Churches Empowered When Informed About Science

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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.