Why you might have to choose between science and faith

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The galaxy Centaurus A, approx. 10-16 million light years from earth (credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video)



In the wake of Ham v. Nye, the latest spectacle in the ongoing creation/evolution debate, cooler heads are calling for a rapprochement between science and faith.

Take, for example, Tim Stafford’s impassioned plea on behalf of our children to stop treating the two pursuits as mutually exclusive:

Right now, the way we’re carrying on battles over evolution, many of our children… will shy away from science because it demands that they abandon faith. They will avoid faith because it requires forsaking science. And they will have no idea — in this realm, at least — that it is possible to disagree with someone on the deepest level and yet treat them with respect.

Or take respected scientist (and Christian) Francis Collins, who, during a recent interview with the Huffington Post, argued that science and faith shouldn’t be pitted against each other, because they ask fundamentally different questions. One is preoccupied with how things work, the other asks why.

The cooler heads are saying we can have both. We don’t have to choose between science and faith.

But we might have to put an asterisk to that claim.

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As much as I’d like to say, “Yes, it can be both!” that’s simply not the reality for many Christians today. In some corners of the church — and perhaps in some corners of the scientific community as well — you are forced to choose. Faith or science. One or the other. Some will cling to their belief in a young earth — scientific evidence be damned. Others, like the North Carolina State University students in Tim Stafford’s piece, will conclude they have no choice but to abandon their childhood faith.

What it really boils down to is the nature of your faith. Depending on what kind of faith you have, you may well have to choose between it and the scientific evidence for evolution.

If your faith is rigid, unyielding, or inflexible, you might have to choose.

If your faith is unable to cope with a constantly changing world, you might have to choose.

If your faith is not open to new discoveries and possibilities, if it views the outside world with a wary eye, then you might have to choose.

If the defining posture of your faith is defensive rather than inquisitive, then you might have to choose.

If your faith forbids you from even considering other ways of reading the Bible, then yes, you may have to choose between science and faith.

You won’t be the first.

Five hundred years ago, believers had to choose between the astronomical discoveries of Galileo and Copernicus and the church’s insistence on a stationary earth, based on a literal reading Joshua 10 and 1 Chronicles 16:30. (Oh, and it wasn’t just the Catholic Church either; Protestant reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin also accused scientists of undermining faith in scripture.)

We all know how that particular episode turned out. The scientists were vindicated, and the church has fought to shake off an anti-science reputation ever since.

To us, it seems obvious that Joshua’s depiction of the sun standing still and the chronicler’s reference to an immovable earth should be viewed as metaphor, not literal (much less scientific) assertion. But it wasn’t so obvious to everyone in the 16th century. Just like it still isn’t obvious to everyone today that Genesis 1 may not be a literal description of how the universe came into existence.

Five hundred years ago, the church had to open itself to other possibilities, to other ways of reading the Bible. It had to accept that maybe we don’t have everything about the Bible figured out, that maybe not everything in scripture was meant to be taken as literal history (which is not the same as saying that none of it can be read historically).

If you build your faith out of a house of cards, then all you have to do is take one card away, and the whole thing comes crashing down. That’s why young-earth creationists like Ken Ham cannot give an inch to science. That’s why they force you to choose between faith — or their version of it — and science. In Ham’s view, to reject a literal, 7-day creation is to undermine the gospel itself. He’s backed himself into a corner, and he has nowhere else to go. So he fights on, evidence be damned.

There’s another way, though.

You don’t have to check your faith at the door in order to see that we don’t know everything there is to know about the Bible, much less the world around us. You don’t have to chuck your Bible out the window to accept that it doesn’t always describe reality in literal, scientific, or historical terms. It’s so much more than a rote depiction of stuff that happened.

You don’t have to fear new discovery. You don’t have to be afraid of exploring the world if you understand that “science is not the only answer” — that it can help us understand how, but it cannot tell us why.

If the God you worship is truly as big as you say he is, then you don’t have to fear that something’s going to jump out from underneath a rock and devour him.

In the end, Tim Stafford and Francis Collins are right, with a caveat. You don’t have to choose between science and faith — depending on what kind of faith you have.

9 thoughts on “Why you might have to choose between science and faith

  1. There are so many versions of (truth) that it becomes a winner takes all competition. But any scientist will be hesitant to claim some ultimate inviolable notion. I am pretty certain that our notions of physics will be strongly challenged by the field of particle physics. Any penultimate declaration is nothing more than the politics of now.

  2. The scientific tradition has had many notables who regarded themselves humble witnesses to nature, not nature’s, or even super nature’s Supreme Court. Those activating in the opposite direction it seems are in a state of reactivity to the past practices of religious figures who spoke and wrote error about nature. Rather than trying to see the wisdom faithful, humble approaches to revelation can offer about ways of hypothesizing nature, and letting go the error, some discard without understanding. Why could the handling of such knowledge not be the same as one scientist learning from yet discarding the aspects of another scientist’s work whose methods or findings had been superseded by new findings, changes in context, or improved method? It seems there is a new breed of scientist-philosophe which became just like the extremists counterparts they reacted to.

    An interesting thought: how about we (faithful and scientists) distinguish the political abuse of faith, morals, ethics, and spirituality from actual faith, morals, ethics, and spirituality, and personally engage the latter. The latter teaches us we are higher beings than our heavy egos allow us to arise and become; the latter embraces humility as a goal without grasping. Surely humble, moral living of scientific and faithful behavior can yield much greater unity toward discovery for the ever-better life for everyone.

  3. Science and Faith are on 2 different planes. There is no basis for a vice or versa.
    Science is the reduction of real phenomena, to mere names and concepts, giving a world belief based on materialism. Faith is a reflex of the human condition, to something we all have a little bit of. Religion.

    They are theories of men, assigned to words which allow a character to be built by the reader/listener/viewer. They are programming devices for the un-enlightened. For there to be no division between science and religion, you must only recognise how relevant either of them are to you ‘right now’, and give them both the same name or concept. Irrelevant.

  4. Here’s the question I wrestle with, especially coming from a church background of literal interpretation of the Bible, which states that if you believe any part of the Bible to be false, how can you trust any of it to be undeniably true? The thing is, that’s a very good question. I can not, as an educated, intelligent person, believe the world is only 6000 years old. And that’s just the beginning of the ‘literal’ interpretations from the Bible I just can’t bring myself to accept. But if I accept instead that they are stories and parables designed to teach lessons of some sort, then how can we say for certain that much of the Gospel story (stories) aren’t the same? What if Jesus never actually even claimed to be the Son of God? Or what if He did, but never actually stated that acceptance of His sacrifice was the only way to get into heaven (which is one of the things I’m really struggling with right now)? What if a vast majority of what we think to be true about Jesus’ teachings was simply an effort to create a simpler faith to follow than Judaism or to create a new religion so that a group of outsiders could gain power over people and used a popular teacher to do so?

    The more I question, the more questions arise. And much of what I’m determining falls contrary to the nature of the God I’ve been taught about. If the Bible is ‘true’, in any sense, then how do I reconcile this with the picture of God I’m beginning to see? If it’s not true, than what? What hope do we have?

    Probably a heavier than normal comment, but I’ve been struggling with this for a few months now, and wanted to get it off my chest. This post pushed me to do so. Thanks. :)

    • Pat — have you understood much of the Big Bang? How long do scientists now say it lasted and how far did the universe expand in mere seconds? Also what does E=mc2 say about time? Time is misunderstood by most ‘intelligent’, well educated’ people. Our conscience experience is confined to incremental frames of time and space in sequence, flowing in one direction. Science, math clearly indicate much more, but it hurts to think about it from our confined viewpoint. We are like children — or to paraphrase Einstein, what we take for dep knowledge will someday be seen as nothing more that flickering shadows on the cave wall, compared to stepping out of the cave and beholding visible universe. Trust me, science as we know it has NO explanation (certainly not scientific explanation) of how it all began. The re-read Genesis — knowing that time as we understand it exists within God, not God within time.

  5. Pingback: The Bible is not “scientifically accurate”: why that’s good news for Christians « Ben Irwin

  6. I so appreciate this post. I get so tired of people at the extremes being represented as speaking for those of us in the middle who don’t define things in either/or terms.

  7. I suppose I can see your point but at the same time. It is still true that they really don’t ‘need’ top be pitted against each other. Faith and Reason is a silly dichotomy because most Christians aught to believe what the Bible says about man being made in Gods image. His intelligence, emotions, his five senses, and his spiritual senses aught to indicate that reason is something Christian’s aught to get good at. Richard Dawkins is right though that Christian’s are often made intellectually lazy by their faith. We need more guys like Francis Collins. The whole idea of having this debate is stupid to me, because it automatically buts Faith and Science at odds. Collins and Nye should have gone head to head. It would have been a very different story.

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