Science and Faith
Updated: Jan 30
I delivered this talk as part of an Alpha series as part of our Sunday morning service. If you don't know what Alpha is, click here.
I studied Computer Science Engineering which has a decent amount of science and maths in it, but I want to clarify that I do not think of myself as a scientist, more of a logical thinker with a hobby of reading as much as I can.
There is a perception that science conflicts with faith or religion in general as this image shows. The accusation that religion is anti-science and anti-reason is becoming especially prevalent on the internet and memes like this image of a cute little girl are shared around.
My aim here is to show you that in either going to church or engaging with religion, you don’t need to leave your brain at the door. In fact, my hope is that through this post you see that it is with Christianity, that reason and science itself are all greatly enhanced and it becomes Science and Faith not Science vs. Faith.
I’ll be going into what is meant by faith and science, discussing popular oppositions to Christianity from the scientific perspective and discussing the problems that reliance on science as an answer for everything brings up (you can hear the Q&A in the audio link above).
Over the last decade or so there has been an influx of atheistic books championing reason and science over faith. This influx was kicked off about 12 years ago with The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Many people claim their worldview was changed by these books which means the definitions of faith used within these books are now more common.
Richard Dawkins defines faith as,
"Faith is the blind trust in the absence of evidence"
while Dan Brown defines it,
acceptance of which we imagine to be true, that which we cannot prove.
Before we can move on we need to clarify what we mean by faith and what the Christian view of reason is and whether what Dawkins et al are arguing against is valid.
The Oxford Dictionary has two definitions:
1. Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
2. Strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.
On face value, the second definition particularly seems to line up exactly with what has been set against Christian faith. Despite this, the Christian would argue that faith’s definition is the first one. The evidence that we can trust Jesus comes from the historical evidence in the gospels and from contemporary historians, personal experiences and what theologians would call natural theology – the idea that God has left his fingerprints all over creation and reveals himself in the design and order and the very existence of the cosmos – something that we’ll delve into a little bit more shortly.
While defining terms, it is also best that we define science:
"The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment" - Oxford English Dictionary
With the idea that faith is trust without evidence and science is an ‘intellectual and practical activity’, it is no wonder that science and religion seem to clash over every point and that you cannot be both scientific and religious. There are many celebrity proponents of this idea, comedians and popular scientists who like to push the idea that critical and rational thought will lead to atheism as a default.
There is a problem with the assumption that science trumps faith in that to ‘do’ science, you need to rely on trust as well. You need to have faith that past experiments were accurate. For example – The statement that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius. Have you tested this hypothesis? What temperature did your water boil at? I highly doubt it boiled at 100 degrees! So, we all know the statement is not true in all cases and yet we agree with it and assume it to be true when making a cuppa.
It is near impossible to remove personal bias from conclusions and this is always evident when statistics are involved around a contentious issue. I have seen online that people will not even look at results from research if they see any researcher with a personal faith involved or if it is funded by a religious organisation. They claim that it must be biased but they don’t acknowledge that their own view is evidence that they are clearly not neutral!
There are other issues regarding the idea that science is the answer to everything, but I’ll discuss them shortly.
Science clashing with religion is also a relatively new idea as historically faith pushed science forward and many of the prominent philosophers and scientists strongly believed in a deity and /or believed in Jesus. Many also believed you could learn about God through studying nature and testing out theories – often called ‘natural theology’. Just a few examples:
Descartes and Galileo and there were many faith-filled Christians pushing the exploration of the universe before them.
Alistair McGrath, a biomedical physicist and the new Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford
Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health but more famous for being the head of the human genome project and in the states
Jennifer Wiseman, senior project scientist for the NASA Hubble Space Telescope Program can hold their faith alongside science.
Sy Garte, a Biochemist who grew up an atheist and his now a Christian BECAUSE of science.
And there are many more!
Unfortunately having celebrities or numbers of scientists on your side doesn’t necessarily mean your side is correct; my aim at this point is to show that rational thought isn’t neglected by those who have faith.
And so, with terms defined and a few misconceptions dealt with, let’s move on to some scientific issues that often come up against Christianity.
The first question we will look at is ‘how did we get here?’. The questions “why are we here?” and “how did the world begin?” are obviously important questions. We are purpose driven creatures and when we don’t have a purpose we struggle as can be seen throughout our society. Theology and faith talk about purpose, the ‘why’ questions, while science shows us the processes and how things work.
One thing that the Big Bang shows is that the universe had a beginning. There was a point where there was nothing, and then suddenly there was something. There are debates about how nothing created something, whether there are different types of nothingness in where some nothings can create something. Often though these theories, like the multi-verse theory are speculative and going into a realm where it is no longer ‘scientific’ in the originally defined term. We cannot observe or test these theories and regarding the multi-verse – we never will be able to observe them! I can point you to resources if you enjoy reading about quantum theory and the multi-verse but they are for another talk!
The issue then is how an explosive event create a system where if we were slightly closer to the sun we’d burn up and then if we were slightly further away we’d freeze. The location we are at in space is classed as the ‘Goldilocks zone’ because we are just right for life. So many factors come into play that if they were off by just a small amount then life would not be possible. Stephen Hawking stated that even the Big Bang itself would have failed if the rate of expansion had been one part of one hundred thousand million million slower.
A change of one part of one hundred thousand million million means that if the value were to change by just 0. – 17 zeros and then a 1 – the universe wouldn’t exist. This is just one example of 26 physical constants that are required to be ‘just so’ for our universe to exist with similar limitations to how much they can change without killing us all.
Richard Dawkins even stated that,
“We live on a planet where we are surrounded by perhaps ten million species, each one of which independently displays a powerful illusion of apparent design.”
At this stage, these arguments don’t necessarily point to a Christian God. The fact there is a beginning with the perfect scope for life while also appearing to have design points to a creator of some sort. It also backs up the claim in the bible that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth – bang, something out of nothing.
This naturally leads into a discussion about evolution, how old is the earth and whether Darwin disproved Christianity. Firstly, I want to point out the importance of Jesus here. Darwin’s theory has nothing to say on Jesus and his life, death and resurrection. Those are the foundations of the Christian faith, so you will find many Christians wrestling with evolution and the bible and those discussions will most likely continue.
There are several perspectives within Christianity, on the one hand you have a view that the bible says clearly how old the earth is and that it is between 6000-10000 years old with the appearance of age and generally there is major disagreement with anything surrounding evolution. This is called the Young Earth Creationist view.
On the other hand, you have the Old Earth Creation view which agrees with evolution, but God guided it, hence why what would otherwise be random is seen to be designed. There is also a third view which I have found helpful, both in my reading up on this issue but also in how we approach the bible.
The issue we have is that as we are modern, we view Genesis one from a modern viewpoint. We have science – a very modern theory, and we have modern philosophy. The bible is full of different types of literature and is written by various authors who all have a completely different mindset. We must delve into the Ancient Eastern mindset. This means that instead of looking at Genesis as the creating of material and processes from a scientific perspective, we can see it as an account of God setting up a world with specific functions all for life to exist. The Genesis account goes against the culture of things being gods (i.e the sun) and says one God created everything and gave them purpose.
Whatever the modern scientific consensus is, the first verse of Genesis is the most important -
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”.
The processes and laws He put in place behind it all are still being explored.
Limits of Science
An argument levelled at this kind of thinking is that it is a ‘god of the gaps’ mentality. That if we don’t know how something works then ‘God did it'.
The problem with this argument is this is not the perspective of many Christians and I believe it is not the perspective taught in the bible. As discussed previously, the perspective of the ancient worldview shows that the world was created for a purpose and that God engages with his creation.
We often think as science and religion as a pie, that as we progress scientifically, the parts of the pie that are ‘goddidit’ gaps get smaller and smaller.
To get our perspective right, we must change from a pie to a layer cake and this deals with our modern view that the natural and the supernatural are separate as well as the ancient perspective that they are one cake. On the bottom layer you have science. Science deals with the natural, that which can be seen and tested physically.
The top layer is the metaphysical and supernatural. Science by its own definition cannot test or explain matters of the upper layer – such as morality and ethics, philosophy, beauty. It can also not contest, either prove or disprove, claims of the supernatural but it can be argued that they point to an upper layer.
Let’s return to the image at the start of this, the little girl. Science cannot tell us if a child is full of wonder or full of potential. We can make educated guesses but they are very subjective ideas. These are elements for the upper layer, the metaphysical and emotion and trust – do we trust this girl knows what she says when she says she is full of wonder?
What the image doesn’t show is that science cannot speak to anyone who IS in the left column. What if you are broken and flawed, or not able to understand science and considered ‘dumb’ by society? What happens to your potential and identity then? Science can’t help you with that, but God can and has by showing his love for us through Jesus!
Critical thinking and reasoning goes well beyond just science and physical evidence and so delving into philosophy and theology allows us to make much more sense of why we are here than science on its own will allow.
Jennifer Wiseman who was mentioned before said this:
“I don’t think that through traditional scientific study that we can suddenly prove the activity of God, I don’t even think that’s a positive way to do science. But I do think that if one is inclined to faith in God, for reasons that I think are well founded, you can learn something about the nature of God by looking at the nature of nature.”
So what then?
I’ve read recently that when it comes to major decisions, we like to think we are rational. The reality is that logic and reason play far less of a major role than emotion and trust. I came to see the world in the way that I do, AFTER I had a personal experience of meeting Jesus. I do believe that the story of the bible and the rational world around us points to a rational creator. I think it is possible to argue that the fact that the universe speaks a language that we can understand through mathematics and the sciences is also a pointer to a rational creator.
A rational creator only creates for a purpose and so all of life has a purpose. For humanity, our purpose is so that we can know our creator – a command in the book of Matthew is to Love the Lord with all your heart - emotions, soul - trust and mind - rationality. Life in His company and under His care is the way we were designed to be. Jesus wants all of our being not just our brains but not without them either!
I believe you are only likely to agree with me if you have a personal experience of God before, during or after this talk. I would like to invite you to ask God that he would make himself known to you. If you’d like to talk about this further, please feel free to get in touch.