I have an immense love and interest in science and I have an immense love and interest in God. Unfortunately, I reside in a culture that often sets these two on opposite teams and says that I cannot enjoy science and also believe in God. A close friend of my wife’s has even voiced that she never felt like she would be welcomed in a church because she likes science. How tragic is that? So what’s the issue here? And is there really a fundamental contradiction between science and faith?
I really don’t think there is any such contradiction. I personally am not an evolutionist, but that certainly doesn’t mean that I think it’s impossible for it to be true. It’s obviously not impossible as it’s been a strong theory by scientific consensus for over 100 years. Our culture tells us that you have to pick one, though. That you can’t be an evolutionist and a Christian. But why?
The scientific community is built on evidence. By definition of it being scientific evidence, it has to be demonstrable, observable, and extractable. That means it has to be something that we can see and touch. Some aspects of science is only extractable from the past based on what we observe now, or is theoretical based on mathematical equations. But all in all, any scientific theory is based on legitimate evidence and tested conclusions drawn from that evidence.
One of the key words in the scientific community is that a theory must be falsifiable. Any theory must be capable of being proven wrong. That might sound odd, but think about it. If my theory is entirely based on something that cannot be demonstrated, observed, or extracted, then it cannot logically be proven wrong. If it cannot logically be proven wrong, then on what basis can I attempt to prove it right?
This is where I think the distinction can be made between a scientific opinion and a religious belief. My God cannot be demonstrable, observable, or extractable in the scientific sense. Now I know you might say that God’s work can be seen all around us and that you can feel his working in your life and see his presence in the world. But you cannot see or touch God himself as a person to verify his existence. (And for you Trinitarians out there, we’re talking specifically about God as the spiritual Godhead, not God the Son, the incarnate Christ).
God cannot be measured. That should not come to a surprise to any theist since by definition God is infinite. But this attribute particularly excludes God from being falsifiable. His presence cannot be verified in strictly scientific terms. We might say that we could deduce his presence as the most reasonable conclusion given our observable data, but it does not prove his existence.
This is why I don’t see the tension between scientific theory and religious faith. Science, because of its standards of evidence, cannot make any claim or draw any conclusion concerning the existence (or lack thereof) of any deity. That conclusion is outside of the scope of scientific methodology. In all honesty, I really don’t think science is to blame for the chasm that has grown between faith and theory. Science has never made a claim, doesn’t make a claim, and can’t ever make a claim against the existence of God. There have obviously been proponents of science that have used scientific theories to argue that there is no need for a God for us to be where we are today. But listen to the argument being made.
Let’s take Richard Dawkins for example. He is of the opinion that evolution convincingly explains the rise and diversification of life. According to his lectures and literature, there really is no need of God for us to exist as we presently do. Now Dawkins has much larger of a bone to pick with religion than just using God as an explanation for the origin and rise of life. But as far as his science is concerned, all he is claiming is that according to evolutionary theory, there is no need for a creator of biological life. That very well may be the case. Evolution may be responsible for the rise and diversification of biological life. But what does that have to do with the existence of God?
The answer is “Nothing”. It has absolutely nothing to do with God, because the existence of God is in no way contingent on the necessity of his intervention concerning the rise and diversification of life. The sad thing is that the religious community has made it about God. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve seen in the Christian bookstores that are devoted to explaining how the theory of evolution is just the first step in corroding the very gospel itself. I resist typing an exclamation in all caps. How can a theory, that in and of itself makes no comment concerning anything metaphysical whatsoever be the first step in corroding the gospel?
It comes down to interpretation. I say this with a sour taste in my mouth because possibly the number one comment I hear from people who don’t believe in God is that everyone has their own interpretation of the Bible so how can we trust or even begin to understand anything it says? The truth is that interpretation is required with any piece of literature. Go watch the same Shakespeare play put on by different casts and different directors and count how many differences you find. Our understanding of any text is directly influenced by how we interpret the tone, the context, and even the personality of the author. So yes, there are many interpretations of the Bible, but no it’s not impossible for us to do the necessary leg work to arrive at the most informed and responsible interpretation possible of any given passage.
Where interpretation has collided with scientific theory is surrounding the age of the earth that evolution requires as an assumption in its conclusion. The theory of evolution is a biological one, but it assumes the validity of the geological aging of the earth in the function of its theory. This is where some religious people of a particular background have found issue with the theory of evolution. It’s not about any claim that science has ever made or will ever be able to make concerning the existence of God. It’s entirely about claims that science makes that directly challenge our interpretation of Scripture that causes us to shake in our boots.
So what’s the interpretation and what’s the conflicting claim? Genesis 1 outlines a 6-day progression of creation with the 7th day being the day on which God rests. The language is very clear. It describes what God accomplishes each day, then says “there was morning and there was evening”, and then numbers the day. There is no disputing what Genesis 1 says. The dispute surrounds what Genesis 1 means. Throughout the historical books of the Old Testament, dozens of genealogies are presented of Jewish people. Using these genealogies along with the assumption that Genesis 1 describes 6, 24-hour days, some Christians conclude that the age of the earth is about 6,000 years old (maybe 10,000 at the very most depending on generational variances).
Herein lies the conflict. If Scripture does indeed infer that the earth is only 6,000 years old and yet scientific theory claims that the earth is somewhere around 4.7 billion years old, then there is a serious problem. The line of logic is that if we question the infallibility of Scripture, then we question its authority. If we question its authority, then it isn’t trustworthy. And if it isn’t trustworthy, then the stories and miracles it proclaims are also untrustworthy, which then leads to the absolute corrosion of the gospel.
My goal is not to instill doubt in the veracity of Scripture. By no means at all is that my intention. If you are truly convinced that the correct interpretation of Scripture requires a young earth, then that is your personal interpretation. But I think the challenge is to understand that just because an interpretation of Scripture is in conflict with a scientific theory does not mean that faith is in conflict with science. It’s a far leap to conclude that the theory of evolution is the first step to corroding the gospel. It’s much more honest to say that a theory might conflict with one possible interpretation of a particular passage in the Old Testament.
This is why I said that science and faith have no conflict with one another. Science necessarily excludes any metaphysical evidence and/or conclusions from its methodology. That is because, by virtue of scientific theory being falsifiable, it must relegate its method purely to the physical. Religious faith necessarily consigns itself primarily to the metaphysical (at least in regard to the subject of its worship). That is because, by virtue of faith being spiritual, it cannot be physically verified. The standard by which each is authenticated is opposing to the other. But in and of themselves, they are not opposing and cannot be opposing.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is that we need to be careful about confusing interpretation of Scripture with authority of Scripture. The claim that Scripture is making is authoritative. That claim is unchanging whether or not our interpretation of Scripture agrees with it.
But what if our most informed and reasonable interpretation of Scripture disagrees with a scientific theory? Sure, we can reassess our interpretation and think seriously over the scientific data, but what if we still disagree on the age of the earth? That may be the case! If my interpretation of Scripture concerning the age of the earth does not align with the claim of geology concerning the age of the earth, then there are a number of scientific theories with which I would not be able to agree. Admitting that my interpretation of Scripture is incompatible with particular scientific theories is far more honest and responsible than claiming that evolution contradicts the Bible, or that faith is contrary to fact, or that evolutionary theory leads to the corrosion of the gospel. Each of those is a straw-man at best.
I’d say that my encouragement to anyone who has struggled with the relationship between faith and science is that the two in and of themselves have no friction with one another. Faith is not opposed to science. And science is not aggressive against faith. The only friction that could be perceived between the two is when a particular interpretation of a particular passage does not jive well with a particular scientific theory. That is really it. It’s no bigger of a deal than that. And the reality is, many different interpretations of Scripture developed by Christ-loving, God-fearing, Christians throughout history have disagreed with the literal 6-day creation interpretation. I think we do a disservice to the legacy of our fellow Christians throughout history when we attempt to dogmatize an interpretation that has been widely discussed for hundreds of years.
So if you are a Christian, particularly in the conservative evangelical tradition, practice an open mind concerning the age of the earth and know that the previous 2,000 years has not produced a consensus on this subject. Your opinion on the earth’s age does not necessarily eliminate the legitimacy of any scientific theory and we need to be humble enough to be mindful of that.
If you are not a Christian and you feel that any adherence to a scientific theory negates you from having faith in God, please understand that faith in Christ does not require you to leave your science at the door. Abandoning your zeal for science will never be required of you in order to be a child of God.
I’ve read articles and books by atheists saying faith has no place in the world today because science is king. I’ve read articles by Christians saying that science needs to be removed from curriculums because it denies God. All I hope to have said is that science is science and faith is faith. I can have faith and not science, or science and not faith. I can have both faith and science or have neither. There is no contradiction between the two as concepts on their own and any friction perceived to exist between the two is purely based on the opinions of an individual in response to conclusions drawn by each.
If an atheist sees conflict between faith and science, it’s not because the concepts conflict. It’s because the atheist is in conflict with a conclusion that faith draws. And if a Christian sees science as denying God, it’s not because any claim science has actually made. It’s because the Christian perceives conflict with a conclusion that a scientific theory has drawn. So let’s simply be honest about where the conflict lies and not discourage each other from exploring these areas of friction and questioning the conclusions that cause them.
At the end of the day, Scripture still claims truth. There is a correct interpretation of Genesis 1. The earth is either old or young. It cannot be both. And it’s a fun exercise to explore the possibilities of both, but we should not be so quick to create a chasm between faith and science where there never needed to be one. Be bold, my brothers and sisters, to seek truth; no matter how old of a tradition it is you might challenge, be it any scientific theory or century’s old interpretation of the Bible. Challenge what needs challenging, and hold fast to what is essential; to love one another as Christ loves us. If we can handle this conversation with that attitude, then no dissent, no splintering, no chasm should exist between faith and science.