You might think statistics is the most boring topic on the planet. It really isn’t! As a lecturer in statistics at the University of Melbourne, I get to analyse and solve real world problems for doctors, teachers, dentists, journalists, architects, psychologists, politicians, zoologists, farmers… the list goes on. Being analytical has become a life habit – annoyingly so, according to some of my friends.
Recognising bias is fundamental to statistics. So, although I grew up in a Christian family, I could never have stayed Christian out of convenience. I could never live with that kind of faith. From the perspective of faith, I’m grateful to God for my Christian family and the way in which my parents supported me as I explored hard questions. I’m also grateful to God for the freedom to ask hard questions and for providing so many rich and reasonable answers.
I’d like to share some of the ways in which my work in statistics relates to the way I think about my Christian faith.
At the theoretical end of statistics, mathematical laws are not only useful and beautiful but testify to an orderly world and the mind of an orderly creator. Historically, it was a firm belief in an unchanging God that drove scientists to explore the world and its patterns.
At the practical end of statistics, where I work, the challenge is to find solutions that can help people. But in order to argue for a solution, you need a clear ethical framework and you can’t have one of those unless you have an objective source of truth and morality. You may be surprised to hear that the most influential source in the world is the Bible.
For example, the Bible’s view that human life is valuable and should be accorded dignity has influenced communities for thousands of years, helping them to make decisions about how to organise justice, education, welfare and in other important areas.
But is there any basis for trusting the Bible? Pierre-Simon Laplace, a highly influential mathematician and statistician, was known for encouraging caution when encountering unexpected data. His view has been summed up as, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Certainly the claims of the Bible are extraordinary. It details a supernatural God, active in the natural world. This is a very different understanding of the world from those who think there is nothing but matter inside space and time.
The Bible’s most extraordinary claims revolve around the person of Jesus. It sets up an expectation for his arrival over more than a thousand years. There is a promise of a great prophet (Deuteronomy 18:18) and a great servant who both pays for human rebellion and is God himself (Isaiah 9 and 53). When Jesus came the Bible records that he not only fulfilled these promises but exceeded all possible expectations. He spoke with great authority and performed remarkable miracles. Eyewitnesses record that Jesus understood his death to be a payment for human rebellion against God. In his resurrection from the dead Jesus showed that death was defeated.
The most compelling data I have for the love of God are the death and resurrection of Jesus. Certainly not the kind of data that normally comes across my desk! But I teach my students an important principle, namely, that evidence takes different forms. While the data I work with can often be reproduced by repeating experiments or surveys, not all data are the same. The kind of data that the Bible contains can only ever be accessed through written or oral accounts. In other words, history. But that doesn’t make the data invalid. Things in the past really did happen!
It may be helpful to know that the Bible never demands faith without evidence. And there is so much more evidence (or data!) than I have time to share. There is the personal experience of knowing God and the fellowship and love I experience with other Christians.
These things are promised in the Bible as a kind of confirmation of belief for all Christians. Which may be encouraging for you to hear!
In fact, the Bible is full of stories of people grappling with faith in their particular situation. These stories demonstrate that God listens and cares and shows himself to be worthy of trust. I hope and pray that my story encourages you to explore the data for yourself.