“If we raise a generation of students who don’t believe in the process of science, who think everything that we’ve come to know about nature and the universe can be dismissed by a few sentences translated into English from some ancient text, you’re not going to continue to innovate.”
This 2012 YouTube quote from TV’s Bill Nye the “Science Guy” spurred Answers in Genesis CEO Ken Ham to challenge Nye to debate whether it’s appropriate to teach creationism to schoolchildren. The debate was held in February of 2014 and broadcast on the internet (watch it here). No winner was declared, but both Nye and Ham claimed not to have lost.
If anything, the debate highlighted the caricature of science and faith that we often find in mainstream media: science and faith don’t belong together. At all.
Where’s the truth in the relationship between faith and science? To get a little closer to it, we’ll explore what’s not true: four common myths that have been less than helpful in the science-faith conversation.
“Religious faith and science are incompatible—and, in fact, always in conflict.”
Define “faith” and “science”
The terms in this widespread assumption—“religious faith” and “science”—sound all-inclusive, but they’re not. The true controversy seems most often to boil down to the clash between Christian biblical-literalist creationism and the Darwinian theory of macroevolution. Not all faiths are involved; religions such as Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, together with Christian denominations that have a more open understanding of the book of Genesis, manage to stay above the fray.
Neither are all fields of science involved. Many scientific disciplines other than the “origin” sciences of cosmology and the history of life are not challenged by religious faith, and vice-versa: aerospace, meteorological, pharmaceutical, and engineering sciences, for example, are practiced with little or no influence from—or upon—most kinds of religious beliefs.
Historically, modern science owes a lot to religious faith—particularly Christianity. When literacy began to spread across Western civilization, the people of European Christendom began reading the Bible for themselves and took up the Bible’s challenge to test the truth of its claims (e.g., Acts 17:11). Natural philosophers—the scientists before there were scientists—understood nature to be “God’s other book,” provided for humans to test in much the same way as they tested the Bible. What we refer to as the “scientific method” grew in part from this way of thinking.
Different people, different perspectives
While what we see most often in the media are tense confrontations between atheist naturalist scientists and anti-evolution creationists, the reality is that people interact with science and faith in a variety of ways. Physicist and theologian Ian Barbour has envisioned four models to characterize the intersection of science and faith:
- Conflict. This is the clash between biblical-literalist creationism and Darwinian-evolutionist naturalism described earlier. What the two sides in this model agree on is that a person cannot believe in evolution and God—so a person must choose between them. The Conflict model is easily sensationalized—and thus receives the most media coverage.
- Independence. In the Independence model, both science and religion are considered equal and important—but they operate in separate realms: science deals with “how” questions; faith deals with “why” questions. In this model the two realms are always separate and thus never conflict—but they are also incapable of engaging in any kind of productive interaction; our discussion of Myth 2 addresses this concern in depth.
- Dialogue. Imagine a team of naturalist scientists and creationist scientists collaborating on a dig in the Grand Canyon. As they study together, the naturalists discuss their reasoning that the landforms are the result of millions of years of erosion by the Colorado River, while the creationists explain their theory that the canyon is the result of a catastrophic event such as a flood. Each team is open to creative ideas and insights from the other. This is how Barbour’s Dialogue model might work. Dialogue, says Barbour, “emphasizes similarities in presuppositions, methods and concepts.”
- Integration. In Barbour’s Integration model, science and faith are combined to produce a unified, “whole” truth. Many early pioneers of science—Kepler, Descartes, and Newton, for example—held a worldview that integrated their Christian beliefs with their scientific discoveries. Barbour and others have admitted that a stable Integration model is a challenge to build and sustain—largely because of the temptation to compromise and either force empirical science into a theistic worldview or force faith into a naturalistic worldview.
“Science and religious faith are concerned with two distinct parts of human experience. There is no context in which the two belong together.”
The Independence model described above has a flip side: if science and faith can’t be independent, where do they intersect? The areas where science and faith overlap reveal the weaknesses of any aim to keep science and faith separate.
Uniformity in the operation of nature
Even before the emergence of modern science, natural philosophers observed order and regularity in the way the universe worked, and they formulated governing principles, or “natural laws,” to account for this order. Scientists of various persuasions agree that these governing principles are a reality, even while disagreeing philosophically about their source and purpose.
Pursuit of truth
From the perspective of naturalistic science, the observable universe is all there is, so it—our world especially—is worth preserving and protecting. From the perspective of the theist, nature is the creation of a higher being, who has given humans the responsibility for its care.
From the perspective of a Christian in particular, humans were created in the image of God specifically to work alongside Him in cultivating and enjoying what He created. Scientific discovery can help people—including people of faith—understand how best to serve as stewards of nature. Theists and non-theists should not hesitate to collaborate in caring for nature.
Stewardship of nature
From the perspective of naturalistic science, the observable universe is all there is, so it—our world especially—is worth preserving and protecting. From the perspective of the theist, nature is the creation of a higher being, who has given humans the responsibility for its care. From the perspective of a Christian in particular, humans were created in the image of God specifically to work alongside Him in cultivating and enjoying what He created.
Scientific discovery can help people—including people of faith—understand how best to serve as stewards of nature. Theists and non-theists should not hesitate to collaborate in caring for nature.
Empirical science has no viable explanation for consciousness—let alone conscience—in human beings. Yet conscience—the faculty that helps a human distinguish right from wrong—is generally acknowledged to be a real thing that occurs in the mind. In a theistic worldview, conscience is a God-given faculty that roots a person’s moral and ethical behavior in an objective standard. This clarity in moral and ethical principles is an important influence in establishing boundaries on scientific research and development.
Betterment of the human condition
Both science and faith aim to support the health and well-being of all humans. Experimental scientific research can help people of faith better understand the operation of nature, including the human body and mind. Religion can offer spiritual insights to fields of science such as sociology and anthropology, psychology and mental health, and criminal justice and rehabilitation.
“The science-religion debate is in reality a squabble between fact and fancy. Science concerns itself with facts; religion, in particular Christianity, is based on old, probably mythical, stories about bygone cultures.”
Not all the “facts” claimed by scientists can be verified. Many are extrapolations of available data and are based on the assumption that nature has always and consistently obeyed the same natural laws. Other ideas scientists call “facts” are often suppositions that they expect to be verified at a later time.
Additionally, observable data is a single component of a complex process, throughout which scientists interpret data, synthesize their interpretations, apply the synthesis, and test the application. Interpretations by naturalist scientists are just one set of interpretations; theistic evolution scientists and intelligent design scientists, for example, have observed the same data available to naturalist scientists but interpreted, synthesized and applied the data differently. For that matter, any interpretation of data can simply be fallacious—which can lead to faulty synthesis and application.
It’s important to take in anything referred to as ‘scientific data’ with an awareness of this process.
“A book of old stories”
The Bible is undeniably an old book, and it is admittedly a challenge to imagine how the separate writings of at least 40 different persons over more than 1,500 years can be considered a unified “whole.” However, to dismiss the Bible as simply a book of old Jewish tales is also to cast doubt on the criteria by which the authority of any ancient document is determined.
The number of partial or complete biblical manuscripts in existence makes the Bible by far the most trustworthy historical document of the ancient world. Sources outside the Bible support many of its historical claims; they also show that the early church believed the Bible contained a single, unified message. Further, an increasing amount of information found in the Bible is being confirmed by archaeological discoveries.
Could there be more fact than fancy in this old book?
“Most scientists are atheists and have no use for religion.”
Between 2005 and 2008, sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund surveyed 1,700 natural and social scientists at top U.S. universities and found that just more than 50 percent of her sample considered themselves atheists or agnostics—only a narrow majority. Forty percent identified as either Jewish or Christian (which included Catholics, Evangelicals, and mainline Protestants).
In 2014, Ecklund surveyed scientists who work in practical disciplines such as health, life, and technology sciences. The results were very different from her earlier survey: 24.4 percent claimed to be atheists or agnostics, while 65 percent identified as Jewish or Christian.
Together Ecklund’s studies offer persuasive evidence that not only are most scientists in the United States not atheists hostile to religion; in fact, men and women in science professions appear to be strongly represented among people of faith. It is not a requirement for a scientist also to be an atheist.
Where do we go from here?
We don’t have to fall prey to myths and sensationalized media images that suggest science and religious faith are at odds and cannot be reconciled. Many scientists—both naturalists and theists—believe that science and religion are compatible and desire a context in which Ian Barbour’s Dialogue model is the standard.
Even in such a context, disagreement—even conflict—will no doubt continue to arise between competing worldviews and theories. But agreeing to respect each other’s opposing views and to look for opportunities to share ideas and work together—perhaps this is a worthy aim and an opportunity to “reboot” our society’s thinking about science and faith?