Commentary on a Lecture by Étienne Vernaz

etienne_vernazÉtienne Vernaz is a physicist and an evangelical Christian. A researcher at the CEA (Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et au énergies alternatives, a French government agency in charge of nuclear research) and a professor at the INSTN (National Institute of Nuclear Sciences and Technologies), he is one of France's most prominent specialists in  nuclear waste processing through vitrification. He was trained as an engineer, has a PhD in chemical physics, and has been awarded several prizes for his activities.
In 2003, the Alliance biblique française (French Biblical Association) organized a “Year of the Bible” during which Dr. Vernaz was asked if he could deliver a lecture about being a Christian researcher. He accepted, and since then has never stopped doing lectures on different aspects of the relations between science and faith. This article is an account of the lecture he delivered on November 18, 2011, at the Martin Luther King Center, Nîmes.
Except a few quotations, the words are ours and contain elements of interpretation. For a more accurate vision of the orator’s opinion, the reader should refer to the transcription of the interview Dr. Vernaz gave us, published on this website. Under no circumstance should the delivered lecture or the present article be regarded as reflecting in any way the scientific stand of the CEAEA nor any other public research agency Dr. Vernaz works with.

Étienne Vernaz claims he entertains science as a way to marvel at God’s creation. He also considers faith is an excellent safeguard against idolizing science. He fiercely combats the idea that science should be seen as a threat to faith in any way: in a whole career, he says, he never came across any contradiction between the Scripture and the world as unveiled by science. On the contrary, he states that the activity of a researcher is extremely close to the experience of a Christian. We consider all these points are worth being analyzed, and we back the following commentaries not only on the lecture we attended, but also on elements from the interview Étienne Vernaz gave us on the same evening.
Dr. Vernaz considers science is not autonomous. Faith gives the ability to make something of it. A nuclear physicist, he recalls the words of Albert Einstein: the problem lies not in the atom, but in the human heart. This idea that science needs a complement is widely shared, even beyond the boundaries of the Christian community, but it is rarely claimed that faith is an operative guideline for a researcher.
Quite legitimately, it seems, Étienne Vernaz does not feel useful to make a distinction here between science and technology, and he uses examples from each field. He usually talks about technological questions when on duty as a professor or CEA researcher: nuclear hazard, fear of risk nuclear-waste disposal and the impact of radiations on health are the customary stock-in-trade of his activity as an engineer. However, in personal capacity, he shows no reluctance when it comes to making forays into more fundamental subjects, so as to show to his public that the controversial margins of science need not afraid the believer. Of course, he is cautious: he does not claim to be a specialist of what he knows only through other scientists. He simply proposes his scientific experience in order to bring some specifics about questions that unease Christians (and researchers as well, it appears). As we could expect, his two main examples are evolution and the big-band theory.


Criticizing belief within the scientific community

His method is to remind of what the scientific community knows but the profane oftentimes forgets: that evolution contains epistemological difficulties, and that the big bang does not answer the question of the uncaused cause that triggered it. Consequently, he is more interested in showing inconsistencies that are identified by researchers themselves than proving the theories themselves are wrong. In other word, he concentrates on questions of validity, not of veracity. He even very little tackle the content of the theories itself, considering he is not fully competent to do so, save for a few commentaries he makes on evolutionism, which we report further.
On the topic of evolutionism he mentions a variety of authors of all creeds to back his claim that Darwinism and its derivatives are unsatisfactory: the impossibility to give an account of the apparition of the first forms of life, the failure of experimental genetics to create new species, the very absence of paleontological proof of the existence of intermediate species, lead him to call evolutionism a belief as it does not fully meet the requirements of scientificity. In front of facts, evolution is an interpretation, and an interpretation is a model, not an account of reality. He calls this model legitimate, but not justifying to dismiss the others, and he quotes several academics who follow the same pathway, or at least recognize the uncertainties of evolutionism: a Nobel Prize, a curator of the Field Museum, Professor Lynn Margulis from the MIT, and Honorary Professor Yves Coppens from the Collège de France. He reminds the audience that intelligent design is a shared idea among non-Christians scientists too.
Dr. Vernaz does not go deep enough into the specifics of evolutionism and its various versions to satisfy a fully critical observer, but he is in a situation of vulgarization and there is no reproaching him to adapt to it. He mostly keeps a steady line of epistemological commentary, even though he chances at some point to bring up some elements to show that sudden creation of life is the only possible explanation to him. As a matter of fact, he does indulge himself, at some point, into attacking Darwinism very harshly on the ground of its moral effects, charging it with depriving life from any real value because of the assumption that randomness is at the root of evolution. He then lists chosen quotations from Darwin, Sir Julian Huxley and Jacques Attali to illustrate the evolutionist stand and what he sees as its abuses. Any scientific judgment set aside, an exterior observer with a sociological mindset cannot but feel in this speech a great measure of pique against the landslide success of Darwinism towards the general public and what seems to be to the speaker the knee-jerk discredit with which the critics of this theory are constantly and too easily marked.

Dissenting from a majority

Aside pointing out some inconsistencies and quoting many scientists who diverge from the evolutionist theory, he reports that the consensus in France is so strong that dissenting is made a heresy. Through this lecture, it seems the French feud between research and faith is as strong as one could expect. It is difficult not to assume it is an offshoot of the deeply rooted secession between church and state. The fact that French researchers have all been trained in the institutional strongholds of secularism and have been selected by an academic system that was originally designed in order to put the seal on the break-up between religion an public life partly explains the extent of this ban on religious matters in the realm of academic activities. Étienne Vernaz does not tackle that point and prefers to remind us of the effects of the French Revolution and the cult to the supreme being that developed at this time. This too is in the wake of the idea that a disaffection towards Christianity has been permeating the French intellectual elite so much and for so long that there is still no way to step over it.
It does not seem a misinterpretation to say that Dr. Vernaz sees evolutionism as one of the crystallization points of an ancient anti-religious feeling and as an example that a whole community can forget about basic epistemological questions in order to defend what has become a dogma imposed on the profane. We will not join such a debate, as we have, again, no specific competence in this field, but we have to point out that this situation quite ironically brings Dr. Vernaz to reverse in his speech the traditional relationship to dogma: those who used to be called free-thinkers gave into dogmatism, and creationists claim they hold a more open-minded stand. He used the same kind of complete shift when dealing with the relationship between science and religion we mentionned earlier, when he described, if we may chance a comparison to put his words in a nutshell, science as a sight, and faith as its light. A similar trend can be found in his account of cosmology: humor leads him to say that believing that the “fine tuning” of the physical parameters of the Earth is mere chance requires a faith he cannot pretend to have.

Re-legitimizing Christians

Dr. Vernaz brings up other concepts to edify his audience. He opposes faith to credulity and encourages his public to refuse to believe in the weaker sense of the term, and to prefer knowledge and faith. He combats strict materialism and the idea that all forms of life are worth the same. He reckons that Christians are afraid by contemporary science, and that many of them feel humiliated when they are right away dismissed as superstitious or unintelligent when they mention their faith. He sees himself as a useful proof that one can be Christian and knowledgeable.
Regarding the feeling of oppression he expresses when it comes to challenging evolutionism, one can legitimately wonder whether the scientist in Dr. Vernaz is not as bitterly disappointed by the dogmatic landslide he depicts as the evangelical Christian might be outraged by the content of the theory and what he sees as its moral consequences. Overall, he advocates a “humble science” that does not go beyond the borders of its jurisdiction: materiality (and thus he once more reverses the traditional trend of relationship between the two elements). Such a science is totally compatible with faith, as both the honest scientist and the faithful man are “seakers of truth” who try to go beyond the veil of human error. In other words, according to Étienne Vernaz, science is not incompatible with Christianity: scientism is.