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.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Faith and science can often seem at odds in the public imagination, but some churches have made it their mission to lessen the tension. These churches are bringing science into congregation book clubs, lecture series and Bible study.
Irina Zhorov from WHYY's science podcast, The Pulse, has this report.
IRINA ZHOROV, BYLINE: At an adult Bible study class at Nashville's First Baptist Church, Matthew Groves directs about a dozen students to prayer.
MATTHEW GROVES: Bow your heads.
ZHOROV: He asks God for guidance during the class.
GROVES: I pray that we all remember that other people are made in the image of God.
ZHOROV: And for people to be quick to listen and slow to anger.
ZHOROV: Groves is a divinity student. He also has a physics degree. He combines his faith and his love of science by teaching everything from evolution to climate change in Sunday school. For some students, like Diana Chandler, it's the first time she's encountering science education since childhood. And she's a little wary.
DIANA CHANDLER: As a Christian, I don't want anything to get in the way of my scripture.
ZHOROV: Chandler says, as a black woman, she takes the Bible very seriously.
CHANDLER: We could not have made it through slavery without faith. We could not have made it through people telling us that we were three-fifths of a person without faith and without prayer.
ZHOROV: Chandler says faith is a stronghold for her.
CHANDLER: But for others, I think science could sway them, make them question scripture.
ZHOROV: But teacher Matthew Groves says science doesn't have to be about questioning scripture. To illustrate, he draws a Venn diagram on the board - two big circles.
GROVES: Venn Diagram - we have one for science, one for faith.
ZHOROV: They overlap in the middle. He asked the students to throw out words and concepts and where they'd fit in the diagram.
GROVES: And belief under faith, great.
ZHOROV: Under faith, go the words Bible and subjective. Under science, go objective and observable and testable. That's when Diana Chandler speaks out.
CHANDLER: I would say my faith is based on facts.
CHANDLER: It is observable as I interact with God. And it is mostly testable.
ZHOROV: The tension that Chandler is describing is borne out repeatedly in surveys. One shows that evangelical Christians are twice as likely than any other religious group, like Catholics, Protestants or Jews, to see science and religion as being in conflict. But sociologist Elaine Ecklund, who collaborated on that survey with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says that one figure doesn't tell the whole story.
ELAINE ECKLUND: On most issues, religious people and non-religious people seem to be very science-friendly.
ZHOROV: The exceptions surface over specific issues like evolution.
ECKLUND: 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.
ZHOROV: Pew Research found that people who leave their religion, often cite science for their lack of faith. Sunday school teacher Matthew Groves says for churches to be relevant cultural institutions, they have to engage with the things people are struggling with today.
GROVES: Climate change is a substantive issue. Artificial intelligence, bioethics - a lot of big issues humanity is going to face in the next hundred years are focused on science and technology.
ZHOROV: He says if the church wants to be a part of shaping the direction humanity takes, it needs to have a seat at the table.
GROVES: And you can't have a seat at the table if you don't speak science.
ZHOROV: During each class, in addition to pushback, Groves also gets a lot of people like Carol Butler, who don't see an inherent conflict.
CAROL BUTLER: We don't understand all the mysteries of science. We don't understand the mysteries of creation. But we know that they're one and together.
ZHOROV: Butler says she doesn't think the study of science necessarily belongs in church but that churches should be open to what science is discovering.
BUTLER: There are stories in the Bible - from my upbringing, I understand that, as literature, sometimes they weren't exactly, literally happening as they were stories to help teach a truth.
ZHOROV: And that's the goal of this class - to help figure out the stories' lessons in the modern world.
For NPR News, I'm Irina Zhorov. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.