Science in Christian Perspective



A Model for Discussion of Science and Christianity in the Public School
J. W. Haas, Jr
Gordon College
Wenhem, Massachusetts 0 1984

From: JASA 35 (June 1983): 109-110.

Over the past several decades the public school has been embroiled in a continuing set of controversies ranging from student body composition to questions involving censorship of literature and the arts. Often evangelicals have been found on the battle lines usually in the role of critic. This is all too evident in the current debate over the teaching of origins, I have observed this situation with an increasing sense of frustration-not so much because of the (often justified) critique-but with a concern that the Christian seems unable to contribute constructively to science education within the constraints established by the courts and local practice relative to the place of religion in the public school. It would appear that science-religion discussions, if they occur at all, seem to focus on areas of conflict. The Christian teacher in the public domain is often torn between a desire to express his faith in the context of his discipline and the necessity to conform to locally established principles.

I have found a historical approach to be helpful in overcoming some of these limitations. The secular historian of science has some surprising things to say about the relation between science and Christianity that have been largely ignored. These ideas are appropriate in setting forth the social and intellectual climate from which modern science was born and came to dominance in western culture. A historical overview of the changing relation between science and Christianity through the past three centuries to the current concern for "morality" in science can provide several benefits to the student. First, he can be encouraged to look to his religious roots to bring meaning to science and his personal life. He can also gain a perspective on the sources of conflict between science and religion and ways to deal with future questions. This broader view provides a means for gaining a deeper understanding of the nature and limitations of science (and religion) as they are brought to bear on particular issues.

My approach has generally involved a broad sketch of western intellectual history from the time of Francis Bacon to the present, particularly as it deals with the relation between science and Christianity. This history may be separated into three periods.

The first segment covers the 17th Century, a time when science developed into modern form in a culture largely dominated by Christianity. Theism and science were seen as compatible and this period saw many scientist-Christians who found motivation for their work in their Christian faith. These scientists often joined their religion and science in philosophical statements that may seem obscure to the modern reader; yet they contain the foundation upon which we construct our present integrative strategies. Intellectuals of that time found no major conflict between the ideas of science and the major tenets of Christianity, nor was there the dichotomy between the two that was to emerge later. It is important to note that the development of science in non-western cultures may have been impeded by religious world views that saw nature as irrational, capricious or not worthy of serious study. The Christian picture, however, provided a combination of presuppositions stemming from the concept of God as creator and omnipotent ruler over nature-his rationality, steadiness, faithfulness and regularity-which were compatible with scientific thinking.

The second time period extends from the early 19th century through World War II. Here science and technology flourished and came ultimately to cultural dominance while Christianity was relegated to one's private life. The achievements of science in understanding and harnessing nature through a method that emphasized rational and objective thought provided an authority that Christianity under attack from all quarters was unable to counter, especially where the two areas of thought came into conflict. The high religious seriousness of the seventeenth century passed into the scepticism and worldliness of the nineteenth, not only through the pen of the philosopher and the successes of the scientists but through the loss of credibility of Christianity, increasingly weakened by denominational differences, and attacks on the authority of Scripture by an emerging liberalism which came to carry the day. The smoke stack rather than the steeple came to dominate the landscape and the gap between science and Christianity appeared unbridgable.

However, the period following World War 11 has seen a remarkably rapid change in public attitude toward science and technology even though scientific progress has continued unabated. Although the vision of Frankenstein has long been a hallowed part of folklore, the first major crack in the image of scientific infallibility came with the intense discussion over nuclear warfare by those who had been involved in producing the first atomic bombs. Their journal, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, became a forum for discussing this concern and mobilizing political action regarding the "ultimate weapon." In the early 1950's Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and the emerging ecology movement raised questions about man's relation with "nature." Pollution of air, land, and water, overpopulation, the energy crisis, a high-tech war, nuclear power, waste disposal and biotechnology became front page issues. Science was seen as moving too far too fast.

As public confidence in science waned, some observers began to ask if the emperor had any clothes-was he able to distinguish right from wrong or make moral judgments in a matrix of conflicting solutions? Increasingly, theologians were asked to join the discussion as questions arose. The National Science Foundation initiated a program that supports ethics projects. Scientists and an increasing number of people outside the science community have begun to look to religion for help in evaluating technology, an approach that would not have been possible in the last generation. The dichotomy between science and religion has diminished. One should be under no illusion that there is a romance between the two, but a link has been forged in the area of ethics and even more broadly, as society recognizes the limitations of science and scientism and looks at other ways of knowing and finding man's place in the cosmic drama.

I have given lectures based on these ideas in over two dozen public schools and at a state teacher's convention. The positive response on the part of students and teachers suggest that this approach may be appropriate for others who wish to counter the negative image of evangelical response to science in the public school. There are, however, certain dangers in historical analysis. One is tempted to revise history to fit preconceived notions or gloss over problems in order to present a tight case. Also, one must be careful to get the facts straight. In spite of these problems, there is real satisfaction in sorting out the literature and matching one's opinion with that of the author. The Annotated Bibliography provides a variety of useful sources toward this end.


Barbour, Ian G., Issues in Science and Religion. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1966. An excellent review of the 17th to 20th centuries.

Dillenberger, John, Protestant Thought and Natural Science. Nashville: Abingdon Press (paper), 1960. Perhaps the best discussion of the entire period.

Hooykass, R., Religion and the Rise of Modern Science . Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972. This work builds a strong (but not universally accepted) case for the contribution of Protestants to the development of science in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Jaki, S. L., The Road of Science and the Ways to God. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. A fascinating view of the philosophical and theological insights of a wide range of physical scientists who have been significant in the development of science.

Klaaren, E. M., Origins of Modern Science. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977. A more balanced view of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Raven, Charles E., Science and Religion. Cambridge: University Press, 1953. An older but still valuable study of the 17th through 19th centuries,

Isis, Journal of the History of Ideas, Zygon, and the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation regularly contain articles dealing with historical aspects of science and Christianity.