Equipping the Next Generation of Faithful Scientists: An Interview with Josh Reeves and Steve Donaldson

Andrew Lowe
on November 02, 2016

Andrew Lowe: What inspired you to write this book? Is this a book that you wished you had read when you were deciding to pursue careers in science?

Josh A. Reeves: This book was fun to write because it felt like an opportunity for me to summarize what I have thought and learned about science and faith issues over the past fifteen years. As a Christian studying psychology, I was continually drawn to questions that lie at the boundary between the two disciplines. If I could have read this book as an undergraduate, I would have started much further ahead!

Steve Donaldson: Christians often enter science professions without appreciation for some of the major issues that lie ahead of them.How to reconcile science and Christian faith, the true essence of the historical relationship between science and Christianity, the nature of scientific community, and the potential positive role the Christian scientist can play in church and community are among a number of important matters for the Christian scientist to grasp. The central thesis of our book is that being both a scientist and a Christian is not only a possibility, but has many desirable features including finding meaning, purpose, and personal satisfaction, as well as mission and ministry through interactions with colleagues, fellow church members, and the unchurched. Coming to appreciate all of this is a learning process and, had I read a similar book early in life, it surely would have been helpful.

AL: As both a college student and a member of BioLogos, one of the biggest concerns I’ve heard from Christians who plan to pursue a career in science is whether they will face persecution or difficulty because of their faith. As Christian scientists, have you encountered hostility from your non-believer colleagues and, if so, how did you overcome these challenges?

JR: On the whole, I find less persecution in the natural sciences than other academic disciplines. Because scientists normally focus on narrow technical problems, questions of faith only arise in conversations outside the laboratory. As long as the Christian scientist gives thoughtful answers (which we hope our book can help with), I see no reason why Christians should be more concerned about persecution in a scientific career than any other career.

SD: The threat of persecution is real for Christians in the sciences, but that can also be the case in other professions as well. Adopting a Christian stance in the presence of some scientists, however, is occasionally like waving a red flag in front of a bull. In any case, when someone says to a Christian scientist, “Wait, you mean you believe X?” the scientists should realize that a perfectly good response might simply be, “And you mean you don’t?” Hostility is probably a much less common problem than simply trying to understand another’s worldview, but that can be a productive experience for both parties when they are willing to make the attempt. Ultimately, the best response (as always) is a loving one. In most instances, scientists who pursue their careers with skill, insight, and integrity will win the admiration of their peers, even when those peers don’t always embrace the same metaphysical positions.

AL: In explaining why Christians should study science, you argue that, although the study of science is aimed at discovering truth, it should not give scientists a monopoly on moral decisions that we must make as a society. Your argument is that no matter who you are—Christian, agnostic, atheist—your values play a role in how you do science, that values “sneak in” into the work of scientists everyday. This is a much different picture than what most people see when they imagine the work of scientists—as being a discipline that can be carried out without subjective analysis. Can you explain how a scientist’s personal philosophical commitments plays a role in how he or she practices science?

SD: A scientist’s philosophical (and theological) commitments plays a role in a variety of ways. The most obvious involves decisions about whether certain projects are appropriate. For instance, this might include questions about whether or not research in fields such as genetic engineering, enhancement drugs, or artificial intelligence run the risk of playing God. Even if there are no direct (or at least obvious) moral implications to their work, scientists must always deal with issues of integrity (e.g. do they accurately report results, properly acknowledge help from associates, and suitably credit sources). How the scientist responds to alternative views and criticisms is an indication of a commitment to intellectual humility and a good indication of the extent to which others are valued.

JR: I think the idea that values occasionally “sneak in” the work of everyday scientists presumes an incorrect picture of scientific inquiry. As I say in the book: “Scientists should not be seen as computers following the algorithm of the scientific method, but as detectives who attempt to make good decisions about which leads are most promising. Decisions about which theories are best supported depend on expert judgment, which cannot be walled off in one’s mind from ethical, metaphysical and cultural assumptions” (50). Rather than denying the role of values in science, it is better to ask whether any particular scientific claim has been abnormally affected by someone’s values. What makes science such a powerful tool is that persons with widely differing presuppositions about the world can sometimes reach agreement about the natural world.

AL: Do Christians in the sciences have an advantage because of their faith commitments?

JR: C.S. Lewis once said: “Christianity does NOT replace the technical. When it tells you to feed the hungry it doesn’t give you lessons in cookery. If you want to learn that, you must go to a cook rather than a Christian.”1 I think Lewis’ point about cooking also applies to science. I do not not see how being a Christian helps one to do experimental science better than one’s colleagues. However, I do think that being a Christian helps one make better sense of the world we live in.

SD: Christians don’t own the market on intelligence—there are plenty of examples of individuals who have no traditional religious inclinations, but who have been and are really good scientists, or good businessmen, and so on. What non-Christian scientists miss, I believe, is the joy and insight that comes from recognizing that they operate in a bigger frame of reference than just the scientific world. Ideally, this leads the Christian scientist to pray regularly for wisdom, insight, and understanding—not as some kind of magic pill that makes God deliver a Nobel prize if one is just fervent enough, but recognizing that one’s work can have implications beyond the sciences. Seeing such work in a larger framework stimulates thinking in productive ways—including making one aware of avenues for research that otherwise might be overlooked.

AL: Here at BioLogos, we frequently hear from or about students who have trouble reconciling their Christian faith with the scientific knowledge they’ve acquired—in particular, with evolutionary theory. Steve, as a Christian scientist and a professor, what do you do to help students who are struggling with these issues?

SD: When dealing with these issues, one almost always has to start with the idea that God is bigger than our ideas about him. This helps create a safe space from which to ask penetrating, otherwise potentially disturbing questions. From there one can move to the exciting possibilities that the scientist will be able to perceive aspects of God’s handwork and methods that may be inaccessible to the non-scientist. This is not to privilege the sciences over other methods of inquiry and insight, but simply to acknowledge that science is a wonderfully fascinating way to explore aspects of the divine-human relationship.

I don’t recall really ever having serious doubts that science and religion are compatible. For example, I think I’ve always felt that a God worth his salt should be able to create in any way he pleases, and that he can also stand up to serious intellectual scrutiny. As a college physics major, therefore, it was natural for me to consider how to reconcile the science I was learning with my Christian faith in a way that was both meaningful and coherent. My conviction that such is possible remains firm today.

AL: At the end of your book, you say that Christian scientists are required to live just as faithfully as any other Christian, but that “the scientific training they have acquired also equips them to demonstrate how science can serve as a window into the nature and action of God in ways that can extend the vision of those whose expertise lies elsewhere” (pg 133). In what ways can a scientist’s expertise help others in understanding “the nature and action of God” (pg 133)?

JR: I am not sure how much we can learn about God from nature alone, but I do think it has lessons for those who look at it with the eyes of faith. Christians believe that the natural world is governed by the wisdom of God, and so science allows us to glimpse God’s wisdom more fully. And science can help raise theological questions that deserve more consideration. For example, as scientists discover the intricate order that underpins the natural world, it might lead us to rethink the common assumption that unless God is working supernaturally (i.e., breaking a law of nature) in creation, then God is taking a “hands off” approach or not working at all. Questioning this assumption has been a key factor in recent debates over divine action, such as in Robert Russell’s NIODA proposal.

SD: The universe is far more complex and amazing than any naive view of it would suggest, and the scientist can help clarify that view. This, however, is dependent on the ability of the scientist to both understand the subject of an inquiry and to effectively communicate it to others. In describing the “wonder of the universe” (as Karl Giberson likes to call it), the Christian scientist is also conveying a critical message about the God behind it. This includes ideas about how God might have worked, how God continues to work, what God deems important, and how he might relate to creatures such as ourselves.


Notes & References