Is it worth talking science and faith with children or would it be better to let them wait until they’re old enough to take part in adult science-faith discussions? Are the interactions of science and faith too complicated, conflict-filled or boring for children to think about?
Over the last seven years I’ve worked in schools and other youth settings to support young people as they explore their big questions about science and religion. At times I’ve been unsure about the best ways to do this. Will I accidentally do more harm than good? Or will children even have questions about science and faith? If you can identify with any of these concerns, let me encourage you with some of what I’ve learned from journeying down this road.
Even the very youngest children have big science-faith questions!
I first worked with teenagers, and was pretty sure that even if they did have big questions, they wouldn’t be willing to voice them in front of their peers. I was certainly surprised! Once one young person was brave enough to pose their question and they had seen it explored in a thoughtful manner, the questions flooded in.
“Does science disprove God?”
“Can the Bible be true if it doesn’t mention dinosaurs?”
“Could robots or aliens be religious?”
“What really makes me “me”?”
“What came first, the chicken or the egg?”
I quickly encountered an astonishing range of imaginative, cheeky, and important questions. But teenagers are one thing. What about 4-year-olds? In my experience, even the youngest school children ask brilliant questions. Indeed, the youngest might even ask some of the most exciting and unexpected questions, less inhibited as they are by social norms and a sense of “right” and “wrong” types of questions:
“If I stood in the sea for long enough, would I become a mermaid?”
“Would Jesus be able to get out of a black hole?”
“Would you bring a dinosaur back to life if you could? Which one?”
It’s important that children have space to explore their questions. Once you create a space where young people feel safe and well-equipped with the words to voice their questions, the questions will certainly come!
As soon as children attend school and Sunday school, if not sooner, they will be being exposed to scientific and faith-based ideas and language. If the two seem to be presenting different ideas about the world, then it’s likely children will have noticed. And if children’s questions about science and faith are typically avoided, they may have noticed this too. Many of us will agree (sometimes with exasperation!) that young children are constantly questioning, constantly taking on board new information, constantly building a bigger picture of the world around them, and the way it works. Research has demonstrated that by the age of 11, many children have taken in enough information to conclude that science and faith are incompatible or in conflict. This commonly leads to children deciding that they must choose between science and faith. An idea they carry into adulthood. It’s never too early to have conversations that offer a more positive view of science-faith interactions!
“I don’t know” coupled with curiosity, wonder and a willingness to explore, gives you the chance to model a healthy approach to big doubts and questions.
Meet children where they’re at.
But how can we explore questions that have been challenging adults for centuries, in a way that is engaging and understandable for children?
A lot of science-faith discussions have been grounded within academia, and are still only gradually reaching more general audiences. But with just a little thought, it’s possible to find words and phrases that adapt big, complicated concepts into something more accessible for younger questioners. For example, take “to say you can either accept the scientific worldview OR have a wholehearted faith is a false dichotomy” and instead try, “You don’t really need to choose between loving God and loving science”! You know your young people the best, so just like you would in answering their questions about where babies come from, or whether the penguins at the South Pole know that they’re upside-down, try reframing science-faith ideas to fit within their current levels of understanding.
You don’t need to do this alone
That might sound easier said than done, especially when the academic spiel can be pretty hard to grasp in the first place! But the good news, is that over the last few years there have been significant leaps forward in the range of science-faith resources available for children (see the BioLogos or Faraday Kids resource pages for some ideas). From the God Made books for 3-5 year olds, or the Book of Wonders, aimed at 7-11 years olds, to the FAQ section on the Faraday Kids website, there are more and more resources to help you and your children to explore big questions in simple, engaging and fun ways. You don’t need to be an expert, just available and willing to join your children as they dig deeper.
It’s not all about the “right” answers
It’s good to remember that this digging deeper into science and faith conversations isn’t all about finding and providing the “right” answers. If anything, the centuries of discussions regarding science and faith demonstrate that there are some answers we might never know! But that doesn’t mean the ideas aren’t important, fun or possible to explore!
If you don’t know the answer to a science-faith question, this presents some golden opportunities. “I don’t know” is a refreshing and powerful phrase that lets you consider why you don’t know the answer. Is it something any human knows? If yes, how do we know it? Is it a scientific question? Or is it something better considered from an historical, philosophical, ethical, or biblical perspective? If no, what would be required to find out the answers (for example, if technological developments let us build a more powerful telescope)? Or is it the kind of philosophical question that we might never be able to answer? In that case, embrace the uncertainty with a sense of fun and wonder, welcoming your young person’s own whimsical suggestions about what the answer might be. “I don’t know” coupled with curiosity, wonder and a willingness to explore, gives you the chance to model a healthy approach to big doubts and questions. And when these doubts are about God, remember, the Bible is full of people questioning God, and time and again, we see that God encourages that questioning, and proves that he is big enough to stand up for himself.
Your science-faith exploration might also bring you to topics where different people hold very different views from one another. Here we can learn about humble and gracious disagreement, and remember that at the heart of Christianity are the claims about who Jesus is and what he has done for us, not a particular understanding of how he created.
Celebrate Science, Celebrate God!
But there’s so much about science-faith interactions that have nothing to do with the conflict narrative. In its most basic sense, many Christians view science as a gift from God—one that helps us to uncover more about the amazing world God made, and how it works. One of the most important things for your children to learn on this journey is that it’s possible and even normal for people who love God and his word to also love and enjoy science. If you’re not sure where to start in this adventure, why not begin by diving into wonder with your children: try out exciting science experiments, read some of the great science-faith children’s books out there, welcome questions, celebrate what science can help us to learn about our incredible universe, and ultimately praise God for what we uncover along the way.
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At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.