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Can You Be a Scientist and Believe in God at the Same Time?

previously published in October 2004

Occasionally I hear the question, “Can you be a scientist and believe in God at the same time?”  Despite my own religious beliefs and upbringing, I believe this question certainly deserves considerable thought.  With the stream of discoveries and technological advances we see every day, it is easy to become caught up in the idea that science is all-powerful.  As we learn more about the natural world around us, we can learn to control it and thus influence our future.  Of course, history tells us that many scientific advances have been used to destroy rather than help humanity, but I believe that the quest for knowledge for the betterment of mankind is still one of the mandates of science.  I am reminded of this on a continual basis, since whenever I describe my research to a non-scientist the inevitable next question is always, “So, what’s it good for?”

Naturally, as we learn more it becomes easier to give up on the idea that a God exists who created us, is in charge, and is interested in our everyday affairs.  Sure, back in history when mankind knew much less of the natural world it was perhaps not as difficult to believe in a God, but what about now, especially considering all of our well-publicized advancements in science and technology?  The inherent danger, I believe, is that we are perhaps unconsciously replacing God with ourselves in our world.  Who needs a God when we are learning to manipulate cells to grow body parts?  Who needs a God when we are creating new materials that will enable us to explore the furthest reaches of our solar system and galaxy?  Who needs a God when we can genetically engineer plants to give us food with the properties we want?

My interest in science has always stemmed from a desire to learn how the natural world operates.  As a chemist, I enjoy learning how to play around with atoms so they combine in certain ways.  To me, chemistry is a grown-up version of a Lego set.  An overall goal is to increase my knowledge of these chemical reactions so I can design molecules and materials of beneficial interest.  However, research constantly reminds me that there are limitations to what I know.  For example, the majority of my research ideas end in failure.  Why?  Sometimes, I can figure out what the problem was.  But in many cases, I just don’t know.  No matter how much previous research has been done that would support my idea, and no matter how many encouraging comments I receive from my colleagues, for some unknown reason it just doesn’t work.  This naturally creates plenty of frustration but at the same time grounds me and gives me a healthy respect for the natural world.  I take these failures as reminders from God that my knowledge is miniscule compared to His.  I am reminded that I need to tread carefully when I’m working with his Creation.  Sometimes I almost feel that I need to ask God’s permission to mess around with what He’s already created.  The complex and often unpredictable interplay of atoms and molecules clearly tells me that there must be a Creator, someone who planned our world down to the smallest particle.  Some may believe the gain of scientific knowledge is detrimental to faith in God, but for me, it has the opposite effect.  I see my career in science as an advantage and a help for my personal faith, because my work brings me in more intimate contact with His creation.  Rather than feeling good about what I can now accomplish in the lab, I grow increasingly aware and respectful of God’s handiwork.

The faith many of my students possess also has given me encouragement.  Although the school at which I teach has the word “Methodist” in its name, for all intents and purposes it is a secular institution.  I am always pleasantly surprised to discover one of my students (all of whom are majoring in science or engineering) has a faith in God that is clearly not shaken by the science they are learning in class.  Several years ago, I casually asked my class of engineering students to analyze an article that pitted a specific scientific theory against Creationism.  Many of my students took this opportunity to espouse their own personal beliefs about science and God.  Part of one answer I received read, “I believe that the laws we study and learn about are the result of a God who created everything and that His fingerprints are reflected in the nature of the universe.  I think that it is possible to reconcile science with faith in Christ.  In fact, I believe that science is one of the ways that God gave us to learn more about Him.”

Science can do many things, but one thing it cannot do is either prove or disprove the existence of God.  The debate over the existence of God will never end, and I am perfectly content to stay out of it.  I cannot prove to anyone that God exists and I cannot prove to anyone that He is interested in my daily life, but I can say that I am constantly reminded of His presence in my work and for that I am blessed.  A quote comes to mind from Philip Yancey’s book, Disappointment with God, that reads, “Each of us must choose whether to live as if God exists, or as if he does not exist.”  For me, that decision is made easier every day.

David Son is a professor of Chemistry at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

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