Evangelicals and Science

I have a fundamental worry, which can be summed up this way: the vast majority of American evangelicals disbelieve the story of evolution. Almost all scientists take it as gospel.
If the issue were merely an argument over one scientific theory, I would worry less than I do.  However, the gap between evangelicals and science has large sociological and world view implications. Let me illustrate with three stories.
I have a young friend who studies geology. He was raised in a Christian home, but had doubts and questions about a committed faith. Several years ago, just out of high school, he got a summer job at a Christian conference ground. He made strong friends there and it seemed likely to me that this community of peers, committed Christians, would help him grow in faith.
However, many of these peers went on to a conservative Christian college. When they met up with my young friend in subsequent years they found it troubling that he was studying geology. Didn’t geology teach that the earth was millions of years old? That contradicted what they had learned about the Bible, so they began to urge my friend to get out of geology, a field that they believed a Christian could never agree with. They were stubbornly concerned and would not drop the subject. Eventually my young friend wearied of pointless discussions with people who knew nothing about geology. He let the friendships lapse.
Another friend of mine is an outstanding microbiologist. He became a Christian when we were both in college, and has maintained his faith while rising through the ranks of academic research. He and his family joined a conservative Bible church where they were nurtured and encouraged. My friend joined the music team, and was in a long-standing men’s fellowship that helped him through family crises. However, he never felt that his work was fully accepted. Like virtually all microbiologists, he considers evolution a given.
Seeking to bring his worlds together he led a church adult education class on the subject. He did his homework by reading and studying many of the Christian critiques of evolution, and he tried his best to lead a dispassionate discussion of the issues. The results didn’t satisfy him, though. The others in his class knew very little about biology and were not able to engage the science involved. More, many approached science with suspicion, as though it set out to oppose biblical truth. There did not seem to be any way to engage the issues in a way that my friend found useful.
Over the years, this became problematic for my friend. He was loyal to his church and appreciated its work in his life. But his life as a scientist was completely excluded. Most of his day was spent in the laboratory. His ambitions and joys were largely wrapped up in his research, but he felt that talking about it with church friends was awkward, almost embarrassing—as though he were describing an intimate bodily function in mixed company. As the years went by, and he became an increasingly prominent scientist, this split existence became more and more uncomfortable to him. He grew increasingly detached from the life of the church.
One more story. At my church we have a summer lecture series where we ask Christians to come and talk about their work and their passion. We’ve had artists, movie producers, musicians, students of literature, scientists, theologians, engineers, psychiatrists, politicians, pastors—a wide variety of people. Last year we invited an atmospheric scientist from a well-known university. He was passionately concerned about global warming, and he gave an excellent lay-level talk that explained the scholarly state of knowledge. Like nearly all atmospheric scientists, he is greatly concerned.
Most people who attended were very appreciative, but a small group of people was very upset at his “one-sided” presentation. I mean, really upset. I know them pretty well and I had a hard time understanding their emotions. None of them really knew much about the subject. They had looked at a few debunking websites or read an article or two that claimed global warming was a hoax. But they weren’t scientists with any ability to evaluate the evidence.
I would have understood skepticism. After all, scientists are capable of being wrong. I remember the panic over population, not so many years ago. It would have made sense to say, “Well, that’s what they think, but I’m not so sure.”
What troubled me was their belief that scientists were trying to put one over on us. There seemed to be a willingness to see a vast conspiracy at work. Where did this conspiratorial view of science come from? Was it that global warming upset their world view, that nothing human beings do on a global scale can be harmful? That laissez faire is always the best policy? So far as I know no question of biblical interpretation is involved. But would I be mistaken to assume that similar beliefs in scientific conspiracy abound in many churches?
I’m not going to pretend that I know the answers on geology, biology, or atmospheric science. What I know is that our world is built on science. We endorse scientific thinking every time we buy food at the grocery store or drive in a car. And I know that scientists are not engaged in a willful conspiracy. It’s conceivable that they might be the victims of a massive mistake—that their core conclusions might be wrong. (As historians of science point out, even Isaac Newton has been proven wrong.) But that’s a matter for scientists to sort out. That’s what they do.
A large number of evangelical Christians in America (not Europe) are stuck in an intellectual trap. They live and breathe in a world built on science, but they are fundamentally suspicious of science and think of it as an alien force. Surely this is a problem for evangelicals. They are excluding themselves from our era’s prime intellectual force. It is also a problem for scientists because they are excluded from the resources of a robust, biblical faith, and left to an arid materialism.

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33 Responses to “Evangelicals and Science”

  1. clark johnson Says:

    I love science (hey, I read math books for fun :-), and I love God and the work He’s doing in me, sometimes through the church, sometimes not. Sometimes through scripture, sometimes not. And it has taken me a long time time to de-throne a scientific way of thinking in my own life. I’ve not thrown it out (throne it out? :-), I’ve just moved it to 2nd place in my thought processes. It’s 2nd place to “Love”, and figuring out how that works is being MOST Intersting.
    American culture is WELL VERSED in “I can do it” and “I need to understand more” ways of thinking. It’s what I was brought up on in school. And in the right circumstances it works very well. Just as in Phyics (my undergrad studies), some theories worked well when they were first thought up. They helped our observations by giving us a standard way of talking about it. This helped us make more detailed and precise observations until things started to not fit into our model. At that point, the world seemed to go out of balance as our observations were growing beyond our understanding. So new theories were born. The Earth centered cosmos gave way to the Sun at the center. Particle views of matter had to give way to wave descriptions to explain difraction of electrons, and so on. Its not so much that the early theories were wrong. They still work in their own (limited) context. But now, our context has expanded and we’re asking more questions.

    So, my view of how Love and Science work together has to do with allowing each to have its center of expertise, and when they conflict, to hold them both for a time until I learn or understand or experience enough to see how they may be reconciled. Usually, my primary blockage is my own unwillingness to let go of things I’ve held to be true for a long time. And usually what happens to me as I learn new things is that the old truth doesn’t go away, it gets deeper. And the multiple ways of looking at the same issues inform each other in interesting ways.

    It is quite amazing to think that our throughts are so built that we can deduce things about math or physics or biology and have those things turn out to be true, and then to predict other true things that build on what’s come before. And it is also amazing that we can deduce things from scripture and natural revelation about God. And I submit, that in both cases, we need to walk out what we understand so that we come to fully know it, by theory and experience. And if those don’t jibe, that’s the opportunity for further investigation, which as an amature scientist and an amature theologian, I find exciting. Another problem to be resolved in both experience and in theory.

  2. glomink Says:

    Hi Mr. Stafford,
    I’m Gloria, one of Chase’s drawgroup friends :) I appreciate your blog entries!

  3. Susie Nash Says:

    Beautifully and thought-provokingly said.
    Logic and basic thinking skills need to be better addressed in our classrooms, and even, perhaps, from the pulpit.
    I find, like you, that within the church there is an unspoken reaction of suspicion of anything scientific. But I wonder how many people are truly aware that they are reacting with knee-jerk suspicion? Perhaps most church goers are so unthinkingly used to the ‘normal’ attitudes of their peers that they would be grieved to become aware of the lack of grace being offered to a scientific brother or sister in God’s family.
    It would be heavenly if Christians walked in the humility and grace taught by Jesus.
    I love being a mom and, perhaps, cling too much to the joy in this world of my family and life. But it will be oh so interesting to see how blessedly different we will all be in heaven toward ourselves and one another.

  4. Doug Webb Says:

    I have one and possibly two comments on your article Evangelicals and Science. Here is the first one and I am still thinking about the second one. I received a degree in Petroleum Engineering and took many courses in geology. Throughout a 40 year career in mostly oil and gas Production and Exploration my colleagues and I used historical geology in drilling for and studying oil and gas fields. To me the evolution present in historical geology was and is real. On the other hand I am a christian and I believe the Bible. The obvious conflict between the Genesis creation story and historical geology is a question that I do not have an answer for. To me it is a mystery and so it will remain until I reach Heaven and the answer to the mystery is revealed. I have this idea about Heaven that we will spend our first few years there in an in depth study of the Bible where all biblical mysteries will be revealed. I do so look forward to that wonderful experience.

    • timstafford Says:

      Thanks for that honest and faith-filled response. No doubt there are many mysteries that we will not fully understand in this life. However, I don’t think it’s necessary to see Genesis and geology as conflicting.

  5. lynn cohick Says:

    Thanks Tim for pointing out the elephant in the room. I have been ruminating over an editorial in the Wall Street Journal by Lawrence M. Krauss (June 26, 2009), entitled God and Science Don’t Mix. Dr. Krauss describes his time on a panel which included two Catholic colleagues, and he asked them how one could reconcile the Virgin Birth with biology. I think with this question we have at least one point of contention, namely that science holds as true that which can be repeated (which most Christians would not object to), but even more that truth is defined solely within those boundaries. Apparently, according to Dr. Krauss, his Catholic interlocutors answered that the Virgin Birth was perhaps only a way of saying that the birth was special, which if true is sad. Dr. Krauss concludes that ‘science is only truly consistent with an atheistic worldview with regards to the claimed miracles of the gods of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.’ A sustained and collegial conversation about the presuppositions which lead to this conclusion would certainly benefit the evangelical church.

    • timstafford Says:

      Yes, Lynn, that’s what passes for an enlightened view in some circles. I have profited a lot from John Polkinghorne’s writings, in that he is both a genuine scientist and a real theologian–I don’t know where else to look for that combination–and that he suggests trenchantly not only that religion should respect science but that science would do well to recognize that it doesn’t hold all the cards on truth.

      • Paul Bruggink Says:

        Re your “I have profited a lot from John Polkinghorne’s writings, in that he is both a genuine scientist and a real theologian–I don’t know where else to look for that combination . . . ” of July 13:

        People who hold advanced degrees in science AND theology are indeed rare, but there are a few in addition to Polkinghorne who are worth reading, including Denis Lamoureux (“Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution” and “I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution”) and Robert John Russell (the entire body of work of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences: see their web site).

        p.s. I met your parents once in 1986 when they were interim pastoring at my parent’s church, then the Homewood Reformed Church in Homewood, Illinois, now Living Springs Community Church in Crestwood, Illinois.

  6. Bill Reichert Says:

    I too am concerned about the general anti-science attitude within the evangelical church these days, much as I’m concerned about the general anti-supernatural attitude within much of the scientific community as well. But I don’t see conspiracies on either side. Francis Collins’ “The Language of God” helped me to understand how better to reconcile the issues presented by evolution. Polkinghorne has also been quite helpful. But few non-religious scientists (a large number, I would think) seem willing to re-think their commitment to materialistic presuppositions. I’m not hopeful for any general “reconciliation” in my lifetime. Yet for me, science is filled with wonder. My dream job, when I was in junior high school, was astronomer. Unfortunately, my mathematical talents didn’t accord with my desires, so I wound up a lawyer!

  7. John Van't Land Says:

    There’s an excellent chapter or two in What’s So Great About Christianity http://tinyurl.com/l9plzj that provides a fascinating example of how science and Christianity can be viewed. Francis Collins in a debate with Steven Hawkins kind of hits the nail on the head when Collins opens himself to the supernatural and Hawkins does not. In What’s So Great About Christianity, the author describes something to the affect of a blind man listening to a tape recorder. He has no concept of visual sight. Since he cannot see he says there is no such thing as sight, because his senses do not allow him to confirm its existence. (I probably have the analogy wrong but the concept is correct.) Thus, when scientists look out as the Russians did in space and can see no evidence of God (the Bible says they are “blinded by sin”), they are correct in the sense that they close themselves off to the idea that there might be something more than what can physically can be measured and observed by their senses.
    Having taken many math and science courses, I am sometimes impatient with Christians who are totally mistrusting of science. But I am equally impatient with scientists who will not even admit that they might be missing something when they exclude the concept of there being something or Someone who is beyond what their senses can measure. Since they see nothing, they are convinced in the spiritual and physical blindness that nothing could exist in the supernatural.
    I hope these thoughts are helpful.

    • timstafford Says:

      In a purely scientific realm, John Polkinghorne describes the absolute certainty that afflicted science after Newton, when it seemed that physics ultimately explained everything that happened in terms of cause and effect. Thus we got positivism and its materialistic kin. He says that the great revolutions in physics associated with Einstein dethroned that. It turned out that what Newton had discovered was only a part of the truth–that the whole truth was much more complex. He wonders whether the science of genetics, with its remarkable new discoveries, is suffering from comparable absolutism. I find Polkinghorne particularly interesting because he doesn’t express himself in terms of separate physical and spiritual realms, as though one hardly intersects with the other. This at least partly because the “physical” in quantum terms ain’t so physical. Polkinghorne tends to express himself in terms of different ways to apprehend the totality of truth.

  8. Greg Haroutunian Says:

    Great thoughts, Tim.
    I wonder if the distrust has less to do with the content of the evolution/creation debate (in which most of us really can’t engage productively) as with the us vs. them mentality that has evangelical Christians feeling more & more marginalized. We feel bullied and belittled often when we seek to raise questions–sometimes even honest questions, not just the argumentative ones.

    Seeing how evangelicals react with such exuberance when we see one of “ours” excel in a field of science makes me agree with you that we do need more & more brothers & sisters in these fields so younger & talented students know there is a place for those desiring to think God’s thoughts after Him.

  9. Cindy Says:

    As I read your thoughts, I started to wonder for the conservative evangelicals (and maybe all Christians): Is science the enemy?

    I’ve struggled with this dichotomy, but I can’t say that I can give a clear cut response if someone were to ask me how I reconcile my belief in the Creation story with the theory of evolution. Thanks for giving me something to ponder.

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  11. Micah Says:

    Tim,

    Great post, I agree 100%. The point about imputing a vast conspiratorial mindset to all of science is especially key. People who think evolution threatens their worldview simply need to think it over for all of five seconds: Why might it be that 99.999% of all working scientists in every field “take evolution as a given,” as you put it? Could it be, oh, I don’t know, that the evidence for it is simply overwhelming? CT’s interview with Francis Collins (which I recently found online) has some discussion of that too.

    The saddest thing is how some groups of Christians seem bound and determined to ghettoize themselves away into the smallest corner they can find simply because they can’t allow themselves to consider that the Genesis creation story was written primarily by and for prescientific nomads, so we shouldn’t *expect* to find an evolutionary story in the Bible even if evolution *is* true. (Actually, the Biblical story leaves far more room for evolution than it might otherwise have–especially, see the progressive nature of “days,” and the descriptions in terms of “the earth brought forth”. Quite ahead of its time, when you think about it.) Christian philosopher Peter van Inwagen has written the best thing I’ve ever read on this subject, and I’ve reproduced several key quotes in this blog post of mine from a few years’ back; I think it may be of help to those who’ve also commented as being perplexed and mystified at how to reconcile creation with science: http://tr.im/u2FK

  12. Niki Made Her Choice and, Apparently, So Did We | internetmonk.com Says:

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  13. Christiane Says:

    All nature sings . . . .
    All of God’s Creation speaks to us of the Creator.
    Through science, we can study His Creation, and it will lead us to a deeper faith in the wonders of our God.
    If we cannot accept that God is also the God of the natural world, how can we accept Him as the God of the Universe? We need to respect the natural laws He has put into place, not ridicule them by denying reality.
    To disrespect the study of our world is to disrespect its Creator.
    “Faith” has nothing to do with denying scientific truths. Faith is the hope of things ‘unseen’. God is the Creator of all that is seen and ‘unseen’.
    May He be honored as such, with integrity from people who refuse to deny the lessons that His Universe unfolds before us.

    Science reveals how God made His Creation.
    The Holy Scriptures reveal ‘why’ He made Creation and placed His Creatures in it. If the Bible were a ‘science book’, it would contain so many details that it would fill the whole Universe.

  14. Wolf Paul Says:

    Just wanted to comment on this sentence, “A large number of evangelical Christians in America (not Europe) are stuck in an intellectual trap.”

    Unfortunately this is true of a large number of evangelical Christians in Europe, as well, since especially the more conservative ones are heavily influcenced by American trends.

    • Arni Zachariassen Says:

      As a European Evangelical, I can confirm that.

    • FollowerOfHim Says:

      Wolf/Arni:

      I wouldn’t really have thought this to be the case — the British, for instance, have such great accents, you know — but as always, appreciate and take seriously such insights from those of a you a few time zones ahead of us in the US.

  15. Scientists in the church « I Think I Believe Says:

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  17. Ben Says:

    Apparently nobody has pointed out that this attitude to science has another consequence – or maybe a deeper root cause – which is anti-intellectualism in general. And this feeds back into people’s attitude to their own faith – “don’t make me think”.

    I’m not sure that it’s possible to ‘shut down’ your mind in just one domain, while continuing to be inquisitive and intellectually honest in another. In my experience, Christians from such circles tend to end up in a worldview where ‘Truth’ and reality increasingly diverge.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy Says:

      Mohammed al-Ghazali started Islam down that road some 800 years ago — faith and reason as mortal enemies and Faith Faith Faith must Prevail. Look where it got them.

  18. Paul Pavao Says:

    Wow. Great post. Well said.

    I’m going to put up a couple links to this post. All of us who write blogs wish we could write something like this.

    It’s not difficult to write the facts about science and the Bible. What’s difficult is to say something in such a way that it addresses the emotionalism of the subject. This post of yours cuts through emotion to things that matter even to the anti-evolutionist.

  19. JAy. Says:

    As someone who majored in physical sciences in college and who was raised in (and affected by) the Christian faith, I was and always have been amazed by what I have learned of the world. A lot of scientists (both professional and amateur) preclude the existence of God, and therefore miss a lot of connections. If you start by allowing the possibility of God, you see more things that prove God.

    Did you know that the math that describes the shape of a nautilus shell is the same as describes the arrangement of petals in a sunflower? Do you think that the nautilus copied the sunflower or vice versa? Or could it be that one hand had a part in the creation of both, and that is why there are similarities?

    Anyone who studies anything occasionally has their eyes opened by a third party. But if you reject any source or concept outright, you will never have your eyes opened in the same way. Of this we are warned in the Bible, even.

  20. James Swenson Says:

    Hi Tim —

    I seem to be getting to this (excellent) thread a little late….

    When we lived in Spain, Rebecca and I were involved in a Bible study with some Spanish college students. For the ten years since then, I’ve remembered one of them, a biology student, with heartache. She wept as she asked for our prayers. She was struggling to continue to reject the theory of evolution, and thus remain a good Christian, while doing in-class experiments which actually allowed her to watch microevolution happening.

    My friend was in the grip of Screwtape’s temptation: “[Disb]elieve this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.” The other reasons are plentiful! We feel that old ideas are always holier than new ones. By rejecting evolution, the big bang, heliocentrism, or whatever, we can prove that we’re not evil atheists. We can also prove that we’re not intellectuals, who are both unholy and antidemocratic. We can continue to tell ourselves that we’re “Bible-believing Christians.”

    [An aside: Let's work together, starting now, to annihilate that phrase. To my cynical ear, it mainly sounds like code for "American Christians who vote for conservative Republicans," but perhaps others hear it differently. A more objective problem is that, by using the phrase, we imply the existence of "non-Bible-believing Christians." Who are these people? They're all the Christians of whom we disapprove; whose testimony we ignore; whom we regard as traitors. We're the kind God really loves.]

    For many of us, though, the basic problem is that our individual faith rests on such a precarious, untested foundation. When I explain my beliefs to myself, I’m likely (as a Protestant) to look exclusively to the Bible for evidence. There’s no backup plan. What happens if I find something in the Bible that I simply can’t accept? How can I respond?

    One approach is to use everything that I think I know about the Bible, the context in which it was written, and the world in which we live, to understand what God is teaching me through that passage. I trust that this can yield a deep, resilient faith. On the other hand, there’s no a priori guarantee that more context will lead me to acceptance; I also have to be quite disciplined and honest to ensure we explain rather than explaining away.

    Others resist the idea that outside knowledge should be used to interpret Scripture. According to them, the Bible says what it says, the words are clear and unambiguous, and we must ask God for the will to believe every word. I admit that I find it hard to present this view fairly, but I recognize its urgency: if we admit doubt regarding a single verse, doesn’t it call the whole into question? Doubt, then, attacks my faith’s foundation at every point, and I have to fight it at every point with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind. No amount of scientific observation can be allowed to shake my confidence in the young-Earth hypothesis, or any other conclusion I’ve drawn, because the consequence would be so dire: there would be no God.

    Of course I’ll never know how my friend the biologist resolved the conflict in her own heart. I can say, though, that she’s made me much more passionate about the need for synthesis of science and faith. From my perspective, her suffering was so unnecessary, and so unjust. It was recklessly inflicted on her by Biblical literalists who were, perhaps, dutifully working to become exactly as wise as serpents.

  21. jdwalt Says:

    Tim– you are really piercing the issues in a helpful way with these science-faith posts. our new president at the seminary, tim tennent, recently preached a sermon that takes an interesting apologetic tack with respect to the often confused intersection of faith and science. i think you and your readers may appreciate it. i’ve never actually heard anyone take this surprising approach.

    paste in the link and it should take you to the message on itunes. http://deimos3.apple.com/WebObjects/Core.woa/Browse/asburyseminary.edu.1888817895.02005563127.2625874211?i=1282417453

  22. iMonk Classic: Niki Made Her Choice and, Apparently, So Did We | internetmonk.com Says:

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