God and Science: Friends or Foes #1

09. God and Science #1 HistoryMuch ink has been spilled in recent decades expressing the increasingly popular opinion that science has disproved God. Since Darwin’s publication of the Origin of Species in 1859, science has become a tool employed to develop alternative explanations to the historical Christian teaching of the origins of the universe (cosmology, physics) and the origins and development of life on our planet (chemistry, biology). Certain wings of the Christian church have responded by fuelling the notion that science and God, as seemingly two disconnected sources of authority, are at war. But is this true?

CONFLICT MYTH

In his book, Where The Conflict Really Lies, prominent philosopher Alvin Plantinga argues that the conflict hypothesis is misplaced. The conflict is not between science (reason) and revelation (faith) as two means of gaining knowledge, rather it is between two interpretations of the data. Science is merely a tool for understanding how the universe works. The conflict lies deeper than the data, arising as a war between two competing worldviews or philosophical explanations—Theism and Naturalism. The question then becomes: has science disproved God?

Over the next three weeks I’ll be exploring three approaches to science (history, philosophy, results) to show that the conflict hypothesis between science and God is really a myth. Today, we’re starting with the history of science.

RELIGION REPRESSES SCIENCE: A Popular Tale

Antagonists of Christianity are quick to point to two key moments of perceived conflict between religious authority (Bible/Church) and the freedom of scientific enquiry; (1) the Galileo v Catholic Church controversy in the 17th century over astronomy and cosmology (Geocentric v Heliocentric Solar System); and (2) The Thomas Huxley v Bishop Samuel Wilberforce Great Oxford Debate in 1860 on chemistry and biology (Creation v Evolution). A cursory reading of these events, especially as they are rehearsed in modern critiques of Christianity, can lend to the conflict myth that God and science are foes. As with most recitations of history, however, the reality is always more complex, and there are often more sides to the story.

The Copernican revolution in astronomy confronted not first the Church or even the Bible’s authority, but rather the convictions of Ptolemaic and Aristotelian philosophers in the 16th and 17th centuries. Galileo’s discoveries supporting Copernicus’ new heliocentric paradigm threatened the prevailing philosophy of the day, not theology. The Catholic Church’s censures and tentative condemnation of his publications as heretical stemmed from their unwillingness to question the prevailing scientific paradigm of the day. Sense the irony? If the Catholic Church should be lambasted for anything, it should be for tying its cart too quickly to the wrong scientific horse and then interpreting the language of Scripture in light of the theory. It should also be mentioned that the personal temperament of the cardinals and of Galileo himself did much to fuel the conflict.

Far from being a showdown between science (Huxley) and religion (Wilberforce), the Oxford Evolution debate (1860) had nothing to do with religious condemnation of Darwin’s theory. Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, although often made out to be the religious fool slain by the brilliant scientist, made his critique of Darwin’s theory solely on scientific grounds. The arguments Wilberforce laid out were themselves recorded in a tract given to Darwin, who, in response to the critique, conceded that Wilberforce’s publication was uncommonly clever in identifying all his weak points. A media anecdote from the debate concluded that each man had found his match in steel. As history turns out, religious figures can also be brilliant scientists.

CHRISTIANITY FOSTERS SCIENCE: Monotheism and the Rise of Science

In fact, getting past the sort of conflict myth perpetuated by sceptical historians like Richard Carrier, a more nuanced history of science, as ratified by Christian and secular scholars alike, presents a radically different conclusion.[1] Although most concede that ancient oriental, Greek, Egyptian, and Roman cultures shared some advances in what could be described as modern science (though often mingled with pagan mysticism), it was European culture towards the end of the Middle Ages that saw the seeds of science planted and watered so as to flourish. Why? The Christian worldview dominated European thought at the time. Many of the fathers of modern scientific fields—Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Blaisé Pascal, Robert Boyle, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton—all considered their religious faith as the driver for their endeavours. For them this was no mere correlation that their faith and science coincided. Rather, their faith served as the causation for their study of God’s creation. In discovering the natural laws that govern the universe, Kepler considered himself to be “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.”

Today many brilliant scientists share this conviction. Whether John Lennox, Francis Collins, Gerhard Ertl, or John Polkinghorne, Nobel laureates and brilliant scientists in nearly every field testify that they find the impulse for their science stemming from God’s commands and their confidence in the results stemming from God’s creation. As to what I mean by that, tune in to next week’s blog on the philosophy of science!

Dan Paterson is director of operations at Traverse, and a Pastor at Ashgrove Baptist Church.


[1] Cf. James Hannam; A N Whitehead; Joseph Needham for cross-section of historians of science.

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