The science vs faith debate
Are Christians as clued-up as we should be when discussing science, faith and scientific practices? In this opening to our series in which Christian scientists explore a range of topics, Professor Keith Fox shares his thoughts...
"What is the greatest challenge to your Christian faith?" I asked a group of young evangelical Christian scientists. After the predictable answers came the response "the attitude of my local church". They had sometimes felt sidelined, even criticised, for their work. Some Christians react against science, fearing that they may be contaminated by it, or that it will undermine true faith. Yet many scientists are practising Christians who delight in discovering new things about God's creation. Where then has this conflict come from?
Some fear that science is inherently atheistic. A few prominent atheists shout that science has eliminated the need for belief in God, while a minority of Christians infer that science is part of a grand atheist agenda. Yet science is theologically neutral; it is practised by Christians and atheists alike. The fact that we do not need to invoke God's existence when we walk into a lab says nothing for or against His existence.
Some may fear that scientific explanations diminish any sense of wonder and awe, and that explaining equals explaining away. Yet, an explanation of a rainbow in terms of optics or a mountain range in terms of geophysics does nothing to diminish our appreciation of these wonderful sights. God is God whether I understand how or what He has done or not.
Scientists are trained to ask questions; requiring evidence, reproducibility and control experiments, so as to be sure that everything has been done correctly and properly interpreted. These types of questions are sometimes not welcome in church! However, Christians should not be afraid of examining truth, "theological" or "scientific", for it is all God's truth. We should expect God's revelation of Himself in His world to be consistent with that in His Word. The new atheists frequently repeat their assertion that faith is belief in the absence of evidence. Yet, we know that faith is trusting in something that is reasonable, after we have weighed up all the evidence.
Many people, not just Christians, rightly fear what science may do in the future and that we are "playing God". Yet this is an issue about the application of science (technology) rather than science itself. The fact that something can be misused is not sufficient reason to prevent its use for promoting great good.
In an increasingly scientific society, how many church leaders have enough scientific training to begin to address these issues? The Science vs Faith debate Without such training how can they be expected to answer someone on an Alpha course who claims that "science has removed the need for belief in God"?
Scientific discoveries most certainly do raise theological questions. But hiding in a parallel theological universe without reference to the physical world God has created is a denial of God's authority over all creation. Too often the science-faith dialogue gets bogged down in questions of origins. These may be relevant issues for some, but they are a distraction when there are far more important daily issues of science to talk about.
How many science students attend church yet see their worship as a separate activity from their academic study? In church we may worshipfully engage our minds with pastoral, 'spiritual', doctrinal and ethical issues, yet how often do we hear anything that relates scientific knowledge to issues of Christian belief?
There are many areas of common ground between science and faith. Firstly we believe in truth. Secondly scientists stand in awe of the wonderful world we live in. There can be no doubt that this is a truly remarkable place to live. Thirdly, Christians of all people can affirm the value of studying this world, which God has declared to be 'good' and demonstrated its worth in His own incarnation.
For 25 years I have worshipped in a church for which three successive vicars have possessed science degrees. It has been an immense blessing to be appreciated and valued! However, I am painfully aware that this has not been the experience of many other scientist Christians and the Church is poorer for this.
If we truly believe that "the earth is the Lord's" then one of the most profound acts of worship of the Creator is to discover more about what He has done - thereby declaring God's glory. As the Psalmist said: "Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them" (Psalm 111:2).
Keith Fox is Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Southampton and chairman of Christians in Science.
He is a Lay Reader in Highfield Church, Southampton.