Losing Faith in Science

Gary B. Swanson

Losing Faith in Science

A recent study published in The American Sociological Review1 suggests an interesting development—at least for a significant portion of the American demographic. Research out of the University of North Carolina indicates that those who self-identify as political conservatives—especially with college educations—are as a group much more skeptical of science than they were four decades ago. Suspecting that the scientific community has a political bias, fewer than 35 percent of educated conservatives today say they trust science, compared to about half of educated conservatives in 1974.

“The growing distrust of science,” says study author Gordon Gauchat, “is entirely focused in two groups—conservatives and people who frequently attend church.”2

Gauchat is speaking here of political conservatives. Furthermore, the data he has presented in his study indicate that it is the most educated among this segment of society who are in the forefront of this significant shift in attitude. And this calls into question the age-old assumption that it is generally the uneducated who are most at odds with science.       

In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton, the novelist, essayist, and agnostic who “reasoned” his way to belief in Christianity, questions this assumption. In his characteristic way, he observes that even materialists are comfortable with placing confidence in everyman to serve as one of 12 jury members and to return valid verdicts after careful examination of evidence. Yet when the same everyman observes what he considers to be evidence of the supernatural, he is dismissed as a rube who is too unsophisticated to make such judgments. In other words, he is qualified to determine the fate of a fellow human being on trial in the courtroom for a serious crime but unqualified to determine the soundness of key issues in his own spiritual fate.

“It is we Christians,” Chesterton asserts in his book Orthodoxy, “who accept all actual evidence—it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence, being constrained to do so by your creed.”3 And earlier in the same book he says, “The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them.”4

To which Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson would add: “Faith is called faith for a reason. Darwinism is another faith—a loyalty to a vision of the nature of things despite its inaccessibility to demonstration.”5

These two influential thinkers and writers—and a surprising number of others—are increasingly turning on its head the insistence of materialist science for evidence. They are demanding that science conform to its own standards—even to include consideration of evidence concerning the spiritual life. In this way they are echoing the apostle Paul’s thinking about materialists: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14, ESV).

So despite the apparent hegemony that materialist science seems to have achieved in our culture, there are clear indications that, though there is a measure of respect for the ways in which science can improve life on this earth, there continues to be widespread and persistent faith in God. In “a 2010 Gallup poll, about 40 percent of Americans believe in ‘strict creationism’—that God created humans in their present form—with another 38 percent accepting evolution with divine guidance.”6

And this kind of faith in life “spiritually discerned” demonstrates itself in many ways, including frequent expression in what many consider to be a “godless” popular culture. Representations in film, television, literature, music—even advertising—return repeatedly to the importance of the spiritual in the human life.

A recent piece of music, for example, by a band called The Script explores the “reason” for human love of the eros kind. In that piece, a skeptic is teasing his lover about finding some kind of empirical explanation for the origin of their love for one another. He says that they have had some “heavy” discussions about spirituality in an effort to find some basis for their beliefs, the conclusions of which, for him, have been unsatisfactory.

But his lover addresses his argument directly with assurance that love comes from somewhere that science cannot discern:

You won’t find faith or hope down a telescope

You won’t find heart and soul in the stars

You can break everything down to chemicals

But you can’t explain a love like ours.”

It might also be said, on an infinitely higher plane, “You can’t explain a love like God’s!”

And this lack of confidence in science to answer all things human seems to have raised mounting concern among some articulate and outspoken defenders. Christopher Hitchens (recently deceased), Richard Dawkins (the self-appointed high priest of science), and others have challenged on several fronts the relationship between faith and science.

In so doing, these advocates of science find themselves in a position very much like that of apologists for religion. They have become combative and confrontational, taking every opportunity available to them in the media to call for an end to all religion.

Dawkins, in fact, doesn’t much care for the concept of faith at all. In his acceptance speech for the award of being named Humanist of the Year in 1996 he asserted that “a case can be made that ‘faith’ is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.”7 His most pointed confirmation for this is the extremes of terrorism to which people of faith go to assert their beliefs. But he is quite inclusive in this observation, aiming his criticism at any worldview that he considers faith-based: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, etc. In fact, some of the alarming extremes that he expresses in that speech, growing out of his own passionate faith in science, could truly be considered forms of terrorism if they were carried out.

In fact, however, he denies the idea that science has become a religion of its own, though in so doing he says that science provides many of the same benefits to humankind that religion claims. Without any apparent sense of irony, he says that “science is actually one of the most moral, one of the most honest disciplines around,”8 which leaves his hearers to wonder where such faith-based words as moral and honest come from. His speech is further salted with terms like evil, vice, and virtue.

It seems that the human experience expressed in such words—including the word faith—is difficult to live without. As C. S. Lewis has said: “If . . . I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science.”9



1. Gordon Gauchat, “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010,” American Sociological Review 77:2 (April 2012):167-187.


2. Http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/study-trust-science-among-educated-conservatives-plunges-133908205.html. Accessed April 7, 2012.


3. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1959), p. 150.


4. Ibid.


5. Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (New York: Picador, 2005), p. 39.


6. Christopher Clausen, “Left, Right, and Science,” The Wilson Quarterly (Spring 2012):18.


7. Richard Dawkins, “Is Science a Religion?” published in the Humanist (January/February 1997): http://www.thehumanist.org/humanist/articles/dawkins.html.Accessed April 13, 2012.


8. Ibid.


9. C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: Macmillan, 1949), p. 91.