous. I’ve seen it described as a 1 in the 1022 chance.

How does your research impact your faith?

Very positively! In my early college days, I was threatened by my science studies—mainly because I didn’t understand the difference between science and the philosophy of science. People will often impose the philosophy of naturalism onto science, but naturalism is not the same thing as science. As I started developing a better understanding of science and science philosophy I found, in conversations with nonbelievers, that I could discuss my view from a position of strength, rather than weakness.

What I’ve also found is that there are a lot of things that point back to design. The atmosphere, for example, is on a knife’s edge in terms of its design and its ability to support us. If Earth’s gravity were just a little bit stronger, then it would likely hang on to too many substances like ammonia; but if gravity were just a little bit weaker, it wouldn’t hang on to enough water.

Who were the critical mentors in the development of your faith?

Certainly my parents were a big factor. No family is perfect, but they had a genuine Christian faith—it wasn’t just something they did on Sunday. That made a huge difference.

I would also have to include people like Dr. Ross, C. S. Lewis, Ravi Zacharias, and Michael Brown on the list.

What has been the greatest challenge to your faith?

I think we sometimes get the wrong idea that we can answer every question that ever pops into our heads. Sometimes we might read something in the Bible or something happens in life that makes us think, “This doesn’t make sense, God.” He will give us some answers right away, but others we have to wait for.

There were times, particularly in college, where I felt I had wasted my time on this or that, but later on (even as much as a decade) I’d look back and realize why God had me go through something. Again, Christianity is not a blind faith, but it is still a walk by faith. God gives us enough; He gives what we need to know.

Let’s talk about creation views. What convinced you that old-earth creationism (OEC) is the best explanation for the relationship between nature and Scripture?

There’s no question that the scientific evidence was a strong factor. In college, when I was searching these things out, I joined a YEC society and tried to be open to the ideas presented there. But when someone explained “flood geology” to me I gave up because I knew enough about geology already to make me doubt YEC’s validity. (Even in my home state of Tennessee we have thousands of feet of limestone that can’t be explained by flood geology.)

As the years have passed, I’ve seen a lot of evidence from the Bible itself that supports an OEC reading of Scripture. All the creation passages are consistent with each other when viewed in an OEC context, but this becomes questionable when viewed in a YEC context. I understand that people are trying to interpret the Bible in a way that they believe is consistent. But when you look at something like flood geology, you don’t find a lot of support from Scripture. It seems to be more of a speculation that’s imposed onto the text.

You’ve been telling me about a conference series that you’ve been involved with. How did that get started?

In the Knoxville area where I live we’ve been doing these God’s Not Dead conferences. It started in July. We’ve done two events already and we’ve been invited to do a third.

Now are these events associated with the recent film God’s Not Dead or just named in honor of it?

More the latter. Our local Ratio Christi chapter organized the events and our RTB chapter and the local Reasonable Faith chapter participated. Basically, we expand on topics that were presented in the movie and invite students to come listen to our talks. For example, I’ve been doing a talk on cosmology. One of our other speakers did a talk on the evidence for the Resurrection. Another did an introduction to apologetics.

How have audiences responded?

I think the response has been very positive. A lot of feedback has expressed appreciation for the information we presented and told us that people are looking for this type of information.

What advice would you offer to someone wanting to engage a scientist in a discussion about faith?

This would be true for most situations, but it would help tremendously if people took the time to understand the culture of science and where the scientist is coming from. This includes actually learning some science. You don’t need a PhD to evangelize to scientists, but you do need to know some of the basics.

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You can also listen to my interview with Kevin on Straight Thinking.

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Quote of the Week: Deuteronomy 6:4

 

Hear, O Israel: The LORD [YHWH] our God [Elohim], the LORD [YHWH] is one [ehadh].

– Deuteronomy 6:4

Reading As a Stress Reliever

126486493For the last 35 years of my life I have made it my goal to try to read at least three hours a day. It’s an ambitious objective, and there have certainly been many days that I haven’t achieved it. But overall I’ve been successful in pursuing this intellectual discipline. I even got in trouble with my wife for bringing books on our honeymoon.

Malcolm Gladwell’s provocative book Outliers: The Story of Success makes the claim that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any skill. So, because I desire to be a skilled Christian thinker, most of my reading has focused on theology, philosophy, and history. For me, reading fuels the life of the mind like nothing else.

Reading, of course, provides many benefits; I’ve documented some of them on Reflections (see here and here). But one interesting thing I’ve noticed about reading is that it relaxes me. When I’m nervous or stressed, reading tends to calm me down. I feel at home in the world of books; and as I focus my mind on the book’s content, the stress melts away.

So, I was quite intrigued when I discovered that science backs up my personal observation. A new study from the University of Sussex revealed that reading does in fact reduce stress. A post on Lumosity’s Google+ page summed up the findings:

…Reading reduced stress better and more quickly than other methods like listening to music, drinking tea, or going for a walk. Researchers believe that the concentration you give a good book helps distract you, reducing heart rate and muscle tension caused by stress.1

An article in The Telegraph reported that reading even for just a few minutes reduces stress at a better rate than other well-known stress relievers:

Reading worked best, reducing stress levels by 68 per cent, said cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis. Subjects only needed to read, silently, for six minutes to slow down the heart rate and ease tension in the muscles, he found. In fact it got subjects to stress levels lower than before they started. Listening to music reduced the levels by 61 per cent, having a cup of tea or coffee lowered them by 54 per cent and taking a walk by 42 per cent.2

As bearers of the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27), only human beings read; animals do not enjoy this privilege. As “People of the Book,” Christians recognize that reading the greatest of the great books—the Bible—provides benefits to the whole person, body and soul. In fact, Christians throughout the centuries have derived countless benefits from reading Scripture. Now science informs us that reading in general simultaneously informs and calms the mind.

May I extend a challenge to you? In light of its benefits, it would seem wise to make reading a daily priority. Would you consider committing even one hour a day to reading? It will change your life for the better.

Endnotes

  1. Lumosity’s Google+ page, shared July 30, 2014, https://plus.google.com/+lumosity/posts/ajtBjMsaEsM.
  2. “Reading ‘Can Help Reduce Stress,’” Telegraph, posted March 30, 2009, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/5070874/Reading-can-help-reduce-stress.html.
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Quote of the Week: Michael Reeves

When you proclaim Jesus, the Spirit-anointed Son of the Father, you proclaim the triune God.

— Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 37-38.

 

Catching the Spirit of Philosophy

Philosophy is unlike any discipline I ever studied in school. The word philosophy (from Greek: phileo, meaning “love,” and sophia, meaning “wisdom”) means the love of wisdom. My first philosophy teachers in college introduced me to the ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. From these three great founders of Western intellectual thought I caught what I call the spirit of philosophy.

137420111While philosophy has gone in many diverse and even contradictory directions over the last 2,500 years, the spirit of ancient Greek philosophy endures. It has remained with me as a fresh resource in living out my life. I concur with Socrates’ famous injunction: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Philosophy at its best demands a critical spirit of inquiry from its adherents.

Allow me to sketch out the three features of the philosophical enterprise that I find deeply challenging and yet also greatly beneficial.

Three Features of Philosophy

First, when people pursue a philosophical approach to living their life becomes an exciting journey in constant pursuit of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. Life is then about asking and seeking answers to the big and challenging questions of human existence. This intellectual expedition can be very difficult at times, but it also can provide meaning, purpose, and direction.

Second, seeking after wisdom involves the use of human reasoning. Thus, a philosophical life calls on people to think, reflect, and contemplate. Simply put, philosophy is about thinking carefully and critically about life’s most important issues. Developing the life of the mind is crucial. Understanding and utilizing the laws of logic and rational inference is a necessity.

Lastly, philosophy’s reward is rich and enduring both for individuals and society. The process of philosophy itself can produce a “good life” (a moral education) within a person. And, of course, diligent philosophical pursuers may encounter the great treasures of truth, goodness, and beauty, which they then may choose to share with others.

So while the philosophical task isn’t easy, it is noble. The financial rewards are few but who could put a price tag on a good life?

As a Christian philosopher I have come to view philosophy as the ancient and Medieval Christian thinkers did: as a handmaid to theology. And as a Christian apologist I’m thankful for the tools that philosophy provides to help demonstrate the reasonableness and truth of my faith.

For those who would like to consider taking the noble philosophical journey, here are three introductory resources:

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Quote of the Week: Kenneth Samples

Christian apologist Walter R. Martin used to say that some people will not look up until they are flat on their back.

— Kenneth Samples, Sunday morning church class lecture

A Call to Parents, Teachers, and Pastors: Listen and Learn!

I interact frequently with parents who are looking for resources to help their teenagers transition childhood faith into adult conviction. RTB is glad to develop resources—such as the Through the Lens video series or the Impact Events study guides—that help support those efforts. However, the foundational step in a teen’s discipleship is for the adults in the teen’s life to be adequately equipped to engage in strategic conversations.

What are you (the parent) doing to prepare yourself to have strategic faith-related conversations about science? After all, you can’t pass along to the next generation what you haven’t yet sowed into your own soul.

I might address a similar question for science teachers. How can you help your students make deeper science-faith connections? While many Christian schools promote both faith and learning, the level of integration often lacks the sophistication to match the challenges students will face in college.

What about the role of pastors and youth pastors? Are you adequately prepared to incorporate the science apologetics issues of our day into your sermons? Science is a major force in our culture, but seminary seldom trains clergy with much more than a rudimentary framework to make sense of increasingly sophisticated scientific discoveries. (Listen to pastor Andrew Corbett’s call to fellow pastors to become apologetics savvy.)

462148441This need for better-prepared adults is why I’m so excited to introduce a brand new resource from RTB’s education branch: on-demand courses. This set of personal enrichment courses offer the same quality content as our traditional Reasons Institute classes without the intense time commitment. There’s no participation required and no homework assignments. Just download the lectures (MP3 files) and lecture notes (printable PDF files) and you’re ready to listen and learn.

Here are the courses that we’re currently offering as part of this new program.

General Survey of RTB’s Testable Creation Model

  • Exploring Science and Scripture, with Hugh Ross and Fazale Rana

Foundational Issues

  • Physics and the Christian Worldview, with Jeff Zweerink
  • Evolution and the Fossil Record, with the RTB scholar team
  • Examining Humans and Hominids, with the RTB scholar team

Advanced Seminars

  • Chemistry and Molecular Biology, with Fazale Rana
  • Physics and Astronomy, with Hugh Ross and Jeff Zweerink

These courses are perfect for busy people who want to avail themselves of RTB’s powerful tools in a more convenient format. (Learn more about the program through this short video introduction here.) Of course, we still offer our traditional Reasons Institute classes as well, in which you can earn a certificate in science apologetics or even college credit.

If you’d like to take one of our on-demand courses for a test drive, we now offer Exploring Science and Scripture for free. Just add it to your cart and enter the coupon code “FREECOURSE” at checkout. Once we’ve processed your order (usually within 1 working day), we’ll send you the link to download the audio lectures.

Remember, we are called to “tell the world how glorious he [God] is.” Our prayer is that these lectures and notes will enrich your faith and prepare you to fulfill this calling with not only the teens in your life but the skeptics as well.

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By Krista Bontrager

Krista Bontrager is the dean of online learning at Reasons to Believe. She is a teacher at heart and enjoys teaching the Bible to all ages. She has an MA in theology and another in Bible exposition from Talbot School of Theology.

Quote of the Week: Lawrence Krauss

Religious belief that the universe is the handiwork of an all-powerful being is not subject to refutation. This sort of reliance on faith may itself have an evolutionary basis. There has been talk of a “god gene”: the idea of an early advantage in the struggle for survival for those endowed with a belief in a hidden patrimony that gives order, purpose and meaning to the universe we experience.

— Lawrence M. Krauss, “Science and Religion Share Fascination in Things Unseen,” New York Times, November 8, 2005.

 

Islam and The Middle East Crisis

skd285135sdcLike many people, I have been paying careful attention to the religious and political events transpiring in the Middle East for the past several years. As a student of Islam, I am very interested in this religion’s relationship to radical ideologies that foment violence and terrorism.

But today I have a question. How many wars or conflicts or political tensions are presently at work in the Middle East? Given the complexity of the region and its fluidity this isn’t an easy question to answer. Nevertheless, here’s my attempt at a calculation (some may overlap). This is based upon news reports and the opinions of specialists in the region.

  1. Egyptian government military vs. Muslim Brotherhood
  2. Civil war rebels vs. Syrian dictator Assad
  3. Sunni vs. Shi’ite (major divisions in Islam) in general conflict
  4. ISIS (radical Islamic ideological group) vs. Syrian rebels
  5. ISIS vs. Syrian dictator Assad
  6. ISIS vs. Iraq
  7. ISIS vs. Iran tension
  8. ISIS’ persecution of Christians
  9. USA vs. ISIS
  10. Israelis vs. Palestinians tension
  11. Hamas vs. Israel
  12. Iran vs. Saudi Arabia proxy war (over who will control the region)
  13. Israel vs. Iran tension
  14. USA vs. Syrian dictator Assad tension
  15. USA vs. Iran tension

Christian end-times enthusiasts undoubtedly see this situation as a sign of an impending Judgment Day. In my opinion, these tensions and wars actually have more to due with how certain Muslims view the supposed end of the world than it does with actual biblical prophecy. In fact, it appears that apocalyptic end-times interpretations of certain Islamic leaders fuel radical Islamic ideology. (If you are interested in cautious thinking about Christian eschatology, I recommend you review my latest book, Christian Endgame: Careful Thinking About the End Times.)

The current volatile events of the Middle East should lead people in the West to ask some tough questions about the religion of Islam. For example,

  1. Do all Muslims think alike about religion and politics?
  2. Are there moderate voices within the religion of Islam?
  3. Does the Qur’an justify killing non-Muslims in the name of Allah?
  4. Are al-Qaeda and ISIS political ideologies that have attached themselves to the religion of Islam or are these groups the logical extension of Islamic theology, specifically its eschatology?
  5. Is Islam compatible with Western forms of democracy?
  6. Why are people attracted to Islam, given all the violence connected to the religion?
  7. How can the West respond effectively to radical Islam?
  8. Is the battle against radical Islam merely a military fight?
  9. In the marketplace of ideas, what does Christianity have to offer that Islam does not?

If you would like to hear my answers to these provocative questions then listen to the latest episode of Straight Thinking, where some of my colleagues and I confront these topics head on: http://www.reasons.org/podcasts/straight-thinking/winning-the-war-of-worldview-ideas.

 

Quote of the Week: Francis Crick

Our highly developed brains, after all, were not evolved under the pressure of discovering scientific truth, but only to enable us to be clever enough to survive and leave descendants.

— Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis (New York: Touchstone, 1994), 262.