Monday, 4 July 2011

Are Science & Religion Compatible

Last year when I announced I was planning to do a series of sermons based around Questions of Faith, one of issues I was frequently asked to address, is the question: are science and religion compatible?  Or to put it another way, is it possible to have faith in God and, at the same time, trust in science.

This is not a new debate, it’s been around since at least the days of the Enlightenment, but has again been brought to the fore by popular new atheist writers, like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitches who argue that religion and science are not compatible.

For example Christopher Hitchens, in his book God Is Not Great, says, “Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, (religion) no longer offers an explanation of anything important.”  And Sam Harris in his book End of Faith, says, “Religious faith represents … a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible.”

So are they right?  Well, I am sure you will not be surprised to hear me say, no they are not.  In fact, I believe that religion and science are not only compatible, but need one another. 

Where we see the debate between science and religion played out the most, is surrounding the question of creation and evolution.  This is a particularly live issue in America.  A Gallup poll conducted in December 2010 showed that 40% of Americans agreed with the statement “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”  And in a survey conducted in 2007, 18% of Americans said that the following statement: Evolution, that is, the idea that human beings developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, was definitely true, compared to 28% who said it was definitely false. 

So what does the Bible say about creation, and is it possible to believe in a creator God, and also in evolution?

The Bible and Creation

In the Bible there are not one, but two creation accounts.  In Genesis chapter 1 we have the most famous of the two creation stories, which begins with those immortal words, ‘In the beginning’, and goes on to describe how God created the world in six days, and on the seventh day He rested.  In this account God creates human beings on the sixth day and puts them in charge over His creation.

In Genesis chapter 2 we have the second creation story.  In this account God took some soil from the ground and formed a man out of it, and breathed life into him.  God placed Adam in the garden in Eden to cultivate and guard it.  Recognising that it was not good for Adam to be alone, God creates companions for Adam, forming birds and animals, which he named.  But none of these creatures were suitable companions for Adam, so God put Adam into a deep sleep, and removed a rib out of his side, and from that rib created Eve.

So the Bible contains not one, but two creation stories, which are both significantly different in the way they describe how the world, and human kind was created.

There are four major views surrounding creation.

1          The Creationist School

Creationists believe in the literal truth of Genesis chapters 1 to 3, including that God specially created everything out of nothing. Some allow for secondary evolution - variations and developments within a species, but they reject evolution between the species (especially from apes to humans).

Some creationists believe God created everything in six literal days a few thousand years ago.  Others believe the universe and earth are much older and that the “days” of Genesis are symbols for long periods of time. Still others believe that the original creation took place many millions of years ago (hence the dinosaurs and fossils) but, after a great catastrophe, Genesis describes how God re-formed the world in a six-day period.

Surprising as it may seem, there are some scientists who are creationists.  But the vast majority of scientists believe in evolution.  David Attenborough in a special program about Charles Darwin said that “Evolution is as solid a historical fact as you could conceive.”  And in 1996 Pope John Paul II said, “New findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis.

It is clear that the universe (and the earth) are far older than the 6000 years which many traditional creationists would argue for.  The idea that God “fabricated” a fossil record giving the false impression that the earth is some 4 billion years old is simply ludicrous.

Another view is

2.    The Intelligent Design (ID) School

ID rejects evolution as essentially atheistic and claims it cannot fully account for the amazing complexity of nature. Hence there must have been an Intelligent Designer who stepped in at various times to fill the gaps in the evolutionary process.

Opponents, including Christian opponents, claim that this makes God a mere “god of the gaps” who has to intervene regularly to fix the inadequacies of his original plan of creation.  They also point to the fact that gaps in the scientific evidence are gradually being filled, which could eventually do away with the need of a “god of the gaps.”

Other Christians feel that to see God intervening at certain crucially important times, for example in causing man to become a spiritual being, capable of communion with God, does not make God into a “god of the gaps.”  They point out that mainstream Christianity has always believed in divine intervention by way of miracles and ultimately in the incarnation of Christ.

The third view is:

3. The Theistic Evolutionist School

These are people who believe in God and evolution. They hold that God, who is eternal, initiated the process whereby the universe began via the Big Bang and developed by natural selection to where we are now. Evolution is the process by which God created the world, the universe and everything.

God planned the process of evolution and did so to bring about a situation where there are human beings able to communicate with him, to serve him and to enjoy his love for time and eternity. God is not some cosmic puppet-master who is constantly intervening to keep natural processes going. He works normally through what we call natural law. He is both transcendent (“the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity”) and immanent (present everywhere and sustaining all existence).

The final view is the evolutionism school. 

4.    The Evolutionism School

The Evolutionism School, is a non religious view, and its proponents reject any notion of a God.  They argue that
·         There is no God
·         The universe is not designed for a purpose (despite appearances)
·         Evolution explains everything, including the emergence of religion and morality
The trouble with this position is that these are themselves statements of faith.  Science manifestly does not explain the whole of life. There are many things in life which, by their nature, cannot be fully explained by science, such as love. I do not need a scientist to prove to me that I love my wife or my children. I already know I do and have sufficient evidence to prove it. Similarly, I don’t need a scientist to prove to me that I love God and know he exists and loves me. I already know it, as do billions of others. I have sufficient evidence. Life is more than science as common sense clearly indicates.

There are questions that science cannot answer such as:
·         Why did the universe come into being (why does anything exist)?
·         What is the meaning of human existence?
·         What happens after we die?’

There are many scientists who are Christians, and see no conflict whatsoever between their Christian faith and scientific belief.  One of the people I trained with at theological college, became a Christian by looking down a microscope at the structure of things on a sub atomic level.  He said that because of the order he saw in creation, there had to be an intelligent creative force behind it. 

It is clear that:


Stephen Jay Gould, an atheist, wrote: “The science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs – and equally compatible with atheism.”

One of the reasons that there is such a debate around the theory of evolution, is that many people are reading the Bible as though it were a scientific text, which it clearly isn’t. 

What About Genesis 1-3?

How are we to understand the Genesis story of creation in six days?  We need to remember that The Bible is not interested in how God made the world. It is interested in why he made it.

Here is a brief outline of what Genesis affirms:

1.          The eternity and sovereignty of God who is not dependent on creation.
2.          That God created the universe. (Genesis 1:1). 
3.          That human beings are the crown of creation. They are spiritual beings formed to have a conscious relationship with God. (Genesis 1:26-27) Creation is an act of love.
4.          That men and women are created in the image of God, and therefore have a great and equal dignity (Genesis 1:27).
5.          That human beings are social beings, and we are created to live in community. (Genesis 2:18).
6.          That marriage (in the sense of a committed, exclusive relationship blessed by God) is created by God and a loving marriage and family is the best context for children to be brought into the world and nurtured. (Genesis 2:22-23). 
7.          That sex is a good gift of God, not something shameful. It is to be fully enjoyed within the context of marriage. (Genesis 2:25).
8.          That human beings are responsible to care for God’s world.   (Genesis 2:8-16). 
9.          That human beings need a weekly day of rest. 
10.       That human beings are responsible to God spiritually and morally.

These are the main concerns of Genesis 1-3, rather than how God made the world. The Bible is not, and does not pretend to be, a scientific textbook. It is a history of salvation. Creation is, as we have seen, an act of love. The Bible shows how God reached out to creation in love, shown ultimately in Christ. That love is in the shape of a cross where God in his love made it possible for unworthy creatures like us to be accepted by him through faith.


Science and religion need one another.  It was Einstein who said “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”  All truth come from God, so Christians need not fear scientific truth. There is no conflict between established scientific theories and biblical truth. It is only when scientists trespass into theology and philosophy under the guise of scientific thinking, or Christians refuse to let scientific truth inform their interpretation of Scripture, that conflict occurs.


  • Are science and religion compatible?  Can you think of occasions when science and religion can or have come into conflict?
  • What should the role of science be to religion, and religion to science?
  • Christopher Hitchens, in his book God Is Not Great, says, “Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, (religion) no longer offers an explanation of anything important.”  What is your response to this statement and why? 
  • Which of the four schools – Creationalism, Intelligent Design, Theistic Evolutionism, and Evolutionism, do you feel gives the best explanation of how the world was created?   Can it help us to understand why the world was created?
  • What questions is science unable to answer?