Science and Religion

Science and Religion

How should we as Christians view the field of science and the intersection of science and religion?

Science and Christianity are both, in their own right, complex subjects. It makes sense, then, that when discussing them together, that the conversation can be difficult and, at times, even hard to navigate. There are two main areas where I see the discussions often going sideways. The first is the tendency of some to over-simplify parts. In the West, “sound byte” reductionism is all too common: we see this in the media, on social media, and even in book publishing. But neither Christianity nor science lend themselves to this.

The second problematic area is the alleged conflict between science and religion (or, in this case, Christianity). There are various voices throughout history who have promoted this, but due to a few key writers, it became a significant theme several decades after Darwin published Origin. And in some circles (some on both sides of the issue), this conflict-posture continues today. But as many have shown, this is, at best, a misunderstanding.

How Science and Christianity Intersect

While it is true that science and religion are often seeking different ends, I do not believe that they are the “non-overlapping magisteria” that some have claimed. On the other hand, I do not believe that you have to be a Christian to do science properly. The intersection looks more like a gradient. On the left end, say, there is the empirical work of the scientist digging into the natural world. Here, regardless of one’s beliefs about God, experiments are conducted and worked out. On the right side of the gradient, the theologian or philosopher explores metaphysical questions, the things that cannot be poked or prodded. However, right-end work can (sometimes) use the tools of the left-focused scientists (I’m thinking here, for example, of natural theology), while the left-hand side can only get along so far before needing to speculate about the domains beyond their instruments. Often these speculations provide the framework for more exploration and experimentation. In this way, the empiricist, for example, should not ignore the metaphysical questions of the universe.1

Hermeneutical Factors

From the Christian perspective, it seems almost inevitable (and perhaps it’s merited) that a question of hermeneutics will arise. That is, does one interpret Genesis 1–11 based on some external factors, such as what many modern scientists state the age of the earth to be, and then use that as a starting point to read Genesis? Or does your hermeneutic flow purely from textual and exegetical processes?

In full disclosure, I do not think, strictly speaking, that either approach is right. Consider the historical-grammatical hermeneutic common to many conservative evangelical theologians. This process seeks to understand what the text would have meant to the original author(s) and their readers (or hearers). It is only then that we begin to figure out what it may mean to us. But the whole process of understanding its original meaning is one of context. We often (and sometimes necessarily) have to look to extra-biblical sources to understand this. In other words, there a virtuous cycle happening, where the context informs our understanding of the text, and the text further informs how we see the context. In such a case, exegesis is never happening in an isolated chamber, secluded from its context. When we consider the hermeneutic of early Genesis, it is not wrong to consider what scientists have found and how that may square with our biblical interpretation. Nor is it wrong to consider how these things may further inform one another.2

The Role of Story in Science (and Religion)

Story to people is, in some ways, like water is to a fish. It’s so embedded in our daily life and thinking that analyzing it is often hard, simply because it is ubiquitous. But story is a sense-making device. Through it, we understand the end, which then gives us a way to categorize the otherwise random plethora of data we observe in life.3 The Bible is told as a series of stories. Sometimes it switches into non-story genres, such as exposition, but even those are found within the context of a larger, unfolding story. And in another way, the Bible provides the Christian with key parts of his own story (that is, his worldview).

In science, the application is different. Principally, data is interpreted within a story. Considering: What to keep and what to discard? Or why some things work while others don’t? These judgments are all subservient to the metanarrative of the scientist. But more than this, as some researchers have shown, story provides a helpful medium for communicating complex ideas.4

Unexpected Insights

When looking at the broader issue of science and Christianity, there are two areas in particular that were a surprise to me. The first is the ever-resilient relevance of C. S. Lewis. I am surprised, not as a slight to Lewis, but to see how well his warnings and thought experiments align with new developments unfolding today. I’m thinking here of his short book, The Abolition of Man and its warnings against a subjective moral basis. As our technology continues to grow in power, this warning becomes more vital.

Another area of surprise was the wide popularity of Yuval Harari’s book, Homo Deus, which concludes that data is the end of man, where we ultimately become a kind of superhuman. This is not surprising in one way. It’s a view that elevates man to the status of God. This is the recurring sin man has struggled with since the beginning. In such a way, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising at all. This is an area that I’d like to read more about.

Application to Ministry

Where does all of this leave us, specifically as it applies to leading and protecting the flock? The main thing hasn’t changed: Our focus is on Jesus, and we must lead our people in devotion and obedience to him, too. Our hermeneutic for Genesis 1–11 should not degrade our view of the Word. Nor should our views on science (positive or negative) draw individual believers away from building up the body. In light of these principles, I see an acceptably wide range of biblically faithful interpretations of Genesis. These are not issues to divide on, but to learn from one another.

Beyond that, it is important for the church leader to be mindful of scientific trends at some level. The purpose here is to walk alongside church members with questions they will have. Equally important is to understand one’s limits: to know when, to whom, and where to refer church members to, when they have questions that surpass our competencies.

Resources

For a church member looking for an introductory look at this issue, here is where I recommend they begin: 

Alister McGrath’s Science & Religion: A New Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, 2020)
This book does a little bit of everything (and, I think, it does it well). It is truly an introduction, in that it does not require a specialist’s knowledge. He discusses paradigm approaches, history, the philosophy of both science and religion, and other issues.

Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford, 2011)
Here Plantinga spends less time discussing the history of the conflict, but the philosophical case for why it is not science (or even evolution) that are in conflict with religion (i.e. Christianity), but it is the metaphysical belief of naturalism that is in conflict. Interestingly, he goes on to show that Christianity is more consistent with science than naturalism is.

S. Joshua Swamidass’s The Genealogical Adam & Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry (IVP, 2019)
I include this book because it is both quite original and central to the question of the validity of Genesis. And while it does not spend much time at all in exegesis, he provides a model that can be consistent with positions as varied as Young Earth Creationism all the way to theistic evolutionism.

Andrew J. Brown’s Recruiting the Ancients for the Creation Debate (Eerdmans, 2023)
This book is important for a number of reasons. So many Christians debating their interpretation of Genesis lean on the church fathers to support their views. But, as Brown shows, much of the modern debate that pulls in the fathers (and others) is anachronistic, attempting to answer questions that were not being asked. This book helps us responsibly interpret earlier leaders in the church.




All footnotes in the popups above are listed here:

  1. A great example of a theist and non-theist discussing fine-tuning is A Fortunate Universe (2020) by Geraint Lewis and Luke Barnes. At first blush, one might see this as an obvious case for a designer, and specifically, the Designer. Yet, Lewis (the non-theist) provides an informed and thoughtful view.[]
  2. There is much more than can be said on this topic. A significant “scientific” investigation that should inform our hermeneutic is that of Ancient Near East (ANE) cultures. The entire Old Testament was written to and by people within an ANE culture. And so their idioms, figures of speech, prose, emphases, and other grammatical conventions should be at the top of our list of considerations within our hermeneutical framework. A great starting point here is John C. Collins’s Reading Genesis Well (2018) and John H. Walton’s The Lost World of Adam and Eve (2015).[]
  3. See Francesco Ferretti’s Narrative Persuasion: A Cognitive Perspective on Language Evolution (2022). This is a somewhat technical book, but it is empirically driven, which is very interesting.[]
  4. For more on this research, see my paper “How Story Informs our Apologetic for the Problems from Evil” (2023), available here.[]