Press "Enter" to skip to content

“Science or Faith” or “Science and Faith”? (1 of 5)

A quick Google search of “Science and Faith” brings up 144 million matches in half a second. Many of these sites repeat the “conflict” narrative—science and faith are at war, and science will ultimately win because it has reason and evidence on its side. Though this story is very popular, it is also wrong.

In this series, I will identify three assumptions underlying this narrative. I will then share reasons why these assumptions are wrong, and therefore why there is no conflict between science and faith—we should be talking about the “and” not the “or”between Science and Faith.

 

Why This is So Important

This story of conflict is more and more common because these underlying assumptions have become deeply embedded in our culture. As a result, they are how we now naturally think about the world and we seldom stop to question them.

Ignoring these assumptions is very dangerous for Christians. They lead us to set up a false dichotomy between science and faith and so believe we must choose between the two. Some choose “science” and conclude what they believe about God is at least “less true.” They may hang on to some belief, but it is marginalized, minimized, and emasculated. In short, it is no longer a robust, energized faith worth pursuing.

Others Christians choose “faith” over science, deciding to take a “blind leap of faith” and reject evidence and reason in their pursuit to know God. This sort of intellectual laziness is equally dangerous. It rejects the biblical notion of faith as trust grounded in evidence and reason (I’ll say more about this later in this series). In its place is substituted a counterfeit definition of faith. This counterfeit definition of faith cannot satisfy. In either case, the Christian who assumes he must choose between science and faith will have a hard time maintaining a robust and flourishing spiritual life.

This “science vs. faith” narrative is equally dangerous for non-Christians. By setting up this as an either/or choice, most non-believers choose science. In doing, so they assume the Bible is not trustworthy and not worth further study. They never consider how Jesus offers the solution to their deepest needs. As the great twentieth-century theologian, J. Gresham Machen so aptly put it, “False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the Gospel. …” We must do all we can to remove false obstacles such as this science vs. faith narrative so that non-believers can consider the truths of the gospel.

 

Our Task: Challenge the False Assumptions Underlying this “Science or Faith” Narrative

Therefore it is vitally important we identify the underlying assumptions that lead to this “science or faith” narrative. Once we identify these assumptions, we must understand them well enough to see where they go wrong. By understanding this wrong thinking, we will then know the true story of the relationship between faith and science—one not of conflict but congruence (in most cases)—one of “and” not “or.”

The result of reframing these issues as faith and science will help us answer some questions we may struggle with as Christians. It will also help us have productive conversations about faith and science with non-believers.

 

False Assumption #1 “Science is about facts and Christianity is about faith, and facts win.”

The Story We Are Told

The story goes something like this: Science is all about knowledge (it is a knowledge tradition). It is about “the facts, all the facts, and nothing but the facts.” For instance, chemistry is the study of facts related to chemical reality. Chemistry professors write textbooks on this subject. Students study hard and are examined on how well they understand these facts. It is an area you can be right or wrong about, can be corrected on, and should want to learn more and more about. No one would ever say, “That’s just your belief about chemistry. It may be true for you, but it is not true for me!” Chemistry is about knowledge.

On the other hand, the story we are told says Christianity is all about faith—it is a belief tradition, the exact opposite of knowledge traditions such as chemistry. Christianity is not about facts. There is nothing to study and learn regarding theological reality. Textbooks aren’t written on the subject that should be studied and mastered. You can’t be right or wrong about your Christian beliefs, you can’t be corrected, and it is perfectly reasonable to say, “That’s just your belief. It may be true for you, but it is not true for me!” In sum, Christianity is about belief, not knowledge. It is on a par with your belief about the best flavor of ice cream or the best color.

 

Many Churches Actually Reinforce This Story!

Unfortunately, many churches reinforce this idea that Christianity is a belief tradition, not a knowledge tradition. When a high school student wants to learn about chemistry, she takes a course in high school and is assigned a textbook. The textbook will be about 300 pages and will at first be hard to read. It will have “big” words like “nonredox combination reactions” and “titrations.” She will be expected to spend hours studying to learn the terminology, core concepts, proofs, and applications of chemistry to other areas of study.

However, when she wants to learn about Christianity, does she have the same experience in most churches? Is she assigned a 300-page textbook on Christian theology that is hard for her to read? Will it contain “big” words she is not immediately familiar with, such “substitutionary atonement” and “soteriology”? Will she be expected to spend hours studying to learn the terminology, core concepts, proofs, and applications of theology to other areas of study?

No, this will probably not be her experience in most churches today. Instead, she will usually be given a short, easy-to-read pamphlet sharing some stories and a few bible verses. No challenging words or concepts. The message she hears loud and clear is that in Christianity there is nothing to learn and nothing to master. Christianity is not about knowledge—it is not like chemistry or other areas requiring study to learn facts. Instead, she is implicitly taught that Christianity is only about belief—nothing more. Her church is guilty of reinforcing this first myth and damaging her soul. As God said in Hosea 4:6,  “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”

 

Conclusion

So how do we change this and begin rewriting the narrative to one of “Science and Faith”—that both are knowledge traditions that can and most often do complement one another? First, we must challenge head-on this false assumption (inside and outside our churches) that Science is about only facts and Christianity is about only faith. I’ll offer three responses over the next few weeks. Until then, grace and peace.

 

For a good introduction to many of the issues surrounding faith and science I suggest Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton’s The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy.

6 Comments

  1. Elijah Dority
    Elijah Dority April 7, 2018

    So my problem with this is that I don’t know of anyone who is actually making this assumption you’re talking about. Evidence based reasoning seems to be the only way to reach accurate conclusions about reality, and if there is another way to do so, that needs to be demonstrated. It also should be more reliable than a random guess would be.

  2. Stan Wallace
    Stan Wallace April 7, 2018

    Elijah,

    I appreciate your comment, though I believe you may be responding to my next post re. scientific realism/anti-realism. I’ll answer accordingly, and please correct me if I’m wrong. The issue is the aim of science. If science is to provide conclusions about reality, you are correct. But an influential group of philosophers of science (see suggested readings at the end of the next post) argue that is not the goal (aim, end, purpose) of science. Rather it is to develop technology to have mastery over nature (taking their cue from Francis Bacon, the Enlightenment thinker, in his New Organon). Finally, reliability for the scientific anti-realist when she is in the lab doing her research is certain the goal. But again, anti-realists argue that reliability can be interpreted along anti-realist lines.

    The broader point is that some assume science is essentially (necessarily) about facts. Therefore, if someone is doing science and not seeking facts, s/he is not doing science (given the nature of necessity). So even if there is one case of someone truly doing science but not seeking facts, this logically falsifies the claim that fact-seeking is a necessary component of science. The anti-realists who are scientists number more than one (along with the philosophers of science who are anti-realist). Therefore the conclusion follows that science is not necessarily about facts.

    (Formally, the argument takes the logical syllogistic structure of modus tollens: If P then Q, and not Q, therefore not P, where P=Science is necessarily about facts, and Q=all scientists and philosophers of science are seeking facts, but not-Q [those who are scientific anti-realists prove not all scientists/philosophers of science understand this to be the aim of science], therefore not-P [that science is necessarily about facts]).

  3. Elijah Dority
    Elijah Dority April 7, 2018

    Science is used to come to accurate conclusions about reality, and we continually refine these conclusions to make them more accurate. Whether or not that’s the only thing science does is irrelevant. Science uses evidence based reasoning to reach these conclusions about reality. If faith has any merit as a method of reaching true conclusions, then those conclusions should be more accurate than random chance.

  4. Stan Wallace
    Stan Wallace April 8, 2018

    You have summarized well the scientific realist position. As I mentioned above, I agree with you. I, too, think "Sciences used to come to accurate conclusions about reality, and we continually refine these conclusions to make them more accurate."

    But as scientific realists, you and I must be careful and fair. We cannot say that those who hold the alternative view (scientific anti-realists) are not doing science. We can (and I think should) disagree with them over what science is all about. But in doing so we must be intellectually honest, open-minded, and fair in our treatment of this (or any) alternate view with which we disagree, not wrongly characterizing or immediately dismissing it.

    And this is my point: scientific anti-realism is a respected position, even if it is one I (and you) disagree with. And therefore science is not NECESSARILY about finding facts (though you and I believe this is the goal of science). This is what is relevant–not what else science does, but whether all science must do this. And scientific anti-realists argue science is not about fact-finding.

    And so if science is not NECESSARILY about finding facts, the assumption I’m addressing here is wrong, in that it assumes this is a necessary aspect of the scientific enterprise.

    In your last line you mention faith. Faith is not part of this point. All I’m discussing here is the nature of science. (In post #3 I’ll address the issue of faith.) And note that people of faith are usually not anti-realists (so anti-realism isn’t driven by a person’s faith commitment). In fact, the vast majority of theists are realists, because we believe God is a God of order who created the world in an orderly way, such that we can learn about it by the scientific process. This is why modern science first developed in the context of Christian theism (I’ll say more about this later). Most scientific anti-realists are not people of faith, but hold to anti-realism for the other reasons I mention in post 2.

    Thanks for your engagement. I appreciate it, and hope my comments are helpful.

  5. Phil
    Phil April 10, 2018

    I really appreciated the paragraph highlighting how churches fail to teach youth that there are "facts" to be mastered in Christianity too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *