David Jeans writes: In the relationship of science and faith, the public perception is often one of conflict. When I talk about being a Chemistry teacher before ordination, I am often met with one of two comments. The first is “that was my hardest subject at school”; the second is “what made you change your mind?”, as if I must have had a huge conversion experience and abandoned my science. Actually, I was already hooked on science before I became a Christian as a teenager, and I never saw any need of conflict between the two.
The conflict view is reinforced by how our society increasingly discusses issues in terms of (apparent) opposites. It is fueled by the loudest voices which come from the extremes. On the one hand are the ‘New Atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins. On the other hand are the ‘Creationists’, wedded to a literalistic seven-day creation and (usually) an earth only a few thousand years old. But the conflict model is much too simplistic, and its inevitability much exaggerated.
In my 2019 Grove booklet How to talk Science and God—Grove’s title by the way, I wanted to call it “Engaging with Science”—I have tried to give reasons for engaging with science as Christians, and examples of how to do it, looking at the area of human significance. In that second part, I discuss the need to take both science and faith seriously, giving both respect. As 1 Peter 3:15 says:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.
I also engage with science by looking at the anthropic principle (the fine tuning of the universe), as one example of where scientific ideas may give credence to belief in meaning and purpose for the Universe.
So why engage with science? Immediately there is an apologetic reason, accompanied by a pastoral reason. The apologetic reason is that a strategy based on challenging science is both unnecessary and likely to fail. By dismissing scientific knowledge, the church risks alienating both its own young people and seekers with scientific backgrounds. John Walton writes from an American context that…
…they have heard that to accept Christianity means to abandon their brains. They have heard from both the secular and the Christian world that to accept Christ means to reject certain scientific conclusions – a step they cannot take. They have been told that to become a Christian means to jettison science that they find convincing. So, they remain outside looking in. (The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Downers Grove, IVP 2015 p 208).
The pastoral reason is exemplified by Denis Alexander’s experience from writing his masterpiece Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? (Oxford: Monarch, 2008). In the preface to the second edition, he tells how alongside very fierce criticism from some, he received letters from young Christians who were thinking of leaving their faith on beginning the study of, but realized from his book that this was not necessary.
A good starting point for engaging with science is that many scientists have faith. Historically, giants like Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell were Christian believers. The idea of the Big Bang was first proposed by a Belgian Catholic priest called George Lemaitre. Gregor Mendel, the founder of genetics, was an Augustinian friar.
One excellent resource for apologetics, Test of Faith, has contributions from several prominent scientists who are Christians, including the ordained particle physicist John Polkinghorne, and the former director of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins. A survey of faith in American research scientists found that 39% of them believed in a God who answered prayer. (For details see R. Bancowiecz (ed) Test of Faith: Spiritual Journeys with Scientists Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009). Just yesterday I was on a Zoom meeting of the my local group of Christians in Science. Of the five people facing me on the screen, four were university lecturers in Physics, and the main conversation was about anti-matter and then muons!
One other useful illustration apologetically is to boil a kettle. When it boils I ask the question “Why is the kettle boiling?” I then give a scientific explanation involving delocalised negatively charged electrons being accelerated by an electrical potential and acquiring increased energy, some of which is changed into heat energy as they encounter resistance. The heat energy increases the vibrational and kinetic energy of the molecules of water in the kettle until they have so much energy that they turn into steam. The other answer, of course, is that I am making a cup of tea—and would anyone like one?!
Both of those answers, of course, are legitimate answers. Both are true. It would be nonsense to say that one is more true than the other. This leads to an alternative model of the relationship between science and faith. Science tries to answer questions of how the universe began and developed, and what laws govern it. Faith answers different questions—who created it—who ‘switches the laws on’—and for what purpose. The methods of science rule out those questions, because science is not looking for meaning or purpose. So, it is not surprising that science does not find answers to those questions.
A founder of quantum mechanics, Erwin Schrödinger, said that:
The scientific picture of the world around me is very deficient. It gives me a lot of factual information, puts all our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but is ghastly silent about all that really matters to us… It knows nothing of beauty and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity. (Quoted by one-time atheist philosopher Antony Flew There is a God Harper One, 2008).
In my booklet I give some other apologetic principles. The most important are to recognize that God works through process as well as through miracle, to point out the fallacies of reductionism (eg we are nothing but physics and chemistry), and to avoid ‘God of the Gaps’ arguments.
There are some very good resources around for engaging with science. I have already mentioned two of them: Christians in Science; and the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. A third is Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science, led by David Wilkinson and Tom McLeish. Tom McLeish is looking to move away from the approach of the issue of science and faith and instead shifting his focus to the theology of science. He has explored this in his book Faith and Wisdom in Science (Oxford: OUP, 2014), where he argues that science is
…an intensely theological activity. When we do science, we participate in the healing work of the creator. When we understand a little more of nature, we take a step further in the reconciliation of a broken relationship [between humanity and the creation] (p 210).
He gave one of the lectures (on a Theology of Science) in the recent on-line conference of the Faraday Institute (available on YouTube). One of McLeish’s key points is that the key to both good theology and to good science is asking the right questions.
Today there are many areas where we have questions. In my booklet, I raise the question of the search for intelligent life beyond our solar system—an issue we are going to need a theological response to. More practically, Christians need to engage with the fundamental questions about pollution and climate change, and the challenges of those for both our thinking and our practice.
In our current situation, there are lots of questions to be considered. This week, the Christians in Science on-line conference “God and Pandemics” is trying to help people engage with some of them. The lectures will be on Monday 10 August to Friday 14 August at 4.00 pm on the Christians in Science YouTube channel. They are free and open to all. The lectures can be viewed live, but they are recorded and can be viewed later.
Here is the programme:
Monday: Prof Bob White, FRS. Plagues and Pandemics: perspectives from science and faith.
Bob is Professor of Geophysics at Cambridge University, and Director of the Faraday Institute.
Pandemics are frightening. They can spread unseen through a human population with devastating consequences…Yet throughout most of history people have lived much closer to death than we do, and much more aware of the fragility of life….In the high-income countries today we have developed the hubris of thinking that we can control our world, that we are in charge. So when something like the Covid-19 pandemic hits us, there is almost nothing we can do except isolate ourselves. It’s a shock to our individualistic lifestyles, and it exposes the inequalities and injustices in our world. There is much we can learn from this, and some specifically Christian perspectives that may be helpful.
Tuesday: Dr Mirjam Schilling. Viruses as part of God’s creation?
Mirjam has a PhD in Virology, and is engaged in postdoctoral research on the interplay of viruses and the innate human system. In her spare time (!) she has been studying theology and is currently working on a DPhil exploring the theological aspects of viruses.
Ebola…Zika…SARS…Every couple of months there is a virus outbreak somewhere in the world…In the meantime we forget that viruses exist. This year a virus is affecting all of us dramatically. But what exactly are viruses? Are they as evil and vicious as we like to portray them? Modern technology has begun to open up another universe that we were quite unaware of for a long time. What do we know about the virosphere around us? The role of viruses in our ecosystem? Or how they relate to us?
Wednesday: Dr Simon Kolstoe. The Ethics of evidence in a Pandemic
Simon is a Senior Lecturer in Evidence Based Healthcare, and chairs Research Ethics Committees for the NHS, MOD and PHE. He sits on the Department of Health’s Confidentiality Advisory Group.
Science is broadly concerned with the creation, evaluation, testing and publication of evidence … (today there is) a framework based upon concepts including research culture, ethics, governance and integrity. I will consider the challenges that the COVI-19 pandemic has created within this framework. I will consider the processes and attitudes needed for reliable, rigorous and transparent science, and how these can sometimes conflict with wider societal needs …and reflect on how a Christian worldview can contribute to this dialogue.
Thursday: Anna Pearson. The Oliver Barclay Lecture
Each year Christians in Science have a competition, the prize for which is to give this lecture. Anna is this year’s prize winner. She studies Quantum Information Thermodynamics.
Faith has inspired and continues to inspire scientist to do their work for the glory of God …what can one learn from looking at it the other way around? How can one’s approach to science help one’s approach to faith, specifically with respect to looking at unresolved questions? This talk will consider this, focusing on introductory level quantum mechanics (DJ- don’t worry!)…and will draw parallels to an approach one can take when it comes to unresolved questions within faith.
This conference looks to be extremely relevant, and is asking key current questions, which we need to consider in helping ourselves and others in the midst of Covid-19.
David Jeans has been a science teacher and a parish priest, and continues to be a theological educator. He has taught evangelists, lay ministers and ordinands in both the UK and New Zealand. He currently teaches doctrine for Sheffield School of Ministry, and science and faith issues for St Mellitus North West.