Science and Faith: Part 1 – Incompatible or Divine Union?

Time to read: 4 mins

As a scientist and a Christian I frequently get asked by other Christians (who are not scientists) how I can reconcile my career with my faith. It is sad that we live in a day in which modern science has brought itself into disrepute with the church and when many scientists spend their careers attempting to undermine Christianity. It was not always so, of course – many scientists of the past have been faithful Christians. I contend that even now, Christians should not be afraid of science, but instead we should reclaim it and pursue it as we once did.

In a series of two posts I will (1) briefly discuss what true science is (showing that it is not about proving the world is millions of years old!); (2) examine how Christians can, and perhaps ought to be, scientists.

Let’s begin by defining science as the study of the universe around us and everything in it. Science is the seeking of and obtaining an understanding of how and why things work and the relationships between things. It is not solely limited to the three secondary school sciences – chemistry, physics and biology. We can also include geography and its related subjects as science, since these are the understanding of the earth and human relationships with physical boundaries. Similarly we can include the social sciences, as the understanding of the interrelationships between humankind and culture. In its broadest sense science encompasses the study of the components of the atom, through the biology of minute life forms on the ocean bed, via the taxonomy of terrestrial life, with the study of seismic movements in the earth’s crust, to the fathoming of the furthest known galaxies.

Three principles

Science is normally carried out by three principles: questioning, observing and experimenting.

(1) In the 1600s, William Harvey discovered that the heart pumps blood round the body in a circulatory system, and he also tried to investigate how an embryo is formed in the womb. At that time it was not possible to observe these things, as the necessary technology (van Leeuwenhoek’s microscope) had not yet been invented. But by his questioning, Harvey was exemplifying the scientific approach: he was not satisfied with not knowing – he wanted to know and understand how these things occurred for himself.

(2) Having questioned, the scientist will try to find an answer by observing the process of interest. It was the famous observation of the fruit (apple or mulberry) falling to the ground that made Isaac Newton realise there was a force present in nature which draws objects towards the earth – a force he called gravity.

(3) Finally there is experimentation. What happens there are two possible causes for an observed effect? Which is the real cause? The only way to find out is to experiment – to take away each possible cause in turn and see what happens. In 2005 the Nobel Prize for medicine was awarded to a gastroenterologist called Barry Marshall. Marshall discovered a bacteria which could survive the acid conditions of the stomach. He suggested that this bacteria, helicobacter pylori, was the cause of stomach ulcers. Nobody believed him. So he experimented. He swallowed a dose of these bacteria. Within a few days he showed symptoms of a stomach ulcer. He treated himself with antibiotics and the ulcer cleared up. Although this is now regarded as an unethical procedure, it is nevertheless a classic example of scientific experimentation.

The use and abuse of knowledge

The outcome of questioning, observing, and experimenting is scientific knowledge. However, the use of that knowledge is not necessarily science. The use of science to make something is strictly speaking engineering and not science per se (e.g. the knowledge of the physical properties of metals being used in the design of motor vehicles). Similarly, the knowledge of disease and potential drugs to care for somebody’s health is medicine rather than science per se.

Generally speaking, the seeking of a greater understanding of the universe we live in is rarely, if ever, bad. The pursuit of knowledge has generally been deemed beneficial. However, the application of that knowledge is not always done in the best possible way. So although the knowledge of the chemistry of gunpowder has many useful and beneficial applications, using gunpowder as a weapon of war has often been an unprofitable or evil thing.

Nevertheless, it is often easy to magnify the improper application of science, while forgetting the many beneficial applications of science – from the supply of clean drinking water, through vaccination, to the vast instantaneous exchange of information via the world wide web. A problem arises in that human judgements of “good” or “bad” science are generally very arbitrary, but I hope to show in my second post that for a Christian this need not be the case.

Science has given us a greater understanding of our mortality, yet at the same time the realisation that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” In practical terms, the application of science allows us to treat many diseases, and to almost eradicate others (e.g. smallpox) – and to support a reasonable quality of life in people whose diseases cannot yet be treated. Environmental science has allowed us an appreciation of the natural world and how we can best harness it for our needs, and yet at the same time reminds us that the world is a finite resource and we must take care of it. Chemistry has allowed us to understand the materials available to us and to mix and combine them to create new substances to suit a range of needs, from Kevlar for bullet proof vests, through Teflon non-stick frying pans, to common glass with all its various uses. Physics has allowed us to understand the laws of nature and how to overcome them – giving us even the ability to fly.

We cannot underestimate scientific achievement. Instead, as Christians, we should be able both to admire the Creator who knows perfectly what we painstakingly learn to understand (because he has designed it) and to put our knowledge to the best possible use in order to glorify the Creator and be as helpful to humanity as possible.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on Science and Faith – click here for Part 2 – How can a Christian be a scientist?

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