The Scientist as Christian or Atheist

Rodger K. Bufford*

Graduate School of Clinical Psychology
George Fox University
414 N. Meridian St.
Newberg, OR 97132-2697

No doubt Christians sometimes function as practicing atheists in their work, but there is nothing inherent in the scientific enterprise which requires this. According to Hooykaas, modern science developed as the handmaid of Christian stewardship.1 Science helped humankind to carry out the religious duty of caring for the creation through better understanding of the world's workings. Along the way some things have gone wrong, however. Today, many believe that science and Christian faith are incompatible. I disagree! God, who reveals himself at many times and in many ways, has left his imprint on all creation and invites us to study it and learn of him.2 He also calls us to be stewards of creation. Such stewardship is a responsibility which can best be guided by a broad knowledge of creation.

In the discussion which follows, we will consider the role of world views and basic assumptions, ways of knowing, the nature of truth, and the limitations of science. Examples will be taken mainly from psychology since that is the discipline I know best.

Sadly, scientific theory is often confused with the world view of the scientist. This confusion is fostered on many fronts. First, many scientists pass off their world views (or religions) as a part of their science. Beyond Freedom and Dignity by B. F. Skinner is a prominent example.3 Second, many are not well informed about the nature of science, or about the parallels in theology.4  Third, Satan, the father of lies, has much at stake in encouraging this confusion.

Everyone has a world view. All human intellectual activities, including scientific and theological inquiry, occur in a world view context. World views address the basic questions of life, including what exits (ontology), how it is known (epistemology), who we are as persons (anthropology), and the meaning and purpose of life (theology). All world views are essentially religious.5  Some make science meaningless.

World views vary in many ways, but can be divided roughly into two groups. The first acknowledges the God of Scripture and is informed to greater or lesser degrees by Christian theology. The second group is alienated from or hostile to God, whether knowingly or not. All scientists and theologians approach their work from a world view. Christians are legitimately concerned about the accuracy or truth of ideas gathered in the context of non-Christian world views. World views are like sand at a picnic - they get into everything.

In some ways modern science is complex. However, the basic elements of science are assumptions, observations, and interpretations. Assumptions are those things believed to be true from the outset. Often unstated, they may not be readily recognized because they are so embedded in the person's world view that he/she is not consciously aware of them. Observations are the data which scientists gather; the scientific method emphasizes precautions to enhance objectivity and minimize risk that data are flawed. In principle there should be agreement about the observations. But to be meaningful, data must be interpreted. Interpretations make sense of data in light of assumptions. While data can be relatively independent of any particular set of assumptions, even data are influenced by theory.6 Conclusions, interpretations, or theories are profoundly affected by assumptions. Most conflicts about interpretations result from disagreements about assumptions. The emotional intensity surrounding differing interpretations reflects these deeply and dearly held beliefs.

Theology develops in similar ways. Theologians, too, approach their task with certain assumptions. Scripture, and in some cases other data as well, are interpreted in light of those assumptions. Theological disagreements, which are numerous, reflect subtle to substantial differences in assumptions, differences in the data which the theologians consider, and the resulting differences in conclusions.

Common assumptions among scientists include the assumptions of materialism, naturalist, determinism, evolution, reductionism, and uniformitarianism. Christians object to many of these, proposing assumptions such as creation, free will, and spirituality. However, the assumptions essential to actually do science are much more modest: (1) the world exists and can be known, (2) the world is orderly, predictable or lawful, (3) the methods of science are a suitable approach to knowing the world. On these assumptions there is wide, but not universal, agreement.7

Experience, reason, and the scientific method are widely accepted as legitimate ways of knowing, although many in our culture accord science a special place, almost to the denial of experience and reason. More controversial, but affirmed by Christians, is that revelation is also a legitimate source of knowledge. Christians believe there are, in principle, no inherent conflicts among these ways of knowing. Rather, they are complementary and inextricably intertwined. Experience is the beginning point of all human knowing. Reason helps us to organize and make sense of our experience. Science is a formalized method for gathering and interpreting data more carefully and systematically than with ordinary experience. The goal of science is to produce sounder inferences and conclusions that are possible through reasoned exploration of experience alone, though the precise dividing point between experience and science is somewhat arbitrary. Finally, we use reason and hermeneutic principles (a counterpart to the scientific method) to interpret revelation.

All approaches to knowing are concerned with discovering truth. Truth is complicated. Jesus' claim, "I am...the truth" suggests that truth is person. Truth involves knowing, being, doing, relating, and experiencing. It involves both propositional consistency and coherence, and righteousness and integrity in relationships. To walk in the truth (cf. 3 John 3, 4), as called by God, we must practice truth in all these ways.

We cannot grasp truth fully. All truth as known by humans is limited by God's discretion in revelation and is tainted by the effects of the fall on human knowing. World views inevitably "color" our grasp of truth. Now we "see through a glass darkly" (1 Cor. 13:12). Still, truth may be grasped by Christian and non-Christian alike.8

Another complication is that science is based on the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent, thus logical proof is not possible. Rather, science provides probable conclusions. Two kinds of errors are possible: misses and false positives. Misses occur when a relationship or condition is true, but we fail to discover it. False positives involve wrongly concluding that a particular condition or relationship is true. Statistics can be used to limit the risk of false positive conclusions about relationships in our samples, but we can never examine every possible instance of a given sort - past, present, and future. More troublesome, our strategies for limiting false positives increase misses to an unknown degree.

Clearly, Christians may practice science within a Christian world view. Naturally, a Christian world view affects the approaches taken and the conclusions reached. This effect is sometime subtle and other times profound. But truth may be found in the research and theories of non-Christians. Precautions must be taken to avoid accepting conclusions, interpretations, or theories which are untrue, or more precisely, less true - or in the words of C. S. Lewis, "bent." Such precautions must be taken when examining the work of Christian and non-Christian alike, but may understandably be taken more carefully when the person is known to be non-Christian. Comparison with Christian theology, analysis by reason, re-examination of the data, and evaluation with human wisdom are practical strategies for doing so. Humility in the face of our own fallenness and proneness to error is also appropriate in drawing all conclusions!


1 R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972).

2 See Gen. 1:27; Ps. 19:1; Prov. 6:6, 13:20; Eccles. 12: 9-11; Acts 14: 16-17; Rom. 1:18-22: Col. 2:1-3; Heb. 1:1.

3 B. F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1971).

4 See R. K. Bufford, The Human Reflex: Behavioral Psychology in Biblical Perspective (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981) and S. L. Jones, "A Constructive Relationship for Religion and the Science and Practice of Psychology: Perhaps the Boldest Model Yet," American Psychologist 49 (1994): 184-199.

5 D. S. Browning, Religious Thought and the Modern Psychologies: A Critical Conversation in the Theology of Culture (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1987) and A. Holmes, The Making of a Christian Mind: A Christian World View and the Academic Enterprise (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985).

6 C. S. Evans, Wisdom and Humanness in Psychology: Prospects for a Christian Approach (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989) and M. S. Van Leuuwen, "Five Uneasy Questions, or: Will Success Spoil Christian Psychologists?" Journal of Psychology and Christianity 15 (1996): 150-160.

7 R. K. Bufford, The Human Reflex: Behavioral Psychology in Biblical Perspective (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981)

8 cf. Eccles. 12:9-14 and Van Leeuwen.

*ASA Member

From PSCF 46 No. 4, (December 1996): 258-260