Tim Wildsmith isn’t your typical Southern Baptist youth minister. He's used to holding thorny discussions on issues that the youth group members of Nashville’s First Baptist Church face, like dating and sex. Now, science has been added to that list — namely, how it can and does coexist with faith.
On a Sunday morning, he opens the group's second class on the subject with, "You guys ready for science and faith?" He tells them this particular series was started last year and that it was "awesome."
The tattooed former musician wants to bridge what he sees as an artificial gap.
"Historically," Wildsmith tells the middle and high schoolers in the group, "the church has tended to draw this hard line between science and faith and said you either believe that God created everything and that science is totally fake — or not. There’s this kind of false opposition."
Wildsmith says one major reason young people — who live and breathe science and technology — are leaving church nowadays is "because they wonder if what it’s offering them is relevant to our current context in our culture."
So Wildsmith has brought in a Vanderbilt Divinity School student with a physics degree to spend several weeks discussing the importance of science and the Bible with the group.
For their first activity, they're given statements like “prayer can help heal sick people,” or “global warming is likely to cause major changes on Earth.” They have to place them under categories such as “science and faith agree or disagree,” or “scientists have varying views” and so on.
That leads to an intense discussion between the high school seniors about deferring to experts in scientific debates. Justin Jordan-Lake is passionate about separating facts from opinions: "The second someone says ‘I have a degree in climate science,’ and I don’t, that’s where the conversation ends. That’s where I sit there and I listen to them, and I don’t talk about my opinion."
The teen says when he was little, he fervently believed the Creation story was real. Not anymore — but he also says he’s a stronger Christian now, precisely because he’s not afraid to question what he’s told.
"There were things that I thought and believed and as they slowly unraveled. It wasn’t like they unraveled to a place where I was an atheist," he says. "They unraveled to a place where I wanted to find out more."
Eighteen-year-old Shannon Pickrell also loves the class. The daughter of lawyers wishes these conversations and "mediations" were taking place not just in other churches, but in politics too.
"As soon as we get so polarized that we reject not just the ideas of other people, but the people themselves — I mean, people from the church excluding scientists, or vice versa — I think that’s when the danger comes in," she says. "Because then we can’t progress as a people, as an American society."
So how did American society — one of the most technologically advanced in the world — get to the point where science is even considered controversial or partisan?
Volney Gay, a professor of religious studies at Vanderbilt University, traces the rift in large part back to the 1920s. He says that’s when U.S. politicians first began using science and evolution to fire up and unite voters who otherwise have little else in common.
"It suited politicians and large-scale political parties to propose to their followers that their very personal, private faith was under attack," he says.
Gay says exploiting that perceived threat of scientists trying to discredit faith intensified in the 1970s and '80s, as religious fundamentalism rose in America.
But the professor is quick to point out there’s no reason science and faith can’t coexist. He says science is tentative, constantly changing, it can be wrong — while faith is immediate, powerful, more stable.
"It’s something I feel and know in my own experience, ethics would be the same," says Gay. "When we have an ethical decision, we don’t look for empirical support, we look inside."
Gay is impressed that the First Baptist Church is addressing head-on what he calls the “science and religion debacle," especially when most young people have no problem reconciling the two.
Indeed, Justin Jordan-Lake, the high school senior, says scientific knowledge — about something like the environment, for example — only adds to faith.
"The amount of devotion you put to praying and stuff, why would you not devote that to making God happy that you’re taking care of what He created for you? That’s what's never clicked in my mind."
That, says youth minister Tim Wildsmith, is exactly the kind of thinking that the class is meant to inspire.