The Bible and science
Christians who hold a literalist interpretation of scripture will often find themselves in conflict with modern scientific thinking. Both religion and science are concerned in some way with how people can know what is real, what is true. Christianity makes certain claims about, for instance, the nature of God, and his ‘miraculous’ involvement in the world, and science makes other claims that either contradict the claims of Christianity or even deny that such things as God and miracles exist.
The controversy between science and Christianity began in earnest in the 19th century with significant discoveries in geology and then biology. Geologists began to establish that the world in which we live was many millions of years old and could not be just 5000 years old as suggested in the stories of Genesis. Charles Darwin then published his ‘On the origin of species’ which established that humans had evolved over millennia, and had not been placed intact into the Garden of Eden merely thousands of years previously. What these two discoveries established was that the claims made in the Bible, if taken literally, were in fact incorrect from a scientific point of view. People therefore asked, if these claims are incorrect, how much more of the Bible is incorrect – including the central claims of Christianity?
It has been the task of modern scientists and Christian thinkers to tackle this issue. Some fundamentalist Christians refuse to accept the findings of science, and although still a powerful body in some churches, they are often viewed as extreme by other Christians. Other, more moderate, Christians however, accept that scientific findings have demonstrated a need to re-interpret the Bible and that the claims made about the world and God are written in a language exclusive to religion. To interpret this language scientifically is therefore viewed as about as similar as trying to play football with a table tennis bat.
Religious belief (like new discoveries in science?) often requires a ‘leap of faith’ at some point in the thinking and perception of the believer. In the same way that an analysis of human emotions such as ‘love’ can only be fully appreciated through experience, so science can only lead so far in explaining the nature of faith. Although studies in the sociology and psychology of religion offer scientific explanations of man’s need for religion (e.g. Weber, Marx, Freud, Jung), many still feel that a life lived according to faith makes more sense and is more meaningful than a life lived without it.
Albert Einstein, although sceptical about a personal God, said, “A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man”. However, other eminent scientists are deeply religious and find the co-existence of faith and science as totally complimentary. It is entirely possible then, for a Christian scientist to say that the stories of creation in Genesis Chapters 1 and 2 are a true ‘myth’ about the relationship between God and humans, while still holding that the cosmos was created 14 billion years ago in a Big Bang.
Conflict between scientific discoveries and faith are often due to the conflict between contrasting world views upon which so much is invested. Some philosophers have coined the term ‘paradigm shift’ to explain what happens when humans retain concepts of a by-gone age into the present and this results in an inevitable conflict. Empirical language, or the language of science, is descriptive and analytical. Religious texts are usually from another historical context and their language is often emotive and poetic. It is therefore important to understand the context within which language is used, and to apply appropriate rules that will help to maintain clarity of thinking. Christianity makes claims that suggest a reality beyond the empirical. Its beliefs about the human ‘self’ include both a body and a spirit or soul. Christianity also teaches about an after-life, an eschatology, and believers have faith and personal experience as evidence to support this. There are a huge variety of positions regarding science and Christian faith, both in their way sources of information about the world or descriptions of reality. The Faraday Institute is a UK-based research institute improving public understanding of the relationship of religious belief, including ethics, and the sciences.