THE BLOG
02/12/2014 01:17 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2014

Why You Might Have to Choose Between Science and Faith

In the wake of Ham v. Nye, the latest spectacle in the ongoing creation/evolution debate, cooler heads are calling for a rapprochement between science and faith.

Take, for example, Tim Stafford's impassioned plea on behalf of our children to stop treating the two pursuits as mutually exclusive:

Right now, the way we're carrying on battles over evolution, many of our children... will shy away from science because it demands that they abandon faith. They will avoid faith because it requires forsaking science. And they will have no idea -- in this realm, at least -- that it is possible to disagree with someone on the deepest level and yet treat them with respect.

Or take respected scientist (and Christian) Francis Collins, who, during a recent interview with the Huffington Post, argued that science and faith shouldn't be pitted against each other, because they ask fundamentally different questions. One is preoccupied with how things work, the other asks why.

The cooler heads are saying we can have both. We don't have to choose between science and faith.

But we might have to put an asterisk to that claim.

As much as I'd like to say, "Yes, it can be both!" that's simply not the reality for many Christians today. In some corners of the church -- and perhaps in some corners of the scientific community as well -- you are forced to choose. Faith or science. One or the other. Some will cling to their belief in a young earth -- scientific evidence be damned. Others, like the North Carolina State University students in Tim Stafford's piece, will conclude they have no choice but to abandon their childhood faith.

What it really boils down to is the nature of our faith.

Depending on what kind of faith you have, you might have to choose between it and the scientific evidence for evolution.

If your faith is rigid, unyielding, or inflexible, you might have to choose.

If your faith is unable to cope with a constantly changing world, you might have to choose.

If your faith is not open to new discoveries and possibilities, if it views the outside world with a wary eye, then you might have to choose.

If the defining posture of your faith is defensive rather than inquisitive, then you might have to choose.

If your faith forbids you from even considering other ways of reading the Bible, then yes, you may have to choose between science and faith.

You won't be the first.

Five hundred years ago, believers had to choose between the astronomical discoveries of Galileo and Copernicus and the church's insistence on a stationary earth, based on a literal reading Joshua 10 and 1 Chronicles 16:30. (Oh, and it wasn't just the Catholic Church either; Protestant reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin also accused scientists of undermining faith in scripture.)

We all know how that particular episode turned out. The scientists were vindicated, and the church has fought to shake off an anti-science reputation ever since.

To us, it seems obvious that Joshua's depiction of the sun standing still and the chronicler's reference to an immovable earth should be viewed as metaphor, not literal (much less scientific) assertion. But it wasn't so obvious to everyone in the 16th century. Just like it still isn't obvious to everyone today that Genesis 1 may not be a literal description of how the universe came into existence.

Five hundred years ago, the church had to open itself to other possibilities, to other ways of reading the Bible. It had to accept that maybe we don't have everything about the Bible figured out, that maybe not everything in scripture was meant to be taken as literal history (which is not the same as saying that none of it can be read historically).

If you build your faith out of a house of cards, then all you have to do is take one card away, and the whole thing comes crashing down. That's why young-earth creationists like Ken Ham cannot give an inch to science. That's why they force you to choose between faith -- or their version of it -- and science. In Ham's view, to reject a literal, 7-day creation is to undermine the gospel itself. He's backed himself into a corner, and he has nowhere else to go. So he fights on, evidence be damned.

There's another way, though.

You don't have to check your faith at the door in order to see that we don't know everything there is to know about the Bible, much less the world around us. You don't have to chuck your Bible out the window to accept that it doesn't always describe reality in literal, scientific, or historical terms. It's so much more than a rote depiction of stuff that happened.

You don't have to fear new discovery. You don't have to be afraid of exploring the world if you understand that "science is not the only answer" -- that it can help us understand how, but it cannot tell us why.

If the God you worship is truly as big as you say he is, then you don't have to fear that something's going to jump out from underneath a rock and devour him.

In the end, Tim Stafford and Francis Collins are right, with a caveat. You don't have to choose between science and faith -- depending on what kind of faith you have.

Ben Irwin is the author of a forthcoming children's book and blogger at benirwin.wordpress.com, where this post first appeared.