If you were to listen to the views espoused by some of today's foremost "new atheists," you'd quickly draw a conclusion: We humans don't need religion, faith, or "God" any more. Science has answered (or is answering or someday will answer) our questions. Faith—akin to belief in a made-up fairy tale—has no place in a life of honest, logical scientific inquiry.
And if you were to listen to the views perpetuated by some Christians, you'd quickly draw another conclusion: we Christians ought not trust science or its conclusions or, for that matter, most scientists. The Bible, rather than science, answers our questions. Wherever they appear to be in conflict, faith trumps science every time. Science—which is just secular humanism in disguise, after all—has no place in a life of true, devoted Christian faith.
But is this really the case? Are faith and science mutually exclusive—archenemies, locked in a centuries-long battle for truth? Ought people of faith stay away from the sciences and view scientific findings with suspicion (at best) or utter disbelief (at worst)?
Science and God's Second Book
While there certainly are arenas in which the interaction between faith and science may be difficult to parse out, those experiences of tension certainly don't mean science must be rejected as a matter of faith. "We live in a culture in which science and faith are often presented to us as being in conflict. As Christians, though, if we believe that the God of the Bible is the creator of all we see, and if nature is—as the apostle Paul suggests—just as much God's book as the written Word, then science and faith cannot be in conflict," asserts Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University.
Hayhoe continues, "When they appear to be [in conflict], I believe it is because we do not yet have enough information or a full picture. Maybe our theology is too narrow or maybe our science is incomplete. Maybe we'll never know which (or both) are true. But I do know that a little humility and some acknowledgement that neither side has all the answers will go a long way toward reconciling God's two books and God's people."
Indeed, as Hayhoe points out, the apostle Paul clarified a critical principle that undergirds a proper Christian posture toward science. He wrote, "For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature" (Romans 1:20). Here Paul echoes a truth reiterated throughout Scripture, especially in the Psalms: "The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known" (Psalm 19:1–2).
God's world—from a proton to a star nebula, from a scarab beetle to a great heron, from principles of thermodynamics to mathematical constants (like pi and e) lacing the galaxy—points us toward God's existence and reflects God's power and character. God's "second book" (as theologians have long called the natural world) serves as general revelation pointing us toward truth and inviting us into relationship with the Creator.
If we believe that "The earth is the Lord's and everything in it" (Psalm 24:1) and if science is, essentially, the discipline of discovering, exploring, and learning more about this world and how it works, then isn't it imperative that we engage in and embrace science? "Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them," proclaims Psalm 111:2 (ESV). With the same enthusiasm we bring to Bible study, we can encounter and study the world through science with vigor, confidence, openness, intellectual integrity, and joyful expectation.
Science and Worship
"Science often gives us a visceral sense of God's presence," says Dr. Kathryn Applegate, a cell biologist and program director at The BioLogos Foundation. "Gazing into deep space and time through a powerful telescope, we catch a glimpse of what it means for God to be infinite and eternal. Studying the inner workings of living cells with a microscope, we get a sense of what it means for God to give life in abundance. Science doesn't prove God, but for the believing scientist, science gives ample fodder for praise."
Dr. Leslie Wickman, director of the Center for Research in Science at Azusa Pacific University and part-time rocket scientist, concurs: "The more I learn from science, the more I stand in awe of the Creator. The intricacies and synergisms of creation inspire me to worship the one who put it all together."
Though I'm not a scientist, the same rings true for me. Learning more about the natural world through science and mathematics both engages my intellect and speaks to my soul. Looking at constellations with our kids, learning more about my local watershed, hearing about the latest discoveries in particle physics on the radio, bird-watching in a nearby nature preserve, reading about Euler’s identity or the Fibonacci sequence, learning about butterfly migration on PBS—it all utterly humbles me. It puts me in my proper place: a posture of awe and worship at the grandeur, the otherness, the incomprehensibility, the beauty, and the love of almighty God. In this sense, rather than serving as a roadblock to faith, science serves as an avenue of encountering God in profoundly faithful ways.
Science and Stewardship
Loving God and learning more about God through study of the world can not only draw us into worship, but it can also foster a proper sense of gratitude and a deepened understanding of the biblical call to stewardship—to care for God’s created world and love for the people and creatures that live within it. Dr. Dorothy Boorse, a biologist specializing in wetland ecology and a professor at Gordon College, explains, “My faith informs where I spend my scientific energy. I am passionate about caring for the world around us because it is created by and belongs to God, and because harm to it hurts our neighbors whom we are called to love.”
Similarly, Hayhoe embraces the intersection between science and faith-based choices. “Science tells us the facts,” she explains. “In the case of climate change, science can tell us that it’s happening, and science can tell us what the outcome of our choices will be, depending on whether we continue to depend on fossil fuels as our main source of energy or if we decide to wean ourselves off these old, dirty ways of getting energy and reduce our carbon emissions. But science can’t tell us what we should do when faced with these difficult decisions.
“This is where my faith comes in,” she continues. “We are told to love others as Christ loved us: How can I love my global neighbor if I don’t care how my actions are affecting them?”
Science and the Gospel
Dr. Janel Curry, provost of Gordon College and co-chair of the board of the Evangelical Environmental Network, sees a crucial connection between not just science and stewardship but also between that stewardship and the gospel. "This young generation faces greater environmental challenges than any previous. To not be totally truthful, honest—to be in denial—loses this generation from the gospel," Curry observes. "They want a faith that engages with these challenges rather than denies them. To do otherwise is to be irrelevant to this generation. Our faith has to give us understanding and hope for each generation's challenges, otherwise it is not a living faith."
When Christians are perceived to have a hostile posture toward science, rejecting scientific consensus or viewing scientific concerns as simply unimportant in comparison with "spiritual" things, we must ask ourselves how that perception negatively impacts the way others view the gospel. Are we inviting others into a faith that seems to require them to check their brain at the door? Does discipleship really call us to ignore or disingenuously explain away empirical evidence? Is that really what Jesus asks us to do?
"If the church took a welcoming view of science—rather than viewing it with suspicion—more scientists would take another look at Christianity," Applegate claims. "The negative posture toward science, so common in evangelical churches today, is a big stumbling block for people who consider themselves 'rational' or 'science-minded.'" This stumbling block doesn't only hinder scientists; anti-science leanings can repel many who value the natural world and, in contrast, see a church that just doesn't seem to care. Boorse observes, "Young people are leaving the church because they can see that the world needs our care, that we are part of it, that science can help us understand the natural world. Yet they can see many Christians who dismiss science out of hand and say things that make no sense."
Ultimately, Wickman asserts, "If the church at large had a more favorable view of science, it would help the rest of the world see that you don't need to turn off your brain to be a Christian." Rather than holding an antagonistic, defensive, or dismissive attitude toward science, when Christians approach science from a confident posture of enthusiasm and intellectual rigor, that positive stance proclaims our affirmation that "Everything was created through [Christ] and for him. He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together" (Colossians 1:16–17).
Heart, Soul, and Mind
So what's a Christian to do when one hears faith versus science rhetoric or when a scientific finding appears to challenge or be in tension with an idea one holds? "God is sovereign," Curry emphasizes. "As we see in the book of Job, we have but a small perspective on the nature of reality and of God, who is so much larger than anything we can imagine! This should give us confidence that we need not have a spirit of fear in facing things we don't fully understand." Rather than feeling threatened or responding with a defensive, suspicious, close-minded, or even antagonistic posture toward science, Applegate reminds us that "Jesus commanded us to love the Lord God with our whole heart and soul and mind. . . . God is big! He isn't threatened by science, so we shouldn't be either."