My initial response when I heard that Henry Shaefer of the Discovery Institute was speaking at Bethel University was apprehension. The last time I came in contact with a supposed researcher from the Discovery Institute was Dr. Terry Mortenson’s presentation in Morris, MN with Answers in Genesis.1 Mortenson, who has a doctorate in the History of Science, preceded to spend an entire bashing and belittling the whole of modern science in order to bring the evidence the supports the field of biology. By casting doubt upon the discoveries of every major scientist of the last 100 years, Mortenson aimed to present Christianity as the only answer to how the world works.
Henry Shaefer III is no different. I listened to two of his four talks on February 12th, and both of these talked underlined the importance of faith over evidence and reason. What surprised me the most was that Shaefer is a respected scientist in his own right.2 According to the press release put out by his University of Georgia in November of last year, “Schaefer’s scientific papers have been cited more than 50,000 times, making him one of the most highly cited chemists in the world.” Unlike Terry Mortenson, Shaefer received his B.S. degree in chemical physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ph.D. degree in chemical physics from Stanford University. So unlike Terry Mortenson, Shaefer is qualified to speak about cosmology and the evolution of the universe.
Walking into the lecture hall for Shaefer’s presentation 15 minutes early, I found that the room was already packed and snagged one of the few available seats left as more and more people crowded into the room. Shaefer walked into the room after a brief introduction from a Biology Faculty member and warned that because each presentation in his lecture series tended to go on for about an hour, because the class period was only 50 minutes long, he would likely not reach the end of the talk and would not be able to answer any questions that the audience might have. But he also mentioned that he would be giving a presentation at 4pm and 6:30pm for anyone who would like to hear more about what he had to say.
Before I tear into this man, I would like to qualify a few things. First of all, he is an intelligent man. I will not dispute that here. He has a strong background in physics and chemistry, and his research can be found in reputable journals. I did not find any of the scientific evidence that he presented at either of the two lectures he gave to be erroneous. So unlike Terry Mortenson, this guy did his homework and came prepared to be able to discuss the research behind the Big Bang as he did in his first lecture (with a lengthy digression into the life of Steven Hawking), or the extent of scientism in the field of chemistry and physics (with an equally lengthy digression into the life of C.S. Lewis). He was an engaging speaker and he gave two good lectures. I may have disagreed with him on his interpretation of a few points, but on the whole, I think that he presented the facts and figures to these subjects in a fair way. My criticism begins with his interpretation of these facts and figures; I think that in no uncertain terms, Shaefer is guilty of committing majors fallacies during the speech I heard him give in the afternoon.
The first fallacy that I heard from him came out of his discussion of the history of the research behind the Big Bang. As he rightly asserted, a Belgian priest named George Lemaitre brought forth a theory that the universe was not eternal as some scientists believed at the turn of the 20th century, but that it clearly had a beginning. Shaefer proceeded to imply how science was inferior to religion because the idea of a beginning had been indicated to Christians in the scripture that the universe hundreds of years ahead of this scientific discovery, and that the Bible was evidence that at the beginning of the universe, God created the cosmos. He proceeded to explain how science as a worldview kept scientists from seeing reality; one quote by Arno Penzias, co-discoverer of the cosmic microwave background radiation, implied that scientists were weary of the Big Bang theory solely because he could be used to support the notion that the universe had a purpose and that purpose had been determined by God. Because a catholic Belgian priest discovered the creation of the universe before other scientists did, Shaefer explains the resistance physicists like Geoffrey Burbidge had towards the Big Bang theory as solely motivated by a distrust in religious fundamentalism.
This is an incomplete picture, though. Every major scientific discovery has been met with resistance from the scientific establishment at first. It’s not until new evidence comes to light in the form of the discovery of cosmic background radiation that mainstream scientists felt justified to accept the evidence Lamaitre’s initial discovery. Shaefer overlooked how many scientists were in support of the Big Bang theory based solely on scientific evidence. There were many scientists who believed in the Big Bang theory strictly because of the scientific evidence presented in its favor and to suggest that the majority of scientists in the 20th century were being petty against the “First Church of Christ of the Big Bang” is wrong.
Secondly, as George Lamaitre himself even pointed out to Pope Pious the XII after the papal encyclical Humanis Generis that the discovery that the universe has a beginning can be interpreted two different ways. As Shaefer is quick to point out, this discovery can prove the existence of God, but only if one steadfastly holds the five arguments for the existence of God by Thomas Aquinas to be true. However, if one does not hold that Thomas Aquinas is right, then the discovery of the Big Bang could also indicate that for the first time in human history, we can explain the origin of the universe without invoking a supernatural deity. The origin of the universe is now open to scientific inquiry and the realm of physics.
Schaefer’s interpretation is a bit of a stretch, at best. As a self-proclaimed old-earth creationist, Schaefer is not a religious fundamentalist but nor is he justified in believing that the Book of Genesis proved the Big Bang before the scientific method did. Or for that matter, he is not justified in believing that the Bible proved anything scientific because faith is not a reliable way of knowing. Absence of evidence is not evidence in favor of anything divine and to suggest that physicists in want of more evidence to support the Big Bang were anything other than skeptical is a downright defamation of character. For an expert in computational chemistry like Henry Schaefer to talk about anything other than his own science is nothing more than misdirection. And for Bethel University to hold up this man as scientific proof of the validity of the Lutheran faith is nothing less than dishonesty.
1. Terry Mortensen’s Creationist Claims! (Updated). Kele’s Science Blog. February 28th 2011. http://phylogenous.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/terry-mortensens-creationist-claims/
2. Renowned UGA chemist Henry Schaefer honored with Humboldt Research Award. Sam Fahmy. November 30, 2011. http://news.uga.edu/releases/article/renowned-uga-chemist-henry-schaefer-honored-with-humboldt-research-awa/