Chapter 1: Science and Faith

Faith versus science?

New scientific theories don’t always receive a warm welcome in the church. Galileo Galilei’s work sparked vehement controversy among Christian authorities in Rome, who infamously placed him under house arrest for suspected heresy. More recently, evolutionary biology and Big Bang cosmology have met with more than a little resistance from Christians. Such examples are often cited as illustrations of a supposed conflict between faith and science. Science and faith are incompatible, it is said, because they involve opposite attitudes toward evidence. Science follows the evidence wherever it leads; faith stands its ground whatever the evidence. Yet the history of science belies the idea that faith and science are in opposition, and the history of Christianity gives little purchase to the claim that our faith is blind to evidence. As we will see in this chapter, the foundations of modern science rest on the work of Christians like Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton, who regarded scientific research as an expression of their faith in God. 

Faith is no enemy of science. To the contrary, the Christian faith helped to foster modern science in its infancy; and faith—in a broader sense—continues to play indispensable roles even in contemporary secular science. In order to understand the intimate relationship between faith and science, it will be helpful to examine carefully what faith is, then consider what science is. The next two sections clarify these terms and briefly discuss the relationships between faith, science, and evidence. Then we’ll examine the role of Christianity in the inception of modern science. The final section of this chapter provides an overview of the historical beginnings of modern science, highlighting the influence of the Christian faith.

What is faith?

In popular usage, the word ‘faith’ is sometimes associated with irrational belief. Faith, on this common view, involves believing something without evidence or believing with greater confidence than the evidence justifies. Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary includes a definition to that effect: “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.”This is definition 2b(1). However, that contemporary definition of faith is inconsistent with the concept of faith used throughout the Bible. The scriptures don’t tell us to believe things on insufficient evidence. Consider Jesus’ words in John 14:11-12: “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” (NIV, emphasis mine) Clearly Jesus is not instructing his disciples to believe his words without evidence, nor to trust him with greater confidence than the evidence justifies. To the contrary, he encourages them to cultivate their faith in him by considering the evidence about his identity.

The Oxford English Dictionary, widely regarded as the most authoritative dictionary of the English language, provides a definition that better accords with the biblical concept: “confidence, reliance, trust (in the ability, goodness, etc., of a person; in the efficacy or worth of a thing; or in the truth of a statement or doctrine).”This is definition (1a) from the 2nd edition of the OED. The definition in the 3rd edition is similar, though not as concise. That is how I understand the biblical notion of faith. To have faith in God is to have confidence in his ability and goodness, to rely on him, and to trust him. To have faith in Jesus’ name is to have confidence, reliance, and trust in its efficacy and worth. To have faith in his words is to trust and rely on them, and to have confidence that they are true.

Faith in the sense of confidence, reliance, or trust can be reasonable or unreasonable (rational or irrational), depending on the evidence. I am referring here to the epistemic rationality of the beliefs involved in attitudes of faith. Faith is epistemically rational whenever the relevant beliefs are epistemically rational. There is also another sense in which faith can be rational or irrational: it can be practically rational or irrational to act on faith. Whether faith is practically rational depends not only on one’s evidence, but on one’s values. I’ll say more about that in a separate essay. (Link coming soon. Meanwhile, here’s a link to a lecture I recently gave on the topic of Biblical faith.) You have faith in your closest friends, and this faith is perfectly reasonable, because you have good evidence that they are trustworthy. (If not, perhaps you should make new friends!) But it would be unreasonable for you to place the same degree of trust, reliance, and confidence in a total stranger. (Didn’t your parents warn you about strangers?) Similarly, I have faith in The Oxford English Dictionary: I rely on it, trust it, and have confidence that it truthfully represents the meanings of English words. This too is reasonable. If I placed similar confidence in the definitions given by The Devil's Dictionary, a satirical work by Ambrose Bierce, that would be unreasonable, because I do not have good evidence for its truthfulness. I might trust it to provide a good laugh, but not to provide accurate definitions.

Science itself depends on faith in this sense of confidence, reliance, and trust. Scientists must have confidence, reliance, and trust in the efficacy of their methodologies; they must trust and rely on their senses, instruments, and cognitive abilities; and they must trust and rely on each other to observe carefully and report experimental results accurately. Is this faith reasonable? Like other human beings, scientists are sometimes careless, and occasionally they even fabricate results. Moreover, scientific methodologies sometimes fail. Instruments malfunction, our senses sometimes deceive us, and foundational assumptions may turn out false. For the most part, though, scientific methodologies have proven successful, and scientists generally are trustworthy folk. So, the faith involved in scientific inquiry is reasonable.

What about faith in God? Is that reasonable too? I believe it is, at least for those of us who are aware of strong evidence for God’s existence and goodness. In my opinion, one of the most compelling kinds of evidence is testimonial evidence—for example, the written testimonies of people who witnessed the miracles, transfiguration, and resurrection of Christ; and the personal testimonies of people who continue to experience God’s presence, goodness, and miraculous power in numerous ways today. In later chapters, we will also encounter some scientific evidence for a Creator. (See for instance the discussion of cosmic fine-tuning at the end of Chapter 8.) The very fact that science is possible may also provide some evidence for the existence of God, as I will explain in chapter 11.