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Christians and Science

November 8, 2012

Detail of Compound Microscope by Claude Passemant, Photo by Sage Ross (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic, 1.0 Generic, GFDL 1.2 or later)

Quick:  Name a Christian scientist.  No, not a member of the Church of Christ Scientist founded by Mary Baker Eddy (“Christian Scientist”), and not a member of the Church of Scientology founded by L. Ron Hubbard (“Scientologist”).

Give up? Consider a combination of the terms “Christian” and “scientist” an oxymoron? Then you, like many other Christians today, might benefit from a short science lesson.

Scientific Ignorance

Somehow, we have been convinced that the abandonment of reason is a requirement of Christianity, and that ignorance of science is a badge of honor among Christians. However, a large number of leading scientists over the centuries have been Christian. Georges Lemaitre, for instance, was the astronomer (and Catholic priest) who proposed the “Big Bang” theory.

On the Shoulders of Giants

Christian scientists have made enormous contributions in fields ranging from astronomy and physics to genetics and seismology. Here are just a few examples:

  • Nicolaus Copernicus, Father of Modern Astronomy
  • Andreas Vesalius, Father of Modern Anatomy
  • Galileo Galilei, Father of Modern Science
  • Johannes Kepler, Father of the Planetary Laws of Motion
  • Carolus Linnaeus, Father of Taxonomy
  • Antoine Lavoisier, Father of Modern Chemistry
  • Michael Farady, Father of Electronics
  • George Boole, Father of Computer Science
  • Gregor Mendel, Father of Genetics
  • James Maxwell, Father of Modern Physics
  • George Washington Carver, Father of Chemurgy[i]

After the fall of the Roman Empire, it was the church which – almost single handedly – preserved literacy in Western Europe. During the Dark Ages, monks saved works of classical scholarship from destruction at the hands of barbarian invaders. The church established some of Europe’s earliest universities, along with thousands of smaller schools.

 Science v. Religion

This is not to say that the conflict between science and religion is of recent origin. As early as the 13th Century, the philosopher and theologian, Albertus Magnus advocated for the peaceful co-existence of science and religion. The condemnation by the church of scientific conclusions by Copernicus (above), Galileo (above), and Kepler (above) is well known.

What Lord William Kelvin, the Christian scientist credited with having discovered the atom, said of science is significant:

“…[W]hen you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the state of Science, whatever the matter may be.” [ii]

Faith can change lives, even whole societies, but it will never be measured. Religion cannot, therefore, be proven or disproven using scientific means. Science, in other words, has inherent limitations. This turns the argument about Christian “ignorance” of science on its head.

As Christians, we see God’s handiwork everywhere around us. But the signs of His presence will be interpreted one way by believers, another by non-believers. The better we understand science, the stronger argument Christians can make in favor of a Creator/Healer/Redeemer. After all,  we are instructed:

“…[A]lways be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you…” (1 Peter 3: 15).

Choosing to shut our eyes and thrust our thumbs into our ears when science is discussed only draws ridicule. That stance does little or nothing to convey the Gospel message. Instead, it suggests that Christians are unable to respond to a cogent scientific argument and, therefore, fearful of responding at all.

And, yes, we should expect to endure ridicule in Christ’s name. But that is not the issue when our own shortcomings – shortcomings we might have overcome – serve to generate the ridicule. And, yes, there are things Christians must take on faith. We can and should attest to that fact. But we cannot expect to mandate faith on the part of non-believers, no matter how sincere our own.

Science attempts to explain how events occur. Religion attempts to explain why they occur. These are two distinct areas of knowledge. Science and religion necessarily converge on the question of First Cause.

Since science looks exclusively to natural causes (not supernatural), it will never devise a theory or solve an equation “proving” (or, for that matter, disproving) the existence of God. That possibility is simply outside the parameters of science. Religion, on the other hand, deals with profound truths, beyond the scope of science.

In the end, no mere argument can convince a non-believer to believe. God gives to each a measure of faith (Rom. 12: 3), and the individual soul responds. Our most powerful tool for persuasion may be the way we live out our faith.

[i] Sir Isaac Newton, one of the greatest scientific intellects of all time, qualifies for inclusion on this list only if it is understood that he denied the Trinity.

[ii] Popular Lectures and Addresses, Vol. 1, “Electrical Units of Measurement”.

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From → Christian, Religion

  1. Ted Oswald permalink

    And of course there are great Christian scientists working today, Francis Collins coming to mind. He’s currently directing the National Institutes of Health, and has published widely on faith and science.

  2. Joni Bee permalink

    Just found your blog from The High Calling. Wow. GREAT post! I especially liked your statement: “But we cannot expect to mandate faith on the part of non-believers, no matter how sincere our own.” and “In the end, no mere argument can convince a non-believer to believe.” and “Our most powerful tool for persuasion may be the way we live out our faith.” AMEN! Yes! Absolutely! I have maintained friendships with serveral unbelievers (professed atheists and agnostics) going back… well, a while 🙂 praying for them, of course, and trying to keep in mind that they are NOT going to see things the way I do. In my witnessing about what God has done in my life, I have to keep in mind they will always tend to find a natural explanation for the supernatural. In the end, I agree with your last statement: how I live out my faith is the only persuasion that will be compelling. One good friend is actually a lawyer with SPLC in Miami. She fights for many causes most any Christian would support as a moral atheist. It’s hard to top that! You see the dilema? There has to be a difference between my life lived in faith and her life lived without it. And there is, but those points, for example sexual abstinence, carry no weight with her. Anyway: great job. Thanks for the thoughtful post. Shouldn’t Blaise Pascal, Charlies Boyle and Isaac Newton be on the list as well?

    • Thanks so much for the praise and your thoughtful response! I get passionate on the topic of witness. That’s one of the reasons I wrote “The Rose Garden”. It’s my testimony.

      Like you, I have many non-Christian friends. But I know any number of Christians who associate only with other Christians. We can certainly minister to the brethren. In my view, however, circling the wagons does not accomplish the Great Commission with which we are charged. Had the Apostle Paul — at the Lord’s express direction — not reached out to the Gentiles (in addition to Jewish converts), we would have a very different church today.

      As for your atheist friend, the Spirit is working on her just as He did on us. Often at the root of atheism is an unhealed wound — a great injury or deep loss, for which God is held responsible. It may take awhile for your friend to tease apart the responsibility she attributes to God, and the responsibility actually stemming from another’s sin against her (or life in this flawed world of ours). Don’t give up hope. I am, by the way, a former atheist. Somewhere God is laughing about it, I’m sure.



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