Are science and faith opposites?
A lot of people think that science and faith are opposites. Maybe you’ve heard something like this in the media, on talk shows, in books, or in conversations.
Richard Dawkins, one of the loudest bullhorns for atheism and the idea that faith is anti-thinking and anti-science, says, “Faith is like a mental illness, a great cop out, the excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence.”
Of course, I think he’s wrong. But why do he and some others think this like?
One of the reasons people buy in to this supposed opposition is because we’ve been told it’s always been that way.
We hear stories about famous scientists like Galileo and how he was forced to face the Inquisition for believing, like others, that the sun was the centre of the universe (and not the earth). We’re told how he was persecuted, charged with heresy, put in dungeons, and tortured.
But this isn’t accurate.
Galileo was a practicing Roman Catholic. He was certainly critical of some of the church’s views, but he was never charged with heresy, put in dungeons, or tortured. He was, for a while, put under house arrest, but was soon released and continued to publish books. He died of natural causes in 1642.
A Flat Earth?
Another story we’re told is that the big bad Church taught that the world was flat and resisted scientific discoveries which said otherwise.
Again, not quite.
The statements in the Bible about the “four corners of the earth” are not literal statements. In fact, many of us still use that expression today. We go to a concert and say there were people in attendance from the “four corners of the earth.” It’s an expression that means “from all over the earth.”
Not only that, but in the Bible itself the prophet Isaiah refers to God being enthroned above “the circle of the earth” (Isaiah 40:22).
Plus, many people, including the ancient Greeks, knew that the world was round way before Jesus was born. They knew how to interpret an eclipse, and they could see the tallest point of a ship on the ocean slowly descend over the horizon (and not fall over an edge) and circle back again.
So what’s the real story?
A more accurate picture of history is that scientific inquiry came from a general curiosity with the natural world and even from Christianity itself. Since God had created this incredible, wonderful, complex world, many intelligent people in the Christian community felt compelled to study and understand it—and used the scientific method to help them to do so.
Johannes Kepler, the famous 17th century mathematician and astronomer spoke about the purpose of science: “The chief aim of all investigations of the external world,” he said, “should be to discover the rational order which has been imposed on it by God, and which he revealed to us in the language of mathematics.”
What this means is that there was (and is) a cooperation between the scientific method and faith to better understand God’s wonder-filled world.
Let me share with you a few names of very famous scientists, all of whom believed in God, and most of whom were Christians: Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Newton, Faraday, Babbage, Mendel, Pasteur, Kelvin, and Clerk-Maxwell.
Speaking about how science and faith have been pitted against each other, Oxford professor Alister McGrath says this: “The idea that science and religion are in perpetual conflict is no longer taken seriously by any major historian of science.”
Along the same lines, Colin Russell, Emeritus Professor of History of Science and Technology, says: “The common belief that… the actual relations between science and religion over the last few centuries have been marked by deep and enduring hostility… is not only historically inaccurate, but actually a caricature so grotesque that what needs to be explained is how it could possibly have achieved any degree of respectability.”
I wonder why some people would want to perpetuate this false opposition? Hmm.
But with respect to how people think today, what are other reasons why some people consider science and faith are opposites?
Let me share three more reasons.
1. Many people misunderstand what science actually is
Here’s a definition by Michael Ruse, a respected philosopher of science. He says that science “by definition deals only with the natural, the repeatable, that which is governed by law.”
In other words, science deals with what you can physically measure in the natural world. Therefore, a true scientist may observe nature and conduct experiments, but isn’t really equipped, by the proper methods and instruments of scientific inquiry, to say whether God exists or not.
Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould is a celebrated evolutionary biologist, paleontologist, and historian of science. He speaks about this very issue when he says that “Nature just is” and “we cannot use nature for our moral instruction or for answering any question within the magisterium of religion… To say it for my colleagues and for the umpteenth millionth time, science simply cannot, by its legitimate methods, adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm not deny it. We simply cannot comment on it as scientists.”
What he’s saying is that true science tries to measure and understand the natural world. Since God is non-physical—i.e. spiritual—and can’t be measured and observed with scientific instruments, scientific methodology simply cannot draw conclusions about God’s existence, or even about morality (what is right and wrong).
2. Many people have started to think that the word “science” equals “truth”
Over time, people start to give meaning to words that were never intended to be there in the first place. That’s what has started to happen when people equate the word “science” with “truth.”
Here’s a more helpful way to think about what “scientific truth” means. “Scientific truth” is what the majority of scientists currently think. That means scientific truth changes as the scientific community discovers more.
For example, at one time it was thought that two criteria needed to be present for a planet to support life. But as more research was done, the number 2 grew to ten, then twenty, then fifty…
Here’s another example. Not too long ago researchers said that babies should get off of breastmilk as soon as possible because baby formula was much better for their health. But then that changed. As more research occurred, the consensus reversed.
So it’s misleading to say that the word “science” equals “truth.” “Scientific truth” is really just what the majority of scientists currently think.
3. What a lot of people call “science” isn’t actually science. It’s a way of understanding reality called “materialism”
This last point makes me think of a scene in the Jack Black movie Nacho Libre. At one point, Black’s wrestling mate confesses that he doesn’t believe in God. He says he only “believes in science.” The implication is that only scientific inquiry can adjudicate what is true and real.
But this isn’t science. It’s a way of understanding reality called “materialism” (also sometimes called “naturalistic materialism.”)
What these people are saying is basically this: “If I can’t see it or measure it, it’s not necessarily true or real.”
In response to this, I say two things:
First: It isn’t true scientific methodology (see above).
Second: No one actually lives that way. Here’s why.
You can’t see or measure the love you have for a child or friend, but it is real and true. It changes lives. You can’t see or measure guilt or forgiveness or joy, but they are still real and true. They change lives. So to say, ‘If I can’t see or measure it, it’s not real or true’ is to assert that your own senses are the only gauge of reality.
It’s like you’re an investigator at the scene of a crime and you’ll only accept finger prints as legitimate evidence. So immediately, you dismiss the testimony of credible eye witnesses; you dismiss any other non-forensic clues already in the room; and you even dismiss exploring the motives of various potential suspects. Before you even start, you’re limiting your perspective.
The same is true for materialists. They’re limiting their perspective before they even start. A person who thinks this way would hear about a potential “miracle” and tell you that it didn’t really happen right out of the gate. Why? Because it can’t be measured and doesn’t fit with what they already think they know about their interpretation of reality. But a true scientist would study the evidence, and then observe (a) that there is either a measurable explanation, or (b) that in the absence of a measurable explanation, something may have happened which we simply can’t yet explain.
So what a lot of people call “science” isn’t actually science. It’s a way of understanding reality—a philosophical outlook—called “materialism.”
[Materialists need to answer where they think nature and physical matter came from in the first place, especially since theorists say that all matter and even time itself came into being at the Big Bang, but that’s a topic for another time.]
Are science and faith opposites?
No, they’re not.
As I’ve outlined in this post…
- Recently there has been a (mis)representation of history that plays up the idea that science and faith have been at war with one another. (Hmmm, I wonder why.)
- Many people misunderstand what science actually is.
- Many people have started to think the word “science” equals “truth” (but “scientific truth” really just refers to what the majority of scientists currently think).
- And what a lot of people call “science” isn’t actually science. It’s a way of understanding reality—a philosophical outlook—called “materialism.” It isn’t actual scientific methodology, and it limits one’s perspective based on a pre-conceived notion of what is “true” before they even consider all the evidence.
This post was inspired by a series I’m leading at Westminster church called “Does God Even Exist? – The 1 Question That Changes Everything.” To access the three podcasts, and also the related blogs and downloadable materials, click here.
We’ve covered a lot of ground! So let me close with this thought.
Recently on Twitter, Oxford professor Alister McGrath shared a helpful perspective: “Science and faith come together, not to compete but to enrich. Together they present an extended and amplified vision of the way things are.”
One of Jesus’ teachings that I love is found in Mark 12:30 where he tells his followers to love God with their whole being—including their minds. So I think we should all use our brains to the fullest as we grow and learn together—about faith and reason—in God’s wonderful world.
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