Sarah Lane Ritchie

When Science and Faith Clash: My Story of Losing and Recovering Faith

Welcome to Astrophysics

One summer when I was a teenager, I went to Space Camp. This seemed a perfectly natural thing to do, as I was a science-loving nerd with big questions about the world. Space Camp was full of kids who were not only willing to sit through lectures on astrophysics, but actually geeked out on them: these were my people.

One night, all of us campers were crammed into an auditorium, twittering with excitement as we prepared to listen to a very special guest: Georg von Tiesenhausen. Dr. von Tiesenhausen was one of the last surviving “Paperclip Scientists,” a rocket scientist recruited from post-WWII Germany by the American government to work on top-secret projects. This guy was a big deal.

The Enormity of the Universe

As the elderly scientist stood up to speak, a hush fell over the room. He did not go into the details of his experiences in Nazi Germany, or even the excitement of working on secret projects. Rather, it seemed that his sole mission was to show all of us teenagers just how overwhelmingly vast the universe is. With picture after picture, slide after slide, Dr. von Tiesenhausen gave us visual evidence of how insignificant our planet is, how average our sun, how moderate our galaxy. I knew that our planet was by no means at the center of the universe, but never had I seen with my own eyes such proof of our stark…insignificance. As beautiful images of galaxies continued to appear at the front of the room, I could hear “ooh’s” and “aah’s” from the kids around me, expressions of awe and wonder at the sheer scale and awesomeness of the universe.

But not me. I felt as if my stomach had just dropped out of my body. I could tell by the other kids’ responses that the appropriate reaction was one of excitement and wonder; so why did I feel such a certainty that everything—my life, my family, my hopes and dreams, my community, my world, my faith—that everything was utterly meaningless and insignificant? Who was this kid, this girl feeling nothing but hopeless despair as an elderly scientist’s satellite pictures shredded all hope of meaning, faith, something more?

When Science and Faith Clash

For that, we need to back up a few years. I grew up in a very conservative evangelical church, and my family was involved: church every Sunday (twice!), Wednesday night Bible study, choir practice, vacation Bible school—you know the type. Church was our life, and so it was unsurprising that my beliefs about the world were shaped there. Sure, these beliefs included lots of doctrine and theology, but they also included a lot about the world itself—including science. I learned to be wary of scientists, as they were likely to be atheists living in willful disobedience against God. But not all scientists—I could trust the scientists that were explicitly providing “scientific” theories supporting a literalist interpretation of the Bible.

The most obvious example was evolution—we kids were explicitly taught that evolution was a lie from the devil, and that embracing “liberal” science was the quickest way to lose my faith. It was imperative that I guard my mind against scientists, atheists, and liberals who wanted to brainwash me. To that end, I consumed all the apologetics material that I could get my hands on, soaking up all the pseudoscientific theories I could to inoculate myself against my science teachers.

And I did love science. I loved learning about the natural world and was insanely curious—and the more I learned, the more an uneasiness grew inside of me. It was fairly clear to me that the world of science had little use for the defensive tactics of my conservative congregation. So why did I continue to ignore that growing uneasiness, to keep quiet about my doubts about God’s existence, to repress my gnawing fear that I had accidentally discovered scientific knowledge that disproved all of Christianity? After all, I could have simply turned my back on Christianity altogether—the “evangelical-turned-atheist” narrative is not an uncommon storyline.

Forced Dichotomy

But I didn’t do this. See, I felt torn: I felt torn because my church was not a monolithic body simply united in its opposition to science. Rather, my church and family were the most loving, grace-filled, generous group of people imaginable. I, and so many youth like me, was offered a compelling and immersive faith that I experienced as just as real as the scientific world of equations and observable mechanisms. Many writers have predicted the death of religion and the Christian faith throughout history—and yet communities of faith live on, nurturing the development of young people who are full of passionate faith and committed to believing communities. In short, the church continues to be a place where young people can encounter Jesus Christ, be discipled in the truths and practices of the Christian tradition, and come to know the transformative power of encountering God. As a child and adolescent, I experienced a God and faith community that became the foundation of my very existence—the Church had earned its role in forming my worldview.

And yet, that gnawing sense of uneasiness continued to grow: because my faith community was not engaging with science (other than defensively denying scientific claims), I was continually forced to choose my allegiance. God or science, science or God—I was increasingly terrified that I had secretly discovered God’s non-existence. And this broke my heart.

The Death of Faith

This growing doubt notwithstanding, my faith still had a chance of surviving relatively unscathed—until, that is, disaster struck. When I was 16 years old, my mom died. It was tragic, relatively sudden, and unspeakably painful for everyone involved: in short, there was nothing redemptive about her death.

The night she died, I remember praying a very simple prayer: “God, I won’t blame you for this—I know death is just part of the natural world. But please, show me you exist. I need to feel you, I need a sign that you’re real and that you love me. Please, help me.” And… nothing. There was nothing but silence—for years.

What followed after my mom’s death was a long period of agnosticism and the experienced absence of God. The hope of God’s presence was the only thing that had been keeping my scientific doubts about God from overwhelming my tenuous faith. When that was taken away, there was no longer a reason for denying a naturalistic worldview. It was soon after this that I became that girl at Space Camp, realizing once and for all that everything was meaningless—even though, of course, it emphatically did not feel meaningless. The pain of realizing the world’s emptiness was only intensified by the cruel reality that my mom’s death meant everything to me.

Resurrection Through Truth

Of course, this moment at Space Camp was not the end of the story; I would not be writing this if it had been. No, after years of agnosticism and the pain of losing my faith (and it is indeed one of the most painful things a person can experience), I am now a full-time researcher in science and religion. Through years of studying science and theology and committing myself to the embrace of truth wherever it is found, I have stepped into a faith that is vibrant, deep, and unafraid of truth. But this was (and is) a long, slow, heartbreaking process that (quite frankly) I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

The question, then, is how we as church leaders and youth ministers might provide youth with a more theologically robust, intellectually honest worldview that avoids the crisis of faith that I and so many others have experienced. Indeed, it seems that the Church is facing a crisis of credibility: the extraordinary success of the natural sciences has led to a deservedly high estimation of the authority of science in Western culture—contemporary science has become, for many, the final arbiter of what is true about reality. Young people in the church today are thus faced with a continual clash of worldviews and experiences.

At schools and on social media they are exposed to the rigors and marvels of the scientific world. Theories, facts, and observational evidence paint a picture of the world that is colorful, vibrant, and often mind blowing (as anyone even remotely familiar with quantum mechanics or cosmology will attest!). Evolutionary biology, theoretical physics, and anthropology offer insights into the natural world that seem stranger and more wonderful than fiction. This is a worldview in which nature is governed by a rich tapestry of physical laws, a worldview in which scientific rigor gets to determine what is and what can be. Young people absorb all this, and often feel torn—torn because, like me, they are simultaneously drawn by the life-giving story of Christ and the richness of the Christian faith.

How Can the Church Respond?

The Church, I suggest, desperately needs to offer youth a more robust and compelling theological framework in which to understand God and the created world. The Church must offer young people a compelling vision of God’s involvement with all creation—there are not two realities, scientific or theological, natural or spiritual—but one. It is only as Christian leaders actively and openly embrace scientific knowledge as no less spiritual than liturgy or theology that youth will find an intellectually satisfying, spiritually nourishing approach to reality.

Let’s unpack this a bit. What exactly would it mean for the church to offer a richer theological foundation for engaging scientific explanations about the world? It is perhaps easier to say what this is not. It is common for Christians to use scientific insights selectively as evidence of a Creator, or (in more nuanced approaches) as evidence of what the Creator must be like—given the intricately ordered, relational, and beautiful aspects of natural processes. Well-meaning church leaders often cite examples of the “fine-tuning” of the universe, or the incredible complexity of biological processes, or the vast infinity of space, to enhance our sense of awe or glean an understanding of what God is like.

The problem with this approach is that its appropriation of scientific knowledge for theological purposes is selective.Seldom do we hear pastors speak about “natural evil,” the stark reality that animals are genetically programmed to brutally destroy other creatures for food—nature is “red in tooth and claw.”[1]

Rarely do church leaders discuss the “theological significance” of the fact that the vast majority of species that have ever lived are now extinct, or that chaos, ugliness, and entropy are as much a part of the natural world as order and beauty. And hardly ever do we discuss the fact that science seems wholly up to the job of fully explaining the origins of life and even human consciousness.

Honoring Truth Wherever It’s Found

As long as we are only willing to engage with the bits of science that we find pleasing or theologically suitable, we fail to provide a compelling vision that is both theologically robust and scientifically rigorous. Churches might fail to grapple with the messy brutalities of natural selection, the vast emptiness of space, or the sufficiency of scientific explanations for seemingly ‘spiritual’ phenomena—but biology and physics teachers will not.

I do believe there is hope for the Church’s crisis of credibility. The Church is wholly up to the task of answering the despairing questions of that girl at Space Camp. But in order to do so, we will need to actively embrace and explore theological frameworks that wholeheartedly embrace scientific knowledge in all its fullness. There is nothing to be feared from this approach, and youth ministers can offer a vision of Creation that is “always and already” involved with God. The Church is free to explore the natural world in all its messiness; perhaps, after all, “nature is always more than the natural.”[2]

Dear BioLogos reader ...

In the escalating vitriol in our culture, “science” and “faith” have found each other on opposite sides of a polarized divide. Truth and community are under attack.

If there is one thing the pandemic has shown us, it is what science can and cannot do. Scientists and doctors have done amazing things during the pandemic—identified the virus, treated the disease, and developed safe vaccines that work.

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Science alone can’t give us hope. Faith can. Join BioLogos today in reaching a world desperate for hope. Your tax-deductible donation will be the difference between someone encountering misinformation, or a thoughtful, truthful, and hopeful Christian perspective that shows faith and science working hand in hand.

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Sarah Lane Ritchie
About the Author

Sarah Lane Ritchie

Sarah Lane Ritchie is Lecturer in Theology and Science at the University of Edinburgh. She has a PhD in Science and Religion from the University of Edinburgh, where her doctoral work focused on the question of divine action in the human mind. A Michigander by birth, Sarah also holds a BA in Philosophy and Religion from Spring Arbor University, an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, and an MSc in Science and Religion from the University of Edinburgh. Her published work focuses on questions arising from the intersection of theology, philosophy, and the various brain-related sciences. Sarah’s research interests include divine action, philosophy of mind, naturalism, cognitive science of religion, and the psychology of belief formation.