A Little Book for New Scientists: Why and How to Study Science
The intersection of science and faith can lead to tension among Christian believers and confusion between the faithful and their secular colleagues. In A Little Book for New Scientists, Josh Reeves and Steve Donaldson provide a useful map of this intersection without rehashing old arguments or taking polarizing positions on potentially controversial topics. Instead, this book welcomes believers into scientific careers while offering a short introduction to how and why Christians need to work in these fields. The authors are both involved with the Samford University Center for Science and Religion in Birmingham, Alabama. The nuanced approach the book takes is perfectly in line with the mission of the Center for Science and Religion, which seeks to encourage understanding of key issues at the interface of science and religion yet does not promote any particular scientific theories.
The short book is divided into three sections covering nine chapters. In the first section, the authors address why Christians should study science with answers that sweep through theology, Christian history, and ethics. The section begins with a chapter covering the two books of revelation (scripture and nature) and includes a survey of the history of science and religion. The authors propose at least three reasons why Christian faith needs a healthy relationship with science. The first is to support proper biblical interpretation. A clear understanding of science can help avoid misunderstanding regarding the meaning of biblical passages, such as the motions of the Earth, for example. Second is the defense of the Christian witness. Their argument for this point is defended by a discussion of Augustine’s On Genesis and summarized as, “If Christians cannot be trusted on what can be empirically verified, then how can they be trusted on spiritual matters” (25). The third reason Christians need to study science receives short treatment by the authors, but is at least as important as the other two points. They mention in passing that “awe at the complexity of nature can lead to worship of the Creator” (30), but I consider this to be a key calling of Christians trained in science. The church needs more believers in science so that we can be reminded of the magnificence of creation and therefore the majesty of the Creator.
The second section is the most practically useful of the book and describes the character of a faithful scientist. Here the authors, one of whom is a computer scientist, offer practical warnings about common struggles faced by anyone in science. They discuss the demanding schedule, difficult material, hyper-specialization, and constant rejection. For example, they warn,
Failed experiments, refusal to accept articles submitted for publication, lack of funding (perhaps due to failed grants), absence or withdrawal of peer support, even self-criticism engendered by a temporary lack of insight – all can contribute to a sense of rejection that may leave a scientist wondering whether she has chosen the appropriate career. (62)
The authors are able to balance this sobering passage with encouragement that working in science can be both a ministry and a mission in the pursuit of truth. For example,
Thus in all such work the Christian scientist labors in the hope that by helping to bridge the gap between scientific and theological perspectives he or she is participating in a noble search for truth and is performing a useful service to others who are engaged in the same pursuit. (65).
This section offers practical ways readers can become involved in the community of believers working in science, such as joining science and faith organizations including the American Scientific Association.
The third section of the book is the most theoretical and explores topics like science and scripture and atheism among scientists. The chapter on science and scripture is particularly noteworthy. It offers four principles on how to read scripture: 1) having the Holy Spirit as our teacher does not make us infallible; 2) we must read the Bible in community; 3) we must not limit ourselves to just a literal interpretation; and 4) to know what the Bible means for us today, we should first understand what the Bible meant to its original audience. Each of these principles is critically important for any Christian student considering science as a career. They are also consistent with how scripture is used throughout the book, and each is broadly accepted by contemporary biblical scholars. Following the mission of the Center for Science and Religion, the chapter also refrains from promoting any particular scientific or theological interpretation of Genesis or other potentially challenging scriptural texts.
In this third section of the book, the authors avoid setting up atheism among scientists as an enemy to be destroyed. They discuss various philosophical reasons why many scientists lack faith. The discussion of worldview limitations that may make faith difficult for some scientists could have been presented as a theoretical foundation for evangelism, but instead the authors take a somewhat confrontational tone in this chapter. For example, when discussing the notion that many scientists lack faith because they have too tired a view of religion, the authors write, “It seems strange, for instance, that someone like Darwin who was adept at perceiving new ways to interpret the biological record seems to have been unable to make comparable concessions to the interpretation of Scripture or his own preconceptions” (111). This chapter ends with an unnecessary and unhelpful case study of evolutionary biologist and public atheist J. B. S. Haldane.
Throughout the book, the authors utilize a broad and rich set of references. The book is punctuated by quotations from theologians, scientists, ethicists, and other scholars throughout Christian history, including Galileo Galilei, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Francis Bacon, C. S. Lewis, N. T. Wright, John Walton, John Polkinghorne, Francis Collins, and many more. The collection of quotations alone makes this book a useful contribution to the field. Each is presented in a shaded box, and the quotations are used to show the rich history of the field, the historical support for positions presented, and the current urgency motivating their arguments. Whether discussing history, theology, science, or scripture, the authors make clear through these quotes and references that they are following their stated principle of reading the Bible in community.
A Little Book for New Scientists ends with a call for Christians in science to work on bridging the gap between science and religion for themselves and for those in their Christian communities. Faithful scientists are encouraged to consider the theological and philosophical implications of the scientific work and to imagine how these can be integrated publically.
An important strength of this book is the way Reeves and Donaldson work toward potentially difficult or controversial positions without pushing any reader away. For example, instead of taking a firm position on (or even mentioning) the age of the Earth, the authors discuss Psalm 96:
For example, until the invention of telescopes many Christians interpreted certain verses in Scripture to mean the earth was stationary. Psalm 96:10 states, “Say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns.’ The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.” With the benefit of hindsight and scientific knowledge, Christians have no problem affirming that Christian scripture does
not teach the Earth is stationary, though it may have been assumed by biblical writers. Science helped us to avoid and error in biblical interpretation. (24)
This approach invites new scientists who may come from a literalist tradition to consider different ways for scripture to interact with science while not proposing a substantial challenge to views that readers may consider foundational to their faith.
Another example comes during their discussion of methodological naturalism. That scientists design their experiments and explain their work with the assumption that there is no supernatural interference in the world can be challenging to those beginning their work in science. The authors diffuse this tension with gentleness (and humor) by writing,
We might say that scientists are naturalists in the same way that car mechanics are. No one finds it philosophically troubling when your mechanic searches for a naturalistic explanation for the odd noise coming from the engine. In the same way, we look to scientists for answers about how natural systems normally operate. (41)
A Little Book for New Scientists is easily approachable, practically useful, and theologically rooted. This book would be immensely valuable for high school students considering a career in science and for college students transitioning from the study of science to the practice of science. Clergy and parents of new scientists, while not the intended audience, would likewise benefit from lessons the book offers. Josh Reeves and Steve Donaldson have written an important book that has the potential to guide the spiritual and professional development of future Christians in science for years to come.