What difference can Christian faith make in academic science?

By Peter Clarke (neurobiologist, retired) – October 2012

The following reflections are based on a talk I gave a few years ago in Paris to the Réseau des scientifiques évangéliques, entitled “Le chrétien peut-il être neutre au laboratoire?” (“Can a Christian be neutral in the lab?” I focus on the difference that Christian faith can make to a research group leader with teaching responsibilities, because that has been my situation for most of my career (in the University of Lausanne). I retired this year (2012), so I write partly in the past tense.

I think most of us would agree that the science we do as Christians is not very different from the science done by atheists or Muslims or Buddhists or Jews. We are all working to understand the same phenomena, ruled by the same natural laws. We use the same techniques and concepts, and we publish in the same journals.

Admittedly, Christian monotheism played an important role in getting science underway in the 16th and 17th centuries, as has been argued by numerous historians including Hooykaas, Jaki, Brooke and Harrison. But nowadays, the ship is afloat. Scientists no longer need belief in a noncapricious God to encourage them to seek for reliable laws of nature. Nor do they need the Bible to free them from a pantheistic worship of nature that would discourage science, or from Aristotle’s conception of a cyclic history ruled by the stars. Biblical faith contributed in numerous ways to the scientific revolution, but it is not so clear how it contributes to the practice of science today.

So what difference can our Christian faith make to our science? Several of my scientific Christian friends have told me that their faith makes a difference to the extent that they do it for God’s glory (1 Cor. 10:31), working hard and with rigorous honesty. And that’s it. They don’t talk about their faith, because that would be inapproriate in a secular environment. They live it, by hard, honest work.

I am not satisfied with such an answer. Not that it’s totally wrong. Of course we should be hard-working and honest! But so were most of my atheist colleagues. If they, or we, didn’t want to work hard, we would have dropped out of science. And even if a few of my unbelieving colleagues didn’t share my belief in the importance of honesty before the tax authorities, they all upheld academic honesty as a top priority. I think that working hard and honestly, exactly like most of our nonchristian colleagues, cannot be the main difference that our faith makes.

No Christian would doubt that, in most areas of our lives, our faith must make an enromous difference. The New Testament teaches that “we are from God and that the whole world lies under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), and we clearly have to rely on God’s help as we struggle against the pressures of this fallen, Satan-dominated world in numerous situations: by witnessing courageously, by giving generously, by refusing pressures to be dishonest or lazy, by showing costly love to those around us, by resisting sexual temptation, and in many other ways. So, if Christ lives in us, what difference should that make in our academic setting? In my opinion, there are at least six areas where we can and should be different.

1. By agape-love in our relationships.

In my experience, academic scientists are often competitive, critical of colleagues, mildly obsessional and coldly analytical. This is hardly surprising. The academic system forces us to compete, and competitive motivation is one of the drives that keeps us working 60-hour weeks, sometimes for poor pay. Critical thinking is essential for good science, but it can spill over into the criticism of colleagues. And people who are gifted at logical analysis do not always shine by their empathy and warm-heartedness. Furthermore, the long hours we spend correcting papers down to the minutest details can make us even more obsessionally analytical than we were before. I’m no exception. I’m not by nature a “people person”. But we have a Saviour who is Love incarnate, and who lives in us by his Holy Spirit. This doesn’t magically transform our personalities overnight, but God’s plan for us is "to be conformed to the likeness of God's Son" (Romans 8:29), and we can cooperate in this process as we repent and pray for our colleagues, and as we ask God to open our eyes to see their needs and help us to love them in the Jesus way.

2. By our attitude to those who depend on us

This is related to point one, but I think it’s so important that I prefer to make it a separate point. When I first became leader of a research group, I thought my greatest duty to my doctoral students was to be available for discussion and to give good advice as well as encouragement. As the group grew, with the addition of technicians and postdocs, it became important to take care of other matters as well that influenced the overall dynamic of the group, but I still thought that dispensing my own scientific wisdom to the team members was the key. Most of the group leaders around me had a similar attitude. I think I got the emphasis wrong because, even though I didn’t say it out loud, I inwardly focused on my own intelligence, wisdom and experience, not on the abilities of my team. With time I came to see that, even though my team members respected my advice and ideas, what really motivated them was testing their own ideas and proving their own intelligence. My advice was still needed, but this was not the key. I needed to take note of Paul’s words to the Philippians (chap 2, v3): “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”

3. By our scientific commitment

Even though our scientific commitment is not going to be the main difference that our faith brings to our science (since most of our unbelieving academic colleagues are also dedicated to their work), we can pray to God for passionate enthusiasm for the work that we do ultimately for Him. As Paul wrote: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord…” (Col. 3:23).

4. By relativising our thirsty ambition

Commitment and enthusiasm are right and proper and necessary for science, but they can snare us into putting ourselves in the centre of the picture. Our entire lives should be acts of worship, lived for God and His kingdom and His glory, not ours! That includes our science.

All too often I have noticed, with something of a shock, that my real motivation has shifted to the establishment of my own “kingdom” and my own glory. This danger is particularly great in academic science, because our publish-or-perish situation forces us to be competitive and focused on our own success. We see our papers quoted, we are (justifiably) pleased when our discoveries are appreciated, and we can even look up in Web of Science the number of times our papers have been cited. We live for this. We pat ourselves on the back for our successes and thirst for more. Our hearts are where our treasure is, and the treasure we seek is success. Just as, in The Lord of the Rings, Gollum was diminished and destroyed by the ring, so scientists can be humanly diminished and emotionally destroyed by the all-consuming thirst for success. This can happen to any ambitious scientist, and contributed to the suicide of one of my colleagues. It’s a form of idolatry, because it involves putting ourselves and our own success on the throne instead of God. But a Christian who repents daily, who seeks first the Kingdom of God, and whose treasure is in heaven is wonderfully protected, because academic success is no longer the be-all and the end-all.

One result of de-throning success is that we are better able to appreciate, and rejoice in, the success of our colleagues. Most scientists appreciate good research by colleagues, and are glad when their friends succeed, but the pressure of competition can dampen our enthusiasm if we are worshipping our own success. Putting God first frees our hearts so that we can recoice in the success of our colleagues.

A related issue is the danger of treating team members as tools for our own advancement. We are pleased when we get a grant and can hire people to advance our project. That’s normal and right, but if the love of Christ is shining in our hearts, the success of these people will be as important to us as our own success. And they will notice this without our needing to tell them!

5. By our witness

We are called to be ambassadors for Christ, and even though our lifestyle is crucial for this, we are also called to confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord. But verbal witness can be difficult in a secular academic setting where we could be accused of using our position abusively for proselytism. Our response to this dilemma will depend very much on the details of the situation. In my own, I made a clear distinction between witnessing to students in formal teaching situations, encouraging Christian students, and witnessing to group members and colleagues on a more personal basis.

Formal teaching. Over the last 15 years I gave series of lectures each year (on neuroscience or anatomy) to several different classes of students ranging in number from about 70-450. I had little contact with most of them individually, and found it very difficult in this situation to witness openly. But I wanted to let them know that I was a Christian, because silence may give the false impression that all the university teachers are atheists or agnostics. My solution was to state simply, at the start of each series of lectures, that I was a Christian: “I came to Switzerland from England 30 years ago, I’m married, we have two daughters, I’m a Christian.” This seemed a bit odd, because, in Switzerland even more than in England, religion is considered a very private matter, so the students always roared with laughter. However, I think they reacted positively, because they usually applauded at the end of the lecture. At least the students knew that there was a Christian among their teachers.

Encouraging Christian students. With the committed Christian students it was of course easier to make contact. My wife and I invited the Christian medical students to dinner occasionally to hear a talk from a medical missionary or a Christian doctor, and tried to encourage them in other ways.

Witnessing to group members and colleagues. With people you speak to every day the greatest danger is probably to speak too much about one’s faith, so I have tended to be rather reserved and cautious, but have been happy to discuss or debate on the few occasions that cropped up naturally. One Christmas I gave each of the students and postdocs in my group a copy of the book “The Language of God” by Francis Collins, who was then head of the human genome project. The book is about the genome (and the human genome project), but describes also the reasons that motivated his conversion to Christianity. A few days after this, when I was talking to a visiting scientist, one of my doctoral students came up and said: “It’s very interesting to be in Peter’s group at the moment, because he’s trying to convert us all to Christianity.” She said this in a friendly way, with a smile on her face, but it confirmed the need for gentle reserve.

6. By our prayer

Should we pray for success in our work (despite what I wrote under point 4)? Yes! If we are convinced that God wants us in academic science, if are serving Him and working for His kingdom, we can and should pray for success. We should realize, however, that the success we seek is not necessarily the success God wants us to have, and so we should constantly be seeking God’s will in prayer and asking Him to conform our wills to His. But then we can indeed pray for our work. Personally, when I first arrived in my office each morning, I made a mental list (sometimes a written one) of all the things I had to do, and prayed for them all. I prayed for the success of experiments, for financial and administrative problems, for the writing of papers and their acceptance, for problems in teaching, for committees, for everything. God answered. I don’t mean to imply that prayer is a magic wand to replace thought and effort, but if we are convinced that God wants us in the job where we are, we can address our needs to Him. We are His servants, so He will answer.

Peter Clarke was an associate professor in the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, until his retirement in 2012. After training as an engineer at Oxford, he obtained a PhD in communication (experimental psychology) under the supervision of Prof. Donald MacKay at Keele (1972), and then did postdoctoral jobs at Oxford, then Washington University, St. Louis, then Oxford again, before moving to Lausanne in 1977.