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When Science Comes to Church

Most of us have heard the numbers by now. Thirty percent of the generation born in the '80s and '90s check the box labeled "none" when asked about their religious affiliation. A top reason they disengage from faith is their perception that faith and science inevitably conflict.

Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has conducted the most substantial study of emerging adults and published the results for 18–23 year olds in his book Souls in Transition. His findings offer a stark challenge to the church:

  • Is it true that "the teachings of science and religion often ultimately conflict"? More than two thirds of Smith's respondents agreed.
  • Would they say, "My views on religion have been strengthened by discoveries of science"? Well more than half (57 percent) disagreed.

I'm in the minority on both counts. Because I believe Jesus is Lord of all, I'm committed to grasping and celebrating the beautiful intricacy of the created order (which, according to Psalm 19, declares God's glory). So, if science can truly uncover truth about the world, we should embrace those discoveries. Our faith might be challenged, but more often, I've discovered, it is enhanced. Indeed, one reason I came to love studying science, after being a lifelong student of literature and theology, is the amazing way scientific discoveries strengthen my faith.

But while I used to suspect that my fascination with science was something best kept out of the pulpit, I've realized that I actually have a great deal of company—especially among those young adults who have found the church door marked "Exit."

In You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church, David Kinnaman details, in six chapters, the major reasons that emerging adults (18–29 years old) are losing interest in our congregations. One chapter is simply titled, "Antiscience." The next generation sees the church as standing against the findings of science. Consider one of the most startling juxtapositions in Kinnaman's book: 52 percent of youth-group teens aspire to science-related careers like biology, chemistry, engineering, and technology, along with the medical and health-related professions. And yet how many pastors or youth workers had addressed issues of faith and science in the past year? One percent.

In the Game

The good news, I've found, is that we don't have to have all the answers to our kids' (or our own) questions about the complex intersection of science and faith. We just have to be in the game. If we're willing to address the topic, people will listen eagerly and engage with us. If we're not even attempting to address it, we leave emerging adults to assume that science and faith are not only part of separate domains, but can't ever get along.

Since 2011, 35 congregations in the United States, one in Canada, and one in France have taken up this challenge as part of a program called Scientists in Congregations. My colleague David Wood and I awarded grants to churches willing to take the dialogue between science and faith further, drawing on their own pastors and the scientists already in their congregations. So far the project has produced some amazing results, transforming stories, and a list of key topics every congregation should—and can—address:

1) How to begin the discussion of science and theology by being clearer about what science (and theology) does and doesn't claim for itself.

2) The history of the science–faith debate, including its many odd detours and dead ends.

3) The relationship between evolution and creation.

4) The insights of the emerging field of neuroscience.

5) How to connect contemporary scientific cosmology—the study of the universe's structure and origins—with the biblical view of the world.

Of the five, number two—the history of science and theology—may contain the most surprises. So often our history of the alleged "warfare" between science and religion is based on outright myths: doesn't everyone know that the church thought the world was flat and Columbus sought to disprove that error? Not so fast. The notion that the church thought the world was flat actually comes from an 1828 novel by Washington Irving, The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. It made its way into more scholarly literature through Cornell president Andrew Dickson White's polemic, A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology in Christendom. One of our grantees, Berkeley Covenant Church, presents the fascinating elements of the story (and more) in an excellent, punchy 3-minute video, "The World Was Never Flat." As Lawrence Principe, historian of science at Johns Hopkins, concludes, "No one thought that Columbus would 'sail off the edge of the earth.' ... The notion that people before Columbus thought the Earth was flat is a 19th-century invention."

While the history of science and religion has taken its share of wrong turns, I'm discovering that neuroscience's implications for religion present a promising frontier. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans let us map the brain in action, in extraordinary detail. What do we discover from fMRI studies about the mind—and the spirit—and their relationship to the brain? Is there something we can call a soul, or is human identity and will just an illusion created by a fundamentally random process?

When we convened over one hundred pastors and church workers at a conference in May 2013, Oxford trained neuroscientist Justin Barrett (now a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary) introduced us to some of the key insights of contemporary neuroscience that can be summarized as the "cognitive structure for belief."

In his work developing the field of cognitive science of religion, Barrett has amassed strong evidence that human beings are wired to see purposes in events. "People are prone to see the world as purposeful and intentionally ordered," Barrett observed, which naturally leads to belief in a Creator. For example, preschoolers "are inclined to see the world as purposefully designed and tend to see an intelligent, intentional agent behind this natural design."

Of course, some skeptics think this tendency explains away belief in God—we cannot help but believe. But it's just as reasonable, if not more so, to consider our innate tendency to search for meaning and purpose as, well, a meaningful and purposeful part of God's creation. We are created with an openness to belief. Theologically inclined readers will note, as Barrett does, the remarkable similarities with John Calvin's sensus divinitatis, "sense of the divine." Put more simply, we are wired for God.

Stepping into the Conversation

Our website currently has over one hundred resources for bringing science and theology to your congregation. That should be enough to help any pastor or leader begin to address these topics. Even better, ask a scientist in your congregation to teach a class with your pastor. Or use some of the other amazing resources out there like the Faraday Institute's DVD series Test of Faith, NIH director Francis Collins's marvelous book The Language of God, or the church-friendly book my own denomination asked me to produce, Creation and Last Things: At the Intersection of Theology and Science.

There is intense interest in science and faith among believers, unbelievers, and ex-believers—if we make the subject interesting. I used to wonder whether the members of my church really wanted to hear about how Big Bang cosmology relates to Genesis 1, or what the "image of God" could mean in light of contemporary brain science. Would they be as fascinated as I was?

My doubts were laid to rest when our church sponsored a weekend conference on science and theology. Among the enthusiastic attendees was a member of our church and graduate student at the University of California at Davis—which is about 100 miles from our church in Chico—who drove to the conference in order to hear how faith and science relate. She came bounding up at the end of one talk, saying: "This is great stuff, and these are issues I'm wrestling with. Why don't you bring more of that material into the pulpit?" As I walked off, I wondered to myself, "Why don't I? Why have I resisted bringing these insights into my ministry as a pastor?"

I realized that the two responses I once would have given no longer applied. I wasn't always sure I had the right answers, and I was afraid most people wouldn't be interested in hearing them. Now I know that the interest is there—inside and outside the church. And we don't have to have perfectly produced solutions—we just have to start the conversation. A whole lot of "nones" are waiting.

Greg Cootsona is wrapping up Scientists in Congregations, a $2 million grant project funded by the John Templeton Foundation. He has taught on science and faith since 1994, serves as associate pastor of adult discipleship in Chico, California, and regularly blogs on topics of faith and culture.

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When Science Comes to Church