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By 
Deborah Haarsma
 on March 26, 2024

Science a Major Reason ‘Nones’ are Skeptical of Christianity

'Nones’ are skeptical of Christianity because of science. For BioLogos President Deb Haarsma, science is central to discipleship and evangelism in the church today.

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A variety of wooden churches of various colors arranged from largest to smallest

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Church attendance has declined substantially in recent decades. The U.S. is seeing an unprecedented increase in the number of “nones,” those who do not identify with any religious tradition. As of 2023, this population is 28% of U.S. adults! The “nones” include ex-evangelicals, ex-mainline protestants, ex-Catholics and more. About a third of the “nones” do not have any religious background. The departures are happening for all ages, especially young people. 

For all of these groups, science issues are a substantial factor in why they doubt Christian beliefs. People stop attending church for many reasons, as explored in books like “The Great Dechurchingby Jim David, Michael Graham, and Ryan Burge. What many ministry leaders don’t realize is that the “nones” cite science as one of the top reasons they doubt Christianity. By handling science issues better, the Church can lead young people to a more robust faith and invite the “nones” to (re)consider Jesus Christ. 

The impact of “science” on people’s beliefs has been growing since well before the pandemic. In 2019, the Barna Group surveyed young people all around the world, ages 18-35, asking “What causes you to doubt things of a spiritual nature?” Young people of all religious views and backgrounds listed “science” as one of the top reasons they doubt. In fact, “science” was second only to “the hypocrisy of religious people.” This was confirmed in 2022, when the Barna Group surveyed Americans of no religious affiliation, age 13 and up. Science is one of the top reasons they gave for doubting Christian beliefs.

What many ministry leaders don’t realize is that the “nones” cite science as one of the top reasons they doubt Christianity. By handling science issues better, the Church can lead young people to a more robust faith and invite the “nones” to (re)consider Jesus Christ.

What is it About Science?

The above two surveys didn’t ask in detail what exactly about science is causing people to doubt, but other research has. In 2020, John Marriott in “The Anatomy of Deconversionreported on in-depth interviews with 24 ex-evangelicals, aged 20-55. He determined the top 3 cognitive reasons people leave: problems with the Bible (including Genesis, miracles, and the resurrection), the acceptance of Darwinian evolution, and the influence of new atheists like Richard Dawkins. All three of those areas are tied to science! Now, it is possible that some of the “nones” have left religion for other reasons, but now blame it on science. But the interviews by Marriott don’t sound like that.

Is atheism pulling people away from Chrisitanity? Some Christians say yes. They talk of science vs the Bible, framing it as a battle between “man’s word” and God’s word. They say that learning science will cause you to doubt scripture and lose your faith. For some of the “nones,” this is unfortunately the case. Marriot writes: “While many believers, when presented with the evidence for Darwinian evolution, manage to retain their faith by becoming theistic evolutionists, the deconverts in this study appear to have presupposed that, for various reasons, if evolution were true, then God could not exist. Convinced of the truthfulness of evolution, they believed they were forced to reject belief in God’s existence.”

But there is another dynamic here. While some of the “nones” are pulled away from Christianiy by atheistic arguments, more are pushed away by the posture of the church toward science. In 2011, Kinnaman in his book “You Lost Me surveyed millennials who had grown up in the Church and then left. He found that 29% said “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in,” 25% said “Christianity is anti-science,” and 23% said they were “turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” And it’s not just the millennials. In 2018, Barna surveyed teenagers still attending church and reported their findings in GenZ. They found that 49% of GenZ teenagers felt “the church seems to reject much of what science tells us about the world.” That’s half of GenZ in church! An entire generation is being impacted.

A person sitting in a church pew praying

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The Church needs to handle science better. In our congregations, we can show teens and adults a living and active faith that does not rise or fall around science issues. And we can make a compelling case for the “nones” by showing that Christian faith includes a positive place for science.

Deb Haarsma

It Doesn’t Have to Be this Way

At BioLogos, we believe that it doesn’t have to be this way! We see the findings of science to be in harmony with belief in God, with the authority of scripture, and with Christ-centered faith. We delve deep into the apparent tension points on issues like evolution, and show that faith and science can work hand in hand. In fact, the discoveries of science can inspire deeper faith. Many believing scientists see their work as a worship-inspiring exploration of God’s creation. 

In my 11 years at BioLogos, I’ve talked with many people who experienced a faith crisis tied to science. They cite issues of Genesis, evolution, and atheism as Marriott found, and more recently vaccines and climate change. For many of them, the cognitive reasons were only a piece of the puzzle; the major barrier seemed to be their church experience. Thankfully, for many of these people (like Kieran) BioLogos was a guide on their route back to faith. 

The Church needs to handle science better. In our congregations, we can show teens and adults a living and active faith that does not rise or fall around science issues. And we can make a compelling case for the “nones” by showing that Christian faith includes a positive place for science. Here are three practical tips:

1. Don’t make “science” the enemy. 

In the culture wars, science has somehow ended up on one side and faith on the other. While some aspects of science can feel in tension with Christian faith, churches should avoid blanket statements about all “science” and all “scientists.” Rather than only talking about points of tension, churches can refer to science in positive ways. 

For instance, pictures from the Webb Space Telescope can be used during worship songs about God’s creation. In a sermon, a pastor can refer to new scientific findings, such as the discovery of a rare octopus nursery. Positive words about science are an encouragement to young people who want to be engineers, doctors, or scientists. In fact, church programs for teens can include role models of Christians working in scientific fields. Young people should be encouraged to see science as a place where they can use their gifts, study God’s creation, care for people, or care for the planet. 

For those of no religious background, these activities show how science can be part of a life of faith. A science conversation can even attract people to church! I once spoke at a church about the multiverse and God. The church was on a major road, and they listed my talk title on their sign out front. The pastor was thrilled with the turnout. He told me that people showed up who would never have come to church otherwise!

2. Actively encourage questions and dialogue about science.

Sometimes the culture wars are so painful that we need to call a truce and change the topic. But at other times, the Church needs to actively guide believers to a better conversation. If we don’t, we are letting their views on science be driven by misinformation on social media. 

GenZ doesn’t want pat answers—they want to be valued, to feel they belong, and to have Christian adults come alongside them in wrestling with these questions. A church can teach its members that asking hard questions is part of a healthy and intellectually-engaged faith. A sermon might not be the best vehicle; instead, try addressing science in forums that allow discussion and encourage questions. In youth groups and seeker groups, we can let people express their views freely and ask their hardest questions.

It isn’t easy to change the culture of a congregation, but I’ve seen churches do it. It is possible to shift from “we agree on everything” to “we agree on the core, and it’s OK to disagree about the rest.” Such a church becomes a testimony to the world, sharply countercultural to today’s strife and polarization. 

3. Model genuine faith.

In the surveys cited above, the biggest barrier to faith was hypocrisy. Even more than science, what youth and seekers are looking for is genuine faith lived out. I recently heard the testimony of a man in his 30s who grew up in my church. He explained the reasons he still holds to his faith today. The biggest reason? The people he saw in our church who lived out an authentic and self-sacrificial faith. Their example became a lifeline for him in times of doubt. For people who are concerned about science, the stories of believing scientists are powerful. Many people have become interested in Christianity when they hear the stories of biologist Francis Collins or climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe. 

Drawing People to Deeper Faith 

Jesus called the Church to be his witnesses and to make disciples. In today’s science-dominated culture, this calling requires that we handle science well. Let’s tell the world that you don’t have to turn off your brain to follow Jesus. Let’s show the next generation that you can live out your faith in a science career. Let’s build churches that are models of gracious dialogue and authentic faith. By engaging science deeply, we can draw people, especially the “nones,” to deeper faith. 

 

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About the author

Deb Haarsma

Deborah Haarsma

Deborah Haarsma is President of BioLogos. She is an astrophysicist and frequent speaker on modern science and Christian faith at research universities, churches, and public venues like the National Press Club. Her work appears in several recent books, including Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Design and Christ and the Created Order.  She wrote the book Origins with her husband and fellow physicist, Loren Haarsma, presenting the agreements and disagreements among Christians regarding the history of life and the universe.  She edited the anthology Delight in Creation: Scientists Share Their Work with the Church with Rev. Scott Hoezee. Previously, Haarsma served as professor and chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin University. She is an experienced research scientist, with several publications in the Astrophysical Journal and the Astronomical Journal on extragalactic astronomy and cosmology. She has studied large galaxies, galaxy clusters, the curvature of space, and the expansion of the universe using telescopes around the world and in orbit.  Haarsma completed her doctoral work in astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her undergraduate work in physics and music at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She and Loren enjoy science fiction and classical music, and live in Grand Rapids, Michigan.