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What Are Science and Faith — And Are They Compatible?

Photo credit: Eliza Szablinska via Unsplash.

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from a chapter in the newly released book The Comprehensive Guide to Science and Faith: Exploring the Ultimate Questions About Life and the Cosmos

If by science we mean modern science (not medieval or ancient science), and if by faith we mean classic, orthodox Christian faith (not, say, gnostic varieties of Christianity or other faiths entirely, such as Jainism or Islam), then science and faith are obviously compatible. After all, since the rise of modern science to the present day, many top scientists have been orthodox in their Christian theology, seeing no contradiction between their faith and their scientific work. Indeed, those most closely associated with the rise of modern science were overwhelmingly Christian. 

Atheists might counter that if Christian scientists really understood the full implications of science, they would see that their Christian faith is, in the end, unsustainable. But such accusations, on closer analysis, always ring hollow and display special pleading, trying to make obviously bright and reflective scientists of faith seem like idiot savants who happen to be really good at their science but really bad at thinking through its implications, especially for their faith. 

Sketchy Evidence for Evolution

As a case in point, while lecturing at the University of Toronto some years back, I encountered a biologist in the audience who claimed that evolution made it impossible to be a scientist of faith. Many scientists who are Christians believe in evolution. I’m not one of them, thinking the evidence for evolution to be sketchy at best. But it needs to be noted that many scientists hold to classic Christian orthodoxy (i.e., the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus, his bodily resurrection and ascension, etc.) and are also evolutionists — some even of a Darwinian stripe, seeing God as creating through an evolutionary process that gives no evidence of design. Of course, their interpretation of Scripture will be suspect to those who see Genesis as teaching that creation occurred a mere 6,000 years ago in six literal 24-hour days. 

If you think that a literalist interpretation of Genesis is crucial to being a Christian, then you’ll deny that evolutionary science and Christianity are compatible. But that seems to be asking too much for the compatibility of science and faith. The more things you are required to believe, whether on the side of science or on the side of the faith, the more incompatible you make the two. My own view, and the one I’m recommending in this chapter, is to take a minimalist approach to science and to faith. Don’t make embracing science require holding on to too many controversial and suspect scientific views, and likewise, don’t make faith major in minors, forgetting Christ, who purchased us with his blood. 

My Personal Experience

In any case, sociology confirms that top scientists have also been orthodox Christians. Indeed, it’s a matter of record that the society of scientists and the society of orthodox Christians intersect in a nonempty set. Certainly, we should be concerned about the compatibility of science and faith if no such people residing in both groups existed. As it is, I’ve personally engaged with not one but two Nobel laureates who were reasonably orthodox in their Christian faith (William Phillips at a conference in 1997, and Richard Smalley for lunch in Houston shortly before his death in 2005). So, I can attest from personal experience that such people exist.

Even so, it’s always good to look deeper than sociology. What is modern science, and what is orthodox Christian faith, and are they the types of things that do well together, as with things that are genuinely compatible? Is the relationship between science and faith like a happy marriage, in which the spouses mutually support and reinforce each other and reside in wedded bliss? Or is it more like an uneasy marriage in which the spouses would just as soon be rid of each other? I personally think that modern science and orthodox Christian faith can reside in something like wedded bliss provided they are properly conceived.