'I had started this journey of intellectual exploration to confirm my atheism. That now lay in ruins as the argument from the Moral Law forced me to admit the plausibility of the God hypothesis. Agnosticism, which had seemed like a safe second place haven, now loomed like the great cop out it often is. Faith in God now seemed more rational than disbelief.'
So wrote Francis Collins, Head of the Human Genome Project and one of the world’s leading scientists. As I read Collins’ story, and as I’ve talked to other scientists, I find encouragement that their conversion stories are very similar to yours and mine. But what had brought Collins to this point? And how can we help science students for whom science is no gateway to God, but a large stumbling block to their faith?
Collins’ book, The Lanugage of God, takes you on his journey. It opens with Collins as a college freshman asking questions about the existence of God. He has occasional moments of wonder as he enjoys music and the profound beauty of nature, which prompt longings for something outside of himself. But he finds no evidence for foundational truth and is easily swayed by persuasive atheist friends.
After his PhD studies, he moves into medicine. It is an interaction with a patient that stops him dead in his tracks:
'My most awkward moment came when an older women, suffering daily from severe untreatable angina, asked me what I believed. It was a fair question, we had discussed many other important issues of life and death, and she had shared her own strong Christian beliefs with me. I felt my face flush as I stammered out the words, “I’m not really sure.”
'Her obvious surprise brought into sharp relief a predicament that I had been running away from nearly all of my 26 years. I had never really seriously considered the evidence for and against Christian belief. That moment haunted me for several days. Did I not consider myself a scientist? Does a scientist draw conclusions without considering the data? Could there be a more important question in all of human existence than, “Is there a God?” […] Suddenly all of my arguments seemed very thin, and I had the sensation that the ice under my feet was cracking.'
Collins’ story is not very different from others I’ve heard shared by other scientists. Science helped him ask some big questions and it prompted a sense of wonder. But it was his interaction with ordinary Christians in the midst of daily suffering that made him reconsider the basis of his life.
Ruth Bancewicz (who spoke in 2019 for Science Network at Word Alive) says a similar thing about science’s capacity to generate wonder. 'A deep sense of wonder is not evidence for God,' she writes, 'but it might get us thinking beyond what we can see in front of our noses.'
'Everyone in the lab feels a sense of wonder from time to time. Maybe they see something new in an experiment that sparks their curiosity, or they might find a surprising result when they analyse a collection of data. Maybe they just have a few spare minutes to stare at things they study and become lost in fascination. Each person will come to a different conclusion about what they see and what it points to, but wonder seems to be part of the package in science. It is an experience that raises spiritual questions for some and enhances faith for others.'
Considering the incredible order, intricacy and beauty of nature, many Christians find themselves asking, “Why aren’t all scientists Christians?” But while science is a gateway to the creator for some, it can also be a potential stumbling block.
The need to go it alone?
Science is widely promoted in our culture as the answer to everything. Some claim that science makes God redundant. Others, both inside and outside the church, consider much of contemporary science to stand in direct contradiction to the Bible. For these reasons, Christian students face many challenges. I recently heard of a student who was asked by his CU Staff Worker to help organise freshers’ week activities. But he excused himself, saying that he’d been reconsidering his Christian faith because he could no longer reconcile what he knew about science and what he’d read in the Bible.
Many Christian students describe their experience of studying science as being lonely. Having asked a group of students their biggest challenges in the sciences, one answer stood out to me: “I’d like more guidance on how to figure stuff out on my own.” What a shame that students like this one feel that they need to do it all by themselves! On the other hand, giving students a Christian vision for their studies can be richly rewarded. Having been at a track for scientists UCCF had arranged at a conference, one student bounced up to me and said, “Thank you so much, I’ve never heard the words God and Maths mentioned in the same sentence before!”
How might we help students think Christianly about their subjects? How can we help them grow in confidence in finding answers to their own questions and the questions from their friends?
John Wyatt, Emeritus Professor of Paediatrics at UCL and a well-known author, spoke at the Science Network track at Forum in 2019. I asked him what helped him grow and flourish in his early days as a student. His answer was that his church worker at All Souls – a man named John Stott – had discipled him. Stott encouraged him to keep going in his academic studies, to not be intellectually lazy and to match his academic reading with reading that would help him grow biblically. Intrigued by this, I asked if Stott had a background in science himself. He did not. It struck me afresh that science students can be greatly equipped by student workers discipling them and encouraging them to read widely and deeply both for their studies and for their Christian growth – even if these student workers have no background in the sciences themselves.
At Forum, John Wyatt also encouraged Christians to set up and run science book clubs. These have a proven track record in helping science students develop a Christian worldview. He’s written a set of questions to get the discussions going. Feel free to use them!
How can you be a scientist and draw conclusions without considering the data? Francis Collins’ story helps us appreciate the great opportunity we have in helping scientists engage with the gospels and the person of Jesus. He concludes thus:
'Into this deepening gloom came the person of Jesus Christ. During my boyhood years sitting in the choir loft of a Christian church, I really had no idea who Christ was. I thought of him as a myth, a fairy tale, a superhero in a ‘just so’ bedtime story. But as I read the actual account of his life for the first time in the four gospels, the eyewitness nature of the narratives and the enormity of Christ’s claims and their consequences gradually began to sink in.'
Helping the science students you know
We have a great opportunity to disciple students in the sciences, and to help them understand Colossians 3:17: 'Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.'
Here are Nay Dawson’s top tips:
- Challenge them not to be intellectually lazy either in their Christian growth or in considering how their subject connects with the gospel
- Point them to the Science Network website and encourage them to get involved with events in the Network
- Invite academics within your church to consider discipling/supporting younger students within their discipline
- Brings your science students along to the Science Network tracks at Word Alive
- Do some reading – and get these books into your students’ hands. Consider starting with Francis’ Collins The Language of God, Ruth Bancewicz’s God in the Lab or John Wyatt’s Matters of Life and Death.
Christian Unions run popular lunch bars and debates at the heart of the university, including topics like ‘Has Science Buried God?’ or ‘Can Science Explain Everything?’ It was at an event like this in Dundee that Cole started thinking more seriously about Christ for the first time as an adult:
'The sport of poking fun at my Christian friends generated a lot of heat but not a lot of movement on either side of the discussion. In February 2018 they invited me along to an event at the CU’s events week, run by their Science Network. I agreed to attend. Dr Andy Bannister (of Solas and RZIM) and Dr David Booth (an evolutionary biologist at the university) took part in a dialogue around the question, “Can science explain everything?”
'At the time I didn’t think the event had changed my mind about anything but, over the next few days, the questions raised started to chip away at my belief that science was an all-powerful tool that explained everything. I couldn’t explain where morality came from or why humans feel such a desperate desire to find meaning and purpose. I held that atheism (and therefore nihilism) was true but saw the inconsistency of my own strong conscience and need for meaning. Christians seemed to have better answers as to where meaning and purpose could be found.
'I started asking more questions in a variety of settings: within a local church; with CU members and with our local UCCF Staff Worker. To that point, I had been frustrated by Christians who couldn’t justify their beliefs but now I had found not only an invaluable space to air my questions and feelings but also to find answers.
'Eventually, I gradually realised that I was not capable of getting through life by and for myself and so surrendered my life to Christ in May of this year. This change has brought with it a few happenings I did not expect. I thought people would judge me or act differently around me but instead I find myself often presented with opportunities to talk about my faith with people who want to listen. Becoming a Christian has also not meant a lack of questions but on the contrary, I have become more curious about the big questions of life. I now however find myself unencumbered by what previously held me back - my prideful desire of wanting to come off as smart or wanting to prove others wrong.'
This article was published in Connect: UCCF's student ministry mailing. The articles are for you to read, recharge and be inspired to minister to and reach students in your context. We’re convinced that local churches and CUs are better together in student ministry. If you're a student worker, we'd love you to sign up here.
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