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In This Bible Study, Science And Faith Don't Have To Compete

Science and Christianity often seem at odds in the public imagination. But some churches have made part of their mission to lessen that tension by bringing science into Bible study.

"You can't have a seat at the table if you don't speak science," said Matthew Groves, 24, an adult Bible study teacher at Nashville's First Baptist Church. He lists climate change, artificial intelligence and bioethics as just a few of the substantive issues people of all faiths are struggling with in today's world. In order for churches to be relevant cultural institutions, he said, they have to engage with these things.

Groves' posit is supported by research: Religious institutions throughout the U.S. are losing members, and those who leave are more often citing "science" as the reason they no longer subscribe to formerly-held religious beliefs.

Groves is a divinity student who also holds a degree in physics. He combines these passions by teaching everything from evolution to climate change in his Sunday school classes, which are attended by anywhere from 10 to 60 people.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Groves drew a Venn diagram with two large circles on his classroom's board — "one for science, one for faith" — with an overlap in the middle. He asked his dozen-or-so students to suggest concepts and where they'd fit in the diagram.

The students dive into the practice. Under "faith," they place the words "Bible" and "subjective." Under "science" goes "objective," "observable" and "testable." That's when Diana Chandler speaks up.

"I would say my faith is based on facts, it is observable as I interact with God, and it is mostly testable," she said. "As a Christian, I don't want anything to get in the way of my scripture."

The tension that Chandler is describing is born out repeatedly in surveys. One shows that Evangelical Christians are twice as likely than any other religious group, like Catholics or Jews, to see science and religion as being in conflict.

But one figure doesn't always tell the whole story, according to the survey's author, sociologist Elaine Ecklund. "On most issues, religious people and non-religious people seemed to be very science friendly," she said. The exceptions are over specific issues, like evolution.

"When you get to scientific research that seems to challenge conceptions that religious people have about who God is, or who human beings are, then you see some tensions arising," she said.

Chandler, who described her faith as testable, says that the Bible is a stronghold for her. "But for others, I think science could sway them, make them question scripture," she said.

Groves has many wary students like Chandler — and many like Carol Butler, who doesn't see an inherent conflict. She cites some stories in the Bible. "From my upbringing, I understand that as a literature sometimes they weren't exactly literally happening as they were stories to help teach a truth," she said.

In the intersection of science and faith in Groves' Venn diagram, his students placed "creation."

"We don't understand all the mysteries of science, we don't know all the mysteries of creation, but we know that they're one and together," said Butler.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Irina Zhorov was WESA’s reporter for Keystone Crossroads, a statewide public media initiative focused on issues in older Pennsylvania communities.