For twenty years I have taught a senior-level interdisciplinary course on science and Christianity at a small Southern liberal arts college. I teach students who self-identify as Atheist, Agnostic, Protestant Liberal, Protestant Conservative, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish, (well, you get the point), and the first day of class is always rather tense.
In my students’ eyes I see their skepticism. “What is this guy going to sell me?” is visible in the bubbles popping out of their heads. As the semester progresses, however, the students come to appreciate the importance of both science and faith in modern society. I have learned much each time the class has been offered, both about the subject matter and about the attitudes of college students toward such complex topics. Here are my top five lessons learned.
1. Even though the majority (65%) of my college students identify as “nones” on the question of religious affiliation, they are hungry for information on both Christianity and science, as long as it does not have spin.
Students today are saturated—indeed drowning—in information, but most of this information is presented with an agenda. It turns out that students appreciate delving into primary source material, not material that is interpreted through the lens of individuals who are trying to change their minds on particular topics. These primary works include historical readings such as the Bible, Aristotle’s History of Animalia, Darwin’s Origin of the Species, and Galileo’s Dialogue, as well as contemporary writings such as Pope Francis’ Laudito Si, Ray Kurtzweil’s The Singularity is Near, and many scientific journal articles on environmental health.
When students read such works and are challenged to determine their meaning and implications, they come to the conclusion that the perceived conflict between science and Christianity is just that—perceived, but not real.
2. Students are unaware that the majority of influential Christian thinkers, from Billy Graham to Pope Francis to John Calvin, have no qualms with the insights from science.
Likewise, students don’t realize that almost all of the scientists during the Scientific Revolution and many contemporary scientists find the need for both scientific and religious modes of inquiry.
I’ll never forget the day I was perusing the shelves of a bookstore and happened upon a newly released book by my favorite scientific writer Steven Jay Gould. Gould wrote frequently and eloquently on the neo-Darwinian synthesis and how evolutionary change originates with changes in embryonic development, but the title of the book on the shelf caused me to freeze: “Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life.” If Steven Jay Gould, one of the biggest science advocates on the planet, saw the necessity of religion for a fulfilled life, then there must not be an inherent conflict between science and faith. Indeed, philosopher Alvin Plantinga correctly identifies naturalism, and not science itself, as the only belief system precluding faith as a legitimate mode of inquiry.
3. Natural resources conservation is critically important to college students.
When students study the numerous scriptures speaking to the beauty of God’s creation (e.g., from Genesis, Psalms, Job, John, Romans, Colossians), they are at first perplexed because they’ve heard the common narrative that Christians are to “subdue” creation, which they interpret as exploitation. Whereas this may have been a commonly held belief at the time of the founding of the USA, more recently many Christians have embraced and emphasized creation care.
Today’s college students have been taught the history of environmental degradation and the need for sustainability, and they are attracted to the paramount importance of creation care to Christian faith.
4. Modern technology raises questions that science can’t address.
Science today differs from science in the day of Francis Bacon and his contemporaries who spearheaded the Scientific Revolution. Whereas the early “scientists” did study much philosophy (they were true “renaissance” individuals), modern Doctors of Philosophy in biology, chemistry and physics rarely have taken a single philosophy class. Instead, science today is the application of rapidly-changing technologies to answer questions about our natural world.
Students in my classes discover that questions of “can we” are answered by modern day scientific technology, but questions of “should we” are not in the auspices of scientific inquiry. Discussions with my students about topics such as genetic enhancement, environmental contaminants, and transhumanism have taught me that religious groups have the greatest potential to influence the “should we” questions. As Christians, we should both embrace science and spearhead constructive discussions of the “should we” questions.
5. Love, openness, and humility are needed for addressing the many difficult topics in the science and faith dialogue; without these, hostility will arise.
Whereas there are certainly some faith leaders that dismiss science just as there are some scientists that belittle religion, the majority of individuals in both groups humbly acknowledge that their discipline can’t answer all questions.
My biology majors can adequately apply the scientific mode of inquiry to explain how Homo sapiens sapiens evolved from ancestral hominids and explain the details of how to determine the ages of fossils, but they certainly cannot apply the same methods to explain why we evolved and the responsibility of humans to care for creation. When students realize this, they become more appreciative of other disciplines of study.
I attempt to model openness and humility by having scholars in other fields lecture and lead discussions on topics of their expertise. Indeed, one of the rules in my syllabus is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This atmosphere brings mutual respect among the students of my class, and I hope that they take this with them into their future careers. This atmosphere seems to work, because by the end of the semester, the bubbles coming from their heads say, “I like considering this complex stuff!”