In the midst of a global pandemic, some Christian approaches to science have received attention for their mistrust of COVID-19 vaccines or opposition to mask wearing. The struggle isn’t new. Over the years, national surveys have tracked a more pronounced mistrust of science among Christians on human-caused global warming, evolution, and other issues, often leading to public attention on conflict areas. Yet many Christians have not only found a harmony of faith and science but also followed a calling that lives in that tension.
Seeking to address the need for more cooperation and collaboration between scientific and faith communities, Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund wants to highlight the commonalities, instead of the conflicts, as a way forward.
Ecklund has spent more than a decade reporting on what scientists believe about religion and what religious people—especially Christians—believe about science. Despite the fact that nearly 50 percent of scientists consider themselves religious, much distrust remains between Christians and scientists, with each side often viewing the other as a threat.
In her most recent book, Why Science and Faith Need Each Other: Eight Shared Values That Move Us Beyond Fear, Ecklund proposes that Christians and scientists can find common ground around eight virtues that play a vital role in both faith and the practice of science: curiosity, doubt, humility, creativity, healing, awe, shalom, and gratitude.
Christopher Reese spoke with Ecklund about the book and some of the challenging issues surrounding the relationship between Christianity and science.
Why is it important for Christianity and science to find common ground?
Research shows that the views people hold about the relationship between religion and science have important implications. As we found in my book, they can influence whom people vote for and, by extension, public financial support for scientific research. Views on the relationship between religion and science can also influence whether an individual goes to church and whether young people stay in church. Research finds that many youth are leaving the church because they perceive irreconcilable conflict between Christianity and science.
Why does mistrust continue to persist between Christians and scientists?
There are lots of reasons that fears and mistrust continue. In the churches I have visited, I have met Christians who keep their children out of certain science classes, afraid that scientific education will lead them to doubt and ultimately reject their faith. There are Christian parents who worry about what scientists will say about faith when helping their children choose colleges and universities.
Christians from minority communities, in particular black and Hispanic Christians, worry about being a part of science and technology fields where not only their race or ethnicity is underrepresented but also their faith. Christian women and girls who want to pursue scientific careers wonder if they will be marginalized in their Christian communities for their scientific aspirations and marginalized in the scientific community for both their gender and faith.
Some Christians worry about certain medical technologies and research, whether they are ethical and whether they take into account the uniqueness of the human being and what it means to be made in the image of God. I have met many Christians who are afraid of how science will impact their faith and how scientists will influence religion and its place in society.
Should churches encourage the pursuit of science? If so, what are some ways they can do this?
Absolutely! Churches often—if they address science at all—tend to address the hot-button issues like evolution, climate change, and human reproductive genetic technologies, to name a few. But to encourage the pursuit of science, youth—and everyone in congregations really—need to hear scientists who are Christians (and even those who are not) talking about their scientific work and the joy they find in doing science, the beauty in science. Churches could spend more time talking about what the scientific and faith communities have in common.
When I started writing this book, I searched my house for a notebook from a class I took more than 20 years ago as an undergraduate at Cornell University. In that class, taught by Norman Kretzmann on the philosopher Thomas Aquinas, I began to think deeply about the Christian virtues and values, which Aquinas saw as practices or habits that tend toward the good.
In studying, interviewing, and working with both Christians and scientists, it struck me that they seemed to share many of the same virtues. I found the core virtues that guide the practice and habits of science and religion are more similar than we thought, yet there are also some key differences. I have a new approach to discussing the relationship between science and faith. I see science and faith not just as sets of ideas but as groups of people, and I am convinced that scientists and Christians share common virtues that if brought to light will lead to common ground. I am also convinced that by recognizing the common virtues between our faith and science, and where our values differ, we Christians can begin to develop a more effective and meaningful relationship with science and scientists.
You mentioned some key differences between the practice and habits of science and religion. Can you elaborate on those?
Obviously scientists—whether or not they are people of faith—are asking questions about the natural and biological world, things that we can test and see. Most scientists say their work provides less insight into things outside the natural world.
What would your advice be to young Christians who believe they have to choose between science and their Christian faith?
In short, they don’t have to choose. There are wonderful examples of scientists who are Christians and find ways of not only integrating faith and science identities but actually find these identities to be generative of one another. What we need is even more numerous examples, Christians from different backgrounds, ethnic groups, genders, to help us see that a variety of Christians can be scientists.
Of the eight virtues that you describe that Christianity shares in common with science, which do you find the most compelling?
Shalom. In my interviews with Christian scientists, I have found that many of them draw on the concepts of shalom and stewardship. Shalom is a Hebrew word that comes from a root that means “completeness” and “perfection,” and it is the peace, harmony, well-being, and prosperity that result from the flourishing of all creation. Shalom can mean to get involved in the messiness of the world, to try to mix it up with structures that are not just, to make them more just.
Stewardship, or caring for the world, in the form of environmental protection, is often thought of as a scientific virtue, but it is a deeply Christian virtue as well, a practice that brings us closer to shalom. Christian stewardship encompasses the idea of unique humanness, that we were created by God and thus have a responsibility to care for and look after the rest of God’s creation.
And some of the Christian scientists I interviewed explicitly discussed increasing representation and equality in science as one of their goals and one of the ways they enter into shalom through their work as scientists. Some of these scientists specifically connect their faith to their efforts to increase opportunities for those who are underrepresented in science.
Studying and increasing diversity in science is an area about which I am particularly passionate as a sociologist who is a Christian. Some of those I have interviewed for my studies join me in this. One biologist, for example, spoke about being on the committee within her guild that works to promote and represent diversity in her scientific field and how fighting for diversity in science is very much a piece of one’s faith, not only for her but for some of the others on the committee.
If a nonbelieving scientist expresses to her Christian friend her awe at the complexity of the universe and the Christian expresses his awe at God’s creative power, can that kind of interaction lead to common ground?
I do think it can at times, if done so thoughtfully. Many scientists (both those who have faith and those who do not) talk about how seeing the beauty of the natural world through their work fills them with a sense of wonder and awe, which they hold in high value. Dissecting, examining, and understanding the natural world—even its smallest, most intricate parts—only increases their feelings of astonishment, amazement, and appreciation.
Are there organizations or institutions today where you see Christians and scientists engaging in fruitful dialogue?
There are some fantastic organizations out there. BioLogos, founded by Francis Collins, is one of the most prominent programs working to help Christians “see the harmony between science and biblical faith.” And Science for the Church I think is also very strong. There are also organizations that are not specifically aimed at Christians but where Christians can find helpful tools, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion. And I think of the programs run through Science for Seminaries, like the one at Howard University. There is a lot to be encouraged about in the science and faith space right now.
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