Should Christians “follow the science”?

Ideally, faith and science should complement each other. Unfortunately, as the pandemic has played out over many months, they often have seemed to be at odds.

“There’s been a very divisive split within the culture on both sides,” Sy Garte, editor in chief of God and Naturetold Christianity Today. “We have some evangelicals who don’t want to hear anything scientific, and then on the other side, we have atheists who mock and scorn the whole idea of religion or even spirituality, that only scientific facts are real and nothing else was important.

“And that’s a philosophical view that most scientists don’t have, but it has spread from the atheist community into the popular public consciousness. I think that a lot of folks in the Christian community tend to think of the opposition as being not just atheists, but they lump in the entire scientific community. And that’s a mistake because the scientific community is not at all a monolithic group.”

The coronavirus has certainly spawned more than its share of conspiracy theories and misinformation, and some Christians have spurned scientific advice about wearing masks and getting vaccines.

But the pandemic has also exposed a more fundamental problem: many people just don’t understand science. Once Christians learn more about how it works, it’s easier to see a connection with their faith.

Is it “flip-flopping” or is it the scientific method?

God’s truth is unchanging, but scientific knowledge evolves over time, with scientists evaluating each other’s work.

BioLogos.org, a website dedicated to “faith and science working hand in hand,” put it this way: “Scientists are not all-knowing and have biases like the rest of us. That’s why the process of scientific research has built-in steps for testing, vetting, and validation by the whole community. While any individual scientist may be biased, the community actively critiques each other’s work to reduce bias and errors until together they develop a consensus on what the data are saying. It’s not a perfect process and one can always find dissenters, but scientists working together are far more accurate than one person’s theory on YouTube.”

When media outlets first reported COVID-19 cases, they frequently referred to the disease as a “novel” coronavirus, with novel meaning a new strain that hadn’t been detected in humans previously.

So scientists have had to deal with something they hadn’t seen before under heightened media scrutiny and tremendous pressure not to make mistakes, while forced to work rapidly and learn as they went along. Debates normally conducted in private went public and scientists reversed themselves when faced with new data, all undermining faith in science. 

Republican lawmakers have accused Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top expert on the virus, of “flip-flopping” on wearing masks and “cherry-picking” facts about the pandemic. In one heated Senate hearing, Kentucky’s Rand Paul implied that Fauci had lied to Congress, which Fauci denied. 

Dr. Fauci told MSNBC that his opinions have evolved with new data. “That’s what’s called . . . the scientific process,” he said. “As you get more information, it’s essential that you change your opinion, because you’ve got to be guided by the science and the current data.”

It’s a never-ending process. “One of the things you find out if you’re a working scientist is that almost every answer brings up new questions,” Garte, a biochemist and a Christian, told Christianity Today. “So we never actually finish learning anything in any field of science. We are continually trying to get deeper and learn more.”

What does it mean to “follow the science”?

“Follow the science” has become a mantra in some quarters during the pandemic, even though it can be a simplistic approach, leaving out economic and social considerations, such as job loss and church attendance.

“Because both the public and government officials are largely ignorant about technical matters, they must delegate responsibility to scientific experts,” Taylor Dotson, who studies the culture and politics of science, wrote in The New Atlantis. “Expert advice is treated as value-free even when it is clearly not, such as when many health experts excused lax social distancing for Black Lives Matter protests but then chided Americans for visiting relatives over Thanksgiving.”

To make things even more confusing for anyone trying to discern the truth, elected officials have disagreed with their own scientists. And they have misled us, perhaps unintentionally. Remember President Trump saying that the coronavirus “is going to disappear”? Or President Biden saying that we are “emerging from the darkness” of the pandemic?

The pandemic has become highly politicized, with many Republicans rejecting scientific advice about masks and vaccines and many Democrats “following the science” but being branded as hypocrites for failing to observe their own rules. 

Can Christians trust scientists?

Dr. Francis Collins, the outgoing director of the National Institutes of Health, has largely managed to stay above the political fray during the pandemic. A Christian, he has devoted much of his life to showing the harmony between science and faith, writing The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief in 2006 and founding BioLogos.org in 2009.

“I see science as the most reliable way to study nature – and that includes this virus,” he told The Associated Press. “But science doesn’t help me with deeper questions like why suffering exists, what we are supposed to learn from it, what is the meaning of life, and whether there is a loving God who grieves with us at a time like this. For that, I rely on what I have learned as a person of faith.”

BioLogos has earned the endorsements of leading evangelicals such as Tim Keller, N. T. Wright, and Richard Mouw. It released a statement on the pandemic, saying in part, “Love Your Neighbor, Get the Shot!”

One of the signatories, William D. Phillips, shared a Nobel Prize in physics in 1997. “I want to thank God for providing such a wonderful and intriguing world for us to explore,” he said when he received the prize.

Phillips is very open about his faith. “To many people, this makes me a contradiction — a serious scientist who seriously believes in God. But to many more people, I am just like them,” he wrote for Fair Observer, a nonprofit media organization, in 2013.

Although research indicates a greater degree of skepticism about matters of faith among the scientific community than the general public, BioLogos said that there are Christians in every field of science. Yet vocal atheists, like evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, seem to garner the most attention.

“When a few experts in biology claim there is no God or that all religion is harmful, they are speaking outside of their area of expertise,” BioLogos said. “This understandably can make religious people mistrust even what they say about biology.”

Some degree of skepticism about science is healthy, particularly when theories like the Big Bang or evolution fail to acknowledge God’s role in creating all things. As Christians, the Bible is our ultimate source of authority.

But in most cases, once scientific knowledge seems to be established, we ignore it at our own peril.

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