Believing Scientists Respond: What Questions Are You Asked About Your Faith?
Scientists of Christian faith explain how they respond to common questions from skeptical colleagues.
Kristine Johnson, aerospace engineer, Honeywell
An idea that continues to surface in conversations is around the nature of explanations. Often people think that if there is a scientific explanation, no other explanation is necessary or even possible. If we understand the natural causes, they think the natural explanation precludes a supernatural explanation. I really love this discussion because on further discourse, people usually see it’s a false dichotomy to have to pick only one kind of reason. It’s easy to show that water boiling on the stove has a scientific explanation (heat transfer to the molecules) but also has a personal cause (I’m boiling the water to make pasta). The natural process that causes a baby to form and grow in her mother certainly doesn’t exclude the personal cause (decision/action of the parents) that initiates the process or even a supernatural understanding (God knits us together in our mother’s womb). I often find that these conversations open the door to the idea that God is the first cause behind the natural laws and processes we see.
Keith Miller, research assistant professor of geology (retired), Kansas State University
There are several misconceptions that I encounter when speaking with non-Christians (colleagues or otherwise). There is the perception among many non-religious individuals that faith is somehow the antithesis of the search for knowledge and truth. Religious faith is seen as static and impervious to new discoveries and knowledge.
I know of non-Christians whose rejection of Christianity is tied to their perception that “Bible-believing” Christian reject the conclusions of modern science. This whole “Science vs faith” view has become a major stumbling block for many thinking non-believers. However, there should be only one stumbling block to faith and that is Jesus Christ and him crucified.
Both science and religious faith rest on incomplete and unprovable foundations. Doubt is a necessary component of both, and both are subject to change and correction. Scientists proceed with limited knowledge and evidence, and must recognize uncertainty. The theoretical frameworks that guide scientific research and exploration of the natural world are not static but evolve with new observations and new philosophical perspectives. Science is rooted in history and takes place within a broad, diverse community that provides a necessary corrective. Similarly, religious faith is accompanied by doubt and uncertainty. We must question our theological assumptions and commitments in order to avoid serious error. One important role of the global Christian community is to provide correction — to challenge individuals and local faith communities to reevaluate perspectives and positions.
Developing answers to serious questions requires time and patience, thorough study, and usually a lot of hard work. It also requires the willingness to be satisfied with incomplete answers and uncertainty. It also requires humility, which is also essential in our pursuit of knowing God. There is only one certainty and that is that we are all wrong about something. Many people are really surprised when I say this.
Joel Duff, professor of biology, University of Akron (member of BioLogos Voices)
Some of my colleagues were raised in Christian homes but would not consider themselves followers of Christ today. Their experiences with religion have left them with questions about how someone such as myself could have the same academic training and yet still be committed to the Christian faith There is no one-liner response to such inquiries. Dialogue requires personal relationships in which both parties are able to listen. Effective dialogue with professional colleagues, graduate students and undergraduates begins by first living a life as consistent with my understanding of Scripture as possible. Being consistent with one’s words and actions are the foundation of establishing respect. Being able to listen, talk about other people’s concerns and interacting with their positions respectfully usually provides the opportunity to have a discussion with someone about why one’s actions and words as a Christian may differ from those that don’t have that Christian worldview. I don’t expect to change the minds of those around me. In fact I know that I can’t turn the heart of anyone to God through my own actions. That is up to God to work in the hearts of others but God can and does use our actions and words to speak the gospel. As we do so in love we glorify God.
Ian Hutchinson, professor of nuclear science and engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
I have on various occasions been asked by colleagues a question like “How can someone as intelligent as you believe that?” (about my Christian beliefs). The question reveals much about the preconceptions of modern secular academic thought. But it gives a chance for me to say that I do not at all take an anti-intellectual approach to my Christian convictions, and to explain some of the compelling reasons for them. Still, I would not say this or any other question about faith from secular colleagues is “common”. They know I am a Christian, but they mostly observe a polite silence about religious questions, as tends to be the norm in modern secular society. By no means all of my colleagues are atheists. A substantial number are Christians or religious Jews. Even so, they do not frequently pursue religious discussions with their professional colleagues.
Rhoda J. Hawkins, lecturer in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Sheffield
The most common question/comment I get from people in general is, “aren’t you one of a very small minority being a Christian in science?” I point out that, in my current department, I am more of a minority being a woman than I am being a Christian. There are more Christians working in science than people think.
Denis Alexander, Emeritus Director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St. Edmund’s College
I am sometimes asked, “What’s the point in believing in God? Why not just believe in science and leave it at that?” In general, I point out that it’s intellectually lazy to just accept the universe as a “brute fact” without also considering why it exists. And clearly if there is no God, and therefore no ultimate purpose or meaning to the universe either, then what’s the point of doing science in any ultimate sense, because eventually it will all be swallowed up in the second law of thermodynamics anyway? Most secular colleagues just carry on in their intellectually incoherent world, come what may; treating their life as if it has some point, when in reality it’s going to be snuffed out and soon forgotten. The Christian world-view provides a much more coherent way of understanding the world and avoids the need for such intellectual fragmentation with its accompanying cognitive dissonance. It’s curious that in this realm of thought, at least, scientists of all people are so unwilling to face up to the facts of life and death.
Graeme Finlay, cell biologist and professor of scientific pathology, University of Auckland
A frequent question I get is about suffering and death. My answer here is that I worship a God who suffers with us and for us. God is affected by our sicknesses and selfishness. In the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, I encounter a God who has entered into our suffering and borne our sin. In the Resurrection, I encounter a God who has inaugurated a new creation.
Roseanne Sension, professor of chemistry, University of Michigan
From the convinced materialist, the questions focus on the supernatural as nothing more than outgrown superstition. My response is to identify the metaphysical assumptions we all make, and to counter the common perception that Christians are anti-science reactionaries. From colleagues in the humanities and social sciences, the questions focus on the oppression and violence of so-called “biblical” faith. One example: “How can you follow a faith that oppresses women?” The core response to this type of question is to focus on the message of love, service, and justice that permeates the New Testament—with roots in the Old Testament, especially in the prophets. Unfortunately, in both spheres it is necessary to apologize for the very real failings of Christian individuals and organizations, and dealing with examples and perceptions raised by my colleagues.
Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., professor of biology and theology, Providence College
In one form or another, the most common question I get is the following one: As a priest-scientist, how do you reconcile your Christian faith and your scientific work, when religion, especially the Christian religion, is so unscientific, i.e., so unreasonable?
In response, I explain that Christianity and Atheism are alternative grand unified theories for reality. Over the course of my life, I have discovered that Christianity has more explanatory power than its rival account. Where do the laws and regularities of nature come from? My secular colleagues tell me that they just are. It is a radically unsatisfying answer! We would never accept that answer for any other question that we ask in science, and yet for the most fundamental question we can ask, atheism asks us to surrender our reason to nothingness.
In contrast, as a Christian, I am allowed to consider an explanation first proposed by St. Thomas Aquinas eight hundred years ago for why the universe is ordered and predictable and gorgeous: It is the creation of a God whose very nature is existence – He is a verb! – who then chooses in love to give existence to every existing thing. This includes the laws and regularities of nature. It is an explanation that is profound, sophisticated, and most significantly in my view, life-giving.
Jeff Hardin, chair of the department of integrative biology, University of Wisconsin (BioLogos Board Chair)
I have a somewhat unusual background: unlike many people interested in science and faith questions, I received a Master of Divinity at a theological seminary before I pursued my science PhD. When people find this out and that I’m extensively involved in science/faith dialogue, they’re often full of questions, because they have been raised on a steady diet of conflict narrative – the idea that good science and deep Christian faith are incompatible. On a public level, I’ve worked hard over the years with colleagues here at UW-Madison to dispel this conflict narrative. On a personal level, I suppose that a few of my colleagues are perplexed by my Christian faith, but more often they seem intrigued, and this leads to deeper discussions about life and faith. Getting past superficial “hallway discussions” to serious dialogue takes intentionality, but I’ve found my colleagues can be surprisingly open one-on-one.
S. Joshua Swamidass, assistant professor of laboratory and genomic medicine, Washington University in St Louis
A common question I get is, “Why do you believe something without evidence?” I respond by clarifying that my “faith” is not evidence-free. It is more like trust. And this trust is connected to evidence. First, there is the evidence for the Resurrection: (1) physical and historical evidence, (2) the testimony of people; and (3) my own experience with the Risen One. The faith I find is consistent with evidence and reason, but there is something more. I see something clearly that changes me, and makes sense of everything else.
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