Note: This is the first article in a series titled A Layperson's Journey to Reconcile Science and Personal Faith. The other installments include
If I could snap my fingers and immediately be either a great scientist or a great theologian, my choice is easily the scientist. As a child, the superhero characterized by intellect over relative physical strength or moral character always appealed to me. In my mind, Iron Man is greater than Captain America. Despite this preference, as a Christian I’ve always had a complicated relationship with science. On the one hand I find faith intrinsically compelling. It fulfills a deep, personal need which is (I think) universal. But I simultaneously hold many faith-based “scientists” intellectually at arms length, suspicious at the least because there is an almost ineffable difference in quality and competence between true scientists and those who prepend the “Christian” adjective to the title. On the science side, I not only have a deep appreciation for how science has helped humanity, but I also have an entranced wonder at the beauty of the universe. However, representatives of science can oftentimes emit a general feeling of at least dismissiveness towards faith, as if conversations around religion should not even be considered as possible truth because there are some foregone conclusions of which we should all be aware. This piece discusses these contrasting personal issues in more detail. First, a number of examples are given showing how science spokespersons can oftentimes make claims that either subtly or explicitly exclude considerations of faith. Second, I discuss how the Evangelical community has damaged the relationship with science and put Christians in a complicated and difficult position. All of this illustrates a disturbing separation between science and faith in the public conscience.
The Science Side
To begin, the science community can oftentimes draw very hard (and questionable) lines as to the prerequisite positions one must hold in order to be on the side of science. This is done by making statements that implicitly or explicitly exclude someone simply for believing in God. Scientist Colin Wright, in explaining how he has defended evolutionary psychology over the years, says, “on the far right you have people who think we were created by God and we have these internal souls and so they pushback on evolutionary psychology and the origins of humans in general” (Quillette, August 8, 2020). This is actually a rather interesting statement, because embedded into it are hints, though perhaps not outright claims, that Wright holds a view that belief in evolution requires one to not believe in God. This would further extend to science, generally, because if evolution is considered good science (and by most scientists, it is), then, according to Wright, the choice is between either God or science. It would be a mistake to judge him too quickly, however, as this may not have been what he implied. In a piece done by Wright in 2018 for Quillette, there is further indications of this view. He writes, “Evolutionary biology has always been controversial… This is largely because Darwin’s theory directly contradicted the supernatural accounts of human origins rooted in religious tradition and replaced them with fully natural ones" (Wright, 2018). To a casual reader, such statements are likely to be taken in one of two ways, and either reaction would be predicated on pre-existing positions on religion. To a Christian, such a statement is a clear, mutually exclusive claim from a scientist: If you believe in God as the origin of humanity, then you are not on the side of science.
Another troubling area are claims from scientists that science can answer all the big questions. Cosmologist and physicist Sean Carroll advocates for a worldview called poetic naturalism to help answer these big questions. Built on top of naturalism (which is discussed below), the poetic part, says Carroll, becomes useful “when we start talking about the world" (p. 20). There are three basic components. First, that humans describe the world in many ways; second, that how we describe the world should be consistent; three, we select the way we want to talk about the world based on our motivations “in the moment.” Carroll later provides a more poetic description of this viewpoint:
"Poetic naturalism is a philosophy of freedom and responsibility. The raw materials of life are given to us by the natural world, and we must work to understand them and accept the consequences. The move from description to prescription, from saying what happens to passing judgment on what should happen, is a creative one, a fundamentally human act. The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. The world exists; beauty and goodness are things that we bring to it" (p. 21, my emphasis.
What does all this mean? Essentially Carroll is advocating for a worldview that says (1) the physical world is all that we have (naturalism) and (2) meaning is simply what we make of it. This is how we answer the big questions around meaning and purpose. The big questions, and the answers to those questions, are simply useful mechanisms to describe the world and create meaning. This is obviously a major issue for Christians who hold that big questions originate external to the natural world. Answers to the big questions are not found in us but in God. This is especially problematic coming from a scientist who holds that science “leads us to not believe in God", further complicating the faith/science relationship (Rogan, September 2019).
Because naturalism creates such a rift between the faith community and science, it’s helpful to understand it better. Carroll describes naturalism as having the following characteristics: “(1) There is only one world, the natural world. (2) The world evolves according to unbroken patterns, the laws of nature. (3) The only reliable way of learning about the world is by observing it” (Carol, p. 20). This position obviously excludes orthodox Christianity, as it holds there is only one world, while Christianity would say there are the natural and spiritual worlds. Although some might object to this statement, naturalism is oftentimes held as an assumption.1 These assumptions (that there is only the natural world, etc.) slip into normal scientific dialog unannounced. It’s easy to miss such assumptions when you’re casually listening to a podcast or reading an article in a popular science magazine. It seems, per the viewpoint of the scientist who also holds naturalism as a worldview, that science and naturalism are in fact the same thing, when this is not (automatically, at least) the case. This can create an implicit sense of hostility between faith and science, forcing observers to pick a side. Even though this feeling of forced choice is subtle, it can be powerful. Christians then feel alienated from science and can become defensive, withdrawing from the conversation or lobbing attacks back.
Finally, there is a strong tendency by many to group those who believe in God (and by extension, believe that God is the source of the natural world) into a single collection, indiscriminate of any nuance or differences in their viewpoints. Science historian Ronald Numbers, who is an expert on the creationist movement, argues in his book The Creationists that his research has shown the creationist movement is full of diverse viewpoints and people. He says, “The common assumption seems to be that one creationist is pretty much like another… [but] nothing could be further from the truth" (p. 6). Although there is not space to discuss it here, a key point that all scientists should consider, regardless of their religious position, is that the theory of evolution as an explanation for the development of life hardly excludes belief in a benevolent God actively involved in the universe, let alone belief in the existence of God. Yet many in the scientific fields hold an attitude that if you believe in God you also must believe in (1) a young earth and (2) an extremely literal interpretation of Genesis 1. But this would be an error. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the term “creationism” began to be associated with a very specific belief system among Christians: those who held the view of a young earth and also were anti-evolution. Prior to that, creationist would most likely have been used to refer simply to someone who believed in a creator God, but held, at the very least, an old earth view if not that God employed evolutionary processes (Numbers, p. 8). It’s important to note that I am not debating the specifics of any of these beliefs here, but am merely showing that Christians have a diverse set of viewpoints on the creation account and it further widens the science and faith gap by grouping all Christians together.
The Christian Side
At this point, I want to shift focus to issues on the faith side of the equation, where Christians, in my opinion, have contributed to the divide. To begin, the modern Christian community is very guilty of embracing bad science, sometimes blindly. For many Christians, this plays out as adopting sloppy scientific analysis as a means to explain their interpretation of scripture. An example of this is seen when journalist Phil Plait, writing for Slate, reviewed several Twitter posts from prominent young-earth creationist Ken Ham. In these tweets Ham indicated several scientific “facts” that he said disproved evolution and Plait, stepping through each, attempts to show how Ham has fundamental flaws in his scientific knowledge and reasoning. As I am not an expert in any of the subfields discussed, I hesitate to comment too much. However, one tweet that Plait discusses is a particularly egregious example from Ham. Ham makes the statement, “The recession of the moon is evidence confirming the moon cannot be 4+ billion years old--it would have touched the earth way before then" (2016). Ham is arguing that the recession rate of the moon, if run backwards, shows that scientific dating methods are wrong. By extension, according to Ham’s reasoning, the world would then be much younger than where current estimates place it and, by further extension, evolution is false. But Plait points out the obvious: yes, taking the rate of the moon’s recession from the earth “and simply running it backward” means the moon would have been touching the earth 1 billion years ago. This is a direct contradiction to what current science says about the age of the earth. The problem, says Plait is that there are multiple factors affecting the moon’s recession speed from the earth, and various studies have confirmed that, when those factors are considered, the recession rate of the moon fits with other predictions of the age of the moon (4.5 billion years) (2016). The worst part of this statement by Ham, in my opinion (and Plait points this out too), is that Ham is using a very simplistic way of thinking about these problems. He simply takes the recession rate of the moon from earth and performs a simple calculation, sees that it doesn’t line up with estimates on the moon’s age, and then uses this as evidence for his other claims. This type of thinking is overly simplistic and not up to par with the rigors of those who study complex systems. It’s the same erroneous thinking where causality is determined by drawing simple cause and effect relationships, simultaneously missing the much bigger picture of an entire system’s interplaying relationships.2 As a person working in a technical field, and as a Christian, I find this both cringeworthy and embarrassing.
The faith community makes the gap worse by taking moral positions and then using science as proof of the validity of those moral positions. One cannot shake the feeling that much of what is being pushed by Christians as science is pseudoscience at best and that the motivation behind it is not really rigorous scientific truth, but something else. Eric Sundrup, writing for America Magazine, would concur. He argues that the purpose of Ham’s Creation Museum is not really about science at all, but is a strategy around achieving certain cultural moral changes. He says:
“Mr. Ham’s motivations for founding the museum and its parent organization clearly grew out of the culture wars. Answers in Genesis argues for the inerrancy of the Bible and specifically for a literal interpretation of Genesis because they think this provides them a strong footing in public discussions. And that, I think, is exactly how this group of Christians got lost. They are trying to win moral and theological debates with what look like scientific arguments" (2018).
Having visited the Creation Museum myself, I can see Mr. Sundrup’s point. The museum tour starts around moral questions, with displays on topics like abortion and war, something Sundrup highlights in his piece. This is the premise for many, if not all, young earth creationists views: the question is not about science but around biblical viewpoints. As a Christian, I am sympathetic to this motivation. However, as a Christian, I also feel the need to reject the approach of the ends justifying the means. If God is true, then I have no reason to hide; but sometimes it seems that many Christians approach science fearfully, worried that Daniel Dennett is waiting in the shadows, all to suddenly leap out, catch them, and lock them away in a zoo for Baptists (Dennett, 1996). Perhaps it is this fearful position that causes them to dig in, worried if they concede certain points to science, this results in a slippery slope to hell.
Finally, counterintuitive as it is based on our modern situation, many Christian do not realize that the faith relationship with science has not always been so tense. In fact, when Origin of Species first came out, the general reaction to it was not rejection among religious people. Ronald Numbers writes in The Creationists, “Within a couple of decades of the publication… of Origin of Species (1859), the idea of organic evolution had captivated most British and American scientists and was beginning to draw favorable comment from religious leaders on both sides of the Atlantic" (p. 6). Further, historically, science and faith have oftentimes had a symbiotic relationship. Theologian Wayne Grudem points at that in many cases the discoveries of brilliant scientists informed their faith, while their faith motivated their discoveries: “The lives of Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Blaise Pascal, Robert Boyle, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, and many others are examples of this” (Systematic Theology, p. 273) It seems possible that the modern tension between science and faith is not a natural conflict; perhaps the tension is cultural and not fundamental to these two worlds.
There is certainly much antagonizing between science and faith in the public discourse. On one side are those who hold a naturalist viewpoint, positing that science can answer all of the big questions, while grouping most Christians into a bucket of “creationists” with little regard for nuance. On the other side are many Christians who are embracing bad science in a desperate attempt to stave off moral cultural changes they think are brought about by broad acceptance of evolutionary theories. Christians adopt a David and Goliath attitude, thinking they are punching above their weight, and thereby stooping to bad science as a means to win cultural victories. This pattern of tension and conflict, however, might not be due to fundamental differences between science and faith at all. Still, the current situation poses a challenge for Christians who wish to embrace science without having to let go of their faith.
- Carroll, Sean. The Big Picture. Dutton.
- Dennett, Daniel, C. (1996). Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Penguin Books Ltd. Retrieved from http://www.inf.fu-berlin.de/lehre/pmo/eng/Dennett-Darwin'sDangerousIdea.pdf.
- Grudem, Wayne (1994). Systematic Theology. Inter-Varsity Press and Zondervan.
- Numbers, Ronald L. (2006). The Creationists. Harvard University Press.
- Plait, Phil (May 12, 2016). Ken Ham Really Doesn’t Understand Science. Slate. Retrieved from https://slate.com/technology/2016/05/creationist-ken-ham-tweeted-a-series-of-very-bad-claims-meant-to-be-scientific.html
- Quillette (August 8, 2020). Podcast 103: Colin Wright on the State of Academic Science, Gender, and His Latest Career Move.Starting at minute 6:06. Retrieved from https://quillette.com/2020/08/08/podcast-103-evolutionary-biologist-and-new-quillette-managing-editor-colin-wright-on-the-state-of-academic-science-gender-and-his-latest-career-move/
- Rogan, Joe (September 16, 2019). Sean Carroll. The Joe Rogan Experience.Episode 1352. Approximately 1:20:00. Retrieved from https://podscribe.app/feeds/http-joeroganexpjoeroganlibsynprocom-rss/episodes/44833c66709840db8436fd5f4794d1dd#01:22:07.
- Sundrup, Eric (January 30, 2018). Creationism isn’t about science, it’s about theology (and it’s really bad theology). America Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2018/01/30/creationism-isnt-about-science-its-about-theology-and-its-really-bad
- Wright, Colin. (November 30, 2018). The New Evolution Deniers. Quillette. Retrieved from https://quillette.com/2018/11/30/the-new-evolution-deniers/
- I make some further discussion as to why naturalism is held as an assumption in Some of the Shortcomings of Scientism and Naturalism as Grand Theories of Everything
- A good example of the dangers of oversimplifying complex systems is seen by studying David Snowden’s Cynefin Framework.