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I no longer begin a talk or lesson affirming the idea that there is a conflict between science and religion unless I am asked to address it explicitly. The conflict between science and religion is difficult to maintain. To justify it historically you must cherry-pick your evidence. Social scientists increasingly tell us that conflict is more perception than it is reality. Yet, cultural influencers and pundits alike perpetuate the perception — one that is certainly felt by some people — and the church has done too little to counter it. So, it persists.
For a while now, I have adhered to the strategy that to weaken the myth of conflict between science and religion, we should generally not give voice to it. Sure, I make implicit reference to it — “the goal of Science for the Church is to change the church’s posture toward science.” Sometimes, I conclude a presentation acknowledging it but only after focusing first and foremost on ways faith and science cooperate for the betterment of both.
Now I’m second guessing that strategy of silence.
The Conflict Refuses to Go Away
As I described last week, the feeling of conflict is felt deeply by many of the science professionals in our churches. They feel it every Sunday as they enter the church to worship God. Other Christians understand the Bible in ways that conflict with certain aspects of science.
The very perception of conflict can also become a reality for people. Recently, I was with a pastor who leads an amazing church that integrates science and faith well. It is the kind of place that attracts new scientists when they come to one of the nearby universities because of its posture toward science.
We did a Sunday morning adult-ed program together — the final session of a five-part series, the first four which had been led by scientists — that also included a couple confirmands. The pastor did his presentation and focused on conflict and the need to reframe it through the intentional programming their church has done.
Here is the kicker: despite all the efforts to reframe the conflict idea and all the scientists and science-and-faith messages in the church, he told me every year there are confirmands who continue to believe there is an inherent conflict between faith and science. The pastor is flabbergasted — there is nothing they do as a church that suggests the conflict is more than a perception.
This has me conflicted about the conflict between science and religion. How do we extract it from our churches, especially those that witness the ways science works alongside the Christian faith? Will it go away if we focus on the cooperation and don’t give voice to the opposition? Or must we acknowledge the conflict and work to reframe it?
- One of the first newsletters I wrote for Science for the Church addressed the alleged conflict between faith and science.
- Pew Research Center data shows that the conflict is perpetuated mostly by non-believers: “most adults (68%) say there is no conflict between their personal religious beliefs and science.”
- The idea that evangelicals are against science is not supported by the data.
- When I do address the conflict between faith and science, I almost always share this video.
- Here is a page of quotes on science curated for sermons that might help you respond to the perception of conflict.
Really smart, faithful people I trust disagree on the best approach. Some refuse to verbalize a conflict they insist doesn’t exist. Others draw folks in with the conflict narrative and then work to demystify it. I’m conflicted over which one to endorse, but I am now considering experimenting with some of the strategies I have seen for demystifying it. Here they are:
- I love the analogy to a stringed instrument — you can’t have music unless there is tension on a string. The goal is to tune the tension to avoid the discordant noise and replace it with a more lovely harmony. He is not the first one to use this analogy, but Pastor Will Rose describes it well in this video. How can our churches tune the faith and science tension to sing a better song?
- A good quote can do a lot of work here to reframe perceptions of opposition. I recently rediscovered a gem from the 1915 physics Nobel laureate, Sir William Bragg: “Christianity and science are opposed… but only in the same sense as that which my thumb and forefinger are opposed — and between them, I can grasp everything.” [Note: this appears to be a paraphrase of the actual quote.] Perhaps quotes like this can help us better grasp and nuance the relationship between faith and science.
- The pastor I co-led that course with loves pop culture. He invited the group to reflect on their favorite examples from film of good and evil, hero and villain. He then used two — Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader and Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed — to show how those that at first may appear to be opposites often have a more tangled (Star Wars) or even harmonious (Rocky) relationship in the end.
When we surveyed you several months ago, you told us you value this newsletter because it equips you to have conversations about faith and science with others. I would guess many of those persons you are talking with feel conflict. As you engage with them, tell us which strategies seem to work best. Let’s learn together.
Perhaps you will collect valuable data that can resolve my conflict over the best approach and help all of us to offer better narratives about the relationships between faith and science.