The story of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) begins in Los Angeles in the early 1930’s. The cultural setting in the United States when the ASA was founded was a time when many conservative Christians felt they were being targeted in a culture war between science and the Bible. The Scopes “Monkey Trial” had just happened in 1925, and there were many cartoons illustrating attacks on Christian faith, the church, and the Bible coming from both science and culture.
Pastor Irwin Moon of Montecito Park Union Church developed a series of dramatic scientific demonstrations to illustrate theological principles in an effort to engage the youth of his community. These “Sermons from Science” as they were called (or SFS) attracted substantial attention, and before long, Pastor Moon began taking his show on the road.
In 1937, Moody Bible Institute President Will Houghton happened to be in the audience at one of Moon’s presentations. Houghton was so impressed that he invited Moon to join Moody Bible Institute that same night. Both of these influential individuals shared a strong desire to reach high school and college age youth with their message that science and faith are compatible.
Shortly after this providential meeting, another important connection, F. Alton Everest, saw Moon’s SFS show in Oregon while Everest was an electrical engineering faculty member at Oregon State University. The meeting between these two men also resonated with a sense of shared passion and purpose for spreading the message of science and faith as allies.
All three of these leaders were concerned about the challenges that young Christians encountered in going off to college, and the incapacity of most churches to provide resources or advice of any substance. They decided that a Christian organization of practicing scientists could help establish a strategy to deal with these challenges, and prevent them from shattering the faith of Christian college students.
With the support of long time Moody patron and Board of Trustees President, Henry Parsons Crowell, the founding meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation was held in early September of 1941 at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Moody President Houghton’s invitational letter outlined their vision for the new organization. Houghton indicated that the group would not be associated with Moody Bible Institute, nor would Moon be a part of the founding group. Moon never became a member of ASA, but generously gave both advice and financial support.
The ASA founders soon recognized and nurtured an essential difference from other faith-based scientific organizations. Whereas other groups coupled Christian faith with a specific perspective on both science and scripture, the ASA was then and continues to be a “big tent” for discussing various interpretations of science and scripture, in an atmosphere of intentional humility and respect.
In 1948, the ASA published five thousand copies of its first major publication, Modern Science and Christian Faith: Eleven Essays on the Relationship of the Bible to Modern Science 1, with chapters written by ASA members in different disciplines. Ultimately, 350,000 copies were sold, and with its wide distribution, it accomplished a great deal in furthering the message of compatibility between science and scripture.
The ASA began to publish its own journal in 1949, initially called Journal of the ASA (JASA), which continues through today as Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (PSCF). The name of the Journal itself indicates the “big tent” idea of the ASA, with its members holding and deliberating various perspectives on relevant topics.
Another major development from the early days of the ASA is the beginning of what appeared to be an easing of the tendency toward strict biblical literalism. A big factor in this development was Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm’s presumptuously named 1954 book, The Christian View of Science and Scripture 2, which strongly suggested that the language of Scripture is neither technical nor scientific, but rather the common language of the contextual culture. The Reverend Billy Graham heartily endorsed Ramm’s book, which played a significant role in popularizing it among evangelical Christians. As Graham famously stated:
“The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption… God did create the universe… God created humanity. Whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create humanity. Whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what men and women are and their relationship to God.”3
During the first three decades of the ASA, many — perhaps even most — U.S. scientists (whether Christian or secular) believed that a person could accept either evolution or creation, but not both. In 1971, Stanford materials scientist and physicist Richard Bube, then editor of the ASA Journal, published two articles foreshadowing a shift in this perspective. The articles, entitled “We Believe in Creation”4 and “Biblical Evolutionism?”5, outlined Bube’s (as well as a ground-swell of other members’) belief that creation is first and foremost a theological concept, while evolution is a scientific one. Although some members had previously suggested that evolution was a tool used by God to direct biological creation, most earlier articles had proposed an either-or choice between the two.
Even so, the ASA Journal continues to publish articles making a case for other perspectives on origins. In 1978, not long after Dr. Bube’s articles were published, a special issue of the ASA Journal devoted to origins issues was published. Entitled “Origins and Change: Selected Readings from the JASA,”6 it contained articles that represented the full spectrum of ASA members’ views. The issue included voices apathetic to evolutionary biology, but the overall message was that old-earth geology, biological evolution, and Christianity can peacefully coexist. Perhaps as significantly, several ASA presidents over the last century have held viewpoints other than Evolutionary Creation or Theistic Evolution, including Intelligent Design and Old Earth Creation.
Turning our attention to the present, the ASA continues to be a place of discussion and grappling with controversial issues, rather than an advocacy organization. The common thread binding ASA members together is an adherence to orthodox Christian faith (in accord with both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds) coupled with a respect for rigorous science, while considering various interpretations of science and scripture in an environment of humility and respect.
Furthermore, the ASA is a network of men and women in science and related disciplines, who share a common faithfulness to the Scripture, as well as a commitment to integrity in the practice of science. The members are also committed to engaging the Christian and science communities in dialog around important issues of faith and science.
The ASA’s mission is to “integrate, communicate, and facilitate properly researched science and theology in service to the Church and the scientific community. ASA members are confident that such a goal is not only possible but necessary for an adequate understanding of God and Nature. We believe that honest and open studies of both Scripture and Nature are mutually beneficial in developing a full understanding of human identity, relationships, and our environment. Additionally, the ASA is committed to advising churches and our society in how best to employ science and technology while preserving the integrity of God’s creation.”7
The mission of the ASA is accomplished through various publications (including the peer-reviewed journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, and online magazine God & Nature); the ASA web-based resources; personal interactions, networking, learning opportunities, and sharing of research at the ASA Annual Meeting each summer (to be held July 28-31 this year at School of Mines in Golden, CO), as well as at local events throughout the year, and community support of churches and other organizations.
Looking forward to the future of the ASA, our vision is focused on expansion in the following areas: audience/membership, spheres of influence, and discussion topics.
With respect to expanding our audience, we have quite a lot of room to grow. A recent study by sociologist Elaine Ecklund at Rice University found that 61% of American scientists self-identify as Christian8. With some six million-plus practicing scientists and engineers employed in the United States, that means there are more than 3.6 million self-identifying Christians working as scientists or engineers in this country, while the ASA membership is only about three thousand! Many newcomers to the ASA annual conference express a profound sense of homecoming at finally finding the organization, citing uneasiness about discussing faith in the workplace, or anxiety about discussing science at church. Sometimes it seems that the ASA is a very well-kept secret, and that needs to change.
Another important element of expansion is that of reaching the next generation. The ASA has a very important message for our culture, and — as articulated by our founders — in particular, for our young people who are still thinking about what to do with their lives. We need to make a greater effort to reach students and others at an earlier age, so they understand that science and faith can co-exist. Young people need to know that science is a viable career choice for Christians, and that it is possible to be both a faithful Christian as well as a top-notch scientist. That being said, the ASA must extend its reach to churches, families, and youth, as well as to those who teach and influence them. Without this important outreach, both sides lose: the science community loses Christians from the discipline, and the Church loses scientists from its fellowship.
One of the key strategies the ASA is developing to help engage young people is an internship program for students and others who would like to immerse themselves for a period of time in a science-faith project within our network. We are also in the planning process for creating a database of faculty members, science practitioners, and others with STEM-oriented mission opportunities to enable Christians in the sciences to use their disciplines to be difference makers for Christ, as well as to attract new members who have a passion for social justice.
Our outreach effort includes expanding our sphere of influence through engaging with seminaries, churches, home-school organizations and schools of education, as well as encouraging and supporting members and chapters in local communities to lead the science-faith dialog within their own networks. We also plan to further develop a library of presentations and other resources that will help empower and mobilize existing members to reach out to churches, schools, and civic organizations in their local areas.
One of the most significant initiatives we are using to accomplish this part of the ASA’s expansion effort is our Local Chapters Campaign, funded in large part by the Templeton Foundation through Fuller Seminary’s “Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries” program. This Campaign involves reaching out to individual ASA members as well as colleges, seminaries, schools of education, churches and para-church organizations in areas without thriving local ASA chapters to encourage the development of new local chapters to support members in engaging within their own communities. We’ve recently collaborated with individual members in the southwestern U.S. in starting several new chapters over the last few months.
The final area of expansion involves multiplying the conversation topics to include more issues involving ethics, engineering, appropriate/sustainable technologies, health/medicine, and environmental stewardship, in addition to our ongoing interest in discussion of origins. This will help to further distinguish the ASA from the other science-faith organizations that deal primarily with conversations about origins from a specific perspective. Speaking of other science-faith organizations, we are working to encourage new networking opportunities with them in order to extend the reach of our mutually shared resources and events.
In summary, the ASA has played an historic role in stimulating the open dialog between science and faith, without advocating for a particular position. As a preeminent national science-faith fellowship organization, we will strive to set the tone for civil dialog among those with diverse opinions on all issues relating to science and Christian faith. In the process, we will work to further spread the message that science and faith are allies, not enemies, and expand the reach of the ASA to broader topics and a larger audience. Those of us who are already members know the rewards, and countless others could not only benefit from, but also contribute to our community.
Leslie Wickman acknowledges the historical contributions to this article of ASA Fellows Ted Davis 9, Terry Gray 10, and Jack Haas 11. Wickman is executive director of the ASA. For more than a decade she was an engineer for Lockheed Martin Missiles & Space, where she worked on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and International Space Station Programs.