Following the Science (Guest post)

Here is a guest article from Michael Ots (this was delivered at the Affinity day conference “Coronavirus and the Church of Jesus Christ). Michael is an evangelist with a lot of experience of delivering apologetics talks in University settings.

It is a privilege to be able to speak about this topic but at the same time I also feel rather daunted at the prospect. I have asked myself – why am I speaking on this subject? Maybe you’re asking the same question!

I guess one of the reasons may well be that I have been involved in speaking publicly about this already. I have written a number of pieces on my social media accounts questioning the current approach to this pandemic. 

I want to acknowledge at the outset that in some ways it is probably easier for me to do this than it is for many of you. I am not a pastor but an evangelist and apologist and while I work with many different churches and organisations, I do not work for any of them. This allows me a certain degree of freedom in what I say.

It probably also predisposes me to being willing to question the consensus opinion on a matter. Speaking most of the time in universities rather than in churches I am quite used to most people disagreeing with me!

So how do we go about weighing up the scientific discussion and how should we respond to it?

In the early day of the pandemic we were repeatedly told that the government was ‘following the science’. I think some people naively assumed therefore that there was just one scientific opinion.

While there is no question that COVID-19 is a highly infectious virus that is a particular danger to those who are elderly or have underlying health conditions most people have now become increasingly aware that there is a real divergence of views. In particular a divergence of views on:

a)     How serious the situation actually is.

b)    What the best response to it should be.

This diversity of opinion has finally been given more coverage in the mainstream media in the last few weeks.

On the one hand we have scientists like Neil Ferguson and the Imperial College team whose modelling suggests that without strong interventions the virus will continue to spread with catastrophic implications in terms of many more deaths and the overwhelming of the health service. The best approach therefore would seem to be for different levels of lockdown and restrictions as the best way to control and supress the virus until a vaccine can be found.

On the other we have people like Carl Hennigan and Sunetra Gupta from the  University of Oxford who have been openly critical of the Imperial folks and their predictions. They suggest that the situation is not as bad as is feared and that herd immunity could be achieved sooner than we many think. They propose a different approach that involves learning to live with the virus with as much normality as possible while protecting those most vulnerable.

This approach has is summarised recently in the Great Barrington Declaration that was signed by a large number of significant medical professionals around the world. However, there has also been a response to this in the last week by many other medical professionals who have signed the Jon Snow Memorandum.

So how do respond to this? I can see three problems with wading into the scientific debate.

Firstly – it can seem very confusing!

There are arguments both ways that I find persuasive and also other aspects that cause me to doubt. For instance – I find it hard to still believe that the initial lockdown really did save half a million lives in the UK as Imperial predicted, when the total number of deaths globally has only just passed one million. On the other hand I have read counter arguments that claimed that there would be no second wave of cases but it seems hard to deny that there has been an increase in cases even after we have allowed for the fact of increased testing.

So you could argue that while one side is in danger or overestimating the danger the other could be at risk of underestimating it.

The second problem is that the debate seems to have become increasingly partisan.

Thirdly, I’m not a scientist! So, what right do I have to speak into this discussion?

I was struck by a tweet from Piers Morgan this week where he said

‘Memo to all the millions of amateur epidemiologist on here: none of you know what you are talking about. Even the world’s best epidemiologists disagree when it comes to how best to tackle covid. So stop being so self-righteously CERTAIN… you know nothing.’

Now I did find that rather ironic as any one has listened to Piers Morgan in recent weeks would have realised by now that he often seems incredibly certain about his views on that matter!

But what right do we have as non-scientists to speak on the matter? Shouldn’t we leave it to the experts?

As I reflected on this question it reminded me of a conversation I had a number of years ago with John Lennox. I had just started speaking at university missions and on a number of occasions I had been asked to speak on the subject of God and science. I asked John, did he think it was right for me, a non-scientist, to be speaking about this? Shouldn’t I leave it to people like him?

I have never forgotten his response. Without hesitation he said, absolutely. I pressed him as to why he thought this was the case. He explained, ‘ people assume that the debate is just between two different scientific ideas. It’s not. It’s between two different worldviews. Your job is not to challenge the science – but to challenge the presuppositions that lie behind the interpretation of the science.’

I soon realised that there were plenty of very good scientists who were Christians just as there were also plenty of very good scientists who are atheists. The difference was not that one group had access to scientific information that the other did not. The difference was largely down to the different presuppositions that people bring to the science.

I think a similar issue is in play here. There are two big presuppositions in western society that I think massively impact how people view the situation and that we need to challenge as Christians.

Firstly, there is the expectation that life can be totally safe and that we can eliminate all risk. We have come to prize physical health as all important. But we live in a fallen world and we can never make life 100% safe and there will always be risks involved in whatever we do in life. Moreover, while physical health is important it is not the only dimension of life.

I fear that there is a danger that we have become so obsessed by trying to remove the risk of Covid we have become blinded to other very real risks involved in what we are doing. In trying to preserve physical health we are in danger of forgetting other aspects of life.

This was perhaps highlighted this week when the University of York instructed that in the event of a fire, students who had tested positive for Covid should let others leave the building first so they didn’t infect others! It seems preferable for students to die in a fire than to catch covid!

Now that might seem like an isolated and extreme example but we are becoming increasingly aware of the monumental cost that our reaction to Covid has had on our society – not just ecomonomically (it’s crazy to think that during the furlough scheme the UK government paid out the equivalent of the cost of an NHS hospital every four days!) but also in terms of people’s physical, mental and emotional health. It is estimated that there will be between 20-50,000 more cancer deaths due to delayed diagnosis and treatment. Of course, as Christians we also see a risk to people’s spiritual health. If the Bible is true, then we shouldn’t be surprised that not being able to meet together as church will have a detrimental affect on our spiritual lives.

Incidentally – this is why the government should not be led by the science. The science can give us ideas about how best to control or suppress the virus. But there are far more issues at play that need to be factored in to any decisions. The government should be informed by the science but needs to weigh this up in light of the bigger picture.

CS Lewis was somewhat prophetic when he anticipated a day when politicians would ‘increasingly rely on the advice of scientists, till in the end the politicians proper become merely the scientists’ puppets… Now I dread specialists in power because they are specialists speaking outside their special subjects. Let scientists tell us about sciences. But government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man’s opinion no added value…’

The second presupposition that we need to consider is western societies unbridled confidence in science and unspoken fear of death.

Early on in the pandemic I read an article in the guardian by the atheist Israeli historian – Yuval Noah harari. I re-read it last week and was amazed at how right he was in his predictions. The article headline asked the question “will coronavirus change our societies attitude towards death?’ Quite the opposite’

He explains

‘For scientists, death isn’t a divine decree – it is merely a technical problem. Humans die not because God said so, but because of some technical glitch. The heart stops pumping blood. Cancer has destroyed the liver. Viruses multiply in the lungs…

And science believes that every technical problem has a technical solution. We don’t need to wait for Christ’s second coming in order to overcome death. A couple of scientists in a lab can do it. Whereas traditionally death was the speciality of priests and theologians in black cassocks, now it’s the folks in white lab coats. If the heart flutters, we can stimulate it with a pacemaker or even transplant a new heart. If cancer rampages, we can kill it with radiation. If viruses proliferate in the lungs, we can subdue them with some new medicine.

True, at present we cannot solve all technical problems. But we are working on them. The best human minds no longer spend their time trying to give meaning to death. Instead, they are busy extending life. They are investigating the microbiological, physiological and genetic systems responsible for disease and old age, and developing new medicines and revolutionary treatments.’

I fear that Harari has put his finger on exactly the problem within our society. We have supreme confidence in science to be able to sort out all the problems. But what if we have misplaced our faith?

Many have assumed that we will simply have to live with lockdowns and restrictions until a vaccine comes along. But what if it doesn’t? Or what if it takes five years? Or 18 as Boris suggested it could last week? And what if it is only 50% effective as was also suggested this week by the head of the UK vaccine task force?

My fear is that in seeking to try to eliminate death and extend life for as long as possible we will actually have forgotten what it is to live.

Jesus said those who seek to save their lives will lose them and could it be that in seeking to save our physical lives we have already lost what makes life worth living?

It is these presuppositions that I think we need to challenge and speak in to. By the way – if you want a great example of how to do this then I think the open letter and subsequent sky news interview that Ian Paul did was brilliant).

But why should we speak about this at all? Isn’t it all too controversial and don’t I just risk alienating people?

I can see three reasons for doing so.

Firstly, living in a democracy I want to exercise my voice. We currently have a government that seems to be very concerned about public opinion. If I can have some small part in helping change public opinion and therefore potentially influence the approach the government are taking then I want to do that.

Secondly, because I am concerned for many Christians who are living in fear. It is so easy to become shaped by the pattern of this world and we need to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. In some ways I can understand the fear if their only source for information is the BBC. Studies have shown that people in the UK dramatically over estimate the risk of covid. I know this is the case for a number of Christian too and so I want to gently help them to re-evaluate the risks. I find it amazing that some otherwise healthy young Christians are living in fear of Covid when the risk to them is so low. It is interesting that the governments plans for vacinations are only for the older segment of the population. To younger people the risk of the vaccine is actually greater than Covid itself!

Thirdly, we should speak because I believe that it can actually be part of a witness. I was struck by what the historian Tom Holland said in a recent interview with the evangelist Glen Scrivener. While being very sympathetic to Christian faith he has been hugely disappointed by the church during the pandemic. He felt that that Christian leaders have simply reiterated public health advice and had nothing else to offer! Do we need to regain a prophetic voice? We call people to recognise their own mortality. We need to proclaim that there is hope in the face of death. We need to recognise that the purpose of life is not to increase the number of our heart beats but to enlarge our hearts.

Lastly can I suggest three principles for how we should do this.

Firstly, let’s be humble. Let us not speak dogmatically about things that we are nor certain about. It is always good to acknowledge that you may be wrong. We could do great harm to our witness if we speak with as much certainty about disputed areas of science as we do about the gospel.

Secondly, let’s be generous. We need to acknowledge that those who support a different approach to your own may do so for good reasons. Let’s think the best of those with whom we disagree.

Finally, let’s speak about Jesus. I believe that this can be a great bridge to articulating the gospel. As people see our human limitations and our frailty may it be an opportunity to point them to the only one in whom we can be ultimately safe. 

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