Not That Simple

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Have you ever read through the online comments following a science and religion article? They make it seem so basic. Science proves God does not exist, on the one hand. Or, on the other, the Bible proves that God exists and that we just need Jesus (and science is irrelevant). All that is left to do is choose: Science or God?

The data show that people are increasingly making the decision to leave the church, including some who do so because they want to take science seriously. This either/or divide contributes, at least in part, to the steady increase in the religious “nones.”

Of course, if you follow us at Science for the Church, you know it is not so simple. Not only is there is no need for an either/or between faith and science—we have also discovered that science can enrich your faith and strengthen your church.

Fact vs. Value

If you have studied philosophy, you probably know about the fact vs. value distinction: some things are objectively true, and others are subjective judgements. “I attended Northwestern University” is a factual statement. “Northwestern is the best school in the Big Ten” is a value statement (albeit, a true one).

As these philosophers suggest, facts are often associated with empirical verification, truth, explanation, naturalness, objectivity, rationality, and even superiority, especially in the connection to science.

Values look quite different. They are subjective, relative, evaluative, empirically unverifiable, and associated with ethics and emotions. They are sometimes dismissed as “mere opinion” or “belief.”

Often faith and science are couched in these terms. Prominent atheist Jerry Coyne titled his treatise on the incompatibility between religion and science, Faith vs. Fact. In some ways, this is just a more sophisticated approach to those online comment I mentioned above. Coyne asserts as a bare fact that, because of science, God cannot exist, and religion is false. Why? Religion is a subjective judgement, based merely on faith. Of course, as those comment sections make evident, some go in the opposite direction: faith is true, and therefore science must be false.

A Blurry Distinction

Whether it is facts vs. values, or the is-ought distinction, things get murky. Reality is nearly always more complicated and often more interesting than these simple dichotomies, in part because science is rarely pure in its pursuit of facts. What are some examples?

Coyne’s blog, Why Evolution is True, recently offered one as Greg Mayer wrestled with the racist and misogynist values of 19th-century Quaker zoologist, Edward Drinker Cope. Cope discovered many facts about lizards, snakes, and crocodiles in North America and contributed more widely to our understanding of vertebrate biology, most notably Cope’s Rule. He also published “purportedly scientific articles” where his racist and misogynist values mixed with scientific facts. He contributed to the legacy of scientific racism that continues to this day.

Another example is the quest for a grand unified theory in physics. Sabine Hossenfelder unpacks the values that undergird such a search (start this video around 4:25): the “whole idea of a theory of everything is based on an unscientific premise… [some physicists] invent a theory for what they think the universe should be like.”

These are but two examples out of many that show how science is rarely perfectly objective. It is laced with assumptions, often about whether God or something beyond the material world can exist. It is framed by scientists’ views, and these impact which studies they undertake and which questions they ask. And then, once the data is collected, confirmation bias can impact how the so-called facts are understood.

This does not dismiss the power of science to tell us about the natural world or undermine the integrity of scientists. Science is still good and gives us amazing, mostly reliable descriptions of God’s creation. But science has limits and rarely adheres to the simplistic dichotomies—objective/subjective, facts/values, either/or, faith/science.

  • A philosopher describes Quine’s fact/value distinction, or try this 9-minute video by a sociologist.
  • Fred Hoyle is another classic example of a scientist whose values impacted their science.
  • Dive much deeper through this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on objectivity in science.
  • Check out Christian evolutionary biologist Jeff Schloss’s take on Coyne’s Faith Versus Fact.
  • Addressing tough questions worked for Katie Lillemon, as she wrote for us in June.
  • BioLogos has a nice collection of personal stories like this one of individuals whose faith has been strengthened by engaging science.
  • This blog profiles college students who are reconciling faith and science, including those like Leah and Charlie, who have grown in faith by pursuing the intersection with science.

Complexity Pays Off

Why did I go on this little excursion? Well, I have found the richness of religion and science in those complicated and murky areas, where the dichotomies blur and where we grow as we wrestle with the complexity. Intellectual and spiritual growth comes from tackling questions that do not have simple answers.

That’s why we at Science for the Church are passionate to help the church do this work. Invite the difficult questions. Engage the complexity. Avoid simple answers. Welcome, even proclaim, the murkiness. It is precisely in doing so that we believe the church will be strengthened.

At this point, some will wonder if this effort runs the risk of tearing down the faith of the faithful. Perhaps. Wrestling with the complexity of how a loving God can allow pain and suffering or with the church’s complicity alongside science in areas like racism may, at first glance, look like a surefire path to deconstruct faith.

When I attended seminary, I heard it said that the task of theological education was to tear down the student’s ill-formed theological assumptions and build a firmer base from which real growth could occur.

Every one of us would benefit from a firmer foundation. And a lot less simplistic internet banter.



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