Science and Faith on a Secular Campus

| By David Vosburg

Science and Faith on a Secular CampusAs a Christian professor at a science-focused, secular college, I often encounter students wrestling with dissonance between science and faith. The prevailing message of incompatibility comes to them from the popular press, on campus, at home, and even at church. They hear it from scientists, secularists, and Christians. It is in the classroom, casual conversations, and the pulpit. Indeed, according to research published in David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me and previously highlighted at BioLogos, 25% of 18- to 29-year-olds with a Christian background believe that Christianity is anti-science, and 23% have been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate. Clearly there is a need to reach this age group.

While many Christian colleges actively seek to help their students engage issues of faith and science constructively, few secular colleges are active in promoting the conversation. So what is a student to do? They may find it difficult to find a visible role model or mentor that they admire or respect both spiritually and intellectually. Christian faculty at secular colleges and universities often do not feel safe publicly revealing their faith (due to a real or imagined hostile campus climate) or feel ill-equipped to tackle intimidating and controversial topics.

I was fortunate as an undergraduate to find professors in my field that shared my faith. Though we never talked about faith and science topics explicitly, their very presence encouraged me to consider being a Christian professor in chemistry. I grew spiritually in college, largely due to the community I found in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. My beliefs were challenged on occasion, but I did not really engage issues like evolution. Like Dennis Venema, I was initially attracted to Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box and the Intelligent Design movement. But as I learned more biology as a graduate student and postdoc, I no longer found this position tenable. I was delighted to find Darrel Falk’s Coming to Peace with Science and Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God. They offered perspectives I had not previously heard, and rejected neither the scientific evidence nor the key tenets of the Christian faith. I was fortunate also to hear Francis Collins give several talks on science and faith. Now I knew someone universally acknowledged as an outstanding scientist that was open about his faith, and I agreed wholeheartedly with his approach.

Now, as a professor, how can I encourage my students to authentic engagement and dialogue on issues like this? Following the example of the Veritas Forum, I can call on a common search for truth. But first it requires understanding what is so special about college students.

College students are often living away from home, are exposed to lots of new ideas in a rigorous environment (including, for many, evolutionary biology and philosophy--taught by professors who are assumed to be greater intellectual authorities than any high school teachers), and are seeking direction for their future careers. In short, it is a time of intense exploration and change for many young people. On residential college campuses, students can experience an unparalleled sense of community, engaging in deep conversations in the dining halls and dormitories. More than any other place, colleges and universities are concentrated locations of our world’s future leaders. Charles Malik, Lebanese philosopher, diplomat, and co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has said, "The university is a clear-cut fulcrum with which to move the world. Change the university and you change the world." Sadly, the message most students in American universities hear today is one of incompatibility between science and faith.

This is not only a concern for Christian students, but for their non-believing peers as well. If agnostic students think it is inconsistent to embrace both science and Christianity, they are very unlikely to be spiritually curious. If science and faith are viewed as mutually exclusive perspectives, it will be hard for students (and even harder for faculty!) to be credible witnesses for the Christian faith on campuses, not to mention being faith-filled scientists. It is because of my love for God, for truth, and for students that I seek to promote harmony between faith and science, Jesus and genes. And sometimes my students’ lives are changed dramatically.

So what practical steps can we take to foster the kind of conversations that need to be had in the university, and what resources are available to help that project along? While there are many available books on the subject, as well as many on-line resources, I am particularly excited about the new From the Dust documentary and the materials BioLogos is providing to accompany them, especially when students can explore then in a supportive group setting. To facilitate exactly that kind of open dialogue, I was invited to develop a study guide to accompany the film, and to try it out in my own college community.

I liked using From the Dust as the centerpiece of the group study plan, as it is visually, theologically and emotionally stimulating. It also takes the Bible seriously and is aimed at starting conversations, rather than ending them with dogmatic answers to challenging questions. I also knew that even though From the Dust is only an hour long, it is packed with potential discussion topics and is probably best viewed over the course of a few sessions instead of all at once. Since I was focused mainly on a Christian audience, I decided to have the students read from Genesis before we started the film, read it again halfway through the film, and read it a third time after we’d finished the film. To deepen the discussion further, and to give students something to think about each week between our sessions, I added six scholarly yet accessible articles that are freely available online from BioLogos, the Faraday Institute, or the American Scientific Affiliation.

My students, several of whom I did not know prior to our science & faith study, were from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. Many had not deeply engaged the intersection of science and faith previously, but were dissatisfied with what they had been taught at church or at Christian primary or secondary schools. While individual responses at each session varied, the group was overwhelmingly positive about the content and the process of our study together. Many of the questions we discussed were difficult and emotional, and having the space to wrestle with the ideas together in a supportive group was incredibly helpful.

Tomorrow, I’ll give some more concrete details on how the Study Guide can be used in college and other settings, and also highlight another new film-based resource: The Faraday Institute’s Test of Faith project.


About the Author

David Vosburg

David Vosburg is an associate professor of chemistry at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. He holds a bachelor of arts from Williams College and a doctorate from The Scripps Research Institute. His research focuses on synthetic organic chemistry, medicinal natural products, and green chemistry. He and his wife, Kate, have been actively involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for almost 20 years.