- Like so many things in our society today, science and religion have become polarized, one seemingly pitted against the other.
- It need not be this way. Luminaries from the Scientific Revolution, like Galileo and chemist Robert Boyle, wrote extensively about their faith.
- At a fundamental level, science and Christianity share key values, including curiosity, humility, and service.
I am an astrophysicist. I love to see how the physics we study on Earth plays out in the extreme conditions of the Universe, like the intense gravity of a black hole or the near-vacuum of a gas cloud between the stars. I’m most curious about the BIG stuff. In my research, I studied clusters of galaxies located a billion or more light-years away. Each cluster contains thousands of galaxies, and each galaxy has hundreds of billions of stars. These clusters are so massive that they curve space itself! Like astronomy fans everywhere, I am filled with awe at the vast sizes, distances, and time scales involved.
I am also a Christian. You may well be surprised to hear “science” and “Christian” together. In today’s world, people who value science are concerned about the views of Christians, and Christians are increasingly skeptical of scientists. Aren’t White evangelical Christians the group with the lowest vaccination rates? The people most opposed to climate change? The ones who built a whole museum opposed to evolutionary biology? Sadly, this is all true. Even worse, anti-science views on COVID and climate are more than a difference of opinion; opposition is leading directly to increased illness, suffering, death, and harm to the planet. Yet I believe that the historical teachings of Christianity actually support science.
A false and damaging polarization
This conflict didn’t come out of nowhere. Debates over creation vs. evolution date back decades, driven by Christian commitment to the authority of the Bible. The writings of militant atheists didn’t help. When Richard Dawkins and others claim that science rules out God and religion, Christians have good reason to be skeptical of what scientists say. Still, science was bipartisan for many years, and polls showed that many Christians loved science, even if skeptical on a few topics. Only since 2019 has science itself become polarized. The recent polarization is not driven by Christian teaching as much as cultural forces. When 40% of self-identifying evangelicals don’t attend church more than once a year, their views are not coming from church. The polarization seems much more driven by social media, as explained recently by Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic. In our highly polarized world, “science” and “Christian” have landed on opposite sides.
This polarization grieves my heart. I see the damage it is doing — the lives lost to COVID, the opportunities lost to prevent climate change — and the way it is distorting our understanding of both science and Christianity in the public square. For many years, I have been writing and speaking to religious audiences about the reliability of science and how science fits with the Bible. Nearly a decade ago, I left my tenured science professorship to lead BioLogos, an organization that shows how faith and science can work hand-in-hand. For me, science and faith fit together. I live it out every day. The wonder I experience when studying the heavens synergizes with my faith, moving me to worship the Creator who made it all. For me, Christian faith is not some political ideology, but a daily choice to follow Jesus Christ. The God who hears my prayers and heals my soul is the same God who created the Universe.
Science has Christian roots
At a fundamental level, the historical teachings of Christianity actually support the methods and values of science. To see how this works, first step back a bit. All scientists, regardless of religion or culture, share certain core values and beliefs. I’m thinking of values like a curiosity about the natural world, the belief that the natural world is comprehensible, and a willingness to correct one’s ideas in the face of data. Most scientists also share a desire to serve others, through education, healthcare, or technology. These values are shared across the scientific community. And yet, what on that list would be in opposition to religion? None of these values are in conflict with Christian teaching.
In the earliest years of the Scientific Revolution, leaders like Galileo and Robert Boyle wrote extensively about their faith. They showed how the Bible and Christian virtues fit with their work as scientists. In following generations, Christians were leaders in bringing the benefits of science to the poor and marginalized as they founded schools and hospitals.
Even in today’s America, most Christians are not anti-science. A majority of White evangelicals did get the COVID vaccine, and vaccination rates were strong among Hispanic Catholics, Black churches, and White mainline Protestants, according to Pew research. Some of the top scientific leaders in the development of the vaccine are devout Christians, including Francis Collins (then Director of NIH) and Kizzmekia Corbett (developer of Moderna’s COVID vaccine). Climate change leaders also include Christians, such as Rick Lindroth and Katharine Hayhoe.
Four values common to science and Christianity
Curiosity. Scientists are driven by a desire to understand how the natural world works, whether a vast galaxy cluster or a tiny virus. People of all beliefs can be curious, and Christians are no exception. Scripture encourages and models curiosity about the natural world, in stories such as Adam naming the animals (Genesis 2:19-20) and Solomon cataloging plants (1 Kings 4:33). More fundamentally, God commissioned humanity to tend and care for the Earth (Genesis 1:26-29, 2:15), a task requiring an understanding of soil, weather, and ecosystems. The natural world is the very handiwork of God yet distinct from God, making it right and appropriate for us to ponder and study it.
Belief that nature is comprehensible. It may seem obvious today that humans are able to understand the natural world, but many of our ancestors would have disagreed. It was common for pre-scientific cultures to believe in a pantheon of gods and spirits whose whims determined the weather, planetary motion, illness, and other phenomena. One could only guess what the gods might do next. Judeo-Christian teaching helped dispel this picture by seeing nature as governed by a single wise God. Nature’s regularity is seen as a direct result of the faithfulness of God (Jeremiah 33:19-26). This picture laid the groundwork for the modern scientific view of nature as a system of regular, repeatable, universal patterns that humans can comprehend. Scientists of all faiths and no faith hold this modern scientific view, but they hold it for a variety of reasons. For a Christian, the regularity and understandability of nature is due to the intelligent faithfulness of a sovereign God.
Humility. Science is not an armchair activity where one can simply think up ideas about the natural world and assume they are true. Instead, science requires the humility to continually correct one’s ideas through experiment and observation. This approach also fits with Christianity. God creates in ways that humans cannot predict or fully understand (Job 38), so we must continually check our ideas against what we observe in the natural world. Moreover, Christianity teaches that everyone is broken and has moral failings, and that the path to healing requires humble admission of one’s errors. Robert Boyle himself wrote how Christian humility aligned with the scientific humility he learned through his many inconclusive experiments on bubble formation in ice.
Service. Many people working in STEM fields, regardless of religion, are motivated by a desire to help others and meet needs. A dedication to service is a key part of Christianity as well, and many Christians see vocations in science, engineering, and medicine as opportunities to live out their faith. Luke, the writer of one of the Gospels, was himself a physician (Colossians 4:14). Jesus called his followers to feed the hungry and care for the sick (Matthew 25:31-46), and there are dozens of stories of Jesus personally healing illness and injury. Fundamentally, Christians serve because we are called to imitate Jesus Christ, who made the ultimate sacrifice in giving his life for others.
Addressing the skeptics
Despite these positive resonances between Christian teaching and science, you may well be skeptical. You may have heard Christians arguing for a young Earth, or seen the trend of tying anti-vaccine rhetoric directly with Christian worship. Such examples grieve me deeply because they don’t reflect the Bible I know and the God I love, or even the majority of Christians. Look instead at the many devout Christians who excel in basic research and serve others in medicine and education. Look at Jesus Christ himself, who created all that is, who loves the poor and the marginalized, and who heals bodies, minds, and souls.
The forces of polarization today are amplifying the conflict between science and faith, with a flood of misinformation and misconceptions that are not fair to either science or faith. Science is a powerful tool for investigating cause and effect in the natural world, and a Christian can see science as investigating God’s handiwork. From the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, authentic Christian faith has fostered the curiosity, humility, and service that characterize science at its best. Faith and science are both needed to address the challenging questions facing our culture today. Let’s let them work together.