This is the third post in the series “Evolution and Christian Faith Around the World." Today’s post features Antoine Bret, a Christian scientist and author currently teaching in Spain. Although he is not a BioLogos grantee, he collaborates with ECF groups in both France and Spain.
I think there was simply a sense of doing the good I could do, like James 4:17 teaches. I became a Christian in France, without ever encountering young-earth creationism. I’d say that most Evangelicals in France (about half a million) feel uneasy about evolution, but not so much with the age of the universe. I moved to Spain 10 years ago and found that the age of the earth was an important issue for the whole Protestant community in this country (about 100,000). I then learned that there were far more people concerned with it in the US, which is why I wrote in English. While there are many scientific issues on which I don’t consider myself competent enough to write, like evolution, I felt I could significantly contribute to the debate on the age of the earth. I thought Christians wrestling with this problem could appreciate other Christians explaining things to them.
The so-called “scientific creationism” (the scientific approach of young-earth creationists) has been another motivation. It is one thing to feel uneasy with some scientific conclusions, and have hundreds of questions. Indeed, it is to be expected from any curious mind. But it is a completely different thing to claim that science teaches the universe is young. I wanted to explain in detail at least one of the many reasons why we know the world is old.
Tell us about your own personal journey in regards to science and Scripture. Did you once believe the Earth was only 6,000 years old, based on Genesis?
I became a Christian at the age of 25, while studying for my PhD in physics. The age of the Earth wasn’t an issue, neither for my church, nor for me. Still, I had to study the Bible to dissipate some tensions I felt between the idea of scientific explanations and God’s authorship of some events according to the Bible. I, too, started to wonder how to reconcile some of the Bible’s claims like “God did that…” with the scientific understanding of how “that” happens. This is when I realized that the Bible is full of events for which the “machinery” is now explained, while at the same time the Bible attributes them to God. The best example I know to date is Matthew 5:45 where Jesus says “[God] causes his sun to rise… and sends rain.” Can we find better understood phenomena than the rain and the sunset? For sure, the God of the Bible doesn’t need some unexplained phenomena to exist.
Here in the US, we often hear about how secular Western Europe is. Do you think the conflict between science and religion contributed to the secularization of Europe, and France and Spain in particular?
I would say that for the most part, the US is less secular than Western Europe for historical reasons. The pioneers who left Europe for the US frequently did so to find religious freedom. As a result, the European colonists who founded the US were, by definition, people for whom religion was highly important. A recent research article makes it clear that church attendance has been decreasing both in France and in the US over the last century. For the historical reasons mentioned above, attendance in the US was always higher than in France. Yet it has decreased as well. Though I would have a hard time pinpointing its share of the blame, the science/faith conflict certainly plays a role in such secularization. In their book Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy, Scot McKnight and Hauna Ondrey explain how confrontation with modern science is one of the most common reasons why young people leave church. The same debate is also one of the main reasons why unbelievers don’t come to church. So yes, the perceived conflict has a lot to do with secularization in France and in Spain, as well as in the US.
Do you think that people (especially young people) in France and Spain reject Christianity based on the perceived incompatibility of science and Christian faith?
Yes. On the believers’ side, a clash is almost inevitable for someone who was raised in an Evangelical community and goes to college, especially if he/she studies any sort of science. Unless this person is willing to seek help to get new perspectives on her faith, she might simply lose it.
On the unbelievers’ side, young-earth creationism is definitely a hurdle between them and the Bible. When non-believers in France or in Spain read what young-earth creationists are writing about evolution, geology, or astrophysics, they frequently conclude that the Bible is at best an interesting fairy tale. They may also conclude that Christians in general, not just creationists, are quite weird people.
I think it’s important for us “insiders” to realize that the rest of the world doesn’t see much difference between the various brands of Christianity. This is especially true in France or in Spain, where everything which is not Catholic will be indiscriminately labeled “Protestant.” Granted, that’s a mistake, but that’s the way it goes.
A prominent Spanish Evangelical minister recently wrote on a Spanish Protestant webpage that the Sun turns around the Earth. The consequences may have been absolutely disastrous. Any non-Protestant reading this text will probably, and unfortunately, conclude that he’d better stay away from Evangelicals.
Among scientists in France and Spain, how many believe in God? Do fellow scientists look badly on your work because of your faith?
Contrary to some widespread impression among believers, scientists don’t spend their time talking about the relevance of their findings to the science/faith debate. Neither do they choose their research topics in terms of this debate. Granted, some of us in the scientific community appear frequently in the media to discuss science and religion, but this is only a few scientists (such as Dawkins, Hawking, etc.) out of literally millions. While in the lab, we talk about the scientific enigmas we are dealing with, about the funding situation, our students, the job market, our institutions… But I have never met anyone who chose a research topic simply to make a point about the Bible. Simply put, the goal of our research has nothing to do with proving the Bible right or wrong. That’s not on our agenda.
Having said that, it is true that the percentage of atheists seems higher in science. I’d say that most of my French colleagues are atheists, while the percentage is lower in Spain. To my knowledge, no one has done a poll yet to quantify the proportions.
Whether in Spain or in France, I never felt that anyone looked badly on me because of my faith. Now, while having faith is accepted by the scientific community, young-earth creationists’ claims on the age of the earth, for example, are not. Here, the discrepancy with the teachings of science is so strong that people tend to criticize the whole religious world for these positions. It is then important to explain that the Christian world cannot be reduced to young-earth creationism.
What are you and others doing to promote the harmony of science and faith in France and Spain?
On the French side, the “scienceetfoi.com” web site is doing a great job at educating people. On the Spanish side, “cienciayfe.es” plays the same role. I collaborate with both associations, which publish articles from professionals, organize a wealth of conferences, and receive invitations to talk in some churches.
As Herman Melville put it in Moby-Dick, ignorance is the parent of fear. For most Evangelicals, “Science” is an opaque sphere populated with untrustworthy people who talk another language. I’d rather see “science” as an extension of common sense. Explaining how we know what we know on evolution or on the age of the earth, for example, is a key part of the reconciliation. The other part consists in presenting convincing theological alternatives to young-earth creationism. This is why my Spanish and French friends work with theologians, and not only with biologists and physicists.
On the Spanish side, we are also connected to the Mexican website “Razón y Pensamiento Cristiano” [Reason and Christian Thought]. Given the strong connection between Spain and South and Central America, such collaboration was highly anticipated.
Last but not least, “Centro de Ciencia y Fe” [Center for Science and Faith] is part of the curriculum of the Evangelical college “SEUT,” near Madrid. This is a great achievement because it will help future ministers understand these issues, who in turn will influence thousands of people in their ministry.