Science vs The Bible: A Study in Conflation

Science and the Bible are at odds. Intelligence or faith, you have to choose. That's what we've been told. It's not true. Why am I posting this here on an education blog? I don't want anyone, student or educator, to feel like if they are studying or working in STEM, that they cannot also be a person of faith (and vice versa). Since many present this as a two sided issue, I wanted to share my perspective.

When I first became a Christian I found myself surrounded by people who, upon finding I was studying science, wanted to tell me how to harmonize the Bible with science. I spent the first few years of my faith, reading all of the apologetics and resources I could find in hopes of understanding how the Bible would be compatible with my knowledge of science and math.

Some of these resources were interesting and enlightening but many raised more questions and issues than they solved. Worse yet, many were attempting to discredit evolution and the like because of the perceived incompatibility with the Bible. It was very frustrating because I felt that the Christian community was forcing me to choose what I observed to be true about the universe and what I believed to be true about God.

Sadly, this black and white belief is also reflected by many prominent voices in the science community. Making claims like, "if evolution is true then there can be no God" is an untestable statement and is just as much a belief system as any religion.

The problem with this either/or debate is it leads to unnecessary confusion and frustration. Is the Bible made obsolete by modern theories and discoveries? Can one apply the same intelligence to their faith that they do to their work and other aspects of their lives? I believe it is possible and God's will that we be able to fully use our minds to learn more about the Universe while using that same mind to deepen our understanding and relationship with Him.

Science: An cumulative progression or a series of paradigm shifts?
Textbooks and many historical narratives send the message that science has been a cumulative effort where each previous theory and law builds on the previous. If you consider the stories of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Einstein as an example, each proposed a new theory that was not initially well received within scientific circles. Their detractors were opposed not always based on evidence, as some would have you believe, but because it conflicted with their worldview and paradigm.

These scientists, as well as Darwin, Crick, and many more in the scientific community continued to have skeptics and detractors long after the theory was confirmed by data and evidence. One day, I stumbled upon the word "conflation" which I found to be very useful in this situation. Conflation is where you take your personal beliefs (e.g. that the world is only a few thousand years old, or that there is no God) and combine them with the Bible or the theory of Evolution to make them say something they were not intended to say. In hermeneutics, the study of texts like the Bible, this is known as eisegesis and one must constantly be on guard against it. If one is to read a text, they must understand what assumptions and worldview they are bringing to it.

The problem is well meaning and passionate people on both sides of this supposed debate are trying to "save your mind and soul" when they don't realize, or refuse to acknowledge, that they have an "-ism" or a worldview as much as anyone else. You may think it was Galileo vs the church but it was much more about politics and cherished philosophies left over from Aristotle. It's been said that Christians have always opposed evolution and that scientists have always embraced it. Neither are true and it has led to misleading representation about what the theory of evolution actually is (as well as what a "theory" is for that matter).

If you were writing the book of Genesis for the Jews a couple thousand years ago, what do you think would be the most useful message to them? Remember they were just rescued from slavery in Egypt and are wandering in the wilderness. The writer of Genesis was inspired to write a message about God and creation that explained why God was different than the other gods they had seen in Egypt and would encounter from other nations. The story told in Genesis 1-3 (creation) and 5-9 (Noah and the flood) is not intended to be a literal account of the geological and biological events that took place in the early days of the Earth. A scientific explanation would not have had much value to the aforementioned Jews in their situation. Throughout these narratives and the Bible as a whole, God describes his love for us and why we need salvation. As Galileo, quoting Caesar Baronius, put it famously in his letter to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, "The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven. not how heaven goes."

This post could be miles long, but I feel you will get more value if you check out some of these books:
  • The Structure of Scientific Revolutions - Thomas Kuhn: As mentioned above this is where the term "paradigm shift" is coined and it is an excellent tour through the history of science with examples of how evidence required a complete change in how we perceive the universe rather than an cumulative progression as textbooks would have us believe.
  • Personal Knowledge - Michael Polanyi: Everyone has a belief system and worldview and it is impossible for one to be 100% objective. Experiments are reproducible, their implications are open to interpretation.
  • Galileo Connection - Charles E. Hummel: If you have the understanding that the Bible is incompatible with science, then you may find this book useful. It clarifies the role of Scripture and nature in understanding God and the universe. It also provides an excellent perspective on the politics and disagreements that led to Gailieo being forced to recant his scientific findings.
  • The Blind Watchmaker - Richard Dawkins: This book, among others, helped me to better understand the topic of emergent complexity and how very simple rules can lead to diverse behavior. Dawkins is also an interesting read, as a self proclaimed "militant atheist" you will see an example of how a brilliant scientist can see the same data and evidence as others but interpret it differently based on one's own personal belief system.
  • Perspectives on an Evolving Creation - Keith B. Miller et al.: A series of articles from Christians who are also scientists on how the we have been misled to believe that one cannot be a scientist and a Christian.
  • Galileo's letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany - Galileo was a devout and pious Christian which is why he was so confused and frustrated by those in the Church who opposed his discoveries on theological grounds. In this letter, he describes his faith and how that lives in harmony with his scientific pursuits, his belief that his accusers in the Church were misunderstanding the passages from the Bible and its role, and the role of the natural world in declaring the glory of God.

If you have a strong opinion on this topic, how much of it is based on evidence and how much based on your own personal belief system.? Regardless of your position on the issue, I have always found it helpful to hear other perspectives. I am glad that science is an endeavor I can continue to pursue while maintaining a faith in God. My hope is you will also find harmony on this topic and realize that a universe with evolution, a big bang, or whatever else we discover, are not barriers to understanding God's existence and love (Ps 19:1).