Believing Scientists Respond: What Questions Are You Asked About Your Faith?

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EDITOR’S NOTE: BioLogos was founded by a world-class scientist, Francis Collins, who not only proclaimed but embodied the harmony between science and faith. In the spirit of our founding mission, we asked a number of scientists and engineers of Christian faith about how they defend their faith when questioned by skeptical colleagues.

 

Kristine Johnson, aerospace engineer, Honeywell

An idea that continues to surface in conversations is around the nature of explanations. Often people think that if there is a scientific explanation, no other explanation is necessary or even possible. If we understand the natural causes, they think the natural explanation precludes a supernatural explanation. I really love this discussion because on further discourse, people usually see it’s a false dichotomy to have to pick only one kind of reason. It’s easy to show that water boiling on the stove has a scientific explanation (heat transfer to the molecules) but also has a personal cause (I’m boiling the water to make pasta). The natural process that causes a baby to form and grow in her mother certainly doesn’t exclude the personal cause (decision/action of the parents) that initiates the process or even a supernatural understanding (God knits us together in our mother’s womb). I often find that these conversations open the door to the idea that God is the first cause behind the natural laws and processes we see.

Keith Miller, research assistant professor of geology (retired), Kansas State University

There are several misconceptions that I encounter when speaking with non-Christians (colleagues or otherwise). There is the perception among many non-religious individuals that faith is somehow the antithesis of the search for knowledge and truth. Religious faith is seen as static and impervious to new discoveries and knowledge.

I know of non-Christians whose rejection of Christianity is tied to their perception that “Bible-believing” Christian reject the conclusions of modern science. This whole “Science vs faith” view has become a major stumbling block for many thinking non-believers. However, there should be only one stumbling block to faith and that is Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Both science and religious faith rest on incomplete and unprovable foundations. Doubt is a necessary component of both, and both are subject to change and correction. Scientists proceed with limited knowledge and evidence, and must recognize uncertainty. The theoretical frameworks that guide scientific research and exploration of the natural world are not static but evolve with new observations and new philosophical perspectives. Science is rooted in history and takes place within a broad, diverse community that provides a necessary corrective. Similarly, religious faith is accompanied by doubt and uncertainty. We must question our theological assumptions and commitments in order to avoid serious error. One important role of the global Christian community is to provide correction — to challenge individuals and local faith communities to reevaluate perspectives and positions.

Developing answers to serious questions requires time and patience, thorough study, and usually a lot of hard work. It also requires the willingness to be satisfied with incomplete answers and uncertainty. It also requires humility, which is also essential in our pursuit of knowing God. There is only one certainty and that is that we are all wrong about something. Many people are really surprised when I say this.

Joel Duff, professor of biology, University of Akron (member of BioLogos Voices)

Some of my colleagues were raised in Christian homes but would not consider themselves followers of Christ today. Their experiences with religion have left them with questions about how someone such as myself could have the same academic training and yet still be committed to the Christian faith There is no one-liner response to such inquiries.  Dialogue requires personal relationships in which both parties are able to listen. Effective dialogue with professional colleagues, graduate students and undergraduates begins by first living a life as consistent with my understanding of Scripture as possible.  Being consistent with one’s words and actions are the foundation of establishing respect.  Being able to listen, talk about other people’s concerns and interacting with their positions respectfully usually provides the opportunity to have a discussion with someone about why one’s actions and words as a Christian may differ from those that don’t have that Christian worldview. I don’t expect to change the minds of those around me. In fact I know that I can’t turn the heart of anyone to God through my own actions. That is up to God to work in the hearts of others but God can and does use our actions and words to speak the gospel. As we do so in love we glorify God.

Ian Hutchinson, professor of nuclear science and engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

I have on various occasions been asked by colleagues a question like "How can someone as intelligent as you believe that?" (about my Christian beliefs). The question reveals much about the preconceptions of modern secular academic thought. But it gives a chance for me to say that I do not at all take an anti-intellectual approach to my Christian convictions, and to explain some of the compelling reasons for them. Still, I would not say this or any other question about faith from secular colleagues is "common". They know I am a Christian, but they mostly observe a polite silence about religious questions, as tends to be the norm in modern secular society. By no means all of my colleagues are atheists. A substantial number are Christians or religious Jews. Even so, they do not frequently pursue religious discussions with their professional colleagues.

Rhoda J. Hawkins, lecturer in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Sheffield

The most common question/comment I get from people in general is, "aren't you one of a very small minority being a Christian in science?" I point out that, in my current department, I am more of a minority being a woman than I am being a Christian. There are more Christians working in science than people think.

Denis Alexander, Emeritus Director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St. Edmund’s College  

I am sometimes asked, “What’s the point in believing in God? Why not just believe in science and leave it at that?” In general, I point out that it’s intellectually lazy to just accept the universe as a “brute fact” without also considering why it exists. And clearly if there is no God, and therefore no ultimate purpose or meaning to the universe either, then what’s the point of doing science in any ultimate sense, because eventually it will all be swallowed up in the second law of thermodynamics anyway? Most secular colleagues just carry on in their intellectually incoherent world, come what may; treating their life as if it has some point, when in reality it’s going to be snuffed out and soon forgotten. The Christian world-view provides a much more coherent way of understanding the world and avoids the need for such intellectual fragmentation with its accompanying cognitive dissonance. It’s curious that in this realm of thought, at least, scientists of all people are so unwilling to face up to the facts of life and death.

Graeme Finlay, cell biologist and professor of scientific pathology, University of Auckland

A frequent question I get is about suffering and death. My answer here is that I worship a God who suffers with us and for us. God is affected by our sicknesses and selfishness. In the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, I encounter a God who has entered into our suffering and borne our sin. In the Resurrection, I encounter a God who has inaugurated a new creation.

Roseanne Sension, professor of chemistry, University of Michigan

From the convinced materialist, the questions focus on the supernatural as nothing more than outgrown superstition. My response is to identify the metaphysical assumptions we all make, and to counter the common perception that Christians are anti-science reactionaries. From colleagues in the humanities and social sciences, the questions focus on the oppression and violence of so-called “biblical” faith. One example: “How can you follow a faith that oppresses women?” The core response to this type of question is to focus on the message of love, service, and justice that permeates the New Testament—with roots in the Old Testament, especially in the prophets. Unfortunately, in both spheres it is necessary to apologize for the very real failings of Christian individuals and organizations, and dealing with examples and perceptions raised by my colleagues.

Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., professor of biology and theology, Providence College

In one form or another, the most common question I get is the following one: As a priest-scientist, how do you reconcile your Christian faith and your scientific work, when religion, especially the Christian religion, is so unscientific, i.e., so unreasonable?

In response, I explain that Christianity and Atheism are alternative grand unified theories for reality. Over the course of my life, I have discovered that Christianity has more explanatory power than its rival account. Where do the laws and regularities of nature come from? My secular colleagues tell me that they just are. It is a radically unsatisfying answer! We would never accept that answer for any other question that we ask in science, and yet for the most fundamental question we can ask, atheism asks us to surrender our reason to nothingness.

In contrast, as a Christian, I am allowed to consider an explanation first proposed by St. Thomas Aquinas eight hundred years ago for why the universe is ordered and predictable and gorgeous: It is the creation of a God whose very nature is existence – He is a verb! – who then chooses in love to give existence to every existing thing. This includes the laws and regularities of nature. It is an explanation that is profound, sophisticated, and most significantly in my view, life-giving.

Jeff Hardin, chair of the department of zoology, University of Wisconsin (BioLogos Board Chair)

I have a somewhat unusual background: unlike many people interested in science and faith questions, I received a Master of Divinity at a theological seminary before I pursued my science PhD. When people find this out and that I’m extensively involved in science/faith dialogue, they’re often full of questions, because they have been raised on a steady diet of conflict narrative – the idea that good science and deep Christian faith are incompatible. On a public level, I’ve worked hard over the years with colleagues here at UW-Madison to dispel this conflict narrative.  On a personal level, I suppose that a few of my colleagues are perplexed by my Christian faith, but more often they seem intrigued, and this leads to deeper discussions about life and faith. Getting past superficial “hallway discussions” to serious dialogue takes intentionality, but I’ve found my colleagues can be surprisingly open one-on-one.

S. Joshua Swamidass, assistant professor of laboratory and genomic medicine, Washington University in St Louis

A common question I get is, “Why do you believe something without evidence?” I respond by clarifying that my "faith" is not evidence-free. It is more like trust. And this trust is connected to evidence.  First, there is the evidence for the Resurrection: (1) physical and historical evidence, (2) the testimony of people; and (3) my own experience with the Risen One. The faith I find is consistent with evidence and reason, but there is something more. I see something clearly that changes me, and makes sense of everything else.


Notes

Citations

MLA

Swamidass, S. Joshua. "Believing Scientists Respond: What Questions Are You Asked About Your Faith? "
http://biologos.org/. N.p., 2 Aug. 2017. Web. 22 October 2017.

APA

Swamidass, S. (2017, August 2). Believing Scientists Respond: What Questions Are You Asked About Your Faith?
Retrieved October 22, 2017, from http://biologos.org/blogs/guest/believing-scientists-respond-what-questions-are-you-asked-about-your-faith

About the Authors

Kristine is currently a senior systems engineer at Honeywell Aerospace working on the first and only FAA certified (SDA) precision landing system which has been installed at many airports around the world. She holds a bachelors degree in Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics from the University of Minnesota. Outside of work, Kristine enjoys spending time with her husband and children, studying the Bible, scrapbooking, cooking, volunteering in her community, and exercising. She leads a small group study, gives presentations at churches and schools, and mentors area youth pastors on various apologetic topics including the integration of God's world and God's word. Kristine is also a professional face painter.

 

More posts by Kristine Johnson

Keith Miller

Keith Miller recently retired as a research assistant professor of geology at Kansas State University. He was the editor of Perspectives on an Evolving Creation (Eerdmans, 2003), an anthology of essays by prominent evangelical Christian scientists who accept theistic evolution. He is also a past member of the executive committee of the American Scientific Affiliation (an association of Christians in the sciences), and a past board member of Kansas Citizens for Science (a not-for-profit educational organization that promotes a better understanding of science).  He has written and spoken extensively on topics at the intersection of Christian theology and faith with paleontology and climate science. 

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Joel Duff

Joel Duff is a professor of biology at The University of Akron. He earned his B.S. in biology from Calvin College, and a Ph.D. in botany from the University of Tennessee. He research focuses on understanding biological diversity by examining differences in DNA sequences and genome structure. He has worked on numerous plant and animals systems and has authored more than 40 research articles in science journals. He is an active writer and speaker exploring the intersection of science and Christian faith. He is a contributor to the book Grand Canyon: Monument to an Ancient Earth and blogger at Naturalis Historia (thenaturalhistorian.com). He is an avid nature photographer and enjoys exploring God’s creation with his wife and five children. 

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Ian Hutchinson

Ian H. Hutchinson is professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His primary research interest is plasma physics and its practical applications. He and his MIT team designed, built and operate the Alcator C-Mod tokamak, an international experimental facility whose magnetically confined plasmas are prototypical of a future fusion reactor. He received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Cambridge University and his doctorate in engineering physics from the Australian National University. He directed the Alcator project from 1987 to 2003 and served as head of MIT’s nuclear science and engineering department from 2003 to 2009. In addition to over 200 journal articles on a variety of plasma phenomena, Hutchinson is widely known for his standard monograph on measuring plasmas: Principles of Plasma Diagnostics. For more, see Hutchinson's book Monopolizing Knowledge.

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Dr Rhoda Hawkins is a lecturer in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Sheffield, and a visiting lecturer at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences. Her research involves using theoretical physics approaches to shed light on problems in biology, including how the cytoskeleton determines cell movement and deformation. She obtained her undergraduate masters degree in physics (2002) at University of Oxford and her PhD (2005) in the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Leeds under the supervision of Prof Tom McLeish. She did postdoctoral research jobs at the FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics in Amsterdam, Institut Curie and University of Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris and the University of Bristol before moving to Sheffield to take up her lectureship there in 2011. Rhoda has been involved with Christians in Science since her student days and is currently serving on the national committee for the second time. She has given numerous science-faith talks to a variety of audiences. This year she was awarded the Oliver Barclay lecture prize for her science-faith communication.

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Denis Alexander

Denis Alexander is a founding fellow of the ISSR and Emeritus Director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, where he is Emeritus Fellow. Genes, Determinism and God was published by Cambridge University Press on July 13th 2017, and is based on the author’s Gifford Lectures given at St. Andrews University, Scotland, in 2012.

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Graeme Finlay

Graeme Finlay is a cell biologist who teaches scientific pathology at the University of Auckland, and conducts his research in the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre. He has written actively to introduce Christians to the implications of comparative genome sequencing. His book Human Evolution: Genes, Genealogies and Phylogenies (CUP) is his first full monograph. He has a degree in theology and is active as a lay preacher.

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Roseanne J. Sension is a professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan. She received her doctorate in chemistry in 1986 from the University of California, Berkeley, and after post-doctoral positions at the Universities of Oregon and Pennsylvania, has been a professor at Michigan since 1992. Her research focuses on the interaction of light with matter, with emphasis on applications in photobiology. She has co-authored over seventy articles in scientific journals and conference proceedings and is a fellow of the American Physical Society.

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Rev. Nicanor Pier Giorgio  Austriaco, O.P.

Rev. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, O.P., currently serves as a Professor of Biology and of Theology at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island. He received his Ph.D. in Biology from M.I.T. where he was a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) fellow in the laboratory of Prof. Leonard Guarente. Fr. Austriaco also completed a Pontifical Doctorate in Sacred Theology (S.T.D.) at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. His NIH-funded laboratory at Providence College is investigating the genetic regulation of programmed cell death using the yeasts, Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Candida albicans, as model organisms. His first book, Biomedicine and Beatitude: An Introduction to Catholic Bioethics, was published by the Catholic University of America Press.

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Jeff Hardin

Jeff Hardin is Professor and Chair of the Department of Zoology and Faculty Director of the Biology Core Curriculum at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on basic mechanisms of early embryonic development. He is a member of the Board of Directors of BioLogos.

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Dr. S. Joshua Swamidass

Dr. S. Joshua Swamidass MD PhD is an Assistant Professor of Laboratory and Genomic Medicine at Washington University (http://swami.wustl.edu/). His research group designs computational methods to solve problems in medicine and drug discovery. In addition to his scientific work, Dr. Swamidass is often involved as an advisor and speaker role for religious groups working to understand how to better integrate faith and science. This includes partnerships with churches and campus ministries (with Cru, Veritas and Intervarsity, see https://vimeo.com/36846157), and also includes articles in the Wall Street Journal and Nature on Christian Faith and Evolution. More recently, he is working with the AAAS as an advisor to the Science for Seminaries program. In all these activities, he helps lay Christians and congregations come to grips with science in the context of their faith commitments.

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