The Science of Truth: Are Faith and Science Compatible?

07/24/2012 07:34 am ET | Updated Sep 23, 2012

Biblical literalism, and the corresponding idea of the inerrancy of Scripture, has been bumping up against the sciences for a long time now. Way back in the Renaissance, the church insisted that the Bible taught that the sun revolved around the earth, and charged Galileo with heresy for claiming otherwise. Today, the debate between the Bible and natural science continues, most notably in the evolution/creation debate. But while discussions of religion and science usually revolve around conflicts with natural science, I'd like to propose that the place we really should be placing our attention is the relationship between faith and the social sciences.

As our understanding of all science grows, it becomes harder and harder to maintain the position of biblical literalism without seeming absurd. Maybe we haven't all heard the thunder peal yet, but the lightning bolt has already struck a while ago. We are going to have to adjust our reading of the Bible to coincide with a modern scientific understanding of the universe.

In broad strokes, that shift has already happened. The battle lines have shifted away from claiming that the Bible is authoritative in all matters, to instead claiming that it is authoritative "in matters of faith" or more vaguely "in all that it affirms," allowing Christians to sidestep the issue of natural science altogether, and instead focus on the Bible's moral claims. Because of this shift, we are free to embrace advances of natural science while keeping all our doctrinal views.

So while the evolution debate may be raging on in some parts, when it comes to things that have a more direct and practical impact on our everyday lives, Christians today are happy to accept the insights of natural science. For example, we pretty much all accept modern medicine, even though it seemingly contradicts the views of sickness in the New Testament where they believed that illness was caused by demons and/or a person's sin. Despite this rather clear perspective of the Bible, the vast majority of Western Christians call a doctor when they are sick, rather than an exorcist.

So we're happy to accept science in areas of technology and modern medicine, but when it comes to issues of morality, that is where we draw the new line in the sand. That's where we insist that the Bible has the final word, trumping all others. That may sound like a reasonable separation, but what it overlooks is the fact that science has not only impacted the fields of technology and medicine, but also had a huge impact on how we understand human development, mental health and ethics: Through the social sciences, over the past 100 years, we have come to understand many things about human nature and behavior which are extremely helpful to a deep understanding of morality and ethics -- discoveries that lead to better relationships, helping people break out of hurtful patterns of behavior, and to develop moral depth and empathy.

That doesn't mean, of course, that religion has nothing to contribute and we should all become secularists -- as if the only available choices were between a fundamentalist faith or fundamentalist atheism. Embracing the insights of social science isn't about reducing our understanding of humanity to mere mechanics, it is about deepening that understanding. A purely materialist position would equally reveal an ignorance of the contributions of the social sciences.

Despite the constant stream of pop-science news stories with attention-grabbing headlines -- like "Scientists find God-spot of Brain," implying that faith is just a form of neural firing -- the more we learn about science, the more we learn that our human experience involves a lot more than just mechanistic explanations. Social science is at its best when it help us understand ourselves and our relationships in greater depth, rather than reducing them to nothing but bio-chemical reactions, or nothing but social conditioning (something a friend of mine likes to call the "nothing-butters").

The insights of the social sciences need not be seen as a threat to faith or morality. On the contrary, they can serve to greatly compliment and enrich our faith. So rather than drawing a dividing line and claiming that the Bible is the sole source of moral authority, we could greatly benefit from listening and learning from the insights of the social sciences, just as we have done with natural science in the past.

Part of stretching our current understanding requires however that we Christians take a second look at our beliefs about human nature as depicted in the Bible, which is part of the reason why wrestling with scientific evidence can seem so threatening to believers.

An example of this is the notion that humans are simply "evil" or "wicked" at heart, expressed in the doctrines of total depravity and original sin. What we've come to understand through psychology and sociology is that the dynamics of human personality and behavior are considerably more complex than this. That's not to deny that people do some really awful things, but it does mean that if we hope to change that we need to understand the full complexities of what is going on.

In the same way that we now know that we live in a solar system, and therefore recognize that the Bible's language of the sun traveling through the sky (Ecclesiastes 1:5) is better read as poetic than as scientific description, we also need to recognize that when the Psalmist says, "Surely I was wicked from my mother's womb!" (Psalm 51:5) this is likewise better read as poetic language, rather than as a divine insight into his moral condition as a fetus. It is an emotional cry of personal remorse, not a general doctrinal pronouncement of human nature.

We don't need to fear science, including social science. Science is based on curiosity, hypothesis and observation of the way things are. In other words, it's about truth, and we should never fear seeking truth -- even if that means continually updating and expanding our current level of insight and understanding. We need to develop a way of reading the Bible that lines up with reality, a way of practicing our faith that fits with the full depths of our human experience. That way, we can have a relevant and living faith benefiting from integrating all areas of knowledge -- the sciences, the arts, religion, etc. -- rather than pitting them against each other.