Faith and Science

I was asked to give a talk at church on "faith and science," and thought I should probably begin by giving my qualifications, so here they are...


Faith: I grew up Catholic. My Dad was Catholic and my Mum's Methodist. My brother's a Catholic priest and my Granddad was a Methodist lay-preacher. My Uncle served a term as President of Gideon's UK. As for me, I've been a communion minister, prayer leader, home-group leader, worship leader, and Sunday school teacher, plus I served three years as an ordained elder on session in a Presbyterian Church. There are reasons I call myself a Mongrel Christian!

Science: I have a Bachelors and Masters from Cambridge University England, where I studied mathematics and specialized in mathematical astronomy and cosmology in my final graduate year. I attended lectures from such luminaries as Stephen Hawking, Martin Reese and John Polkinghorne, among many others. And I was Fisher House rep to the Newnham branch of CICCU, which means I represented the Catholic chaplaincy in the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union. (If you think that's a mouthful, try OICCU, which is what we called the rival Christian union at Oxford.)

Being in Cambridge and in CICCU meant I could hear the most amazing world-renowned Christian speakers on Saturday evenings. Having a hopeless memory means I can't remember their names, but I do remember one of them explaining that faith is not the sole domain or crutch of the spiritually minded, but rather it's something everybody lives by all the time.


That being the case, just how do we define faith? Assuming a Christian audience, in Sunday school for example, we might come up with something like...

Faith is
1. Belief in things unseen.
2. Hope for things yet to come.
3. Trust in something that's beyond ourselves.

But what about science? How will we define that?

Science is...?

1. Science is not "only believing in what we can see." After all, I've never seen an atom or a molecule, or watched an electron slip from one shell to the next, yet I believe all these things and I confidently switch on lights. Perhaps I'll call science "testing what can be seen."
2. Science is not "believing we know everything" or scientists wouldn't keep trying to find out more. Maybe I'll call it "hypothesizing about what's not yet tested."
3. Scientists don't "only trust themselves." Galileo's theory was built on the work of others. So was Einstein's. So is Hawking's. Maybe scientists test before they trust.

I wonder if it's true that a group of scientists would quickly agree on definitions of science then argue about faith. And I wonder if some of their answers might seem just as insulting as "Scientists only believe what they can see, think they know it all, and only trust what they observe" might be to scientists.

Secular Faith

The professor, who's name I've forgotten, asked us to consider why English schoolchildren grow up convinced that the Romans conquered Britain and their emperor said "Veni, Vidi, Vinci," meaning "I came, I saw, I conquered."

1. We trust the teachers who tell us these things, trust the institutions that taught and qualified them and the schools that employed them. We decide they're probably not out to deceive us.
2. We trust the documentation: In Latin class we would translate simplified versions of ancient passages, but of course, we translated passages about Odysseus meeting the Sirens too. Why didn't we believe those were true? Perhaps because they didn't fit our worldview, whereas the records of Roman invasion were backed up by other evidence.
3. We trust the science: We trust the archeologists who dig beneath those villas and Roman roads. We trust the carbon dating of remains. We trust the derivations of names, the histories constructed from records and remains all over the world. We don't dig out the evidence ourselves, and wouldn't know how to perform the tests, but we trust them.

If we drive and don't understand organic chemistry, if we use emails and don't understand how IP addresses work, if we eat and don't grow and breed and fertilize our own food, then we live by faith, and it's not a crutch; it's an essential part of human life.

The professor continued by saying there's two types of faith: not spiritual and secular, but rather religious and informed. The above were all examples of informed faith--we'd change what we believed if we found we were wrong. Religious faith (not a spiritual term) isn't willing to change whatever the evidence, like the girl who runs religiously every day before breakfast, come rain or shine or hurricane, and will brook no obstacles.

Religious Science

The above might qualify as examples of secular faith. Now let's look at an example of religious science. When I was studying cosmology we were at the tail end of the Big Bang debate. Here's a few specifics so you can see where the science was going:

1. Different materials burn with different colored flames. You can make a sort of barcode with the light from a star, bright lines where gasses emit light, dark ones where light's absorbed, and use it to determine what elements are in the star.
2. Analysing the barcode of the sun works fine, but the barcodes of all the other starts seem to be shifted--all by the same amount--towards the red end of the spectrum. This would happen if the universe was made up of entirely different elements from the ones occurring on earth, with the odd property that every element emits and absorbs light in the same way as its earth counterpart, just a little way further into the red. Or the universe might be expanding and the stars are like currants in a loaf that rising on the shelf, all moving away from each other at the same speed. The second explanation's simpler. Simple explanations, those requiring fewest external assumptions, are always better.
3. If the universe is expanding like a currant loaf, it might once have been very very small. The point where the small universe exploded--i.e. started expanding--would be called the Big Bang.

Of course, the theory's probably moved on a lot since my day--science does that. But the idea then was that the universe began in a huge flash of light. Scientists asked what they could find to prove this today, and looked for light at a particular wavelength, which they found, and for dark matter of a particular density between stars, which they found, and so on.

Meanwhile, there was a small group of scientists who believed "religiously" that a universe with a beginning would have to have a beginner--sort of Big Bang implies God. I don't think they were right, but they thought they were so they came up with ever more complicated explanations for the evidence, and ever more complicated ways to avoid the possibility of a Big Bang.

Eventually one of their leaders became convinced of the Big Bang theory, and hence of God's existence, though as Christians we might not necessarily recognize his beliefs. Perhaps if he'd looked more closely at other sciences too, and compared their ideas with what's written in the Bible, he might have come to some different conclusions. But perhaps he knew, as so many Christians "religiously" claim to know today, that science and the Bible can never agree.

Let's look at Genesis 1, a popular sticking point in faith vs science debates, and see just how much agreement we can see.

Genesis 1

Genesis 1:3 says God began creation by making light. That's kind of neat, since we've just been looking at science saying the universe began with a flash of light.

But my early interest in astronomy wasn't confined to cosmology. I wanted to know what stars and planets were made of. I was fascinated by results from probes sent to Venus and Mars. The scientists were looking, amongst other things, for for free water, or ice, on Mars as a prerequisite for life. Water vapor in a Venus soup just wouldn't do. We need free-flowing water in puddles and watery clouds in the sky for life to exist. And Genesis 1:6 doesn't just say that God made water next; it says he separated the waters on earth from the waters in the sky; he made precisely that water that the scientists require.

Science says life would have begun in the oceans and plants would have spread onto land, which is just what Genesis says the third day saw. Then comes the fourth.

Day four always used to confuse me as a kid. Why would God create light on day one and not make the things that make light until day four. How did that make sense? But the Venus probe could see light in the thick pea-soup of Venus' atmosphere, even though it couldn't see the sun moon and stars. Scientists say earth's atmosphere would have been pretty soupy too back in the day , and the skies wouldn't have turned blue and clear, and we wouldn't have seen stars until the plants appeared and scrubbed out the impurities.

Then, of course, there's fish and birds and dinosaurs on day five--since ancient English didn't have a word for dinosaur I'm pretty sure ancient Hebrew didn't either, but the sea-monsters and Leviathans of Genesis 1:21 sound like a decent approximation (RSV translates it, unimaginatively, as whales). Then came mammals. Then came man.

As a scientist, I've got to ask how the people writing Genesis, well over 2,000 years ago, somehow managed to guess the right sequence for everything, even including the singularly improbably sunshine on day 4. The simplest explanation that occurs to me is someone told them. And unless I'm going to guess that we discover time travel some day, that someone was God. So, no, I don't think faith and science are enemies. It's science that strengthens my faith and deepens its delight. And it's faith that makes me long to know more, trusting God that there's more to be known, leading me to study science.

Does it Matter?

Does it matter if Christians make faith and science out to be enemies, condemned to always be at odds with each other. Yes, I think it does.

1. It's foolish, and it makes faith look foolish--not a good witness to the wisdom of God. If we teach that the earth must be flat because the Bible says it has four corners (Isaiah 11:12, Rev 7:1) and everything can be seen from the top of a single mountain (Matt 4:8); or if we teach that the sun goes round the earth because the Bible says the earth doesn't move (various psalms, 93:1, 96:10, 104:5) and the sun does (Joshua 10:12, Ecc 1:5); then we're teaching man's interpretation in the place of God's word, which really isn't so much different from "teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Matt 15:7) as the hypocrites do.
2. It's dangerous. When we place a barrier between faith and science, we place a barrier between faith and people of science. We make it harder for a scientist to turn to the Bible when science convinces him there's a God. We make it harder for the college kid to go back to church once he's realized the evidence for evolution is so beautifully convincing, and just possible we cause "one of these little ones who believe God to stumble," to stop reading the Bible--at which point it's just possible God might have a few millstones waiting for our necks (Matt 18:6).
3. And it's sad. If we tell our scientifically minded kids they can't love God and study science, it's like telling the art student they can't love Rembrandt and study his technique. We deprive them of God-given joy.

I like Rembrandt and don't know a thing about his technique, but that's okay. And it's okay to love God and not know a thing about science. But it's not necessary.

Meanwhile, if the majority of scientists seem to scorn some peculiarly Christian interpretation of the evidence (say, concerning evolution), well, maybe that's just the same scorn we once had for the atheist Big-Bang-deniers--a question of religious conviction over-riding scientific investigation maybe, but not a question of science opposing faith.


So, let's look at Genesis 1 again. What's the first action word, the first word trying to describe how God made the universe? "God said." He spoke it into being.

Usually when people speak they make words. So this, the whole incredible wonderful universe around us, this is the word of God, made manifest in created matter, in stuff that can be studied by science.

And this book, this Bible, is the word of God made manifest in human language.

And this Jesus that we read about in the New Testament, is the word of God made flesh and living among us (John 1:14)

God spoke three times, and I don't believe he ever contradicts himself. If the Old Testament and the New seem to disagree, that's not God changing his mind; it's us failing to understand. And if faith and science seem to disagree, I'm convinced the problem lies with us, and we need to look more closely at our interpretations of both.

I was invited back afterwards to answer questions submitted by email from the class. Click here to read about our question and answer session.

No comments:

Post a Comment