In the 21st-century, faith and science seem to be increasingly at odds. What was once a disagreement over evolution vs. creation has grown into divergent views on climate change, vaccination, and more.
Are faith and science compatible? Or is it impossible for a person to embrace science while still believing in God and the Bible?
God and science can coexist. God has given us minds to understand His creation for our benefit. But we must not let our knowledge supplant His wisdom and divinity.
What is Science?
Science, in its simplest definition, is the study of nature. Specific branches of study, such as biology, geology, and physics concentrate on different aspects of nature but ultimately are all pieces of a larger whole.
Medicine, gardening, and construction all make use of scientific principles, laws, and processes. In fact, it is hard to find an area of daily life that isn’t somehow impacted by science.
So why do people—both within and beyond the church—sometimes wonder if God and science can coexist?
Science versus Scientism
If you’ve read our previous piece about evolution, then you are familiar with the scientific process and its limitations.
The scientific process involves testing hypotheses through experimentation and observation. Since we are unable to observe the past, we can only extrapolate, through inference and interpretation, what may have happened based on the evidence that we have available.
This same limitation applies to scientific modeling of future events (such as predictive climate change models). We cannot observe the future before it happens, so we apply known (or inferred) cause-and-effect patterns to the present situation and postulate how the future could emerge.
The limitation of such past- and future-looking endeavors is that it is impossible to account for every factor, cause, event, or material. So interpreting the past and modeling the future are necessarily going to rely on assumptions about these unknowns.
But when we hold up our assumptions as facts and suppress alternate assumptions, data, and interpretations, we’ve crossed the line from science into scientism.
Our Worldviews Matter
The rift between science and faith began to emerge during the Enlightenment period in the 18th century. Amidst an explosion of new scientific discoveries, humanity increasingly embraced science as the means of understanding our universe and everything in it.
This gave rise to naturalism, the idea that all natural processes can—and must—be explained by nature itself. Since God created nature and exists outside of nature, naturalism necessarily excludes Him from scientific endeavors.
Because naturalism is the prevailing worldview in secular science, any appeal to God or to the Biblical record is dismissed as “unscientific” by many mainstream scientists.
It was this naturalist worldview that opened the door to interpretations of the past that assume a very old age of the earth and millions of years of evolution. Such explanations were necessary in the absence of a supernatural causal agent.
Over the past two hundred years, these interpretations and assumptions have come to be regarded—incorrectly—as proven facts and are thus taken on faith by the mainstream scientific community.
This belief in naturalistic assumptions and the dismissal of the supernatural is scientism. It is faith in our own wisdom, knowledge, and understanding and the elevation of science as infallible doctrine. Yet, science requires continuous questioning. Every generation makes new discoveries. So can there ever really be such a thing as “settled science?”
Does God Oppose Science?
Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them.Psalm 111:2
According to the psalmist, it is good that we ponder the works of the Lord—creation and everything it contains. Some English translations (NKJV, ESV) render this verse using “studied” in place of “pondered.”
Science, in its purest form—full of questions—is inherently good.
God even sprinkled “fun facts” about nature throughout scripture. For example, in the early 20th century, physicists developed the big bang theory to explain—in naturalist terms—the origins of the universe. This theory was modeled on the discovery that the universe is constantly expanding.
For the Biblically literate, the expanding universe was not a new discovery, but an old truth newly confirmed through natural means:
He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in.Isaiah 40:22
He spreads out the northern skies over empty space;
he suspends the earth over nothing.Job 26:7
These are just two of the verses that reveal God stretching—expanding—the heavens. Incidentally, these verses also reveal other truths that are credited to scientific discovery, such as the earth’s spherical shape and its placement in space.
So scientific discovery, when approached with a heart toward God, draws us closer to Him by confirming the truths of scripture.
The Limits of Human Wisdom
When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe the labor that is done on earth—people getting no sleep day or night— then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.Ecclesiastes 8:16-17
As the writer of Ecclesiastes attests, our knowledge will always be finite, and our wisdom limited. So we will never be able to fully comprehend everything on our own.
This brings us once again to the importance of worldview. Our worldview not only affects how we interpret the past (such as in the evolution debate), but it also impacts our scientific understanding of the present and the future.
Earlier we mentioned climate change. Much of the data that is fed into climate models are based on a deep-time interpretation of past events. So differing views, for example, of how ice ages happen will lead to different views of how—and why—our climate will change in the future.
But this is not the only reason that we encounter scientific disagreement over certain matters.
The more we learn about nature, the more complexity we find. So we know that it is impossible to account for all possible scenarios. Against this limitation, we tend to select the data that is most amenable to our particular worldview and desired outcome.
Just as the Christian feels threatened by the teaching of evolution and dismisses difficult-to-explain fossils, the naturalist feels threatened by data that refutes deep time. So no matter our worldview, we tend to give greater credence to the data that is favorable to our views while minimizing conflicting data.
This phenomenon, while ingrained in human nature, has served to inflame the misperception of Christians as “science deniers,” not only in the ongoing debate over evolution but in our discourse over politically charged—and politically compromised—matters such as climate change and vaccines.
The data is too robust, and the unknowns too numerous, to stifle debate. But the embrace of scientism and the high socio-political stakes have led to intolerance of questions—even scientifically valid questions—on such matters.
Speaking of Questions…
Perhaps the biggest question of all is the one that science cannot answer:
When we study DNA, subatomic particles, and cosmic background radiation, we uncover new truths about cause and effect. We learn what the universe is made of, observe the laws of physics, and determine how actions and interactions lead to new actions and interactions.
Science is very useful for answering the question “how?”
But science cannot give purpose, meaning, or intention to nature. Even if every “how?” that we ask is answered by science, we still need God to reveal the “why?” behind it all.
This was the message at the heart of Paul’s words to the philosophers in Athens, when he invited them to know the unknown God:
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands… though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’Acts 17:24, 27b-28
So too, as we use the minds that God has given us to understand His creation, our understanding is made complete only when we include Him in the process.