Why would a scientist be a Christian?

Open the laboratory door. © Ruth Bancewicz

Last week I spoke to some students about why a scientist should think about Christianity. Here are my top three reasons – see what you think.

1. Science flourished in the Christian west

Science has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy, which could be described as a ‘proto-science’ involving geometry. Greek texts made their way to the Islamic world, where mathematics, philosophy and experimental science were carried out between the 8th and 16th centuries. (After this, science died out in the Islamic world for a while and scholars have not been able to agree why.) Towards the end of the Middle Ages Arabic texts found their way to Europe, were translated into Latin, and people started to do science, or ‘natural philosophy’, as it was called then. Europe in the Middle Ages was Christian, so almost all of the early scientists in Europe were Christians. And today, a good proportion of current scientists are Christians.

2. Christian theology informed the development of science

A number of historians and philosophers of science, Roger Trigg included, would say that science really only flourished once some of the Greek philosophical ideas about the world were replaced with theological ideas. One example is the dependence of creation on God.

Platonic philosophy says that you can study the universe by logical reasoning alone. The world we see is a reflection of a perfect world that embodies the highest ideals of reason and logic. So you can find out anything you need to know by using the principles of logic and geometry. But then along came natural philosophers who believed in a God who is in total control of matter. These early scientists realised that to find out about the world they would have to go out and investigate it. In last week’s Guardian comment is free, biologist Andrew Holding wrote that ‘Isaac Newton often stated that it was not possible to understand the mind of God, because that was beyond us; we should therefore open our eyes and investigate the world around us, rather than just philosophise.’ So theology actually informed the development of modern experimental science.

3. There’s more to life than science

Science specialises in elucidating material properties and mechanisms. In order to do good research, scientists ignore some aspects of life – including those that relate to value and meaning. But most people would recognise that while science is a useful way of looking at the world, there are other sources of meaning besides what science can prove. Most people assign value to objects, animals, people and experiences for reasons that have nothing to do with science. These sources of value or meaning have been called metaphysics, worldview, philosophy, religion or spirituality. So we need to open the laboratory door and see what’s out there.

So why Christianity and not any other sort of monotheism? (Points 1-2 would also support Judaism and Islam.) For me the answer lies in the difference that following Jesus makes to people’s lives. That’s another sort of experimental investigation. In learning about scientist’s faith journeys I have noticed that some of them actually do approach it in this way. Here are some sources of their stories.

12 thoughts on “Why would a scientist be a Christian?

  1. Tim Helble March 8, 2012 / 1:50 pm

    Good post as far as it goes. However, the problems with Christians in the sciences start when you erect barriers that keep people from following the evidence where it goes, as illustrated in Answers in Genesis’ Statement of Faith (see section 4, #6): http://www.answersingenesis.org/about/faith

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    • Ruth Bancewicz March 8, 2012 / 3:11 pm

      Yes that would create problems. But that statement of faith is not something that many Christians would sign up to. I am aware that some would link a young earth interpretation of Genesis to the central truths of Christianity. Most Christians (including those who would call themselves ‘evangelical’) would say that to make young (or old) earth a primary issue is wrong – especially those at a leadership level who have learned to recognise what is a secondary issue and what is not. I would go with something more like this: http://www.eauk.org/connect/about-us/basis-of-faith.cfm

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  2. paulstuartanderson March 9, 2012 / 10:18 am

    Thank you Ruth

    I like the idea of opening the laboratory door. Megan Mustain (“Overcoming Cynicism”) suggests that of all the sciences, biology toes a delicate line between physical-chemical processes and the stunning fact of life and complex living organisms. Maybe biology is one hinge on which the door swings between these two things. This is similar to one anthropological way of thinking about religion: as something that mediates transcendent life through the material processes of ritual.

    Even if we seem them both as hinges, science and religion work in very different ways: they have very different views about what language can achieve, and therefore different aesthetics. My non-expert view is that scientific language does not try to accommodate what is stunning and mysterious; even if individual scientists have a sense of this, the dominant view of language is that it should elucidate and explain. Maybe this leads to an aesthetic of elegance and harmony (“the harmony of the world”).

    I think in some human and social sciences, there is a different view of what language can do. While it should describe and elucidate, the most useful concepts also cannot be too closely defined. There is an element of vagueness – in concepts like “religion” (100 years ago) or “subjectivity” (today). Everyone knows what they mean – or at least how to use them – but a too precise definition of terms tends to stop people talking. This may be because of the object of study – human relations and experience – are both (like cells) utterly real, but (perhaps unlike cells) can never be comprehensively defined.

    Surely this uncapturedness is also part of the material world. If you take a religious or providential view, material processes and properties are also gifts that can be delighted in. If no material can be fully abstracted from a relationship with God (of delight, fear, gratitude – this is one way of reading psalm 111), then the object of science is always at some level a relationship, and therefore not entirely cut and dried.

    William James had this critique of unadulterated rationalism and empiricism: “all ‘classic’ clean, cut and dried, ‘noble’, fixed, ‘eternal’ Weltanshauungen seem to me to violate the character with which life concretely comes and the expression which it bears, or being, or at least of involving, a muddle and a struggle, with an ‘ever not quite’ to all our formulas, and novelty and possibility forever leaking in.” (in Mustain’s book, p91). James’ solution, Mustain argues, was to approach language as tool kit of metaphors, rather than as something that can pin down a discrete object.

    I was interested to read Timothy Radcliffe’s view (“Why go to church?”) of theological language – as something that both elucidates but also preserves mystery. He says that orthodox dogmas are not narrow creeds; they evolved in response to heresies which tried to do that: to pin down faith in a narrow way which “betrayed the mystery”. If someone takes either a scientific or a fundamentalist view of what language should do, this view of dogma can only seem obscurantist, or as less than full belief. I think the language of the psalms is a good antidote to both these views.

    Sorry for the very long response!

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    • Ruth Bancewicz March 10, 2012 / 6:33 pm

      Interesting! I need to give this more thought, but a first reaction is that I think biologists value visual things rather than language. data is always visual (perhaps mathematical, but not so much on my field of evolutionary-developmental biology/genetics). And in presentations the thing is always to have pretty pictures. Biologists often define themselves by the system they work on – hence I am a zebrafish person – and they work on that system for a variety of reasons – one of which is often that its pretty/fun to work with. So at times I think the open door I think often hinges on that love for the visual, tied up with complex systems, discovery and the community in the lab where you spend most of your waking hours. And the other hinge is the rest of life outside of the data/experimental systems – the social stuff, and other experiences outside of the lab.

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      • Ruth Bancewicz May 23, 2012 / 4:04 pm

        I’ll add that that, that I think written communication comes down the bottom of the pile in terms of communicating science. You can tell by how much fo each other’s papers scientists read – usually the beginning/end and the figures and figure legends and the methods if you want to have a go at following up on their findings. The aim is to see the data and come to your own conclusions about whether their claims are justified.

        I think that if you want to find out what science really means at this level you have to hear people present their work in person, and possibly read any popular science material they’ve written…

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  3. Richard Hosking March 12, 2012 / 1:25 pm

    Hi Ruth,
    Thanks very much for the Real Science, Real Faith links – liked Malcolm Jeeves’ point that ‘the Bible does not talk about species but about people; it is not biological but biographical’. A primary Biblical message is that human beings possess a dignity which transcends our ‘dusty’ origins (Genesis 1:26, 2:7, John 3:16), and I wondered whether work by Primo Levi – chemist, writer, Holocaust survivor – would help illustrate your third point.

    Levi’s short story ‘Carbon’ uses lyrical scientific prose to elucidate the chemistry which underlies all life. He described it as his first ‘literary dream’ which came to him while imprisoned in Auschwitz – a place where the moral distinction between mud and men was systematically erased. This is highlighted in Levi’s haunting poem which introduces ‘If This Is a Man’, the book which describes his captivity. Although a secular Jew, the poetic language has unmistakable Biblical resonance (link below).

    The Nazi’s requirement for trained chemists helped keep Levi from the gas chambers, but life expectancy for Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz in 1944 was approximately 8 weeks, with (deliberate) malnutrition a major factor. Primo believed his life was saved by an Italian Catholic brave enough to smuggle him an extra daily ration of food (Leviticus 19:18, John 15:13).

    Abridged audio recording of ‘The Story of a Carbon Atom’:

    http://www.pems.adfa.edu.au/~s9471553/level1/Teaching/Health02/CarbonStory.pdf
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/If_This_Is_a_Man
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-17095519
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Primo-DVD-Anthony-Sher/dp/B00096J1I2

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    • Richard Hosking March 15, 2012 / 6:41 pm

      I should point out that the relationship of the Italian in question (Lorenzo Perrone) to his Catholicism was not a simple one – Auschwitz cast a dark shadow long after the camp was abandoned. A recent remarkable book shows how a British prisoner of war (who also helped a Jewish inmate) was deeply physically and psychologically scarred by his experience.* It is likely that Levi himself committed suicide. Although Perrone was a civilian labourer at Auschwitz, he probably also developed post-traumatic stress disorder and succumbed to an alcohol-related death in 1952. This had been accompanied by a loss of belief in God. However, according his home town parish priest ‘he retained a sense of religion, a pity for the downtrodden’ and still believed that ‘we are in this world to do good.’ Perrone had helped several other prisoners in the camp, and was recognised as a ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ at Yad Vashem in 1998. (James 1:27)

      *Denis Avey ‘The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz’ Hodder & Stoughton (2011)
      Primo Levi ‘Moments of Reprieve’ Penguin (2002)
      Ian Thomson ‘Primo Levi’ Hutchinson (2002)

      http://www1.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/flickers_of_light/lorenzo_perrone.asp?WT.mc_id=wiki

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      • Richard Hosking March 15, 2012 / 6:49 pm

        Sorry, my second (related) comment has appeared before the first, which is hopefully on its way?!

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        • Ruth Bancewicz March 16, 2012 / 10:04 am

          Sorry, I think because it was a video I had to specially approve it. It’s there now… Looks interesting, will watch it as soon as I have time!

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          • Richard Hosking March 16, 2012 / 2:31 pm

            No problem. Thanks for posting it!

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