Science and religion cannot be reconciled. . . . Religion has failed, and its failures should stand exposed. Science . . . should be acknowledged king.Peter Atkins1
The words of the British chemist Peter Atkins express the idea that faith and science are mortal enemies. Each threatens to swallow up the other. Only one can win.
Science—particularly evolutionary science—has made belief in God an anachronism. Religious faith is a throwback to an intellectually primitive, anti-scientific past. We once believed in God because we had nothing else to illuminate the dark places of our ignorance. But as scientific knowledge grows, God will shrink—until finally, the argument runs, he will shrivel into non-existence.
As Carl Sagan once said, “As science advances, there seems to be less and less for God to do. . . . Whatever it is we cannot explain lately is attributed to God. . . . And then, after a while, we explain it, and so that’s no longer God’s realm.”2
But is that true? Are science and belief really mutually exclusive? Or might there be a more complementary relationship at play?
Faith vs. Science
If scientific knowledge drives out religious faith, we would expect to find very few exemplary scientists who believe in God. But that isn’t the case.
Copernicus, Kepler, Pascal, Galileo, Faraday, and Newton are some of the most celebrated scientists in history, and they were all theists. Their faith in God didn’t inhibit or threaten their scientific endeavors. If anything, the reverse seems to have been true.
For example, Robert Boyle (the founder of modern chemistry) argued that the study of science would only increase our wonder at the way God had ordered his creation.3 Far from posing a threat to faith, then, science fueled his theistic convictions. And far from posing a threat to science, faith motivated his scientific curiosity.
More recently, there are many examples of exceptional scientists whose belief in God coexists productively with scientific endeavor. Think of Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project, Nobel Prize–winner Antony Hewish, or the prominent botanist Sir Ghillean Prance, who said, “All my studies in science . . . have confirmed my faith.”4
Stephen Jay Gould, the late Harvard scientist and evolutionist who was himself an atheist, concluded: “Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs—and equally compatible with atheism.”
Many believers would argue in a similar vein: science does not disprove the existence of God or his involvement in the creation and sustainment of our world—just as religious beliefs do not disprove the discoveries of science.
So it would seem that perhaps science and religious faith can be compatible entities. I want to suggest that this is the case because, for the most part, they’re asking complementary rather than conflicting questions.
Questions of Meaning and Purpose
There are many questions the Bible doesn’t address—questions that are wonderfully addressed by science. The Bible doesn’t tell me how to make a vaccine for polio, launch a satellite into space, or put topspin on a tennis ball.
At the same time, there are many questions addressed by Jesus that are not addressed by science—nor can they ever be. That isn’t a slight on science; it’s just recognition that there are limits to what it can tell us. Steve Jones, the professor of genetics at University College London and an atheist, put it like this: “Science cannot answer the questions that philosophers or children ask: Why are we here? What is the point of being alive? How ought we to behave?”5
Questions of meaning and purpose cannot be addressed by scientific discoveries, however magnificent.
The scientist John Lennox gives a quirky illustration of this.6 Imagine, he says, that Aunt Matilda has made a cake. And she has made it for a particular purpose.
Now, there are lots of things scientists could tell us about the cake. Nutrition scientists can tell us about the number of calories in the cake and its nutritional effect; biochemists can tell us about the structure of the proteins and the fats; chemists can tell us about the elements involved and their bonding; physicists can analyze the cake in terms of fundamental particles; mathematicians can give us a beautiful set of equations to describe the behavior of those particles.
But does that satisfy all our questions?
Yes, we know how the cake is put together. We know all about its constituent parts and the way they relate to each other. No higher power told us any of that; science did. But can our scientists tell us why the cake was made?
Only the maker—in this case, Aunt Matilda—knows. And until she reveals that information to us, no amount of scientific genius will be able to discover it.
Questions Science Can’t Reach
It’s one thing to listen to the maker of a cake. But imagine for a moment that there is a maker of the world. What would it be like to listen to that entity talk about why he or she made it—made us? Imagine for a moment that there is a God. We would be able to get answers—definitive answers—to our deepest questions. The questions that science can’t reach.
The claim made by Jesus is exactly that. He claims to be our Maker come to earth.
The book of Hebrews in the Bible says that Jesus is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”7 He is our Maker, visiting us in space–time history, explaining our lives to us in the way that only our Maker can.
There’s no need to abandon scientific curiosity to believe in God. In fact, I would encourage you to listen to your scientific instincts and follow the evidence wherever it takes you, even if it takes you somewhere unexpected.8 Similarly, you don’t have to give up your belief in God to explore what science has discovered about our world. Give it a try, and you may just find that the two can coexist harmoniously.
- Peter Atkins, “The Limitless Power of Science,” in Nature’s Imagination: The Frontiers of Scientific Vision, ed. John Cornwell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 125.
- Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God (New York: Penguin Group, 2007), 64.
- Michael Hunter, “Robert Boyle: An Introduction,” Birkbeck College, University of London, accessible at http://www.bbk.ac.uk/boyle/boyle_learn/boyle_introduction.htm, accessed 27 August 2013.
- Quoted in John C. Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2009),15.
- Steve Jones, The Language of the Genes (London: Flamingo, 2000), xi.
- Lennox, 41.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Hebrews 1:3.
- A good place to start would be one of the historical records of Jesus’ life: Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
- Photo Credit: motorolka / Shutterstock.com.