Is God Relevant in an Age of Science? (STEAM Grant Series November Question)

abandoned church photo

Is this the future of all churches? (Photo by karimm33 )

This academic year, ESN is creating a Faith/Science curriculum for young adult small groups. We’re partnering with InterVarsity graduate student discussion groups to identify faith/science questions that are important to emerging scholars, and then commissioning thoughtful Christians in science or theology/philosophy to explore those questions in a series at the ESN blog. We will publish these posts as a  booklet curriculum for campus groups. You can find previous posts in the series and related posts here

This project was made possible through the support of an award from the Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries project at Fuller Theological Seminary. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fuller or the STEAM project.

To start off the ESN STEAM grant blog series last month, we asked a current graduate student to write about his own faith/science questions. This month, we begin exploring the questions we received from InterVarsity grad discussion groups in response. We plan to engage with questions about perceived conflicts between science and faith later on, but this month we think through a scenario which may be even more familiar to some science students who are Christians: how to respond if someone is not hostile to faith, but simply sees it as completely irrelevant to science. ESN’s regular science columnist addresses the student question below. 

How do we confront the narrative of irrelevance, as opposed to conflict or integration? (That faith is irrelevant in a modern secular age, and therefore politely tolerated).

Great question! Folks who see faith and science as conflicted are at least still engaged, even if it’s to further prosecute that conflict. Engaging folks on a topic they find irrelevant is much trickier. One might observe that religious faith is far from irrelevant if you wish to engage with the world we live in. About 70% of Americans and 30% of people worldwide identify as Christian, and about 85% of the world identifies with some religion. Understanding faith facilitates conversation with much of the world, and also has pragmatic implications. As noted in the survey we discussed a few weeks ago, successful research on human subjects often requires making accommodations for religious practices like dietary restrictions. We are still largely people of faith.

But none of that means faith in the God of the Bible has to be personally relevant. I suspect the questioner is thinking of a sentiment like the one Lawrence Krauss expressed in an ad for his Freedom from Religion Foundation in the November 2016 issue of Scientific American:

Lack of understanding is not evidence for God. It is evidence of lack of understanding, and a call to use reason to try and change that.

The subtext probably goes something like this: Man invented God(s) as a name for what caused the inexplicable, then man invented science which revealed the true names for those causes. Every scientific discovery shrinks God’s domain and insisting on keeping God around just delays the inevitable real understanding that comes from science. Faith is dogmatic belief in an invisible man in the sky, while science is skeptical inquiry into reality.

Where is a Christian to go from there? Emphasize how God is relevant at all times and to all areas of our lives. Put forth models of creation in which God is continuously creating, less a watchmaker who wound once and wandered away and more a gardener constantly cultivating. Describe God’s activity in the world so that the discovery of spades and watering cans enriches our understanding of the gardener rather than casting doubt on his existence. Tell the story of creation using the language we invented specifically to talk about the fruits of that creation — language God encouraged us to invent when he set Adam to the task of naming the animals. We honor God when we value his craft so much that we create words simply so we can admire it more richly and deeply.

We also need to live as though God is relevant to us personally and pervasively. Scientists are an empirical lot. Observant too. They strongly weight what they can sense, and they look to explain what they observe as simply and completely as possible. If we live as if God is only sometimes relevant to some parts of our lives, when it is convenient or to our advantage or out of habit, scientists are going to look for alternative explanations. It’s what they do; it’s what they’re good at. More than the constants of the cosmos, the patterns of our lives should demand a God-centered theory as the best possible explanation. The relevance of God should be inescapable because he walks among us in his garden, embodied in the church that bears his image and his name.

Cartoon making a joke about correlation and causation

Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but when evaluating two alternatives the one with the stronger correlation will be considered more likely to be causal. (Source: xkcd)

When the choices we make in the name of following God also align perfectly with the interests of other groups, we make it easy to propose an alternative explanation. If what we call following God looks exactly like supporting a particular political party (any party, anywhere), our motivations will appear political. If what we call following God involves unquestioning devotion to a single preacher or writer or movement, we may seem to be simply swept up in a cult of personality. If what we call following God is only expressed as antagonism to another person or organization, if we always say ‘no’ whenever they say ‘yes,’ we can easily be dismissed as malcontents. These strong correlations invite scrutiny and skepticism about any possible divine origin for our choices, no matter how sincerely we believe.

Of course if God is universally relevant in our lives, he will be relevant to our politics, we will want to fellowship with and benefit from the wisdom of other followers, and we will be at odds with certain currents in our culture. This is not a call to withdraw from any particular association or engagement. To the contrary, we need to be those living examples of God’s relevance everywhere we go, everywhere we are. We simply need to regularly reflect on our allegiances to ensure the evidence of our lives most strongly correlates with where God is leading us over all else.

In fact, following God is relevant to science where pure skepticism might undermine it. A true skeptic, we are told, doubts everything received from authority and trusts only what can be verified observationally. How then does a skeptic respond to the claim that the Earth is flat? Anyone can see for themselves the Earth doesn’t curve; even typical commercial flights don’t provide the kind of view necessary to appreciate the bend. Most of us can only choose to accept the testimony of others or not. If we are skeptics to the end, we might choose to deny that testimony. Whereas God call us into community with our fellow Earthlings, the sort of community that requires some amount of mutual trust.

Relevance is ultimately a subjective evaluation. One can always choose to simply not be interested. In this way, faith has always been potentially irrelevant. So rather than trying to persuade someone that it should be relevant to them, show them how faith is relevant for you. That way it’s not a matter of argument but invitation.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you have stories of times when people in your life perceived faith as irrelevant to science? How did they communicate that view to you? How did you respond to them?
  2. Think of a specific person you know with whom you might have a conversation about whether faith is relevant to your life as a scientist (or if you don’t know anyone interested in that conversation, imagine having this conversation with a science writer or commentator you admire). Which of the responses suggested in this post might be most helpful to that person? What other approaches might you take?
  3. In your own experience, are other scientists more likely to be hostile to your faith, indifferent to it, or encouraging about it? How do you find yourself responding to each view?
  4. Can you think of any Christian role models in science who communicate faith’s relevance particularly well? How do they do it?
  5. Can you think of any pastors or theologians who are especially good at showing how faith and science can be relevant to each other in their speaking or writing? How do they do it?
  6. Do any other groups on your campus or in your church or other communities explore interactions between science and faith? If so, what have been particularly helpful approaches you’ve seen to showing how relevant faith is to science? If not, what would you hope to see in such a group?

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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