Scientists and Church: Challenges

Many Christians in the sciences struggle to connect with churches.  Some of the issues are common to people from many different backgrounds (not just the sciences):

  • past negative experiences with churches or other Christians
  • an inability to find a church where they feel comfortable
  • busy-ness, travel, and other life challenges
  • a lack of interest on being part of a local church community

Other challenges were more specifically linked to their career and/or passion for the sciences:

Professional Challenges

1. At work:  Scientists who are Christians struggle like all believers often do in the workplace.

  • They can feel criticized, judged, or looked down upon by non-Christian colleagues.  Some scientists I interviewed noted a latent – or overt – hostility to religious faith, in general, and Christianity, in particular, among some of their colleagues.
  • They can feel “on display.”  Some people felt that they were continual examination by their colleagues.  They felt pressured to “keep up a Christian facade,” or to “always behave Christian-ly.”  This created a lot of stress.  When things don’t go well, “sometimes I just want to swear like all the other guys – and I can’t,” one scientist commented.
  • They felt compelled to connect their work and their faith.  While most scientists enjoy and appreciate this challenge, it is a challenge.  For instance, the biologists I met all had struggled with how evolutionary theory and human origins connected with their Christian faith.  For some people this was a long-term and/or difficult process, but also a faith-enriching journey.

At Church:   Often related to theological issues (discussed below), some scientists felt a lack of support, lack of respect, suspicion, or even outright hostility from individuals within a church, or even a church organization itself.

One biologist, who did attend church regularly and loved his church, spoke of one annoying individual who would try to corner him most Sunday mornings, armed with the latest blog from an ant-evolution or young-Earth website, saying, “Aha.  Gotcha.”  The scientist commented, “I spend all week defending my faith at the university; I don’t want to come to church and have to defend my life.”

I don’t’ believe anyone should be accosted like that at church.

  • How can churches provide a safe environment for scientists?
  • How can people hold respectful conversations about issues such as the relationship between science and faith?
Theological Challenges

The big theological challenges faced by most scientists as they did or did not connect well with churches centered on issues of interpretation of Scripture, particularly regarding:

  • The age of the universe.  Without exception, the scientists with Christian faith I interviewed, who worked in public universities, government, or the private sector, affirmed the commonly accepted age of the universe of 13.8 billion years, and age of the Earth of 4.5 billion years.  All of them arrived at this understanding through thoughtful consideration of both the scientific issues and perspectives on biblical interpretation.  They all could articulate clearly why they felt these datings were the best understanding of the biblical texts and the best conclusions from scientific observation and experimentation (for a short introduction see “The Age of the Earth” by Cambridge geophysicist, Dr. Bob White).  In fact, several scientists expressed that they felt that current theories about the Big Bang were remarkably consistent with Christian theology.

Each scientist respected those who might disagree with their conclusions, Some Christs do believe in a much younger universe and Earth based on a more literalistic interpretation of the Bible.  Some scientists felt they received mutual respect from people who disagreed about the age of the universe.  However some scientists expressed that they experienced hostility – passively and aggressively – from people in churches.  One geographer shared how he had talked about erosional forces shaping the landscape over  millions of years, who was forcefully “corrected” by a retired baker:  “You meant to say a few hundred or a couple of thousand years, didn’t you.”

  • Biological evolution.  All of the scientists I met with had no difficulty with most aspects of the commonly accepted theory of evolution.  They had all thought this through biblically and theologically.  Especially for those in biology, they had often done so in incredible depth and with profound insight.  Without exception they saw no natural conflict between the biblical texts and evolutionary theory (for a short introduction, see “Creation and Evolution” by geneticist, R.J. Berry).  Most, if not all, regardless of heir denominational affiliation, would fit within the theistic evolution perspective.

However, in churches, most scientists found a strong push back from many Christians toward the theory of evolution, and (like the biologist mentioned above) found that they were at best unsupported and at worst openly attacked or ridiculed for accepting evolutionary theory.  Concerns were expressed about both (1) the lack of accurate scientific knowledge , and (2) the lack of serious engagement with biblical texts of those who opposed them.   One biologist reflected on one encounter he had with an aggressive person during coffee time after a Sunday morning service:  “He had a read a blog or watched a YouTube video by some guy or other and then he thinks he’s an expert on genetics, and evolution, and the Bible and everything.  I hated to tell him this but he knew nothing about any of that, including the Bible.”

  • Human Origins and Adam and Eve.  Related to the evolution issue are theories about the origin of human beings and the identity of the biblical Adam and Eve.
Authority Challenges

In era or supposedly “fake news,” millions of websites, blogs, YouTube videos and books, where do we find truth?  In particular, where do Christians find truth?  To use  old fashioned theological theological language, what is our authority?

I was impressed that most of the scientists I met with had thought this through at length.  The common themes I heard were:

The Bible, God’s Word.  All of the scientists held the Bible in high regard as God’s Word.  What they did find challenging were some of the human interpretations of some parts of the Bible.  For instance, in most interviews we spoke at length about some of the ways in which people interpreted Genesis 1 and 2.  The issue was not a disagreement about the divine inspiration of the text, but the ways in which people interpreted the meaning of the text.  Scientists felt they had spent much more time seriously engaging these problematic texts, thinking through the options, and developing conclusions that were both faithful to Scripture and in concert with their observations than those who opposed them.  There was often (a not so subtle) frustration with opponents who had trite, quick, simplistic answers that did not treat Scripture or observed data seriously.

Several scientists identified these issues as reasons they no longer attend church.  They felt that members of the church had made specific (young-Earth anti-evolutionary) interpretations of specific texts to be non-negotiable “tests of faith” that determined if a person was a Christian or not.  Since these scientists could not agree with those particular interpretations they felt judged, unwelcome, and excluded from church.

The challenge for churches and for Christians in science is to reflect on what the authority of Scripture really means.  How do we understand ancient texts in the 21st century?  Where do issues of human interpretation begin to change the real meaning of the text?  What about questions around the type of literature, the original context, the capacity of the original audience?  Even more broadly, this raises questions around what are the essential doctrines of Christian faith?  Is a specific perspective on the age of the universe and/or evolution a litmus test of authentic Christian faith?

Creation, God’s World.  Scientists saw the universe as God’s creation.  Like the astrophysicist who repeated Psalm 19:1 several times, they appreciated that God was intimately involved in the creation of the universe, continues to sustain and is active within it, and will always continue to do so.  Like many of the Christian natural philosophers and scientists of the past, they believe God created an orderly, reasonable universe.  As they study the natural world, then, they are (1) studying God’s creation not some random entity, and (2) they are getting to know God, the creator, better as well.  Theologians refer to this as God’s general revelation – God reveals aspects of His character to all people, everywhere through His creation (among other things). Therefore the data they glean from the universe is accurate, verifiable, and reasonable.

One physicist commented, “I get the feeling these people don’t trust what I observe.  Somehow they think my measurements must be wrong.  It’s like they don’t really think that the material universe (which God created) is trustworthy but is somehow evil and deceptive and trying to lead us from God.  They are really modern day Platonists, not Christians at all.  When I am in my lab, I know I can trust what I see because I know it is from God.”

The challenge for churches and Christians in the sciences is to reflect on what it means that the universe is God’s revealed creation.  If that is true, can we trust accurate, verifiable, repeatable measurements and results?  What does that mean for some of the latent suspicion of scientific results and scientists, in general?  How do we value their contributions to an enhanced understanding of God’s general revelation?