I’m an astrophysicist. I love seeing how the physics we study on Earth unfolds in the extreme conditions of the universe, such as the intense gravity of a black hole or the near-vacuum of a gas cloud between stars. I am most curious about the BIG things. In my research, I studied galaxy clusters located a billion or more light years away. Each cluster contains thousands of galaxies, and each galaxy has hundreds of billions of stars. These clusters are so massive that they distort space itself! Like astronomy fans everywhere, I am filled with awe at the vast sizes, distances and time scales.
I am also a Christian. You might be surprised to hear “science” and “Christian” together. In today’s world, people who value science are concerned about the views of Christians, and Christians are increasingly skeptical of scientists. Aren’t white evangelical Christians the group with the lowest vaccination rates? The people most opposed to climate change? The ones who built an entire museum opposing evolutionary biology? Unfortunately, this is all true. Even worse, anti-science views on COVID and climate are more than a difference of opinion; opposition leads directly to increased disease, suffering, death and damage to the planet. Yet I believe that the historical teachings of Christianity actually support science.
False and harmful polarization
This conflict did not arise out of nowhere. Debates over creation versus evolution date back decades, fueled by the Christian commitment to the authority of the Bible. The writings of militant atheists did not help. When Richard Dawkins and others argue that science excludes God and religion, Christians have good reason to be skeptical of what scientists say. Still, science has been bipartisan for many years, and polls have shown that many Christians love science, even if they are skeptical about some topics. Only since 2019 has science itself become polarized. The recent polarization is driven not so much by Christian teaching as by cultural forces. When 40% of self-identified evangelicals don’t attend church more than once a year, their views don’t come from the church. Polarization seems much more driven by social media, as recently explained by Jonathan Hyde in Atlantica. In our highly polarized world, “science” and “Christian” have landed on opposite sides.
This polarization saddens my heart. I see the damage it is doing—the lives lost to COVID, the lost opportunities to prevent climate change—and the way it distorts our understanding of both science and Christianity in the public square. For many years I have written and spoken to religious audiences about the reliability of science and how science fits with the Bible. Almost a decade ago, I left my tenured professorship to lead BioLogos, an organization that shows how faith and science can work hand in hand. For me, science and faith go hand in hand. I live it every day. The wonder I experience as I study the heavens combines with my faith, prompting me to worship the Creator who created all. For me, the Christian faith is not some political ideology, but a daily choice to follow Jesus Christ. The God who hears my prayers and heals my soul is the same God who created the universe.
Science has Christian roots
At a fundamental level, the historical teachings of Christianity actually support the methods and values of science. To see how this works, first step back a bit. All scientists, regardless of religion or culture, share certain core values and beliefs. I mean values like curiosity about the natural world, a belief that the natural world is understandable, and a willingness to adjust your ideas in the face of data. Most scientists also share a desire to serve others through education, healthcare, or technology. These values are shared in the scientific community. Yet, what on this list would be in opposition to religion? None of these values contradicts Christian teaching.
In the earliest years of the Scientific Revolution, leaders such as Galileo and Robert Boyle wrote extensively about their faith. They showed how the Bible and Christian virtues fit into their work as scholars. In subsequent generations, Christians were leaders in bringing the benefits of science to the poor and marginalized as they founded schools and hospitals.
Even in America today, most Christians are not anti-science. Majority white evangelicals I did received a COVID vaccine, and vaccination rates are high among Hispanic Catholics, black churches and mainline white Protestants, according to a Pew study. Some of the top scientific leaders in vaccine development were Christian believers, including Frances Collins (then director of the NIH) and Kizzmekia Corbett (developer of Moderna’s COVID vaccine). Climate change leaders also include Christians, such as Rick Lindroth and Catherine Hayhoe.
Four values common to science and Christianity
Curiosity. Scientists are driven by a desire to understand how the natural world works, whether it’s a huge galaxy cluster or a tiny virus. People of all faiths can be curious, and Christians are no exception. Scripture encourages and models curiosity about the natural world in stories like Adam naming the animals (Genesis 2:19-20) and Solomon cataloging the plants (1 Kings 4:33). More fundamentally, God commissioned mankind to care for the Earth (Genesis 1:26-29, 2:15), a task requiring an understanding of soil, weather, and ecosystems. The natural world is the very work of God, yet distinct from God, which makes it right and proper for us to contemplate and study it.
The belief that nature is comprehensible. It may seem obvious today that humans are capable of understanding the natural world, but many of our ancestors would disagree. It was common for pre-scientific cultures to believe in a pantheon of gods and spirits whose whims determined the weather, the movement of the planets, disease and other phenomena. One could only guess what the gods would do next. Judeo-Christian teaching helped to dispel this picture by seeing nature as ruled by a single wise God. The regularity of nature is seen as a direct result of God’s faithfulness (Jeremiah 33:19-26). This picture lays the foundation for the modern scientific view of nature as a system of regular, repeating, universal patterns that humans can understand. Scientists of all faiths and no faith hold this modern scientific view, but hold it for different reasons. For a Christian, the regularity and intelligibility of nature is due to the intelligent faithfulness of a sovereign God.
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Humility. Science is not an armchair activity where one can simply make up ideas about the natural world and assume they are true. Instead, science requires the humility to continually adjust one’s ideas through experiment and observation. This approach also fits Christianity. God creates in ways that humans cannot fully predict or understand (Job 38), so we must constantly test our ideas against what we observe in the natural world. Moreover, Christianity teaches that everyone is broken and morally flawed, and that the path to healing requires the humble admission of wrongdoing. Robert Boyle himself wrote how Christian humility was consistent with the scientific humility he had learned through his many inconclusive experiments on the formation of bubbles in ice.
Service. Many people working in STEM fields, regardless of their religion, are motivated by a desire to help others and meet needs. A commitment to service is also a key part of Christianity, and many Christians see careers in science, engineering, and medicine as opportunities to live out their faith. Luke, the author of one of the gospels, was himself a physician (Colossians 4:14). Jesus called his followers to feed the hungry and care for the sick (Matthew 25:31-46), and there are dozens of stories of Jesus personally healing sickness and injury. Fundamentally, Christians serve because we are called to imitate Jesus Christ, who made the ultimate sacrifice by giving his life for others.
An appeal to the skeptics
Despite these positive resonances between Christian teaching and science, you may be skeptical. You may have heard Christians argue for a young Earth or seen the trend of tying anti-vaccine rhetoric directly to Christian worship. Such examples grieve me deeply because they do not reflect the Bible I know and the God I love, or even the majority of Christians. Instead, look at the many devout Christians who excel in basic research and serve others in medicine and education. Look to Jesus Christ himself, who created all that is, who loves the poor and marginalized, and who heals bodies, minds, and souls.
The forces of polarization today are intensifying the conflict between science and faith, with a flood of misinformation and misconceptions that do neither science nor faith justice. Science is a powerful tool for investigating cause and effect in the natural world, and the Christian can view science as an investigation of God’s work. Since the beginning of the scientific revolution, authentic Christian faith has fostered the curiosity, humility, and service that characterize science at its best. Both faith and science are necessary to answer the challenging questions facing our culture today. Let’s let them work together.