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Is it possible to be both a Christian and a scientist?

Do Le (Paul) Minh

While history overflows with prominent scientists who were deeply religious such as Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday and Albert Einstein, many peoples now believe that religion and science are constantly at war with each other. In this paper, I shall argue for the complementarity model of the relationship between science and religion, in which the two fields are not in conflict but are complementary with each other.

When we talk about science, we normally refer to a discipline that focuses on the natural world, which provides observable and reproducible sense data and hence is susceptible to scientific investigation. Science thus cannot make metaphysical claims. It should not try to answer questions such as “What constitutes holiness?” Science cannot make any conclusion about the human nature, human worth, or the nature of God.

Note that the term “natural” does not mean “not of God.” Because an event can be explained in terms of observable causes, it does not exclude the possibility of God as an unobservable cause operating at a different level. Knowing the law of gravity does not negate the claim that God is continually upholding everything by the power of his words (Hebrews 1:3). Knowing that natural selection can have an effect in leading to new forms of life does not deny God’s hand in it.

In fact, all practices of science are based on an assumption (which was derived from outside science) that the universe is intelligent and uniform, and not capricious. This assumption does not exclude, but supports, the possibility of God’s creation of such a universe.

One the other hand, when we talk about religion, we normally refer to a discipline that focuses on the supernatural world, which is not simply a mere set of codes of ethics, the dos and don’ts. In addition, the term “supernatural” does not imply that this is just a set of irrational beliefs, superstitions, traditions or unintelligent dogma that are opposite to reason and have nothing to do with the physical world or historical evidences.

There is only one creation, one reality, one world about which both science and religion are concerned. However, not everything is of interest to both science and religion. There are things that science does not want to study; there are things that religion does not wish to discuss. However, there are things that attract attentions from both fields. There are events or phenomena about which both scientific and theological descriptions can be given. The fields of science and religion therefore are overlapping.

However, when studying their common subjects, science and religion tell us different kinds of things. They seek different answers: science looks for material behaviors, physical properties and formative history; religion for the ultimate cause, governance, purpose of humans and the universe. They have different vocabularies: science uses the language of fact and instruments; religion the language of value, worship and devotion. Science tries to find the answer for the “how” question; religion the “why” question. Science gives a close-up of an object, revealing its details, whereas religion displays the broader panorama. Science attempts to observe the truth from its piecemeal, individual manifestations; religion seeks to provide one absolute answer covering everything. Science values efficiency and mathematical precision; religion seeks obedience and the ultimate authority.

Note that within science itself, there are different ways to describe the same thing. A biologist and a chemist can study the same object and come up with different descriptions. In this case, they are not necessarily in conflict with each other, but the understanding of one field may even help the other.

Similarly, according to my complementarity model, the two views can exist side by side without being in conflict with each other. A theological description that a person is more like Christ is not incompatible with the psychological description that she is more mature. Not only that, they also can help each other. Scientific knowledge can broaden the horizon of religious faith and vice versa. The big bang supports the belief that the universe has a beginning. The inspiration of the idea of the big bang may in turn come from the Genesis account. Although the languages of science and religion are different, one can still be fluent in both and there are definitely advantages in being bilingual!

Science and religion can provide a more complete picture of reality especially when there is a complete harmony between the two fields. Beliefs based on revelation are now reinforced by truths established by reasoning and vice versa. Revelations of God can be read not only from the book of Scriptures but also from the book of nature. The wholeness of nature can only be fully appreciated through the complementarity modes of description. Scientific understanding of a thunderstorm does not diminish but increase our understanding of the power of its Creator. The “fine-tuning” of the universe and the complexity of human bodies further confirm the existence of an intelligent designer.

Viewing the universe through the lenses of a single discipline would result in a one-tract view. Einstein was often quoted to say that “Religion without science is blind; science without religion is lame.” Religion without science is just superstitious, or at best is irrelevant to modern society. Science without religion would fall straight into materialism, which also reduces everything to what aptly described as “nothing-buttery.” It would be very inadequate to describe the brain as nothing but nerve cells and electrical signals; human interactions as driven by nothing but the desire to survive and reproduce; and Shakespeare sonnets as nothing but letters on a page.

Science must know that it has limits which religion can help to extend it. It needs religion to go back beyond the big-bang. Neuroscience can explain the brain as a network of cells called neurons, but only religion can explain the conscious experience, or describe the meaning of life.

While the term “complementarity” came from Bohr’s description of the wave-particle dual nature of light, I do not completely agree with the analogy here. My complementarity model does not imply symmetry. It allows religious beliefs to enter into every practice of science, but not the other way around. It recognizes that God can act via primary and secondary causes. Primary causes are God’s unusual way of operating in the universe by involving in a direct, discontinuous and miraculous way. However, He normally sustains the universe by employing the secondary causes as intermediate agents to accomplish the same purpose. While science is concerned only with the understanding of the secondary cause, religion does not have to restrict itself with the primary causes alone. In fact, as discussed before, religion provides a worldview which justifies the assumptions of science such as the orderly nature, the knowability of the world, the reliability of our senses, the intellect in discovering truth, the existence of truth itself and the uniformity of nature. A Christian view is that everything in the world depends completely on God’s sustenance. Unlike God-of-the-gaps, whose size has been reduced substantially in history, the Christian God should be found in both the regularities as well as discontinuities. We can find Him not only in quantum determinacy or chaos theory but also in Newtonian mechanics.

Furthermore, there is a need for theologians to speak to the questions of individual, social and environmental values arising from industrial and technological discoveries. Should we do all what we can do? As an example, such questions can be found in biotechnological advances such as human cloning or genetic manipulation. The theologians need to exert some ethical control over technological and economic forces that, if left by themselves, may drive us to destruction.

Yes, it is possible to be both a Christian and a scientist. In fact, we need more theologians who are actively doing scientific research, or at least conversant, in science. As Polkinghorne puts it,

"Inter-disciplinary work is both essential (for, in the end, knowledge is one) and risky (for we must all venture to speak to topics of which we are not wholly the master). We must attempt a bit of intellectual daring and, above all, we have to be prepared to listen and learn from each other, showing mutual tolerance and acceptance in doing so"1

Although I believe science and religion can coexist peacefully together when studying the same objects, I cannot deny that there are some well attested findings of science that are logically contradictory to, or least appear to conflict with, some religions understandings. There can only be one truth, and if science and religion cannot agree, then at least one must be false. Either God created the world, or He did not. If there are conflicts between science and religion assertions about one topic, then what should we (in the religious circle) do?

We should not automatically assume that the explanation of science is correct and thus faith must change to make it consistent with science. There are limits to science, which is theory-laden. Science’s attainment is verisimilitude, not absolute truth. Methods of scientific experiment may not be able to completely understand, validate or disprove complex designs. Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty shows that deterministic system can be quite unpredictable.

Not only that, as discussed above, science is limited to the studying of God’s secondary causes. Science can never disprove miracles. We must be careful not to make faith a little more than a secular scientific worldview expressed in religious language, changing according to the whim of science. If we keep adjusting our view of what the Bible says to accommodate every scientific idea, we will end up in believing all absurd things. This would reduce religion to such an extend that it cannot convince anyone and hence change any life. An example of this is when Rudolf Bultmann proposes a demythologizing program to take the supernatural out of the Gospels because he believes that science forces him to do so.

However, this does not mean that science cannot be right. When faced with convincing evidences produced by science, we should have a good look at the assumptions of our faith and be prepared to modify our religious understandings. We cannot assume that our interpretation of the Bible is always true; hence science is wrong. This is stubborn and willfully ignorant. It is an unbiblical fear of intellectual exploration. It makes beliefs appear irrational. All truths are God’s truths. Thus no truth obtained by science can ultimately lead us away from God. Religion has nothing to fear and much to gain from the discoveries of science.

God works through history and he reveals himself to us progressively. There is no reason why He would not use science to teach us more about Himself, His creation and us. Changing the view of the age of the earth does not mean that the Bible was wrong, but that we misunderstood it. Galileo would have been spared of the indignity to which he was finally subjected if the church at that time knew the different literary genres of the Bible.

We should use all of our ability to discern when a new scientific knowledge leads to better understanding of the Bible, or to greater misunderstanding. We should also know what are essential of our faith. Similar to science, each religious belief has hard-core theories and auxiliary hypotheses. Even within a religious community, we constant have to learn to accept and love those holding a different set of auxiliary hypotheses. We should not be too reluctant to modify our auxiliary hypothesis according to new convincing scientific evidences.

My complementarity model, which recognizes the common subjects of science and religion, does not preclude us from the possibility of their being in conflict. Instead, it prepares us with a right attitude when dealing with these conflicts. If two persons are hateful toward each other, or consider having nothing to do with each other, then it is impossible for them to communicate. On the other hand, if two persons believe that they have a mutual interest despite their differences, then they are more readily learn from each other. If we start with the attitude that science and religion are always in conflict or have nothing to do with each other, we will continue to see that happens. The complementarity model prepares both the theologians and the scientists with the right attitude that can establish a healthy and mutual beneficial relationship on their search for the common truth.

1 John Plokinghorne Belief in God in an Age of Science (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), p.83