Science and Christianity:
Are they compatible?

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.

      Are you concerned about the spiritual effects of science?  If you learn and use science, will this weaken your faith? 
      The four sections in this page — Science and Religion at War, Science and Natural Process, Science and Miracles, Science and Scientism — look at Christian perspectives on science and nature.
      Another page examines another question — Is there a conflict between science and the Bible? — and explains why the answer is "no" because we cannot compare science and the Bible.  But we can compare different scientific theories (interpretations of nature) with different theological theories (interpretations of the Bible).

1. Science and Religion at War?

      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, they 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 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, page 10 of God and Nature, 1986)

      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 sloppy novelist and an atheistic scholar) invented a false story about "belief in a flat earth" that, in the 1870s, was popularized by Draper's book.  {flat-earth details}

• 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."  It was also influenced by the views of scientists, because "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" 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.
      One question is 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 the Bible?  This question is the main focus in another page, which explains why "science and the Bible" is a wrong question, and why — because perceived conflict is not actual conflict — we can have confidence in both of God's revelations, in scripture and nature.
      Another set of questions is more general, about the perceived difference between worldviews in science and Christianity.  These questions are examined in the rest of this page, which looks at views of natural process, miracles, and scientism.

For a quick overview, you can take advantage of a page with condensed versions of Sections 2-4.


      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 — which depend on the mass of particles, conversion of mass to energy (e = mc2), rate of nuclear reactions, and relative sizes of nuclear and gravitational forces — produce a balance between opposing forces.  The cosmic tug-of-war inside our sun has lasted billions of years, with some forces constantly pulling the sun's fiery atmosphere inward, while other forces are pushing it outward.  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!
      When we learn about the wonders of natural process, why do we sometimes respond with sadness instead of praise?  Is it because the normal operation of nature doesn't grab our attention?  Since a natural process (a normal-appearing process) is what we expect, we may not appreciate it.  We may take it for granted, and assume that natural process is just "what naturally happens" and it happens without God.  But in a Christian worldview, "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 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, God is constantly aware of what is happening, and He is caring for us.  Christians believe that God can change our situations and our thoughts and actions, and that He responds to prayer.  Usually, all of this happens in a way that appears normal and natural, yet God is actively involved.  We tend to ignore what God is doing when His actions are not obvious, but this is not a good way to view life.  Instead, in our worldview — in our "view of the world" that we use for living in the world — each of us should acknowledge the natural-appearing actions of God.  We should pray for these actions, and praise God for them.  This thankful awareness is an important part of the "living by faith" character that is highly valued by God, with a trust in God serving as the foundation for all thoughts and actions in daily living.
      God provides us with the spiritual resources we need for daily living, through a personal connection.  Jesus explains: "Remain united to me, and I will remain united to you.  A branch cannot bear fruit by itself; it can do so only if it remains in the vine.  In the same way you cannot bear fruit unless you remain in me.  I am the vine, and you are the branches. (John 15:4-5)"  And in his letters (Galatians 5:22-23, Colossians 1:9-11, Romans 12:2,...), Paul describes the spiritual support we receive from God, who supplies us with what we need (faith, hope, love, joy, courage, strength, peace, patience, kindness, mercy, humility, wisdom,...) for a full life.
      A foundation of Judeo-Christian theology is a belief that God responds to prayer, and He can change our situations.  The combining of divine action with human action is illustrated in Exodus 17:11, when Moses prayed on a hill above the field where Joshua was defending Israel against attack: "As long as Moses held up his hands [to ask for and receive God's power and blessing for Joshua's action] the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning."  Eventually, the combination of faithful prayer (by Moses) and faithful action (by Joshua) brought victory.  The experience of Moses and Joshua teaches an important principle:  God wants us to pray as if everything depended on Him, take responsible action (in line with His commandments) as if everything depended on us, and trust Him for the results of our living by faith.

      In science, the main goal is to understand natural process.  For a Christian, this means understanding what God has created.  A theistic perspective should increase our appreciation for the artistry in nature, since we know the artist, and it should add to the excitement of scientific discovery.
      One amazing discovery of scientists, in recent decades, is that many properties of the universe are "just right" for life.  To understand why scientists think the universe is fine-tuned to allow life, imagine that you are sitting in front of a control panel with dozens of dials.  To allow life, each dial — which controls one property of the universe — must be tuned to a specific setting within a very narrow range.  All dials must be properly tuned, if there is to be a universe with a wide variety of life-permitting phenomena that include stable atoms and molecules, the formation of stars which produce the energy and atoms needed for life, the amazing chemistry of water and DNA and proteins, and much more.
      "Wow!" is a rational response to the mountain of evidence for fine-tuned properties.  And the simplest causal theory is to propose that our universe was designed and created by an extremely intelligent and powerful designer/creator who wanted to make a universe in which natural process would allow sunshine and proteins.  A Christian will propose that God is responsible for this, due to his intelligent design of nature.


      3. Science and Miracles

      The Bible claims that God does miracles.  The Gospels and Acts describe miracles involving food, storms, fish, doors, and more, plus many healings and five resurrections.  There were also many miracles, including two resurrections, in the Old Testament.
      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 and philosophers who are Christians, some support one approach and some think the other is better.
      In one approach, a scientific explanation cannot propose any miraculous-appearing supernatural action in the current operation of nature or in the formative history of nature.  This methodological naturalism (MN) is the usual "working assumption" in science.  Because scientists who adopt MN are eliminating one possibility, logic requires that they should also adopt MN-Humility by recognizing that a non-naturalistic theory might be correct, so with MN they are making if-then claims:  when they accept a naturalistic theory, they are claiming that if a feature (an object, organism, system, event,...) was produced by natural process, then this is how it occurred.  But the "if" is an assumption, adopted while doing science, so there is a possibility of miracles even though MN-science isn't considering and evaluating this possibility.  Christians can view MN-Science as one aspect of an open search that considers all possibilities without imposing restrictions on theorizing.
      In another approach, proponents of open science claim that — based on a scientific evaluation of evidence, using the logical methods of historical science — scientists can recognize the occurrence of design.  Scientists could conclude that undirected natural process was not sufficient to produce a particular observed feature, that instead design-action was used to convert a design-idea into the reality of a designed feature.  Since design-action can be either natural (as in making a bird nest or the faces on Mount Rushmore) or supernatural (as in Biblical miracles), a theory of design does not propose that a miracle has occurred, but does acknowledge this as a possibility.  In open science, a scientist begins with an MN-assumption, but does not insist on ending with an MN-conclusion unless this is justified by the evidence.  An open-thinking scientist replaces rigid-MN (which requires a naturalistic conclusion) with testable-MN by treating MN as a theory that can be tested, not a conclusion that must be accepted.
      With either approach, 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

      This section is a combination of old and new:  It begins in 4A with ideas from two sections (Realities & Interpretations, and General Interactions between Theology and Science) in another page — about wisely using the two types of information provided by God, in scripture and nature — so you if you haven't read these sections already, you can read them now or use this brief summary:

      4AHere is a brief summary of important ideas from the two sections, Realities & Interpretations and General Interactions between Theology and Science:
      The sections begin with a diagram showing three levels (God, the realities of scripture and nature created by God, and interpretations by humans) that illustrate an important principle:  We cannot compare scripture with science, but we can compare theology (a fallible human interpretation of scripture) with science (a fallible human 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.
      As explained earlier in this page, Bible-based theology makes two major claims about physical reality.  First, instead of thinking "natural" means "without God," theists should see natural process as being designed and created by God, and perhaps guided by God.  Second, the Bible clearly teaches that — during the salvation history of humans — God acted in ways which appeared both normal and miraculous, so theists should seriously consider the possibility that — during the formative history of nature — God acted in ways which appeared both natural and miraculous.  These theological beliefs are compatible with science (so they are not unscientific), but cannot be derived from science (so they are nonscientific).
      In principle, science can reach no scientific conclusions about the ultimate source of natural process.  And scientists should be humble about their naturalistic theories, and should remain open to the possibility of miracles.  But in practice our views of reality can be influenced by our perceptions of science and by the personal views of scientists, such as Carl Sagan (who began Cosmos, his famous book, by claiming that "the Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be") and an organization of science educators (who declared that "natural" means "without God" when they described natural evolution as an "unsupervised" process).
      These claims about theology are not scientific conclusions, but they can exert an unhealthy spiritual influence on people who don't understand the difference between what science can and cannot logically conclude about theology.  Confusion occurs when we don't distinguish between science (our investigations of physical reality using observations, imagination, and logic) and scientism, which is "an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science... to provide a comprehensive unified picture of the meaning of the cosmos."  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.

      4BHere is an extension of the basic principles (summarized in 4A), showing two ways that scientism can lead people astray:
      As explained earlier, "there are two rational ways to view historical science and miracles," either by adopting methodological naturalism or by rejecting it.  Each approach to science is rational and is compatible with Christian theism.  But either approach, when combined with scientism, can lead to a rejection of theism.
      • If scientists adopt methodological naturalism, they should also adopt methodological humility.  But humility is often ignored, and "no miracles in science" becomes "no miracles in nature."  Similarly, "no God in scientific studies of natural process" can become "no God in natural process."  If God is not in miracles or natural process, a methodology of naturalism has become a theology of naturism, a belief that only nature exists.  But this conclusion is nonscientific and is based on illogical circular reasoning because it assumes "God is not in nature" in order to conclude "God is not in nature."
      • If scientists reject methodological naturalism and assume that scientific logic could let them recognize a miracle, and if they have never observed an event they are willing to call a miracle, they may claim that miracles don't occur.  This claim is questionable because — if God sometimes does miracles, but doesn't do them "on cue" for the purpose of scientific testing — a localized absence of evidence (for miracles) would not be evidence for a generalized absence of miracles.  Or a scientist might not be willing to acknowledge a miracle even if there was strong evidence.  { And if attention is too narrowly focused on detecting God's action in miracles, this may strengthen our human tendency to think that "if it isn't a miracle, then God didn't do it" and that "natural" means "without God," which is a theological error. }
      Thus, when either approach to science is combined with scientism, the result can be naturism, an atheistic belief that "the Cosmos is all that is."  Or the result of scientism can be a weak theism, similar to deism, with a belief that God's interactions with the world (either natural-appearing or miraculous-appearing) are weak and rare.  Other possible results include accepting a pantheistic view of the universe as "a unified whole that is God," or the agnostic unbelief (which may be temporary) of a seeker who sincerely wants to find truth, or the satisfied apathy of an agnostic who says "I don't know and I don't care."
      But each of these negative results is 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.

      As explained in The Logic of Science, the foundation of scientific logic is a reality check.  One way to reject scientism is to combine scientific reality checks with faith.  When we build and maintain a Christian worldview — a view of the world, used for living in the world — based on the Bible, we believe that reality includes what we see and also what we don't see.
      For example, a coroner might say, "During my 45 years of experience, I have observed that dead people always remain dead, they are never resurrected back to life, so (based on this scientific reality check) if you want to be scientific then you should reject Biblical claims for the resurrection of Jesus."  But this observation is not evidence against divine action, if God's common actions are not obvious and His obvious actions are not common.  During the history recorded in the Bible, many millions of people died, but only seven were brought back to life: two in the Old Testament (by Elijah & Elisha) and five in the New Testament (two by Jesus, one of Jesus, and by Peter & Paul).  Even though God's actions are occasionally miraculous, usually God chooses to act in ways that are natural, not miraculous.
      For most Christians, personal faith is confirmed by the evidence of personal experience.  We have evidence that God has been active in our lives, certainly in ways that appear natural, and perhaps also in ways that appear miraculous.  { Why don't we have unquestionable proof of God's existence and activity? }



      Guidance: What does God do?
      I claim that God "can change..." rather than "does change..." because although God can guide natural process, the frequency of such guidance (does it happen always, usually, seldom, or never) and the degree of control (is it partial or total, for situations, thoughts, and/or actions) are difficult theological questions that won't be examined here.  {more about Theistic Action}

      Why isn't God more obvious?
      Why is there any evidence — like a formative history with a general increase of biocomplexity and biodiversity, with features that give an appearance of common descent, and long delays (e.g., 3 billion years from the first life to the Cambrian Explosion) between major biostructural innovations — that might lead some rational people to propose "atheistic evolution" as an explanation?
      God may have designed the universe so all creation would occur by natural process.
      Or maybe "miracles in formative history" would be recognized if scientific theories were not being constructed in a community biased by its methodological assumption that everything has occurred by natural process.
      Or maybe a "veiling of miracles" during the creation process is one aspect of a state of uncertainty intended by God, who seems to prefer a balance of evidence, with enough logical reasons to either believe or disbelieve, so a person's heart and will can make the decision.  Each person can use evidence (historical, personal, and scientific) to estimate the plausibility of various worldviews, but there is no logically rigorous proof for any worldview.  Therefore, we have freedom to choose what we really want, and an opportunity to develop the "living by faith" character that is highly valued by God, with a trust in God serving as the foundation for all thoughts and actions in daily living.
      details: Can we prove God?

      Different Types of Interactions
      Many types of interactions (such as those outlined in Section 4) occur between theology, science, views of spiritual reality, and views of physical reality.  Some of the complexity is illustrated in three situations:
      If a theist believes that miracles occur, and decides to accept methodological naturalism in science, a theology (and its view of spiritual/physical reality) has affected his view of physical reality but not his science.
      If a theist believes that miracles occur, and decides to reject methodological naturalism, theology has affected her views of physical reality and scientific methods, and maybe (but not necessarily) her scientific conclusions.
      If a nontheist believes that miracles don't occur, but decides to reject methodological naturalism because miracles are logically possible and should be considered, theology (but not his own personal theology) has affected his view of scientific methods but not his view of physical reality.
      In addition, the methods and conclusions of science can be influenced by cultural-personal factors (psychological, practical, metaphysical, ideological, and authoritative) such as those studied by historians, sociologists, and psychologists.  Similarly, theology can be influenced by cultural-personal factors that vary from one culture to another, and change with time.

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This is part of a set of pages — about
Science-Christianity Relationships,
Whole-Person Christian Education,
and Scientific Methods — written for
a multi-author book project in 2004.

(with pages by many different authors)

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