Can you be a real scientist if you also believe in God?

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12 January
11:28
12 January
12:19

Well, I certainly hope that you can be a real scientist and be a Christian as well, because that's what I am! I got a doctorate in biochemical engineering in my twenties and then went on to get a PhD in religious studies. One reason was that I wanted to consider the relationship of science and religion.

I think that theology has to take account of science, in the sense that theology is about the nature of God, and God's relationship to the world. The way we understand that relationship depends on how well we understand the world – and science is about understanding the world. 

"The early scientists, the natural philosophers, all thought that through studying the natural world, what they were doing was bringing glory to God and revealing more of the mystery of God's relationship to the world."

I don't think that science needs to take account of religion at all, because that's not its job. It should proceed without any reference to God, or indeed to anything outside of itself. It should be entirely self-referential. 

People like Richard Dawkins put forward the idea that science and religion are in conflict. They argue that they are locked in battle over the same ground, over the same subject matter, and ultimately only science can win, because science is true and religion isn't.

That conflict only arose in the nineteenth century. Before then, science and religion co-existed in a single framework. The early scientists, the natural philosophers, all thought that through studying the natural world, what they were doing was bringing glory to God and revealing more of the mystery of God's relationship to the world. That framework set the questions that the scientists were asking.

"Darwin got called anti-religious and nineteenth century church people were taken aback by his ideas but, again, his argument was not anti-religion but pro-separation."

In the nineteenth century, science got to the point where that framework was no longer working. The change came first in geology, where Charles Lyell looked at the geological formulation of the world, and formulated the view that we should account for what had happened geologically only in terms of the kinds of physical forces that we knew about, rather than postulating about God and creation.

This led to the discovery that the world must be a lot older than the Bible had suggested, but really all Lyall was doing was making a plea for geology to grow up as a science and to be independent and make reference only to itself and to its own criteria. It wasn't an anti-religious argument: it was an argument for the separation of science and religion. 

Charles Darwin did the same with On the Origin of Species. Instead of saying that everything was created by God, which from a scientific point of view was inventing a force, he wanted to account for the beginnings of life in terms of the forces and elements he could observe. Darwin got called anti-religious and nineteenth century church people were taken aback by his ideas but, again, his argument was not anti-religion but pro-separation. 

"Anybody, scientist or not, who thinks intellectually about the existence of God and their faith is less than honest if they don't say that they live with doubt."

It is completely impossible to reconcile scientific understanding with a fundamentalist, literalist view of the Bible. If you insist on taking the first chapter of Genesis, of six-day creation, as historical fact, then you are in trouble. But that is not the nature of scriptural witnesses. 

The scriptures are contextual and were written by people who didn't know what we know today and were writing to give understanding, not explanation. They were the best understandings that they could come up with in relation to their belief in God. They should be considered in the way that philosophers consider Plato, where they think 'He had some good ideas, how do we work through them today?' rather than just thinking 'Oh, we don't believe that any more.' The scriptures deserve the same treatment. 

I find the Richard Dawkins approach frustrating because I dislike fundamentalism on either side. I dislike Christian fundamentalism with a passion and I see Dawkins as pretty much the same on the other side. Where is the doubt? 

Anybody, scientist or not, who thinks intellectually about the existence of God and their faith is less than honest if they don't say that they live with doubt. You are dealing with something that is very personal, that is beyond tangible and beyond proof, and that affects your deepest level of existence and your deepest understanding of yourself. 

Most scientists such as Dawkins who are sceptical about Christianity and faith merely point out the literalistic stuff – 'You can't believe the Bible because we know the world is a lot older than 6000 years.' A more sophisticated objection is that evolution is purposeless, as Darwin showed, and it can regress as well as progress. 

However, it's a perfectly valid religious response to say that all of this is wrapped up within God's providence; God's purpose. He set the world up in such a way that you and I are the inevitable result. 

"If you insist on taking the first chapter of Genesis, of six-day creation, as historical fact, then you are in trouble."

There are still groups today such as Christians in Science: scientists who want to relate their work to their faith. It's the opposite approach to what Richard Dawkins does, which is to take Biblical stories at face value and point out how silly he feels they are. But really, so what? Who cares? If you look at them more deeply, in context, and ask what the stories are trying to do and to say, they still have something profound to say about the way we live today. 

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