A homily I wrote for chapel at St Peter’s School, York as part of a recent Science & Religion workshop day (P.S. Science and Religion with the kidz is now my full time job – visit our project website for more details)
Reading: Genesis 2:8-20
Living with Science, Loving with Faith
There has probably never been a time in history where there were more worldviews and beliefs available to you in the marketplace of ideas. And there has never been a time in history when our scientific ambitions and achievements have been as world-changing as they are today. And in the noise of all this ambition, invention, discussion, and debate we have to ask ourselves: how do we choose what direction we should go in next? What science should we do, and why? And who should make those decisions?
You see, science does not exist in a vacuum – it is not just a collection of observable facts about the universe. Science is an activity done by humans, for humans – and so what those humans believe is important, or beautiful, or true, will impact the science they choose to do – and the way they do it.
You may have heard that scientists somehow leave their beliefs at the door when they enter the lab. I disagree. When we look at the shape our scientific research takes, the things we prioritise, the issues we don’t – we get a very clear picture of what we put our faith in as individuals, and as a society.
When wondering what drives our science, we can follow the money: what is being funded? By whom? And for what? What would you invest in if you had money to spend on science research? How would you decide what was important? Behind your choices would be a set of values, or beliefs about the world, that shaped your decision, whether you were aware of it or not. Perhaps that’s a value like ‘it’s good to help people’, or ‘we should look after the planet’, or ‘knowing more stuff about the universe is exciting and important’. But what are those values rooted in? How do you know they are true? Can you prove that it’s good to help people, or that saving whales matters, or that the universe is exciting? And if you can’t, why do you believe those things?
In our reading today, we are reminded of two things: the rich diversity of the world, and also the importance of human engagement with it. In Genesis Adam stands before God and is told to both look after and get to know the world around him. He is told to care for the earth and give names to the animals whose home he shares – today we would understand these as scientific activities: conservation and zoology.
And how far have we got with these ancient activities? One of the great ironies of living in this scientific age is that all our exploration has made it clearer than ever that we know very little about the universe, or even about the creatures that live on this planet. We cannot travel to the bottom of the ocean, and we cannot understand the inner life of other animals. Our false sense of authority has led us to the point of destroying our environment and dooming the species we name to extinction. We have more power to benefit or damage creation than we’ve ever had before, and we have, it seems, failed to deliver.
I called this reflection ‘Living with Science, loving with Faith’ because I am totally convinced of two things: firstly, our scientific endeavours have fundamentally changed the world in which we live for the better, and perhaps in some ways for the worse. Whether you are interested in science as a school subject or not, your entire way of life is dependent on its work and discovery. This is valuable, and important. Secondly, it is increasingly apparent that gaining more knowledge about how the world works does not seem to help us to behave better. It is possible – and indeed normal – to be highly educated and also contribute to the world’s problems. So we need science, and we need faith – faith that our set of values are useful, and true, and will guide us towards pursuing what is good. It is through this act of faith in something more important than our own personal happiness that we learn to love the world around us.
It is my faith in a creator God that gives me the conviction that both the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of the greater good are worth the time and effort. Each one of us is challenged to ask ourselves: where do my values come from? Where are they leading me? What do I want the future to look like? And am I ready for the responsibility that comes with that vision?