Science and Faith #2: A Story of Growing Reconciliation

Microscope and bible on see-saw
By on March 31, 2022

In Western societies, as I suggested last time, science and faith began with a warm and close relationship. But then there were misunderstandings, and the two began to fight and drift apart. Let’s take just one of those misunderstandings.

“Science works with facts, while religion is based on faith.” You’ve heard the kind of thing. The assumption is that facts are facts are facts—hard, indisputable, and unchanging. Faith, on the other hand, as H. L. Mencken put it, is “an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.”

Either you deal with facts, using your reason, or you switch your reason off and you believe in religion. In fact, the distinction is not as black and white as that, because both science and Christianity work with facts and faith.

On the one hand, scientists have faith—faith that there really is a world out there and it’s not an illusion; faith that their minds are competent to figure the world out; faith that certain causes cause certain effects; faith that an experiment carried out today will give the same results a hundred years from now. All those things are essential to science, but they’re not facts. They’re like items in a religious creed, ideas that we have to trust in if we’re to make any progress.

In the past fifty years there has been a growing humility among scientists. There has been a realization not only that scientists have faith, but that science is a very human activity. It doesn’t only involve reason, but also imagination, intuition, and even chance. The idea of “the inexorable march of scientific progress” is largely a myth.

If scientists have become aware that faith is part of their outlook on life, so Christians have wanted to say, “Look, we deal with facts too.” Sure, there are some who have accepted science’s criticisms, and just resign themselves to having their faith and their reason in watertight compartments. But others have pushed back, and said “No; that’s replacing faith with superstition.”

Here’s one definition of faith: faith is a way of understanding the world. In this sense, Marxists have faith, atheists have faith, and Christians have faith. In fact, everyone has faith. And Christians believe what they do, not because they close their eyes to facts, but precisely because they open their eyes to look at the facts of the world, and ask, “How can we understand this world? What explanation makes the best sense? How do we make sense of the facts of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection?  Or the facts of how people change when they begin to follow Jesus?”

So can the friendship of science and faith be restored? There are certainly lots of Christians who are also scientists who see no conflict. In the States, there is a group called the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) which has a Canadian branch, including a chapter here in Hamilton. Here’s what their website (asa3.org) says about their outlook:

“We … believe that God is both the creator of our vast universe and is the source of our ability to pursue knowledge—also, that honest and open studies of both scripture and nature are mutually beneficial in developing a full understanding of human identity and our environment.”

This being so, it shouldn’t surprise us to know that there are outstanding scholars who have doctorates in both science and theology. I think of Alister McGrath of Oxford, for example, or Sir John Polkinghorne (a leader in the discovery of the quark) of Cambridge. Then there’s Francis Collins, formerly head of the Human Genome Project, who became a Christian as a student through reading C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. (Check out his book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.)

So how do they manage to be both scientists and Christians? One answer is this: science and faith look at life from different angles, and each has an importantplace. This is true among the sciences themselves; each has a different way of looking at life. The sociologist doesn’t have to consult the chemist to do her job; the chemist doesn’t have to read a sociology textbook in order to understand brain chemistry. But no sociologist is going to say chemistry is a waste of time; no chemist is going to say sociology is just superstition. Each one has its own way of understanding, and they are complementary—not contradictory.

You can see where this is going. Just as the chemist answers different questions from the sociologist, so the Christian answers questions no one else is qualified to handle—questions like: What is the value of a human being? What is the purpose of human existence? Is there a God and how can I know God? Is there a way to know right and wrong? Is there life after death? There is no science that can answer those questions. A wise scientist won’t try, just as a wise theologian won’t speak dogmatically about scientific questions.

But theology goes further and offers answers to some of the basic question about science itself:

As Christians, ASAers want to know not just how the universe operates and came into being, but why it exists in the first place. Why are we here, and why seemingly alone among all creatures do humans possess the qualities required for scientific research—like curiosity, creativity, and a sense of purpose? When and how did we become this way, and what does that say about our relationship with God?

This is why theology was traditionally called “the Queen of the Sciences” (not meaning science in our sense but all knowledge): because it gives answers to the biggest questions of all.

On this basis, a fruitful friendship is perfectly possible. In fact, it’s already begun.

  • John Bowen is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism at Wycliffe College in Toronto, where he was also the Director of the Institute of Evangelism. Before that, he worked a campus evangelist for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. For over thirty years, John has been a popular speaker, teacher, and preacher, on university campuses, in churches and in classrooms, and at conferences, across Canada and the USA. His most recent book is The Unfolding Gospel: How the Good News Makes Sense of Discipleship, Church, Mission, and Everything Else (Fortress 2021).

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