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Do Science and Religion Have to be At Odds?

There is something in us – something sacred, I believe – which recoils from the idea that the universe is its own explanation, that our existence here is a happy but meaningless stroke of cosmic luck, and that there is no Artist, no Designer and no Life-Giver behind, beyond and within everything that exists. 
We long to trust that there is fullness rushing into every emptiness, light streaming into all darkness and love flowing into all indifference.

Some people fear that modern science has issued orders that, if we complied with them, would shutter the sanctuaries, empty the choir lofts, disassemble the pipe organs, suppress anthems of praise and silence hymns of gratitude.

We worry that modern science means Rodney Dangerfield was right when he said: “When I hold a shell to my ear, I get a busy signal.”

We have the impression that contemporary physics and biology have blown the whistle on God-talk and God-song, ruling them out of bounds.

Headlines don’t help. The media frames the issues between science and religion the way the media frames every issue as an either-or decision.

Either “secular” or “sacred;” “science” or “religion;” “evolution” or “creation;” “Darwin” or “Genesis.” These confuse more than they clarify. 

Most scientists and most theologians think the oversimplification of such either-or posturing is just plain silly.

To be sure, some scientists, as John Haught puts it in “Deeper than Darwin,” have leapt from “‘Darwin got it right’ to ‘Darwin tells the whole story.'”

There are a few who have made that leap, but not most. 

Similarly, there are some theologians who have covered their eyes, stuck their fingers in their ears and refused to learn anything at all from modern science.

They’ve insisted on a wooden, literal reading of Genesis and demanded that those who follow them believe that the earth was created about 6,000 years ago, in seven 24-hour days, complete with rocks and fossils that appear to be millions, even billions of years older than their reading of the Bible allows them to be.

Again, not many theologians take this ludicrous view, but a few do.

It is the few scientists and theologians on both extremes who scream at each other on camera and wrestle with each other over curriculum in the public schools.

Most theologians and most scientists know that know that all the screaming is not only useless, but also unnecessary. 

The fact that the universe has come to know itself in the consciousness of human beings; that the cosmos can be studied in the first place; that it reveals its secrets to the devoted research and careful thinking of scientists and mathematicians; that the mathematics by which physicists describe the universe is characterized not just by utility but by beauty; that conditions developed in the universe which allowed human life to emerge and flourish; and that that there are predictable patterns and reliable laws to nature all suggest that the Mind of God, and not merely random chance, is at play.

Physicist Stephen Hawking asked: “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?”

There is nothing in appropriately humble, adventurous science to keep the answer to Hawking’s question from being “God.”

Maybe God breathes fire into the equations, as God breathes life into creation. 

Here’s what I believe: God makes a universe for the equations to describe, just as God invites us to sing and shout praise in response. 

Guy Sayles is pastor of First Baptist Church of Asheville, N.C. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, From the Intersection, and is used with permission.