Christianity as a Foundation for Science

Part 1:  Science & Religion in Conflict?

by Loren Haarsma, Ph.D.

A Lecture for Faculty Fellowship Forum at National Conference
for Christian Educators Association International, July 2003.
  Published as a chapter in 
Proclaiming Freedom in the Land: The Role of the
Professorate in Promoting Christ-Centered Learning.

      Summary for Parts 1 and 2
      The basic theories of science, the "laws of nature," do not explicitly refer to God.  Some scientists, and some students, incorrectly conclude that science is methodologically atheistic.  However, a biblical view of God not only motivates us to do science, but also provides us a philosophical foundation for expecting to find regular patterns of cause and effect in nature.  A scientific understanding in terms of natural laws does not exclude God; rather, it teaches us about God's governance of creation.  Scientific knowledge is placed in a context of faithfully living for God.

Another summary is the PowerPoint Overview (used for the lecture) that gives you a condensed summary/overview of the chapter.

      This paper focuses on some of the difficulties of teaching science in a culture where science and religion are sometimes set at odds with each other.  Apparent conflicts between scholarly claims and religious claims are not limited to science, however; they occur in almost every subject.  I will make connections across other academic disciplines at several points in this paper.
      The universe is beautiful and awe-inspiring.  When we study it scientifically, this does not decrease, but rather increases that sense of beauty and awe.  As a Christian, I respond to what I learn from science by praising and worshiping the Creator.  As an educator at a Christian college, I try to model for my students this response of praise and worship.  I not only teach them the facts and theories of science, but also direct their attention to the One who created the universe, sustains it, and gives us the gifts to study it.  That's not always as simple as it might sound. 
      Whether you teach in a public or a Christian institution, you are no doubt aware that there are many conflicting voices telling us what the relationship between science and Christianity ought to be. Some people argue that science and Christianity fundamentally conflict with each other.  Others say that science and religion deal with entirely separate realities and have nothing to do with each other.  At the other extreme, there are Christians who argue that science can be used to prove that Christianity is true, or at the very least prove that certain statements from Christian theology are true.  Many of your students will have heard some of these claims — claims which often contain serious scientific, philosophical or theological flaws.  But because they are inexperienced scholars, many of your students may have absorbed these claims uncritically.  As a result, simply by teaching good science to your students, many students will perceive the science as being completely disconnected from bigger issues of their life and faith.  Worse yet, some students may perceive the science you teach as an attempt to promote a particular faith, or as an attack on their own faith.
      What can an educator do about all of these conflicting voices?  I find it is helpful to take one step back from science itself and look at what sorts of worldview assumptions are necessary to serve as a foundation for doing science.  (This approach of explicitly examining foundational assumptions can be applied profitably to other academic disciplines besides the natural sciences.) Understanding these foundational assumptions provides a basis for critiquing all of those conflicting claims about science and religion.  It also allows us to see that the relationship between science and Christianity is neither fundamentally hostile nor disconnected.  Rather, Christianity provides both a powerful motive for doing science and a strong philosophical understanding for why the scientific method works.

      In the interest of time, for this conference and this paper, I will set aside the problem of scientifically or theologically flawed arguments sometimes used to defend Christianity.  That will have to wait for another conference and another paper, although I hope that what I say in this paper can serve as a starting point for a response.  For now I will concentrate on the first two problems — the perception that science is hostile to religion, or at best completely disconnected from religion. 
      The idea that science and religion are fundamentally in conflict with each other has been around for well over a century.  Here are a few examples:

"Science and religion cannot be reconciled, and humanity should begin to appreciate the power of [science] and to beat off all attempts at compromise.  Religion has failed, and its failures should be exposed.  Science, with its currently successful pursuit of universal competence ... should be acknowledged the king." (Atkins, 1995)

"A divine revelation must necessarily be intolerant of contradiction; it must repudiate all improvement in itself." (Draper, 1875)

"Hardly a generation since [Galileo] has not seen some ecclesiastic suppressing evidence, or turning expressions, or inventing theories to blacken the memory of Galileo." (White, 1896)

      It is necessary to acknowledge that there have been, and continue to be, some conflicts between scientific and religious claims.  However, a more scholarly reading of history tells us that these conflicts are far more complex than a simplistic dichotomy between science and religion.  For example, Galileo's treatment by the church officials was tragic and sinful, but it was not simply a case of religion attacking science.  Any competent book on Galileo will tell you that Galileo had scientific opponents as well as scientific supporters, and Galileo had theological defenders as well as theological attackers.  We shouldn't ignore or trivialize instances where science and scientists have been attacked by religious persons for religious reasons.  We have much to learn from those incidents.  But we must remember that scientific and religious ideas always have philosophical, cultural and historical contexts.  Any true understanding of the relationship between science and religion will take into account those broader contexts.

      In many cases, apparent conflicts between science and religion are due, quite simply, to faulty logic.
      For example, consider the following claim: "Christianity requires that the Earth is fixed in place.  Science proved that the Earth moves.  Therefore, Christianity is false."  Almost any Christian, and for that matter almost any non-Christian, can point out the flaw in that claim.  Christianity does not require that the Earth be fixed in place.  The problem here is not with Christianity itself, but with a flawed theological claim made on behalf of Christianity.
      Or consider the following claim: "Christianity requires that humans are special.  Science has shown that humans are nothing but atoms undergoing chemical reactions.  Therefore, Christianity is false."  In this case, the problem is a faulty philosophical extrapolation of science.  Science does show that humans are composed of atoms undergoing chemical reactions.  Science does not, however, show that humans are nothing but atoms.  That is a philosophical claim, an extrapolation from science to philosophy.  In this case, the extrapolation is every bit as flawed as saying that a Shakespeare poem, because it is embodied as words printed on a page, is nothing but worlds printed on a page.

      Not all apparent conflicts between science and religion are easily dismissed.  Sometimes when there seems to be a conflict between one claim made on behalf of science and another claim made on behalf of Christianity, it takes real effort to get at the root of the problem.  Different religious traditions might deal with these in a variety of ways.  Christianity theology itself provides a very useful framework for approaching apparent conflicts.  The Belgic Confession is an historic creed in the Reformed tradition of Christianity, and it has this to say in its second article:

"We know him [God] by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God; his eternal power and his divinity....  Second, he makes himself known to us more openly by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life, for his glory and for the salvation of his own." [Belgic Confession, Article 2]

      This creed refers to a "two books" metaphor of Nature and Scripture.  God created nature.  God inspired scripture.  God is not trying deceive us.  God is not trying to give us conflicting messages.  However, we human beings can make mistakes.  Science and philosophy are human endeavors to understand nature.  Theology, philosophy and scriptural interpretation are human endeavors to understand God's personal revelation in history.  We human beings are limited.  We are also sinful.  We can make mistakes in our understanding of nature, or in our understanding of scripture, or both.  It is here, at the level of human interpretation, where we can have conflicts.
      The "two books" metaphor is not a perfect metaphor — nature and scripture are not exactly parallel things — but it is a useful metaphor.  It provides us with a strategy for dealing with an apparent conflict between theology and science, or any other field of scholarship.  We do not simply throw one out and keep the other, for that would be tantamount to ignoring some of God's revelation.  Instead, we hold them in tension as best we can, and we keep pursuing our science, theology and philosophy until the underlying unity of God's revelations becomes clear.  At its heart, this is a statement about faith in God.  We trust that God is the author of all truth, and the truth is worth pursuing, even if we can't see right now how all of it unifies.
      Several decades ago, perhaps it was more common for scholars to see science and religion as fundamentally in conflict.  Today, the idea that science and religion fundamentally conflict is very much a minority opinion amongst scientists.  There are still a few vocal advocates; however, in my experience, the great majority of scientists — including atheist and agnostic scientists — would agree that science and religion can at least co-exist.  Many of the great scientists of the past and the present have been and are Christians, who see no conflict between their science and their faith.  Scientists today know that their colleagues, whom they respect as competent scientists, have a variety of religious beliefs.  That religious diversity amongst scientists today, in and of itself, does much to dispel the notion that science and religion are in conflict.  Perhaps most importantly, scientists today are aware that science itself is limited.  Science is competent to answer questions about how matter behaves according to the laws of nature, but science is not competent to answer the question of whether or not the laws of nature have a Lawgiver.  Science is competent to predict the probabilities that certain events will happen, but science is not competent to answer the question of whether or not there is Someone who oversees events which, from a human perspective, appear random.  Science is competent to describe the properties and the history of matter in this universe, but science is not competent to answer the question of why matter exists in the first place.  Scientists today, perhaps more than ever before, are aware of these sorts of limitations to science.

      A much more common opinion amongst scientists today is that science and religion deal with entirely separate realities and have nothing to do with each other.  Scientist Stephen Jay Gould, who is also an atheist, is a champion of this idea: "No such conflict [between science and religion] should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority....  The net of science covers the empirical universe:  what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory).  The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value." (Gould, 1997)
      This is an appealing idea.  Science and religion each have a legitimate realm of authority where the other is not competent to make pronouncements.  In cases of apparent conflict, one has strayed into the realm of the other.  When the boundary between science and religion is respected, science — by necessity — is religiously agnostic.

      An Educational Application
      Every Christian educator who has taught a science class has undoubtedly noticed how difficult it is to teach science from a distinctively Christian perspective.  In other academic subjects such as politics, history, philosophy, literature, art or sociology, while there are many parts of those subjects where Christians and non-Christians do their work essentially identically, there are other parts of those subjects where it is easy to contrast Christian viewpoints with non-Christian viewpoints.  In the natural sciences, however, it frequently seems as though the entire subject is religiously neutral.  Is there such a thing as distinctively Christian physics or chemistry?  And if not, why not?

These questions are examined in the second part of the chapter, which asks "Is God in Science?", explains why the answer is "yes, but...", and concludes that...
      A biblical view of God and nature offers us reasons to expect the scientific method to be successful. ...
      This "foundational" approach to studying science applies to other academic subjects.  Each subject has its own set of philosophical assumptions and standard methods which are shared by most of its practitioners.  Christian educators can present these to their students as part of their education in the subject.  Educators can also present how Christianity and other worldviews provide justification for those foundational beliefs and methods of the discipline.  This may help students learn the subject material with less danger that they will perceive it as disconnected from — or as an attack upon — their religious faith.

      REFERENCES (those grayed-out are used in Part 2 but not in this page)
      This lecture (Part 1 in this page, plus Part 2) has been published as a chapter in Proclaiming Freedom in the Land: The Role of the Professorate in Promoting Christ Centered Learning, Daniel C. Elliott, ed. (Christian Educators Association International, Pasadena, CA, 2003)
      Atkins, P.W. 1995. "The Limitless Power of Science," in Nature's Imagination: The Frontiers of Scientific Vision, ed. J. Cornwell.  (Oxford University Press).
      Belgic Confession.  (Christian Reformed Church in North America).
      The Bible, New International Version. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985).
      Calvin, John. 1989 translation. Article 1.16.1, Institutes of the Christian Religion. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
      Dickerson, Richard E. 1992. "The Game of Science." Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 44(1):137.
      Draper, John William. 1875. History of the Conflict between Religion and Science; (D. Appleton and Company).
      Gould, Stephen Jay. 1997. Natural History v.106.
      Haarsma, Loren.
      Hooykaas, Reijer. 1972. Religion and the Rise of Modern Science. (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans).
      MacKay, Donald. 1988. The Open Mind and Other Essays (Leicester: InterVarsity Press) p.23.
      Murphy, Nancey. 1993. "Phillip Johnson on Trial." Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 45(1):33-34.

      White, Andrew. 1896. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, (Republished by Indypublish.Com, 2002).

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Here are other related pages:

Where is God in Science (methodological NATURALISM)
(it's Part 2 of the chapter;  this page is Part 1)

PowerPoint Overview for Parts 1 and 2
 PDF file of whole chapter (Parts 1 and 2) 

Other Pages and PowerPoints
by Loren Haarsma

Using the Two Books provided for us by God
(PowerPoint Overview by Deborah Haarsma)

Using the Two Books provided for us by God
(pages by other authors, about Finding Truth
in The Word of God and The Works of God)

This page, written by Loren Haarsma (and assembled by Craig Rusbult), is

Copyright © 2003 by Loren Haarsma
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