Why I Never Had a Faith Crisis Over Science
Science is a growing factor in people leaving church, doubting God, and dropping away from their faith altogether. But it doesn’t have to be this way!
Deb Haarsma reflects on her own personal journey of faith and science and why she never really had a faith crisis. While science is a growing factor in people leaving the church today, doubting God, and dropping away from their faith altogether, Deb tells us why it doesn’t have to be this way. This post is adapted from Deb’s full length talk at the BioLogos 2022 Conference.
Church attendance has been dropping since well before the pandemic, with increasing numbers checking the “none” box when asked about their religion. The pandemic saw a significant drop in the number of U.S. adults who believe in God, particularly among young adults. Many of us are asking why and wondering what we can do. Fortunately, the Barna research group has been tracking data on this question.
In research over a decade ago, Barna asked millennials who grew up in the church why they left. Although respondents gave several reasons, 29% said “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” and 25% said “Christianity is anti-science.”
In 2018, Barna surveyed the next generation (GenZ), the teenagers currently attending church, and science was an even larger concern: 53% agreed that “the church seems to reject much of what science tells us about the world.” And in 2019, Barna surveyed young people all over the globe, asking them why they doubt things of a spiritual dimension, and found that “science” was one of the top reasons they doubt, second only to “hypocrisy of religious people” and even greater than “human suffering.” Science is a growing factor in people leaving church, doubting God, and dropping away from their faith altogether. With the increased polarization over science during the pandemic, I fear this trend will only grow.
Yet it doesn’t have to be this way! Christian beliefs can actually support the investigation of God’s creation, and discoveries in the natural world can build up one’s faith. The problem is that most young people aren’t hearing this message. Whether in church, at university, or in the headlines, the common message is that faith and science are in conflict. People feel stuck and think they have to choose between science and God. I was nearly one of them, but thankfully I never had a deep crisis of faith. Let me tell you why.
Christian beliefs can actually support the investigation of God’s creation, and discoveries in the natural world can build up one’s faith. The problem is that most young people aren’t hearing this message.
Be willing to say “I don’t know”
In the 1970s and 80s, I grew up in a wonderful church in the suburbs of Minneapolis. This was a white evangelical church, back when “evangelical” meant an emphasis on evangelism, not politics. This community grounded me in the faith, giving me a bedrock conviction that God exists and loves me. My Sunday school teachers and the Bible quiz team fostered in me a deep knowledge and love of the Bible. When it came to science, people at church encouraged me in school, and the parents of my church friends included an engineer and a math professor.
But I’ve met many people who had similar upbringings and yet walked away from the church over science. That’s because there are other messages too. When it came to Genesis and the age of the earth, my church knew of only two options. One was godless evolution, with a godless Big Bang billions of years ago. The other option was a Creator God who made the universe in 6 days following the text in Genesis. Given those two choices, of course we picked the one with a Creator!
I remember my dad taking us kids to a young earth creationism event when I was in elementary school, and I loved it—we got to talk about the Bible and science at the same time. Many kids today enjoy the Creation Museum for the same reason. Unfortunately, though, these anti-evolution views lead many to a crisis of faith.
Deb with her dad around 1990. Photo provided by author.
A big reason I didn’t have a crisis at this point was the reaction of my parents. When I got to biology class at my public high school, I was nervous to turn the page to the chapter on evolution. I had been told that evolution was a bad word, that most scientists are atheists, and that I couldn’t trust what scientists say. So, I was surprised to find that the textbook’s description of the science of natural selection actually made sense. I brought the book home and sat at the kitchen table with my dad to tell him what I was learning. We went back and forth, recalling the young earth arguments and wondering if they stood up to the textbook. Finally my dad sat back and said, “I don’t know.”
I still remember how my shoulders relaxed—it was OK to not know! I think I was expecting him to tell me the “right” answer, or to give me anti-evolution arguments to use against my biology teacher. Instead, he came alongside me and wrestled with the questions I was asking. In that moment, I learned that a mature Christian adult can struggle over issues without putting their whole faith at risk. And I learned that some issues are secondary to our core beliefs—Christians can struggle and even disagree, while still being disciples of Jesus together.
In that moment, I learned that a mature Christian adult can struggle over issues without putting their whole faith at risk. And I learned that some issues are secondary to our core beliefs—Christians can struggle and even disagree, while still being disciples of Jesus together.
Show how God is in the picture
I went on to attend a Christian college in Minnesota, now called Bethel University. I majored in physics and music, and for a while I set aside my questions about Genesis and evolution. Instead, I was excited to discover that a science career didn’t mean pushing God out of the picture. I was introduced to John Calvin’s phrase “All truth is God’s truth”; even if some truth in nature is discovered by an atheist, it could still be from God. By studying science, I would be investigating God’s world as well as God’s word, both nature and scripture. Science could be a Christian vocation; I didn’t have to be a missionary to serve God, but could serve God by studying his handiwork. I was delighted to see how I could love God with my mind, as well as my heart and soul.
In graduate school, I got interested in astrophysics. I know physics isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I was fascinated by the ways physics can be at work in the extreme conditions of space. I geeked out over studying the intense gravity of black holes, magnetic fields spanning hundreds of light years, or diffuse regions of space emptier than the strongest vacuum chamber on earth. But studying astronomy meant that all of my questions about Genesis were back on the table. I believed, and still believe, that the entire Bible is God’s authoritative word for our lives. I didn’t want to just pick and choose which verses to accept, or let science dictate that some verses weren’t true.
I was excited to discover that a science career didn’t mean pushing God out of the picture…Science could be a Christian vocation; I didn’t have to be a missionary to serve God, but could serve God by studying his handiwork. I was delighted to see how I could love God with my mind, as well as my heart and soul.
I remember browsing a book table at a weekend retreat of my local chapter of InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship. One book was Portraits of Creation, which included a chapter by Old Testament scholar John Stek. For the first time I heard about the culture of the ancient Near East. The ancient Egyptians and Babylonians believed that many gods were involved in creation, and they pictured a flat earth with a solid dome sky with water above it (a “firmament”).
I realized that in Genesis chapter 1, on the second day of creation, God takes credit for making this firmament. That means God didn’t try to correct their misconceptions about the natural world; it would have distracted them from the larger message. God had other goals in mind.
Deb with her plasma physics experiment during grad school. Photo provided by author.
I concluded that if God didn’t put modern science into Genesis, I shouldn’t be trying to get modern science out of Genesis. Instead I should focus on God’s primary message: that there is one sovereign Creator (not a pantheon of gods), that creation is good, and that humans are made in God’s image.
Thus, I came to understand how I could accept the scientific evidence without leaving God behind. This is a key point for many people. Research by Elaine Howard Ecklund in 2018 (Religion vs. Science, see p.139) found that, across multiple science issues, people of faith are open to science as long as they hear two important points: 1) that there is an active role for God in the world and 2) that humans as God’s image bearers hold a special place in creation. No matter the issue, believers need to know that learning scientific findings won’t remove God from the picture or make humans insignificant.
Highlight believing scientists
With this assurance in place, I was ready to learn more geology and astronomy about the age of the universe. By now I had met many honest scientists of all faiths and no faith, it was hard for me to shake the worry that an atheist scientist would be mixing a lot of anti-Christian views into their presentation.
This was in the 1990s; in the decades following, the militant atheist movement made it even harder for Christians to trust what a popular scientist had to say, because authors like Dawkins, Hitchens, Coyne, and others were regularly saying that science rules out God and smart people aren’t religious. But in Portraits of Creation, I found chapters by Christian geologists and Christian astronomers, who explained the scientific evidence for the age of the earth and how they reconciled it with their faith. I came to see the Big Bang not as an atheistic alternative to God, but as a scientific model describing God’s work in creating the universe. Learning about science from Christian voices I trusted made all the difference.
I came to see the Big Bang not as an atheistic alternative to God, but as a scientific model describing God’s work in creating the universe. Learning about science from Christian voices I trusted made all the difference.
Research has shown that Christian voices are key on today’s issue of vaccination as well. In May-June 2021, researchers at Columbia and Stanford surveyed 1765 unvaccinated Christians. Some were shown a brief video of then-NIH Director Francis Collins (also founder of BioLogos), in which he declared his “trust in Jesus as the source of all truth.” This group “expressed higher trust in medical experts, greater intentions to vaccinate, and greater intentions to promote vaccination to friends and family.” The researchers also found “the strongest effects were observed among the most religious participants.” With today’s polarization around science, Christians are hearing more than ever that they should be suspicious of scientists. They need a source they can trust. All truth is God’s truth, but we live in an era when we can’t agree on what the “all truth” is. Trust has become essential.
What we can do
The issues facing young people today are far more challenging than what I faced. Anti-science messages have become common. The topics have expanded beyond evolution and Genesis to the environment, climate change, COVID-19, vaccines, and “science” broadly. Meanwhile others are claiming more authority for science than it has. Yet in many ways the problems are the same as what I experienced: people are being shown only two options, with science on one side and faith on the other. Their identity is tied up in choosing one option.
We can all help the next generation. Let’s come alongside young people in their questions, rather than giving simple answers. We can wrestle with them on the secondary issues, while showing ways to hold to the core of our faith. Let’s point to believing scientists as trusted voices who can explain where the scientific evidence is rigorous, show which pieces are scientific speculation or atheist add-ons, and tell their own stories of following Jesus Christ. And whatever the issue, let’s tell the larger story.
We can come alongside the next generation as they reconstruct a strong, Christ-centered faith, and become gracious, faithful, and informed leaders on the difficult questions of today and tomorrow.
Explaining the scientific evidence is not enough. We can show how God has an active role and how humans have a special place in God’s creation. We can come alongside the next generation as they reconstruct a strong, Christ-centered faith, and become gracious, faithful, and informed leaders on the difficult questions of today and tomorrow.
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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.