Churches Empowered When Informed About Science


Science is often presumed to be a tricky matter for people of faith. Pew Research has found that Americans can feel uncomfortable accepting scientific discoveries when they are perceived to contradict their religious beliefs. But Scientists in Congregations is discovering that the apparent opposition can be overcome. The project, funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, equips churches to discuss science and religion and is demonstrating that the experience of properly engaging with science is not only informative but empowering.

The evidence is the result of three years of activities reaching over 15,000 people and over 37 American congregations now having taken part. The success has nurtured the launch of a new venture, Scientists in Congregations Scotland, based at the University of St Andrews.

“The biggest innovation I see may seem relatively small but it has a big impact,” explains co-project leader David Wood. “It is that congregations start to talk with the scientists who are sitting alongside them. Biologists and physicists, neuroscientists and pharmacologists are, of course, found in churches across America. But they seem seldom to have been recognized. To know that science is central to the lives of individuals in your midst can prompt a kind of awakening.”

This simple shift is appreciated by church-going scientists, too. The program helps pastors and ministers to partner with them, meaning that they do not have to leave their work at the church door. “It’s striking that this seems to be the case for mainstream liberal denominations as well as more conservative evangelical ones,” Wood continues. “I suspect it speaks not so much to a negativity about science but rather to a tendency to compartmentalize faith, perhaps as a consoling or social aspect of life rather than as one that can benefit from engaging with science’s tremendous discoveries.”

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For example, an individual may read a newspaper article about the neuroscience of belief on a Saturday and effectively park its insights when they open their hymnbook the next day. The hidden fear might be that the science undermines a spiritual understanding of what it means to be human, whereas if the neuroscience is properly understood, it may well be that it can contribute to how that individual understands themselves as a person of faith. But that takes time and informed discussion, which is what Scientists in Congregations facilitates. C0-project leader Greg Cootsona recently broached this topic in an article for Christianity Today.

The Scottish program has already received proposals from over 30 churches of all denominations. “The relationship between science and religion is, on the whole, less antagonistic here than it can be in the US. But nonetheless we see a similar tendency to compartmentalize,” remarks program leader Andrew Torrance. “Scientists may find it difficult to deploy their expertise to develop their own and others’ understanding of Christianity.”

“The point is that people are really interested in these issues, given an opportunity to explore them,” continues Wood. “The dialogue can become an opportunity for mission, as some churches are finding that advertising events about science and religion is a draw to individuals who otherwise wouldn’t think the church held any interest for them.”

Torrance notes that the discussion is good for science as well. “It’s partly about understanding the limits of science. This matters because individuals can then gain a better grasp of the scientific enterprise—what it can and cannot offer. It’s also about having a richer understanding of the dimensions of meaning, value, and intelligibility that are so important for human lives.” Through this initiative, Scientists in Congregations is helping people become better equipped to address these crucial big questions and hopes to create a bridge between theology and science with these resources.

  • FilmDoctor

    There’s a lot of junk science out there, however. Also, most scientists aren’t really trained that well in philosophy or theology, and too many of them have a distorted view of the so-called “scientific method.” I therefore point people to the work of J.P. Moreland, author of “Christianity and the Nature of Science,” among other works.

  • DesertSun59

    “Spiritual understanding” is code for the single word ‘belief’. When evidence contradicts belief, the less education one has the more likely one is to outright REJECT the evidence in favor of ‘spiritual understanding’.

    How do we know this? Nearly all public conversation in the US regarding ‘values’ is about fundamentalist religious belief vs. evidence. There is not a public conversation about moderate non-fundamentalist religious beliefs vs. evidence. If there is one, name it. I bet you can’t. I can though. Let’s talk about gays, abortion, and marriage equality. When those topics are discussed in open forums they are not talked about from a moderate religious viewpoint. They are juxtapositioned with fundamentalist beliefs. Those who adhere to a non-fundamentalist belief about those topics do not win the argument, nor do they get air time on TV news. Currently, fundamentalist beliefs regarding marriage equality are not winning. But they’re constantly doing damage to citizens with their Bronze and Iron Age ‘spiritual understanding’ about gays. And abortion? The Catholic Church invented a beginning point for human life that is in DIRECT CONTRADICTION to the evidence, but they’re winning the argument across this nation with it. Why? Because they assert that they have a ‘spiritual understanding’ of the topic that supersedes the evidence! An assertion. That’s all they have. It works for those of the lowest intelligence.

    REJECT belief. Embrace evidence. This is not the Bronze Age. This is not the Iron Age. We are not tribal Jews. We do not live in tents. We have electricity. We have 350 years of science behind us. Our species has sent probes out of the solar system now. We have found planets around other stars. Your continued adherence to invented mythology that has no place in our civilization is keeping YOU and the REST OF US back from progress. Our species deserves so much more than what you believe and pretend is ‘truth’ and that the rest of us already know is nothing but mythology.

    • BA

      Your comment seems wildly off the mark and reflects little about science but much about ideology.

      ” Let’s talk about gays, abortion, and marriage equality” What does this have to do with science or the scientific method? Science has absolutely nothing to say about the morality of gays or abortion. One cannot get “ought” from “is” and science comments only on “is”. Truth has little to do with the Bronze Age or the Modern Age. Truth is not necessarily contemporary unless one believes in the Myth of Progress which anyone who has lived through the horrors of the 20th century must have abandoned or has their head in the sand. Theists have been in the forefront of science since the beginning. Check out the names Bacon, Copernicus, Kepler, Descartes, Pascal, Boyle,
      Mendel, LeMetre, and Micheal Faraday, Francis Collins.

      Our species “deserves”…… Wow, back that up with some “scientific evidence”.