Recently, I have felt tension growing between my religious beliefs and the scientific knowledge I have been acquiring in college. This was troublesome to me, because I want to consolidate my scientific knowledge, my own life experiences, and religious beliefs into a single framework that doesn’t feel contradictory. As I began to think this through, I came across a helpful quote from astronomer Martin Rees: “…The preeminent mystery is why anything exists at all. What breathes life into the equations and actualized them in a real cosmos…”. Martins is hinting at a dichotomy existing between the types of questions science as an enterprise is equipped to answer, and those that it’s not.
Science is very good at answering questions that ask “how”? For example, how does my arm extend up from my side? Science could give a precise objective answer about how concentrations of ions change to create electrical discharges in neurons that are sent to the muscle in my arm, stimulating the fibers and allowing it to raise. However, if I asked the questions, “why was I given this body, and what is my purpose in the world?” science would struggle to answer them, because the answer to these questions are subjective and cannot be easily quantified. Concerning these “why” types of questions, religion is well equipped to provide answers through the involvement of subjective belief systems. But on the other hand, religion would struggle to answer the question of “how” my brain sends signals to my arm to make it extend. Obviously I’ve simplified the matter with the distinction between “how” and “why”, but it’s clear that science and religion are equipped to answer fundamentally different kinds of questions. Instead of viewing them as opposites, they can be used complementary tools for the acquisition of truth.
As a non-denominational Christian and a life science major, the scientific theory of evolution and biblical explanations about the origin of life seemed contradictory to me. But now, understanding the distinction between what questions science and religion are equipped to answer, it’s my view that the non-denominational Christian and scientific accounts of the origin of life are compatible.
Biology estimates that life began on earth around 3.77 billion years ago. All life shares a common aquatic ancestor, and through evolution by natural selection, a species called Homo Sapiens emerged around 70,000 years ago. The first book of the Bible, Genesis, claims that the universe as we know it and Earth itself was created in 6 days, the 7th day being a day of rest. On the 6th day God created the first man and women, Adam and Eve. Some estimates based on the Abrahamic genealogy in the Old Testament date the earth to being around 4,000 years old.
The perceived conflict from these two theses comes from the way the conflict is framed, and the assumption that if these specific numbers and dates don’t match up then one of the explanations of events must be false. The better way to frame this question is to ask what questions about creation are trying to be answered. The book of Genesis in the bible is not a scientific textbook with the sole intent of explaining how the earth was formed. It’s a historical document written by ancient authors with no conception of science, or access to precise dating methods. The bible is more concerned about the relationship between God and humanity, and why sin has tainted this relationship. It’s trying to relay its message in a clear, simple way that can be understood by the masses. If I judged a science textbook’s proficiency on its ability to tell me how to live a good moral life, then I would conclude that science is a flawed methodology, which obviously is not true. With this understanding, science and religion can inform each other and by no means contradict each other.