Science and Faith: The Why, How, and Who

Greg Cootsona

Why bring together mainstream science with mere Christianity?

Not too many Sundays ago, I was preaching to a congregation of mainly emerging adults (by which I mean age 18-30), and in the midst of a message about God’s will and direction from Prov 3:5-6, I found myself somewhat redirected and quite excited (one might even call it a tangent) about the need to engage mainstream science with mere Christianity. And as I described the way God had led me toward the importance of integrating these two, I felt from the congregation a certain uncertainty about the topic, which led me to ask, “Why? Why do I think this connection is critical for the church today?” I responded to myself (which one can do in a sermon), “For the sake of the gospel and its viability today.”

Let’s take in the current generation of 80-90 million adults emerging adults. When asked the question, “Which religion do you affiliate with?” about one-third of 18-30-year-olds answer, “None” (Pew Forum, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape”). Thus, the label “None” has stuck with this demographic — those not affiliated with any religious tradition, many of whom once were in the pews. David Kinnaman, in his book You Lost Me (Baker, 2016), asked this generation why they left the church. He found this: one of the six reasons emerging adults are leaving the church: they identify it as “Antiscience.” Kinnaman quotes Mike, “To be honest, I think that learning about science was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I knew from church I couldn’t believe in both science and God, so that was it. I didn’t believe in God anymore” (138).

If Kinnaman is right, unless Christian congregations do this work of connecting faith with science, there may be millions fewer in American pews in the coming years, and ultimately there may a visibly diminished church to engage science. Ultimately, I’m not arguing we should integrate faith with mainstream science to gain converts — though I think that will happen. We as the church must do the work of integration because, if we don’t, we throw away our legacy of Christians’ contribution to natural science, as thinkers like Copernicus did at the dawn of the sixteenth century scientific revolution.

What’s particularly fascinating is that these scientists studied nature because it reveals something of God’s nature. It fulfilled what Ps 19:1 declares, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” And this general revelation of God in nature complements the special revelation of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ, who indeed “holds together all things [i.e., the universe]” (Col 1:17).

We therefore have science as a birthright in the church and love science at its best because it discovers truth. Whether we gain or lose, the Christian church is at its best when it seeks truth. Nonetheless — as Mike commented above — many believe a narrative that Christian faith is antithetical to science. In fact, for science to win, faith must lose as a byproduct. Let me tell you how it played out in my college years.

I was bottle-fed on the casual, happy secularism of the region we now known as Silicon Valley. I grew up not needing God, but being satisfied by superb weather, comfortable surroundings, and a sufficient degree of personal achievement. If I had a creed, it was functional atheism. To be clear, I was a buoyant secular Northern Californian, not some kind of dour atheistic postmodernist. To me — and many around me — an alleged Deity’s existence didn’t prove relevant or advantageous. Recently, the Barna Group found Oakland-San Francisco-San Jose to be the number one “unchurched” and “dechurched” region in the country, followed not far behind by Chico-Redding, where I live now (“Barna: Update”). My early self would today be counted as a None, and “Noneness” both continues to run through my veins and fill the cultural air I breathe.

At age seventeen, I started at U.C. Berkeley and shortly thereafter became a follower of Christ. I admit it — “Grow up in a secular home and go to Berkeley; then become a Christian” — is an almost laughable oxymoron. But that’s what happened. As a first-year student, I was dazed by this spectacular university and undone by my newfound collegiate license.

How did this happen? With a burgeoning undergraduate interest in the intellectual development of the West, and gradually training in Greek classics as well as Enlightenment literature and thought, I began to read the Bible. And I ran into this captivating figure, Jesus of Nazareth. (Admittedly, this search for God wasn’t purely intellectual — I’ve since learned that we don’t engage arguments in abstraction, we engage with people we respect.)

In the second quarter of my first year in this exquisitely secular college, without every answer clearly figured out, I committed my life to following Jesus. Even though now it’s been over three decades, it’s not hard for me to imagine the mindset of Nones. And though I started my life as a None and today I’m a Christian — which is the reverse of what many of our emerging adults face — the main thing I remember is that Nones seek for something to deny God’s existence — and for many science does as a satisfactory job. For example, one of my undergraduate students offered this comment after watching Richard Dawkins’s TED talk, “Militant Atheism,” “He brought up many points that I question or have questioned myself, and for this I would say I look up to Dawkins.”

Like many of us, I also heard at Cal that there’s no way to put together faith and science. Which reminds me of a dinner…. I had invited one of my favorite professors, a visiting scholar from Germany, Friederike Haussauer, to dine with my parents, who had come to visit from Menlo Park (about fifty miles south). As we were across from one another at Upstart and Crow Café on Bancroft Avenue, discussing various topics about Germany and the States (my mother’s side of the family is German so the motherland was a topic of common interest), Dr. Haussauer heard an incidental remark that I believed in God. She cut right to a confrontational question, “What possible sense does that make after modern science and the Enlightenment? How could you believe in God after Hume and Kant?” Frankly it shocked me — that challenge right in the middle of eating our quiches and hamburgers! (Germans, by their own admission are known for their candor.) I, not really thinking there was much conflict between my faith and these two Enlightenment philosophers, found myself still a bit stunned and had embarrassingly little to say. The conversation continued, and later we said our goodbyes. In her class on Enlightenment literature and thought, it wasn’t many weeks later that we read Voltaire, d’Alembert, the other philosophes, who joined their French voices to my professor’s: true intellectuals have rationally concluded that science presents decisive reasons for not believing in God.

It would be nice to report that this is unusual. Over the past few years, however, I’ve done interviews with dozens of students who had similarly experienced antagonism from other students and their profs. Andy (age 20) told me, “It is almost always a topic of science versus religion, rarely a topic of science and religion.”

The What

I hope I’ve convinced you that we need to engage with science as Christians, particularly with emerging adults, for the sake of the gospel. As Jesus once said (more or less), “evolution will always be with you.” Evolutionary science, having been tried, tested, and validated for over 150 years is here to stay. We need to take on issues like the age of the earth, the nature of original sin, and the historical Adam and Eve.

I’ve found when I’ve done my own research with emerging adults, as well as read thought leaders like Robert Wuthnow, Christian Smith, Jonathan Hill, and Elaine Howard Eclkund, some new topics are emerging. I’ll highlight a few and primarily set out questions more than answers.

First, the prominence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Transhumanism, as well as other related topics, means that pure science is now joined by tech issues. In fact, technology and science are almost synonymous for emerging adults. One of the students’ favorite parts of my science-and-religion class is to watch Ex Machina, which depicts the creation of a beautiful, and ultimately dangerous, AI robot, Ava. (Ava sounds a great deal like the biblical “Eve” to my ears.) Ava was created to pass the Turing Test, developed by the Cambridge and Princeton-educated computer specialist, Alan Turing, in 1950, which evaluates a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or which could not be distinguished from, a human being’s. If this comes to pass, what does it mean for our self-consciousness, and for the doctrine of God’s creating us in his image (Gen 1:26-27)? Is it theologically impossible (as some of my friends propose) for us to create real thinking machines?

The cognitive sciences, especially the neurosciences, pose questions like, “Are we just our brains?” As Harvard’s Stephen Pinker asserts with striking boldness, “The neuroscientific worldview — the idea that the mind is what the brain does — has kicked away one of the intuitive supports of religion. So even if you accepted all of the previous scientific challenges to religion — the Earth revolving around the sun, animals evolving, and so on — the immaterial soul was always one last thing that you could keep as being in the province of religion. With the advance of neuroscience, that idea has been challenged.” Suffice it to say that this is both a scientific and a philosophical set of topics, and I detect in this question a frank materialism that strikes me as a statement of belief more than science.

Global climate change and what to do about it constitutes one final key topic for science and faith as emerging adults continue to define the dialogue of faith and science. This also moves the conversation into ethics, away from content and method.

Speaking of ethics, there’s another set of topics that will certainly be provocative: sexuality and sexual orientation, including questions concerning the “gay gene” and whether our sexual natures hardwired. Even if we don’t subscribe to genetic determinism (that our genes fully determine our behavior), this is a knotty problem. It seems that we as theologians have to learn all we can from science about sexual issues, and let science inform, but not dictate our ethics. (This is a good rule of thumb on a whole host of issues.) Let it be said that sexuality was not one of the top five topics of the books I studied twenty-five years ago for my doctorate on science and theology, but it is central today.

The Who

Many people are forced to conclude that science and faith are incompatible, and all too often, Christian belief loses in this equation. I close with the story of Jim, a student in my science-and-religion class at Chico State University.

Jim is a really good guy. We met and talked at Starbucks in downtown Chico, and I was struck that, though tall, muscular, and a bit imposing, Jim exudes a gentleness. A smile comes easy. He grew up in Amador County. After his parents divorced when Jim was two, his father lived in Santa Barbara. His mother had the family go to church for a while — off and on, when she felt she needed to go. When she later remarried, Jim’s stepfather never said anything about faith, and the family attended rarely. Nevertheless, Jim attended church youth camps. “I found it kind of weird” (read: too religious) — “wherever we went, everyone was so sure. They never asked if you had any doubt.”

Not able to discuss his questions and doubts, Jim drifted away. Today, as a junior in college, he watches scientific atheists on YouTube (Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher). As an example of why he could no longer believe, he recalled the famous 2014 debate between creationist Ken Ham and the “science guy” Bill Nye: “Here’s the weirdest thing — when Bill Nye asked Ken Ham, ‘What would you need to change your mind?’ Ham replied. ‘Nothing.’” Jim’s mouth gaped open for a moment before he commented, “This is what turned me off — crazy stuff that religious people do. They’re kind of brainwashed.”

Jim is now a committed atheist. Yet as we talked, he brought up the idea he learned in childhood, eternal life. Since this conversation was part of a study, I stayed the interviewer and therefore neutral: “I can understand what you’re saying. That must be difficult.” But then he took the conversation in a different, deeper direction by uttering something unexpected. “You know, I long for heaven still — that sense that there’s more to come. But I just can’t believe it’s real.”

At that moment, I remained silent, but I felt an emotional depth and longing — he wishes Christian hope were true, but he doesn’t see a way he can believe in the gospel without losing his mind.

Why bring together mainstream science with mere Christianity? For Jim and many, many others like him.

[This essay is adapted from Mere Science and Christian Faith by Greg Cootsona. Copyright (c) 2018 by Greg Cootsona. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.]

Posted Sep 20, 2017