What We Think About Science and Scripture
If you want to know what pop culture thinks about an issue, Google’s Autocomplete Me is a wonderful tool.
(For those who aren’t familiar with how this works, when you begin typing in the Google search box the search engine shows a list of popular words that may complete your intended search. The suggested words or phrases are a reflection of what other people have searched for or written on. Thus, Autocomplete Me gives you a window into what people think about an issue.)
I recently used Autocomplete Me to confirm what I already suspected to be true concerning what most people think about science and the Bible. Here’s what it came up with:
science proves the bible wrong
science proves god is fake
science disproves god
science disproves religion
science disproves christianity
Just to be clear, no respectable scientist would ever claim that empirical research can disprove the existence of God. They might say that science can’t prove that God exists, or that we don’t have enough evidence to believe in God. But they would never say anything like what I found through Autocomplete Me. Even famed agnostics like Richard Dawkins qualify their claims, saying, “There is probably no God.”
So what should we make of the results of Autocomplete Me? At the very least, they show us what many (or even most) people think about science and the Bible. That is, most people believe that science and Scripture are incompatible. They think one is true and the other is false, but they can’t both be true. Many people think this way, including those who call themselves Christians and those who consider themselves to be agnostic or atheistic. All these have one thing in common: they’re completely wrong.
The Roles of Science and Scripture
For much of the past several centuries, many of the best scientists in the Western world were people who loved the Scriptures. They believed Scripture, and saw no real contradiction between what they observed in the world and what they read in the Bible. In other words, they believed that Scripture and science are friends. They are “partners” who, when doing what each was designed to do, shed light on different areas or spheres of life.
It’s a little bit of an oversimplification, but usually science is good at answering “What?” and “How?” questions, while Scripture is good at answering “Who?” and “Why?” questions. For example, Scripture can’t help me identity what kind of tissue I’m looking at under a microscope. Nor does Scripture tell me anything about how the neural synapses function in my brain. But the Scriptures do tell me who created brains and why God created them in the first place, whereas science could only guess about these things.
Science tells us how many different species of beetles there are (over 400,000!), while Scripture tells us why God created beetles—and plants and clouds and people. Science tells us what takes places during sexual reproduction, while Scripture tells us why sex was created and who sex was created for. Science tells us how people die (biologically), while Scripture tells us why people die in the first place (the wages of sin is death).
Dilemmas and Debates
So why all the fuss? If Christians have believed for centuries that Scripture and science are friends, then what is the problem today? Why are there some many debates?
There are two problems. First, one problem is that there are some areas where the apparent claims of Scripture and the contemporary findings of science seem to contradict each other. We will look at one of these areas in a moment.
The second problem is that many people are happy to point out the natural limitations of Scripture without fairly admitting the natural limitations of science. For example, Scripture is of no help for getting someone to the moon. It isn’t a book on calculus, rocket science, or orbital trajectories. But no Christian expects it to be that, either. Why would they? That isn’t the purpose of Scripture according to Scripture.
But notice what happens when you begin to talk about the limitations of science. Some people get antsy. They start suspecting that you are trying to “force religion on them.” All you are doing, though, is questioning the limitations of science. You are exploring where the helpfulness of science ends, and where the need for some other discipline might begin (like philosophy or theology, for example).
The Limitations of Science
Remember the scientific method from your days in school? (Identify a problem. Research the issue. Make a hypothesis. Test the hypothesis with an experiment. Analyze the results.) Well, notice what the scientific method is designed to test: observable, measurable, repeatable phenomena. This means that the scientific method is incapable of analyzing nonphysical objects (things without mass or movement) because its methods of discovery are limited to only that which can be observed, measured, and repeated (i.e., empirical data). From the outset, therefore, the scientific method prevents itself from discovering things such as God, angels, souls or minds, abstract numbers, ideas, propositional statements, consciousness, mental images, personal agency, and first-person identity. The point is not that all of those must exist because science cannot disprove them. The point is simply that science can say nothing about them. It cannot discover them, even if they do exist.
And here’s where the problem gets worse. It is a huge assumption to say that because science cannot speak to the existence or non-existence of any of those things, that they must not be real or important. That is circular reasoning. It is like saying, “The only things that are real or important are those that science can discover.” How do you know that? “Because if they were real or important, then science would be able to discover them.” Do you see how viciously circular that is?
That kind of thinking is not science; it’s what we will call scientism. Scientism believes that the scientific method is the only appropriate way of discovering truth in the world, and that science by itself is able to explain the world we live in. The following is a widely quoted statement from Richard Lewontin, a famous scientist. Note how he admits that many such scientists hold their beliefs with rigid dogmatism:
“Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” (Lewontin, “Billions and Billions of Demons,” The New York Review of Books, January 7, 1997, 31).
If you are willing to continue to believe in the ability of science to answer all important questions in life in spite of its apparent absurdity, its well-known failures, and its obvious limitations, then science has become a religion for you. You are an adherent of scientism who is no longer open to the possibility that science might not be able to explain everything. You have become truly close-minded in the very worst way.
God and Science
A common objection usually comes up at this point that goes something like this. “If science can’t prove or disprove the existence of God, are you suggesting that I should just believe in God with blind faith?”
That’s not what I’m suggesting. Rather, I’m saying that we should let reality determine our methodology or way of learning, instead of allowing a predetermined way of learning (e.g., the scientific method) to determine what is real or what counts for evidence. To say this another way, you cannot know the best way to study what exists until you are adequately acquainted with what exists.
1. That means we must begin with a casual acquaintance with the object under investigation,
2. for the purpose of learning more about the nature of the object,
3. which allows the object of investigation to determine the best way to further investigate it,
4. resulting in the development of a method of study best suited to the object’s nature.
In other words, I’m saying that reality should inform us of how to study it, instead of our deciding beforehand how we will study reality. For example, if the God of the Bible is real, then I shouldn’t expect to find him in a test tube or under a microscope. For he is both Spirit (nonmaterial), and he is the author of everything else in creation. His does not exist as a part of his natural creation, but as someone who relates to it through supernatural means.
What I’m saying is this. If God exists, then my relationship to him is not that of an observer studying the facts of the world for “traces of God.” Rather, my relationship to God is more like Shakespeare’s relationship to Hamlet. What could Hamlet know about Shakespeare? And how could Hamlet know these things? He could only know Shakespeare if the author had written something about himself into the story. Hamlet would never be able to find out anything else about his author in any other way. This led Christian author C. S. Lewis to conclude that we won’t be able to find God through the scientific method. We’ll only know about God if he has written something about himself into our life, into our world. And that, of course, is precisely what the Christian faith believes he did.
In the person of Jesus, God wrote himself into the pages of history. By becoming a human being, he stepped into our world and lived among us. The people who saw Jesus, therefore, saw God. They ate with him. They talked with him. They watched him die on the cross. And then, several hundred people in several different cities over the course of several weeks saw him after he rose from the dead—something that can’t be repeated or measured by the scientific method, but something that people saw and believed. They didn’t just see it, either. Their lives (and the lives of billions of others since) have been changed forever by the God who rose from the dead.
So how can you investigate Christianity to see if it's true? You can't "go back" to see Jesus for yourself, but you can read about him in the pages of the Bible. As you do so, try viewing the world through the eyes of Scripture, just as you should try to do through the eyes of scientism. See which "lens" (scientism or Scripture) makes the world look clearer. Like billions of people in the world today, I think you'll find that Scripture can account for much that scientism can't. Not only that, Scripture makes room for true science to flourish in its proper role, without expecting it to address the kinds of questions that it isn't designed (or able) to answer.
What About the Contradictions?
Maybe you’re thinking, “What about the contradictions between Scripture and science that you mentioned?” Well, technically, they’re just apparent contradictions. That is, they are things that seem to contradict each other but actually don’t.
Take the infamous example of the creation story in the book of Genesis. For years people have been getting into arguments about creation and evolution. Does science contradict the creation story in Genesis?
Hardly. Although, there are many who think so. As a result, these people either throw out science altogether (which is a horribly unhelpful thing to do), or else they throw out the Bible altogether (which is eternally unwise).
The problem is usually that someone has rigidly accepted one of two things: (1) a certain interpretation of the creation story or (2) a certain scientific interpretation of the data.
It should be noted, however, that in both cases interpretations are being made. The Bible and the data itself (the evidence in the world) are not the problem. They simply are what they are. Our problem lies with the fact that we sometimes interpret information wrongly. This happens with both Scripture and with science.
Interpretive mistakes in science are many. We are constantly overturning old theories to explain how the world works. None of that makes science bad, but it does means that we should hold on to scientific theories with humility. We may be wrong about lots of things, and even at this moment there are many theories competing to explain the data we have available. Not all of them can be right, and it’s possible that all of them may be wrong. This is why we need to be conscious of our role as fallible interpreters.
The same is true with Scripture, though, and Christians should not forget this. The Bible means what it means, but our interpretation of what it means can be wrong (just like scientific interpretations). For example, Christians have disagreed for years whether or not the creation story should be seen as poetry or as history. This had been going on long before concerns about evolution arose. The reason for the debates have changed in every age, but the debates have always been there. Case in point, one man named Augustine wondered why it took God six days to create the world. He thought six days seemed far too long, believing that God could have created everything in a moment. Augustine noted that the phrase, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” seems to suggest that God created everything in a moment. So, he reasoned that perhaps the rest of the story was a poetic way of describing why God created, not what or how God created.
Christians and Science Today
For the record, I don’t think Augustine got it quite right. But I do think it’s important to point out that many Christian theologians debated the meaning of the creation story long before the theory of evolution came on the scene. Still today there are Christians who hold to one of several contrasting views. Some Christians believe the six days of the creation account are literal, twenty-four hour periods of time. Other Christians believe the six days are poetic ways of describing longer ages of time. Other Christians believe the entire account is a poetic arrangement, giving us theology instead of history. Still other Christians believe that the story is actually an account of the creation of the promised land, not of the whole world (since the whole world’s creation is already recorded in the first two verses). Not all of these can be right, but all those who hold them can still be Christians (people who follow Jesus by trusting him and listening to what he says).
Just because there are many theories or interpretations doesn't mean that we are free to pick the ones that we like, either in Scripture or in science. We must make good interpretive judgments based on all the available evidence to us. It’s also important to point out that not all Christians are “comprising their faith” if they believe that the creation story is a poetic account of how God created all that exists. You can’t say that someone “doesn’t believe the Bible” if they merely disagree with you about the best way to interpret what is written. They may be wrong (or you may be), but neither of you are trying to deny the Bible; you are simply disagreeing about what it means.
Does this land us in uncertainty? Are we left with guesses and the possibility of discovering that all we believe and care about will actually turn out to be false? I don’t think so. If the God who raised Jesus from the dead is real, then here’s something we can bank on: When all the facts are known and rightly interpreted, there will be no final conflict between science and Scripture. For the same God who made this world, wrote the Bible.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.