Relationships between
Science and Religion:

Conflict & Warfare?

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.

The Myth of Warfare between Science and Religion

      What is the relationship between science and Christian religion?  One dramatic answer — mutual antagonism, inherent conflict, and aggressive warfare! — was proposed in the late 1800s by John Draper and Andrew White.  In their books, each painted a picture of history as a conflict between the rationality of science (earnestly searching for truth) opposed by the ignorance of religion (stubbornly trying to block scientific progress), with science fighting valiantly and continually emerging victorious.
      Their portrayal of history is dramatic, with heroes and villains clearly defined, and is appealing for many people.  Their colorful story of "science vs. religion" is useful for anti-Christian rhetoric, and has exerted a powerful influence on popular views about the interactions between science and religion.  But their history is oversimplistic and inaccurate.  It does not accurately describe what really happened, and is rejected by modern historians.
      If the relationship isn't conflict, what is it?  "The encounter between Christianity and science... is a complex and diverse interaction that defies reduction to simple 'conflict' or 'harmony'... and the interaction varied with time, place, and person." (David Lindberg & Ronald Numbers, editors of God and Nature, 1986, page 10)

      Two key historical examples used by Draper and White were a flat earth and Galileo.  But one of these is false, and the other is oversimplified.

• In the time of Columbus, did educated Christians believe the earth was flat?  The correct answer is NO, but most modern people will say YES.  Why?  This wrong idea is due to a fascinating abuse of history that began around 1830 when two writers (a creative novelist inventing a colorful story about Columbus, and an atheist scholar trying to make Christians look foolish) invented a false story about "belief in a flat earth" that, in the 1870s, was popularized by Draper's book.   The Myth of Flat-Earth Belief

• In the time of Galileo, the interactions between people and their ideas were complex.  For the Catholic Church,
"The central methodological issue was... whether the truth of cosmological claims was to be determined by exercise of the human capacities of sense and reason, by appeal to biblical revelation, or by some combination of the two."  But "methodological positions come down to earth and enter the real world only insofar as they are defended by humans; and when flesh and blood make an appearance, we are apt to find that personal interest and political ambition are as important as ideological stance.  There were old scores to settle, egos to stroke, and careers to be made. ... The outcome...was powerfully influenced by local circumstances,... [by] fears, rivalries, ambitions, personalities, political context, and socioeconomic circumstance."  Galileo's views were accepted by some in the church and were challenged by some scientists: "Among people with special expertise in astronomy and cosmology, heliocentrism (viewed as an account of cosmological reality) remained a minority opinion."   /   Was it warfare?  "The Galileo affair is consistently and simplistically portrayed as a battle between science and Christianity — an episode in the long warfare of science and theology."  But "conflict was located as much within the church (between opposing theologies of biblical interpretation) and within science (between alternative cosmologies) as between science and the church."  (quotations are from a prominent historian, David Lindberg, pages 57-58, When Science and Christianity Meet, 2003)  {more about Galileo}
Stillman Drake, a Galileo scholar, offers insightful analysis of the dispute between Galileo and The Church;  some people claim it was due to intrinsic hostility between science and religion, but...
Being neither a scientist nor a religious man, I have no direct way of knowing whether or not there is an inherent conflict between the two modes of thought. ...  I do know that there is an inherent conflict between established authority and independent thought. ...  I think that if Galileo's case symbolizes anything, it symbolizes the inherent conflict between authority and freedom rather than any ineradicable hostility of religion toward science.  It was an accident of Galileo's time that authority happened to be vested in a particular religious institution and that his field of independent thought happened to be the creation of modern science.   { Stillman Drake, in the foreword to Galileo, Science and the Church by Jerome Langford, 1966. }
Those involved in the conflict had more than one defining characteristic: in this particular situation, religion had authority, and science proposed independent thought.  Instead of choosing to define the conflict as religion versus science, Drake thinks the other pair of characteristics should be considered the primary antagonists, that it's more accurate to think of the conflict in terms of the inherent mutual hostility that does exist between authority and independent thought.

      Viewing the relationship between science and Christianity as "inherent conflict" and a "science vs religion" competition is wrong, but is common.  When I tell someone that I'm a scientist and a Christian, a common response is, "Wow, how do you do it?"
      Sometimes this is a "why" question, challenging my intelligence and rationality because — if there really is a conflict between science and faith — a logically consistent person should reject one or the other.
      But sometimes it's a genuine "how" question, asking how I cope with the disagreements (assumed by the questioner) between conclusions in science and statements in the Bible.  How can we reconcile science and scripture?  In fact, they cannot be "reconciled" because they cannot even be compared,  but — as explained in The Two Books of God (in nature and scripture) — we can reconcile our interpretations of nature (in science) with our interpretations of scripture (in theology).

The first part of this page — about The Myth of Warfare between Science and Religion, illustrated by two stories (about a flat earth and Galileo) that often are used in misleading ways — is part of a longer page about The Compatibility of Science and Christian Faith that contains these excerpts:

1. Science and Religion: Inherent Conflict and Warfare?

      What is the relationship between science and Christian religion?  One dramatic answer — antagonism and warfare! — ... is oversimplistic and inaccurate,... and is rejected by modern historians.  [for details, see the first part of this page, or click the "longer page" link above]

2. Science and Natural Process

      Sunshine warms our bodies, grows our food, and lets us see.  But why do we have sunshine?  It occurs because natural processes produce a balance between opposing forces... lasting billions of years. ...  How should Christians respond when we learn that natural process is "just right" for producing sunshine?  Should we be sad because sunshine occurs without God, who isn't necessary?  No.  Instead, we should rejoice, praising God for the wonderful way He created nature!  ...
      In the Bible, the actions of God are usually natural-appearing and occasionally miraculous-appearing.  Because natural process is the way God usually works, it is important for daily living and for science.
      In daily living,... Christians believe that God can change our situations and our thoughts and actions, and that He responds to prayer ... [and] provides us with the spiritual resources we need for living.  ... "natural" does not mean "without God" because God designed and created natural process, and continually sustains its operation;  and "natural" does not mean "without control" because God can guide natural process so one natural result occurs instead of another natural result.  ...
      In science, the main goal is to understand natural process... that God created.  This should increase our appreciation for the artistry in nature, since we know the artist, and add to the excitement of scientific discovery.  ...

3. Science and Miracles

      The Bible claims that God does miracles. ...[in full-length version, examples are listed]...  Does scientific logic indicate that rational people should reject Biblical reports of miracles?  No.  Why?
      First, science does not claim that miracles are impossible.  Although some scientists boldly declare the impossibility of miracles, they are merely stating their own opinions, not the conclusions of science.
      Second, miracles are compatible with the logical methods of science.  Science investigates the ways that God usually works.  To do science effectively we need a world that is usually natural, but it doesn't have to be always natural.  Science would be impossible if we lived in a world with constant "Alice in Wonderland" surprises and no reliable cause-effect relationships.  But if, despite occasional miracles, the universe usually operates according to normal natural patterns, science will be possible and useful.  In fact, the logic of science — which helps us recognize the patterns for how God usually works in nature — can let us recognize situations in which there seemed to be exceptions to these patterns, when perhaps a miracle occurred.
      Christians do not have to choose between science and miracles, because there is no conflict.  We can believe that science is a reliable source of knowledge about the world, and that miracles did occur in the Bible, do occur now, and might have occurred in the formative history of nature.

      There are two rational ways to view historical science and miracles.  Among scientists who are Christians, some support one approach and some think the other is better.
      In one approach,...
      In another approach,...
      With either approach [you can read about them in Methodological Naturalism: Can a Christian use it?], Christians can view science as a valuable resource that should be respected as an "expert witness" in our search for truth, but should not be the "judge and jury" when we're defining the way the world is, what is and isn't real, what can and cannot happen.

4. Science and Scientism

      We cannot compare scripture with science, but we can compare theology (interpretation of scripture) with science (interpretation of nature) while trying to search for truth.
      In theology, the main goal is to understand spiritual realities.  In science, the main goal is to understand physical realities.  But the main goals aren't the only goals, and our theories about spiritual and physical realities are interactive: theology affects science and our views of physical reality, while science affects theology and our views of spiritual reality. ... [for more about these relationships, read Wisely Using the Two Books of God -- and Loren Haarsma shares interesting ideas about Christianity as a Foundation for Science (Parts 1 & 2)]
      Confusion occurs when we don't distinguish between science and scientism.  Science has earned our trust because it has been useful for understanding many aspects of physical reality and for developing technology.  But when this trust is extended into areas where it is not justified, science becomes scientism, and this can lead us to wrong conclusions.

      There are two rational ways to view historical science and miracles. ...  Both approaches to science are compatible with Christian theism, but when either approach is combined with scientism the result can be naturism (an atheistic belief that nature is all that exists) or a weak theism, similar to deism.
      But these negative results are caused by scientism, not science.  When a Christian rejects scientism, but embraces science, the result can be stronger faith.  When science is used wisely, to help us answer only appropriate questions, we learn more about God's creation, and this gives us more reasons to glorify God.

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Here are some related pages:

The Compatibility of Science and Christian Faith

The Two Books of God (in scripture and nature),
pages by Craig Rusbult and other authors.

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People in all countries have questions
about interactions between science and religion,
so Karolin Lohmus has translated this page into Estonian.

Copyright © 2004 by Craig Rusbult
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