Do theists still feel threatened by science, or is this just an unnecessary line in the sand?

You might otherwise think that by now the “Faith vs Science” debate is long dead.  But is it really?   A post in the New York Times last week brought this front and center once again (NY Times article).  A psychology professor at the University of Washington writes that this has become such an issue in his teaching that he has to begin each academic year with “The Talk”, in order to preemptively curtail disruptive questions and comments: “The Talk” is simply about the assumptions from which he’s teaching, and the misconceptions and superstitions of certain faith positions.

The most recent Gallup poll showed that 42% of Americans believe in a literal interpretation of the biblical version of creation (Gallup poll); in fact, when they looked back at a dozen of such polls they’ve conducted since this question was first asked back in 1982, this number has consistently hovered between 40-47%.  The Associated Press found much the same in a poll they conducted in March 2014 (AP poll).  Another poll done by Pew Research Center in 2013 found 33% of Americans believe that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time” (in other words, they reject the theory of evolution) (Pew poll).  In 2012, a Christian think-tank conducted a survey among 743 pastors of churches “big and small and from all Christian denominations” across the USA.  They found 54% of those pastors most closely identified with the view that God “created life in its present form in six 24-hour days” (Biologos poll).

Is this a problem?  Do we need to care about what other people personally believe?  To each their own?

One reason why I think it’s a huge concern is that many people, especially students on high-school, college and university campuses all around the country, feel forced into making a choice.  Facts vs faith.  Science vs Scripture.  Darwinism vs design.  In an on-line survey conducted in 2013 (Reddit survey), respondents were asked two questions:

(1) if you left the Christian faith, what was your greatest reason for doing so?

(2) what do you consider to be the greatest obstacle to belief in the Christian God?

Of the 2,020 people who participated, 74% claimed to have been Christians at some point in their lives, but 96% defined themselves as non-Christian at the time of the survey.  This survey wasn’t conducted by a recognized statistician, and might not meet the standards of Gallup or Pew, but it’s very instructive just the same.  Among the respondents who had left the Christian faith, the most popular reason for doing so was “Christian teachings that conflict with findings of modern science” (shared by 54%).  With respect to the second question — the greatest obstacle to belief in the Christian God — the top answer given was once again “Christian teachings that conflict with findings of modern science”: this was the top answer for 42% of those who had rejected the faith, for 39% of those who had never accepted the faith, and for 14% of those who were currently Christians.

The Biologos group referred to above ran another 5-year study of 1,296 respondents in which the main question being asked was why people who were regular church-goers during their teen years had disconnected with the church since age 15 (Biologos poll #2).  One of the major reasons given was the tension between churches and science, with the following sentiments being indicated: “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%); “Christianity is anti-science” (25%); and “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate” (23%).  In the other Biologos survey of pastors, they found that roughly 65% of pastors agreed with the statement that “younger adults today are more concerned than ever about whether faith and science are compatible”.  There was also concern among the pastors themselves: 58% of them agreed that “If you publicly admitted your own doubts about human origins, you feel you would have a lot to lose in your ministry”.

All of these surveys, and many others, echo the sentiment that today’s society is hugely concerned with the perceived conflict between faith and science. At least, that seems to be the case in North America, particularly the U.S.. There seems to be less dogmatism and division on this point among Christians in Europe and Asia. It’s worth adding here that the conflict between creationism and evolution, and the resulting denial of the authority of science, is also becoming an issue among members of the Muslim community around the world.

On the other hand, is this a man-made problem?  Have we just created a divide by the way the question is worded … “Do you believe in this [hold out right hand] … or in that [hold out left hand]“.  David Briggs makes a good case for exactly this in a Huffington Post article earlier this week (Briggs article). Why do we have to be so polar? This does not need to be an either-or situation: it can be a both-and one. A spectrum of beliefs.  I’ve found it fully possible to reconcile the two domains.  You just need to let go of dogmatic interpretations.  As I said in an earlier post, that last word — interpretation — is key.  People all through the ages have too often gotten into trouble when they took words too literally.  Sometimes it can be humorous, as in Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first“.  But sometimes it can get serious, as in the-baby-with-the-bath-water metaphor. Don’t let that be you.

Finally, is there any benefit to debating this issue with people who hold fast to their views? Do these exchanges actually change minds … create believers out of atheists? My sense is: not so much. At least not immediately.  Ted Davis wrote a good article which gives some good insights into that game (Davis article).  Apologetics is a very ineffective evangelism tool compared to life-style evangelism (gaining their respect and confidence and then winning them with your love, compassion, and conviction). Instead, what I do hope this dialogue does is prompt both sides to do some of their own homework … to investigate what they think they believe … ask themselves honest questions. And in the process jettison beliefs and viewpoints that they held only because their peer group held them but which they couldn’t justify from first principles. And from a theist point of view, I think becoming a vocal (and educated) participant in these debates provides role models for other believers: to show them that it is indeed possible to be scientifically-grounded and yet committed to faith. To not become steam-rolled by the overly exuberant evangelists of the “New-Atheism” (Dawkins? Krauss? Wolpert?).

What do you think?


2 thoughts on “Do theists still feel threatened by science, or is this just an unnecessary line in the sand?

  1. An excellent article, and a very clear summary of the main issues involved. I think many Christians don’t realize how serious an issue this is. Education (both in science and Biblical interpretation) is the key to moving forward, I believe.


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