Is Faith a Threat to Science? (RJS)

Within the church we most often consider the intersection of science and faith from a perspective that asks if science is a threat to faith. Within the scientific community (and the academic community more generally) the question is often flipped. Rather than science as a threat to faith, faith is viewed as a threat to science.  Both are questions worth considering.

I recently came across a video put out by Big Think that features Francis Collins addressing this very issue in the context of two related questions: “Why is it so difficult for scientists to believe in a higher power?” and “How has your study of genetics influenced your faith?”

The video is short, and much of it can form the basis for a useful conversation of the intersection of science and the Christian faith. Here I’ll look at a few brief bits of the answers Collins gives, and add some of my own commentary.  Collins begins by describing science and why he finds science a reliable tool for understanding the nature of the world around us.

(0:03-0:33) Science is about trying to get rigorous answers to questions about how nature works. And it’s a very important process that is actually quite reliable if carried out correctly with generation of hypotheses and testing of those by accumulation of data and then drawing conclusions that are continually revisited to be sure they are right. So if you want to answer questions about how nature works, how biology works for instance, science is the way to get there.

This is a reasonable description, and the caveat “continually revisited to be sure they are right” is a critical one. I don’t think that people appreciate this enough. When Christians make claims that science is ever shifting and thus unreliable or become frustrated that there is no easy way to undermine the entire understanding of an old earth and evolution it often reflects a misunderstanding of this crucial spiral process. This is not the weakness, but rather the strength of a scientific approach to the study of nature. It is, however, unwise to draw deep theological conclusions on the basis of the current scientific understanding. This was, perhaps, William Paley’s mistake. While it is profitable to think about possibilities, it is not wise to stake too much on them.

I will also note that the rigorous hypothesis driven approach plays a larger role in biology and related NIH sponsored research than in some other areas of science. Sometimes science is more of an exploration than the testing of a specific hypothesis.  New capabilities open new vistas for exploration. The hypothesis driving the research is something of a loose idea rather than a specific concrete proposal. But conclusions are always continually revisited to be sure they are right.

Collins goes on to describe the specific role he sees for faith or other than scientific approaches to understanding the world around us.

(0:49-1:28) But faith in its proper perspective is really asking a different set of questions and that’s why I don’t think there needs to be a conflict here. The kinds of questions that faith can help one address are more in the philosophical realm. Why are we all here? Why is there something instead of nothing? Is there a God? Isn’t it clear that those aren’t scientific questions and that science doesn’t have much to say about them? But you either have to say that those are inappropriate questions and we can’t discuss them, or you have to say we need something besides science to pursue some of the things that humans are curious about. For me that makes perfect sense.

And on the harmony between science and faith:

(2:10-2:37) Part of the problem is I think the extremists have occupied the stage. Those voices are the ones we hear. I think most people are actually kind of comfortable with the idea that science is a reliable way to learn about nature, but it’s not the whole story and there’s a place also for religion, for faith, for theology, for philosophy. But that harmony perspective doesn’t get as much attention. Nobody is as interested in harmony as they are in conflict I’m afraid.

Admitting that science is not the only way to learn about the world, and that it leaves out some very important questions does not lead unerringly to God, but it does lead to a far more complete view of the world in which we find ourselves.

Collins goes on to address the second question “How has your study of genetics influenced your faith?”

(2:41-3:27) My study of genetics certainly tells me incontrovertibly that Darwin was right about the nature of how living things have arrived on the scene, by descent from a common ancestor under the influence of natural selection over very long periods of time. Darwin was amazingly insightful given how limited the molecular information he had was. Essentially it didn’t exist. Now with the digital code of DNA we have the best possible proof of Darwin’s theory that he could have possibly imagined. So that certainly tells me something about the nature of living things, but it actually adds to my sense that this is an answer to a how question and it leaves the why question still hanging in the air.

The answer to the how question does not really get at the why question at all. Nor does it have much to say about how then, we should live. One has to add a metaphysical assumption or two to the mix.  The answers to why type questions will never be determined by science alone. For many the accompanying assumptions are ontological naturalism and a kind of humanism. A Christian perspective is a valid alternative for consideration. It is not, and cannot be, disproven by scientific investigation of the nature of the world. (Although information about the nature of creation may certainly reshape some of our interpretations.)

The answers to why type questions will never be determined by science alone. For the Christian there is a harmony between the scientific approach to understanding the nature of God’s creation and the questions of God, human existence and mission that Christian theology addresses.

What do you think? How would you respond to someone who is convinced science has undermined Christian faith? Or that faith is a threat?

Can science address the questions concerning why and provide guidance on how we should then live?

What does effectively address these kinds of questions?

If you wish to you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

Francis Collins, I think, has a song for everything. The following may entertain some (although not exactly on the topic of this post).

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  • Bev Mitchell

    Maybe this will be seen as quibbling with words, but a small adjustment could improve Collins’ point re our knowledge of genetics that “it actually adds to my sense that this is an answer to a how question and it leaves the why question still hanging in the air.” Yes, it is an answer to the how question, from the perspective of science, but, if we are thinking about creation (as we often do in faith/science deliberations) it does not answer the how question, but the what question. When understanding God’s role in creation is our focus, we don’t get how answers from science (or faith for that matter). Science tells us, in ever growing precision and detail, what God has done and is doing, faith can give us insights into why. How God works to do what he does – well, do we know how Spirit influences matter? Do we even ask?

    Recognizing that these questions have different weights and meanings when they originate from different perspectives could avoid some of the confusion in the faith/science discussion.

  • Scot Miller

    This kind of discussion reminds me of how far Christian theism has retreated in its understanding of who God is and what God does. I’m relying on my memory here, but Heidegger argued (in “What Is Metaphysics?” I think) that the rise of science has led to a diminishing God. Before science, God was necessary to explain why the world works as it does. God or the gods were incredibly important keeping everything going, bringing rain (or not), moving the stars, etc. But as science came up with better answers that did not require a God, the role of God becomes less and less important in the operations of the world. Personally, I think it’s a good thing that the world is entirely intelligible apart from God as an explanation. I like the scientific advances. But poor old God now becomes an intentional object in the believer’s mind, meaningful subjectively but incapable of withstanding rational scrutiny when it comes to the claims that a supernatural being somehow has anything to do with the natural order.

  • Rick

    “Part of the problem is I think the extremists have occupied the stage. Those voices are the ones we hear. I think most people are actually kind of comfortable with the idea that science is a reliable way to learn about nature, but it’s not the whole story and there’s a place also for religion, for faith, for theology, for philosophy. But that harmony perspective doesn’t get as much attention.”
    Would love to see an up-to-date breakdown on the beliefs of scientists.

  • Steve

    Reading Collins’ book, the Language of God, was a revelation for me.

  • Phil Miller

    I very much appreciate what Collins has to say, and I pretty much agree with him. The only little thing I have some issue with is that way he was describing God as the intelligence behind nature, it sounds pretty deist. I’ve read The Language of God, and I don’t think he would be completely averse to say God can or does intervene in nature, though. I guess that’s the one thing. I do believe that nature follows, well, the laws of nature, but I don’t think that means that God can’t intervene in miraculous ways sometimes. I don’t think it’s always as clean a delineation between the “how” and the “why” as we’d like.

  • Luke Breuer

    I’m pretty sure his point there was to avoid the “God did this for me today”-attitude, in the sense that god is continually violating the laws of nature to get me what I want. Then again, it’s not clear that full expression of the charismatic gifts would have to be violations of the laws of nature; see A Leibtnizian Theory of Miracles. One could rephrase what Collins said to something like:

    God so infrequently acts out of the ordinary that science can be extraordinarily successful.

    For some fun, see what Karl Popper said in Logic of Scientific Discovery, back in 1934:

    Every experimental physicist knows those surprising and inexplicable apparent ‘effects’ which in his laboratory can perhaps even be reproduced for some time, but which finally disappear without trace. Of course, no physicist would say that in such a case that he had made a scientific discovery (though he might try to rearrange his experiments so as to make the effect reproducible). Indeed the scientifically significant physical effect may be defined as that which can be regularly reproduced by anyone who carries out the appropriate experiment in the way prescribed. No serious physicist would offer for publication, as a scientific discovery, any such ‘occult effect’, as I propose to call it – one for whose reproduction he could give no instructions. The ‘discovery’ would be only too soon rejected as chimerical, simply because attempts to test it would lead to negative results. (It follows that any controversy over the question whether events which are in principle unrepeatable and unique ever do occur cannot be decided by science: it would be a metaphysical controversy.) (23-24)

  • Luke Breuer

    This ‘god of the gaps’ theology is terrible, though. It has Yahweh acting irrationally, which is against everything we know about him. If God acts in rational ways, much of what he does will be predictable—and it is. (more)

    If anything, we can understand God’s presentation of the law to the ancient Israelites as waving his arms and shouting: “Pay attention to what I have to say, it is for your good!” Generally, though, God prefers to be behind the scenes, running lights and sound. He tends to only step in when we humans are really screwing things up. (Ezek 22:30, Isa 59:16)

  • Is faith a threat to science? Yes, I think it is at some times and in some places. I really do feel it’s a threat in the USA today. In the form of the Roman Catholic hierarchy of the day it was a threat in Galileo’s era.

    I suppose I should also say that faith does not need to be a threat to science, but some of its proponents make it so.

    As a retired biologist and a follower of Jesus both science and faith matter to me. And as Francis Collins explains very clearly, the two need not be in conflict. Coincidentally I posted on this very topic just a few days ago.

  • Luke Breuer

    It depends on the flavor of science. Some scientists understand that what they discover are really just models of nature, models for which they have enough data to be confidence that ceteris paribus, their model is a good approximation for some purpose. (To explain the ‘purpose’ bit, imagine that at a certain optical power, one can see some things in a cell but not others; if you can see what you need to see for your present purpose, then things are well.) These scientists know that you can’t just believe what the models say because they can be wrong and we act in many areas of life that don’t have nice models (like how to keep a marriage healthy).

    Other scientists say that one ought to only hold beliefs when there is enough evidence. This is actually a self-refuting belief (where is the evidence for it?), but it is held regardless by many. This kind of scientist says it is improper to believe that science is discovering the ‘habits of God’. Many Christians know that sometimes belief precedes the evidence (Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, anyone?), and that refusal to trust can have drastic consequences. This isn’t to say that all ‘tentative’ beliefs turn out true—sometimes we believe something in hope and then it is dashed and we can either turn bitter, or grieve and then realize that God is pointing us somewhere else.

    To the scientist, every redirection God provides us is a disproof of a predictive model (our hopes); for the Christian, it is God showing us something even better than the thing we were shooting for (I exclude death for the time being). I think it all reduces to the choice:

    1. my will
    2. God’s will

    Jesus says we must renounce our claims to all else if it’s between Jesus and a person or thing (Luke 14:25-33). Following Jesus means giving up the part of my will which is not inline with his (given Eph 2:10, I don’t think all of my will is against Christ’s). The second type of scientist will despise God when He pushes us from #1 -> #2. This despising can get so intense that denial of God’s existence sets in. This denial has many ways of being rationalized.

  • Thursday1

    Religion and science are very different ways of looking at reality. Religion looks at reality as at least partly composed of irreducibly mental things like ghosts, gods, souls, purposes etc., while science is about the attempt to reduce as much of reality as possible to the mechanistic interactions of stuff. They aren’t absolutely exclusive of course (reality can be composed of both irreducibly mental things _and_ the mechanistic interactions of stuff), but the potential for conflict is pretty obvious.

    Obviously, many of those people who are really good at investigating the mechanistic side of things and are used to thinking about reality almost exclusively in those terms are going to be less than hospitable to religion. On the other side, many religious people are uncomfortable with using mechanistic explanations for things that used to be explained by reference to irreducibly mental agents, especially when those things involve human beings.

  • Thursday1

    So, yes, faith can be a threat to science, as there is a often tendency in the religious mind to strongly prefer irreducibly mental explanations over mechanistic explanations, even when there is considerable evidence for the latter.

  • Scot Miller

    I’m not really thinking about the “god of the gaps,” but the phenomenon that God has become significantly redefined by believers. Even the most ardent believer tries to get God off the hook by saying, “God could act in the natural world if God wanted to,” which means they understand God to act only rarely in the natural order. That’s a far cry from the belief that God could send pestilence and disease as punishment for sin, etc. The fact is that the world and our experience is fundamentally intelligible without appeal to God or the supernatural. The God Leibniz describes might as well not exist at all. Most scientists prefer to follow Ockham: “Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.” Since God is no longer necessary to account for the intelligibility of the natural world, why posit God as an extra-mental entity in reality?

  • Luke Breuer

    You seem to be missing the forest for the trees. Yahweh was much more interested in Israel pursuing peace and justice than performing miracles for them or sending hordes to persecute them and take them away into captivity. I don’t know about yesteryear, but today we seem to have this obsession with the “oh wow” factor. Contrast this to an atheist friend of mine, who says that when he reads the Feeding of the Five Thousand, he focuses not on the miraculous nature, but on the fact that Jesus had power and this is how he used it.

    Given our scientific trajectory, we can now say with high degree of confidence that nobody ought to trust someone merely on account of that person being able to perform ‘miracles’. Recall Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The author of Deuteronomy 13:1-3a knew this!:

    “If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams.

    With regard to Ockham’s Razor, note that it is only valid when modeling what is. It does not apply to the land of ought, which is a land where we humans spend much time. It also seems to be the land with which Yahweh and Jesus are most interested.

  • To my mind, the conflict between science and faith stems mainly from the (unwarranted) acceptance of Ockham’s razor:

    RSJ, do you agree with me?
    Is there a way to correspond with you privately?

    Lovely greetings in Christ.

  • Positing that there exists an intelligent species of bear-like creatures in a distant galaxy (or a paralell universe) does nothing to explain all facts we know of.

    Can we conclude that there is no such species?
    It seems to me that in the absence of positive and negative evidence, agnosticism and not atheism follows:


  • Peter Wolfe

    RJS always has this in her posts:

    If you wish to you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]

  • I was dumb and was not paying enough attention :=( thanks!

    2013/10/23 Disqus

  • Susan_G1

    I can only speak to the biological sciences here, being the only science I feel any real familiarity with.

    Faith is a threat to science only in that it might direct people away from it’s study, belief in it’s methods, or support of research. An example of this is the ban of fetal stem cell research in the US.

    Insofar as how science is done, scientists are trained in the scientific method, and if they do not apply it rigorously to support a reasonable hypothesis (one that has it’s basis in reality), they will not achieve reproducible results, which is what it’s all about. Believing God exists, made the universe, and set in place the laws which govern it does not translate to blindness in working out hypotheses and how to test them any more than, say, a deep love of literature does. Collins himself is evidence of that, as is every successful scientist who is also a follower of any religion or philosophy. DNA is DNA, a cell is a cell; it’s essence and what it reveals to us (and will continue to reveal based on new technology and a willingness to ask questions) is unchanging, regardless of what I do or do not believe. If I believe every cell is mystical and not subject to all known laws, my hypotheses and results will be fairly nonsensical (and I will not be awarded grant money, nor will I be published).

    The reverse, however – does science threaten faith – depends on one’s beliefs and how much they disagree with reality. Science isn’t philosophy, and can’t give us answers in that realm.

    Far more threatening to science is human nature, for example greed or ambition, which can lead to falsification of results, setting back the public’s view of (or, no pun intended, faith in) science, if not directly injuring the public. An example is the MMR vaccine controversy and it’s architect, Andrew Wakefield. In the end, the scientific method proved him wrong. That’s how it works. It’s human nature that causes persistent disbelief in what science has to offer.