Another Way of Slicing the Science-Faith Pie

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It’s easy to fall into just a few ways of relating science and faith. Classically, physicist and theologian Ian Barbour set out four categories: conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration.

The default mode for many is that Christianity and science are in conflict. Believe me, I hear it from my undergraduate students all the time. But imagine a pie that represents the full array of how science and faith—or better, scientists and people of faith—relate. There are many other ways to slice the faith-science pie.

I’ve been preparing for the Christian Scholars Conference in a couple of weeks, where I’m presenting a paper on the future of the church, and I’m responding to Elaine Howard Ecklund and David R. Johnson’s Varieties of Atheism in Science. What I’m reading from Ecklund and Johnson offers some surprising new insights.

Findings about Atheism in Science

Ecklund and Johnson present at least four conclusions that I found fascinating.

  1. Many atheist scientists in the US and UK are not hostile to religion. They may in fact see the positive role that religion can play in society—that, for example, religious communities engender charity and social cohesion and create meaningful rituals that bring people together.
  2. Here’s a particularly unexpected finding: These scientists generally became atheists before they studied science not because of their scientific work. Instead, they more often turned from belief in God because of negative childhood experiences in religious communities.
  3. Media (social or otherwise) overrepresents modernist atheist scientists like Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, who view religion and science as conflicting and incompatible. Most atheists in science, however, do not fit into this category, nor do they embrace the related view of scientism, “that all knowledge, all ways of seeing and understanding the universe, must reduce down to science” (Varieties of Atheism, 147).
  4. There’s not really a strict divide between believers and atheists when it comes to many key values. “Many atheist scientists are devoted to enhancing human well-being and the world around us…. They experience awe, wonder, and humility and… embrace spirituality and religious culture specifically” (Varieties of Atheism, 147).

One way this last finding works out is that many scientists, especially in the UK, “believe without belonging” (to use a phrase from sociologist Grace Davie). These scientists do not believe in God, but they do participate in prayer or religious services. They are inspired by the role of spiritual beliefs in creating meaning and having positive impacts on their identity and their work. Many spiritual atheist scientists talk about the limitations of science, which clarifies so much about the world but cannot explain the “human nature of being.”

Let’s pause, for moment, on that phrase, spiritual atheist scientists… “Spiritual” and “atheist” in the same sentence? It makes bringing science to church quite interesting, doesn’t it?

Christians should notice the common theme that science and religion are not hostile to one another. In fact, as I was writing this article, I talked with my co-director Drew Rick-Miller and our friend in this faith-science space, theologian Paul Metzger. Drew mentioned that, in his work with Science for Seminaries, when they asked atheist and/or non-churched scientists to work with seminaries, the overwhelming response was yes. Similarly, Paul has also written about his amazingly generative conversations with scientist Robert Jay Sutherland.

And what about that paper I am preparing, “Faith and Science: Congregations as Safe Places for Emerging Adults”? Some of it repeats what I’ve written elsewhere. Studies show that emerging adults leave the church as “nones” or “dones” because they see the church as “antagonistic to science.” I add from my own research project (Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries) that 18 to 30 year olds have learned to integrate faith and science when they’ve been part of congregations where they can ask questions and explore various responses. That’s why I conclude my paper with this challenge: one component of a vital church is to interact with the challenges and contributions of technology and science.

Slicing the Science-Religion Pie May Not Help

Maybe that’s why I’ve always appreciated my experience in congregations that engage theology with culture, like my years at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley with Earl Palmer and Mark Labberton. It also reminds me of the ministry of influential pastor and writer Tim Keller (who just died just over a week ago), who combined an orthodox Christian Gospel with a profound engagement with culture, including science and technology. And this isn’t just theoretical: when I was in New York City at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, I collaborated a number of times with Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian on faith and culture events (such as working with the artist Mako Fujimura, whom I interviewed recently).

There’s an approach that’s critical here: I learned from Tim never to talk down when discussing “the outsider” because you want those outside the church to feel welcome—and because they might actually be inside your doors! “Those atheist scientists” might already be in the pews since, according to Johnson and Ecklund’s research, 15 percent of atheist scientists have a religious spouse.

You see, slicing by its nature divides. And what I’m saying is that we’re going to meet a variety of approaches in our congregations where dividing science and religion leads to distorted understanding. Ecklund and Johnson uncovered surprising categories, like spiritual atheist scientists, which resist easy divisions.

Is the best lesson not to slice the pie all? Perhaps. At any rate, this research helps us, as congregational leaders, to be open to the variety of responses we encounter when we do the work of bringing science to church.

A black and white headshot of Greg's face with the words Greg Cootsona, Contributing Editor

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