As a Christian and a scientist I’m often asked how I can be both. My initial response is, “How can I not be?” Scripture is replete with references to how God’s attributes are displayed in nature (consider Psalm 19:1; Psalm 139:14; and Romans 1:20 just to name a few) and throughout history men and women of faith have studied nature because of, not in spite of, their faith. Some of them described their scientific studies as a holy activity and even a duty, on the same level as Bible study. While prominent atheist Richard Dawkins would like you to believe in the myth of the atheist scientist working to stamp out religious belief, in reality that is just a myth. In fact, a 2010 comprehensive study of nearly 1,700 elite scientists from around the world found that nearly half of them identified as being religious, while only 34 percent described themselves as atheists.
The Natural Philosophers
Before the development of modern science there was natural philosophy, the practice of studying nature and the physical world as a way to understand how things worked. The field was dominated by the ideas of Aristotle who spoke of “causes” that explain why things behave has they do. Aristotle’s ultimate “final cause” existed outside of the thing itself and was the reason for the thing’s being. Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) was a German Dominican friar who taught theology and also studied and wrote extensively about a wide range of topics in both the physical and life sciences, including botany, astronomy, zoology, and alchemy, the forerunner of modern chemistry. He and his student Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) sought to develop a natural philosophy that operated within a Christian worldview, sometimes described as “Christianizing Aristotle.” When Magnus wrote that one should seek to “investigate the causes that are at work in nature” he understood that God was the final cause Aristotle was looking for.
The Scientific Revolution (c. 1543–late 1700s)
It is no accident that the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution occurred in roughly the same time and place. The mid-16th century was a time of tremendous societal change. While Martin Luther and the reformers were rethinking how the church operated, natural philosophers were reconsidering their ideas about how the universe itself operated. Newton, Copernicus, Galileo, and many others were Christians who firmly believed in a God who was rational. It followed that a rational God would create a world that operated according to rational laws. Further, they believed that God endowed humans with the ability to reason so that we would be able to discern these laws. German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), best known for developing the mathematical laws of planetary motion, wrote, “It is a right, yes a duty, to search in a cautious manner for the numbers, sizes, and weights, the norms for everything [God] has created. For He himself has let man take part in the knowledge of these things . . . . For these secrets are not of the kind whose research should be forbidden; rather they are set before our eyes like a mirror so that by examining them we observe to some extent the goodness and wisdom of the Creator.”
Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) believed that God designed the universe along mathematical principles, and that this design could be seen in the symmetry found in nature. He also believed that Christians have a duty to study this design and that doing so is an act of worship. He wrote, “To know the mighty works of God, to comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power; to appreciate, in degree, the wonderful workings of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom ignorance cannot be more grateful than knowledge.”
Natural Theology and Faith in the Age of Reason
Advances in science led to the period known as the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason (mid 17th to early 18th century). This period was characterized by an increase in skepticism, particularly of religious doctrine, and the rise of secularism. Some saw the increase in scientific knowledge as a threat to religion. However, a number of Christian scientists believed in natural theology, the idea that proof of God’s existence could be seen in nature, and saw the rise in science as a good thing because they could use science to demonstrate God’s involvement in the universe. For these scientists, the study of nature was a religious duty.
On such scientist was Robert Boyle (1627-1691) who is widely regarded as the father of modern chemistry. Boyle was a devout Christian who wrote extensively about theology, particularly about the study of nature as a Christian vocation. He personally financed translation of the Bible into a number of languages and supported missionary organizations. Boyle was highly critical of Aristotle’s ideas and the practice of speaking about “Nature” as a personified intelligent driving force, calling the idea of placing something between God and his creation “idolatrous.” Boyle wrote a number of works on apologetics and the use of the design in nature as a way to “acknowledge God, to admire him, and to thank him.” One of Boyle’s last works, The Christian Virtuoso (1690) summarized his ideas about scientific study as a form of worship and his vision of the scientist as priest.
Faith and Science Today
More than 200 years after the Enlightenment, Christians still find the motivation to study science rooted in their faith. One prominent voice in the discussion of the relationship between science and faith is American paleontologist Peter Dodson. A leading expert on dinosaurs and self-described “deeply committed Christian,” Dodson has written extensively on the relationship between science and faith. In his essay “Science and Faith in Dialogue,” Dodson recounts his experiences growing up Christian with an interest in science. He writes that throughout his education he never saw a conflict between studying science and being a Christian. It was only after Dodson was well into his career that a seminar speaker raised the issue, saying that one cannot be a scientist and believe in God. Struck by the idea that science and faith were incompatible, Dodson sought out other scientists who are Christians and found many. Dodson sees himself as part of the long tradition of scientists who viewed studying nature as a way of learning about God. He writes, “Many of the great scientists who pioneered the development of science, Kepler, Copernicus, Newton, Linnaeus, Buckland to name but a few, regarded their activities as studying the Creator through his works.” Describing his interest in science, he says, “For me, doing science is an act of worship, exploring the richness of God’s creation.”
Also notable is American astronomer Jennifer J. Wiseman. Although Wiseman is emphatic about not using science to prove God exists, she is inspired to study the universe to learn more about the majestic nature of God and describes science as “a godly activity” and “an instrument of worship.” Wiseman says that when we view science through the eyes of faith, “One can look at some of the things we see in the universe and infer some characteristics of God. Such characteristics could include God’s apparent love of beauty, color, faithfulness, unfathomable magnitude, and even life itself.” In addition to her research, Wiseman is a popular speaker and writer and a leader in supporting young Christians pursuing scientific studies. Wiseman is president of The American Scientific Affiliation, an international organization for Christians in the sciences.
Dr. Sharon R. Bloch is an associate professor of science at Lincoln Christian University in Lincoln, Illinois. Prior to joining the faculty at LCU she was a senior scientist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri.