Churches Engaging with Science

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© Greg Balco (International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration)

Joanne is studying the mighty Thwaites glacier in Antarctica. She drills down through the ice, collecting rock samples from below it for laboratory analysis. Her team will run tests that tell them when the rocks were last exposed to daylight, providing some clues about how the ice sheet has expanded and contracted over the past millennia. Ultimately they hope to gather enough data to be able to predict how glaciers like Thwaites might respond to current and future climate conditions, and the impact they may have on sea level over the coming decades.

Science is all about gathering evidence for physical phenomena by making measurements and observations. Looking at these data, scientists can develop general principles about the way things are, often describing them mathematically. In this way we have learned that glaciers shape landscapes, that water is made out of hydrogen and oxygen, and that energy and mass are interchangeable (described by the famous equation e=mc2).

Science can support our theology, reminding us how wonderful the creator must be to make such amazing things. We can also give theological reasons for doing science. We explore God’s creation because it has value. Passages throughout the Bible tell us that creation is very good, it is fruitful and ordered, praising and glorifying God. God didn’t have to create in any particular way. To discover what he did we need to take a look, and I believe that exploration honours him in the same way that a child enjoying a gift brings pleasure to the giver.

There is of course practical value to science. Many of the creation passages tell us that we should tend and keep the earth, and scientific knowledge helps us to do that more effectively – as well as helping other people. The Wisdom literature tells us that by looking at creation we can learn some useful lessons about how to live. Like any type of work, scientific research is also a crucible for character formation, and provides opportunities to demonstrate what it looks like to follow Christ.

For Johannes Kepler, the astronomer who worked out that the planets have elliptical orbits, “Our worship is all the more deep, the more clearly we recognise the creation and all its goodness. Indeed how many songs did David sing…He received the ideas for his songs from the admiring observation of the skies.”

It’s perhaps not surprising to find out that there are many Christians in the sciences. The number of scientists who believe in a god and attend weekly services seems to be about two-thirds of the number in the general population, and fewer have affiliated with a particular faith group.[1] There’s a very clear trend in the numbers here that will hopefully make church leaders want to spend more time affirming the very positive relationship that can exist between Christian faith and science. But there is also far more commitment to faith in the scientific community than some might expect. We also need to be aware that scientists are a very particular slice of the UK population. Nearly half of us were not born in the UK – not that this is the reason why so many don’t believe in a god, but it’s worth thinking about what draws people to science and shapes them as individuals before you plan your next science-faith event.

UK general population[2] UK-based scientists[3]
Belief in a god 72% 54.7%
Weekly religious services 14%[4] 9%
Religious affiliation 67% 37%
Born outside of UK 12% 45%

 

How Churches can Engage with Science

If Christian faith provides a good foundation for doing science, and if science provides a wonderful way to enjoy, benefit from and serve creation, then how can churches engage with science?

First of all, it’s good to know where to go to be equipped to interact with science in helpful way. There will be plenty of resources provided on the churches@faraday section of the new Faraday Institute website when it is released in the coming weeks, as well as resources from the other organisations we recommend. Whether you want to become a science-faith geek, or just know where to go when an urgent question comes up, this is a great place to start.

Another good place to start is by injecting a bit of wonder into your times of prayer and focussed worship. With beautiful images often available free of charge, stories about science coming at us from all directions, and people with a reasonable level of scientific expertise in many churches around the country, it should hopefully be well within the reach of the average church to do something to fuel our sense of awe. We can lift our spirits in the coming months by remembering how wonderful God’s creation is.

Having made that start, it’s good to give time to relevant areas of theology that affect how we interact with science, such as our attitudes to creation or what it means to be made in the image of God. We also need to pay attention to areas of science that our theology can respond to, such as health issues, climate change or astronomy. Injecting some science into existing groups or activities can be far simpler to organise and reach many more people than starting something completely from scratch – especially in this time when most of our activities will need to take place online. It can also be much easier to have an open and honest discussion in a familiar setting where people already know each other.

Having seen the statistics, you will now appreciate how vital it is for churches to give some space and time to supporting both working scientists or science teachers, and the next generation who are studying science at school or university – especially if their work and studies are currently on hold, or more difficult as they work from home or involved in addressing the current pandemic. There is a great need to affirm the value of science as a career, as well as encouraging those of us who are grateful to be on the receiving end of scientific discoveries.

The church can also use science to help us care for people and the rest of creation. It’s almost impossible to separate out these two: people are both affected by and affect the whole of creation. The Bible is very clear that one of our primary callings is to tend and keep creation, and doing this today is a demonstration of the hope we have as Christians. As well as practical action, we can speak up for the vulnerable, whether that is a person threatened by the damaging effects of current events, or a whole community seeing its environment degraded and lacking the resources to change the situation.

Finally, the church can reach out in more general ways, having conversations and running activities that help people outside of the church to understand that science works well within a Christian worldview. We can discuss the big questions that science raises about meaning and purpose, and any issues and objections that people raise.

There is plenty to choose from, and each church will find a different natural starting point. As we cancel regular gatherings and special events over the coming months, each of our church communities has a unique range of opportunities, and wrestles with a different set of challenges. The important thing is to keep including science as one of the topics you engage with at regular intervals.

 

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© Faraday Institute

Ruth Bancewicz is Church Engagement Director at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. She studied Genetics at Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities, and spent two years as a part-time postdoctoral researcher at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology in Edinburgh, while also working as the Development Officer for Christians in Science. Ruth is a trustee of Christians in Science, and a Fellow of their US counterpart – the American Scientific Affiliation.

 

 

[1] I personally put the last figure down to the contrary nature of academic types in general!

[2] Statistics from the UK census, 2011

[3] From a survey of 1,500 UK-based biologists & physicists by Sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund and her team, 2011-2012

[4] British Social Attitudes Survey 2016

3 thoughts on “Churches Engaging with Science

  1. jabryant2015 March 19, 2020 / 10:52 am

    Very good and helpful article

    Like

  2. Paul Cooper March 19, 2020 / 12:00 pm

    Excellent article Ruth – Especially relevant in the current circumstances when many may be seeking hope and answers.

    Like

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