Dr Sarah Wilson is a biologist and program director for ISCAST–Christianity and Science in Conversation. In this article, she outlines the background and motivation for her work with ISCAST.
Originally published in The Melbourne Anglican.
It is now 90 years ago that some of the greatest scientists of the 1930s gathered from around the world to hear a series of lectures hosted by the California Institute of Technology. At the conclusion of one of these lectures the most famous scientist in living memory, Albert Einstein, rose to his feet, applauded, and exclaimed “This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.”
Einstein was praising George Lemaître, a Belgian Catholic priest and scientist, who had just explained a theory of how the expansion of the universe arose from a primeval atom. Today this is understood in popular culture as the Big Bang. At the time it was an unorthodox theory of how the universe came into existence, but now almost universally accepted by scientists in that field.
Lemaître was a brilliant scientist, nominated for the Nobel Prize twice, but equally committed to his spiritual life. During a brief period of fame, Lemaître was interviewed by the New York Times where he shared his views on faith and science. “I was interested in truth from the point of view of salvation and from the point of view of scientific certainty. It seemed to me that both paths lead to truth and I decided to follow both.”
Sadly, as we fast forward almost a century, a tired, time-stained view of disharmony between science and faith continues to propagate in Western culture, greatly influencing how young, unchurched people view Christianity and how some Christians mistrust science.
Today, teenagers are more aware of the benefits of science than ever before. They embrace it and use it creatively in many ways adults could never have dreamt of. At ISCAST we are delighted that young people are excited by scientific and technological advancements. As a Christian organisation committed to both mainstream science and the gospel of Jesus Christ, we are also compelled to convey to students that science and faith are not in conflict.
Recently we asked 590 high school students attending a Victorian independent school: “Do you think science and Christian faith conflict with each other?” Sixty-four per cent responded with a resounding, “Yes.”
We were not at all surprised by the findings from our small study. Although the number surveyed was low and not representative of the diversity in Australian society, the results are consistent with the feedback from the thousands of school students that ISCAST staff and volunteers listen to each year. The catchphrases, “I believe in science so I can’t believe in God” or, “Science deals with facts while Christianity only faith” reflect the outlook of many of the young people we meet.
There are two major areas of concern for the church arising from young people’s perception of conflict between mainstream science and Christian belief: 1) it has the potential to destabilise the established faith of Christians; and 2) it creates a barrier for the unchurched to take Christianity seriously. These points are examined below.
The conflict narrative has the potential to destabilise the established faith of Christians
International studies performed by the Barna Group show that the churches’ anti-science views are a major reason young people leave the church in the United States. In Australia, anti-scientific views from churches have led some young people to abandon their faith.
Former La Trobe University Life Sciences head Professor Mike Clarke has spoken of being visited by many distressed Christian students during his career, asking him how he could be both a follower of Christ and an evolutionary biologist. Some of these students came to Clarke deeply concerned by what they were being taught about the origin of living things, including humans, which was totally incompatible with the teachings of their church, their parents, and the school they had attended. They were worried that an acceptance of evolutionary theory would signal the start of a spiritual decline eventually leading them to abandon their Christian faith.
These students sought counsel from Professor Clarke who is widely known to be a Christian. After decades of being both a faithful Christian and respected scientist he concludes, “I don’t think there is a conflict between evolutionary theory and what the Bible teaches. I think there is a conflict when we try to get the Bible to answer questions it wasn’t set out to answer.”
The conflict narrative creates a barrier for the unchurched to take Christianity seriously
Perhaps a more worrying problem in Australia are the views of unchurched young people—that there is an irreconcilable conflict and mutual exclusivity between mainstream science and committed, orthodox Christian faith. This belief, captured in our snapshot survey, becomes a barrier to accepting the gospel and an issue the church needs to take seriously. If any unchurched person presupposes that being a Christian requires rejecting much of mainstream science, how can we expect them to listen let alone seriously consider the gospel?
So, why do people believe that Christianity conflicts with science?
The myth of conflict has long historical roots. These can largely be attributed to misunderstandings: either about the circumstances of historical events (e.g., the so-called Galileo controversy) or about what science is and where its limits lie.
The responsibility for this barrier to the gospel lies in part with Christians who are convinced that a faithful reading of Scripture entails a “young-earth creationist” position, which denies much geology and biology. For some, this view is not only a litmus test of Christian orthodoxy. But their message can be so overbearing that a commitment to this literalism can seem less like a disputable matter and more like a requirement for salvation. Because of these strong views, many unchurched young people think that all Christians refute evolutionary theory. ISCAST knows this view is common in Australia because we are consistently questioned about the perceived inconsistency between evolution and the Bible by students during our school visits.
What a tragedy that some young people won’t even consider Christianity because of misunderstandings about science and faith!
Out of this concern grows ISCAST’s commitment to helping the church put to rest the myth of a science–faith conflict. To this end, we are creating science and faith resources for churches, teachers, and students. Our most exciting of these upcoming resources is a package of 10 topic-based videos that help unpack issues of science and faith using interviews with a range of distinguished scientists, theologians and other experts.
The lasting fruit from a generation of young people free of the conflict myth will be more effective evangelism as well as Christians confident that science is humankind’s way of understanding God’s creation, rather than a threat to undermining the sovereignty of God and the Scriptures.