The Misconception of Science Versus Religion: A Defense of the Harmony of Science and Christianity

We don’t have to search for long to find that a heated argument exists between atheists and theists on the topic of science and religion, and specifically, the relationship between the two, as is evident in the following quotes. On the one hand Christopher Hitchens (2007) insists that “Religion poisons everything” (p. 13), and Richard Dawkins (2006) invites us to “Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion” (p. 1), and argues that God is a “pernicious delusion” (p. 31), while Peter Atkins states that “Science and religion cannot be reconciled” (Cornwell, 1995, p. 132). On the other hand John Lennox (2009) declares that “the real battle is not so much between science and faith in God, but rather between a materialistic, or more broadly, a naturalistic worldview and a supernaturalistic, or theistic, worldview” (p. 36), and Sir Ghillean Prance states that “‘For many years I have believed that God is the great designer behind all nature . . . All my studies in science since then have confirmed my faith. I regard the Bible as my principal source of authority’” (as cited in Lennox, 2009, p. 19-20). Ultimately, these diverging frameworks can never and will never reach the same convergence point. However, this is not because “science and religion cannot be reconciled” (Cornwell, 1995, p. 132), but rather because these worldviews have contrary absolutes in regards to the limits of science, for Christianity and science are reconciled systematically and historically.

Before we go any further, the question must be asked: what is science? The American Heritage Dictionary defines science as “The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena.” (Morris, 1976, p. 1162). This is simple enough, but things get significantly more complicated when we start looking at differing views of what science can and cannot do. Just as there is an argument about science and religion, so there is an argument about the limits of science. Atheists say that there is no limit to what science can do. For example, Atkins says that “There is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence” (Cornwell, 1995, p. 125), and Bertrand Russell says that “Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know” (Russell, 1970, p. 243). Their absolute is that science is the answer to all things. On the contrary, Christians would argue that the limit of science is questions of what, why, and how, agreeing, as Lennox (2009, p. 42) does with Medawar, (1984) that

The existence of a limit to science is, however, made clear by its inability to answer childlike, elementary questions having to do with first and last things – question such as: “How did everything begin?”; “What are we all here for?”; “What is the point of living?”. (p. 66)

The Christian absolute in regards to the limit of science is that science cannot answer all things.

My point, however, is not to get into a detailed discussion about this argument, for, as I said, these worldviews cannot be reconciled. My point is rather to set the groundwork for asking an important question: Does the fact that Christians believe that science is limited by its inability to answer these childlike, philosophical questions mean that Christians are impeding scientific progress and as Philip Kitcher (1984, p. 4) would argue, abusing science? When we look at history around the time of the Scientific Revolution, as we will do, it is notable that the very rise of modern science, if not the direct result of Christianity, was heavily influenced by the Christian framework. Historical evidence about Christian scientists past and present is a clear witness against the belief held by many non-Christian scholars that science and Christianity are diametrically opposed, and historical events like the Huxley and Wilberforce debate, and incidents that occurred between Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church, commonly used to support this notion, are “Myths of conflict” (Lennox, 2009, p. 23). All of these things, in addition to the logic of Christianity, prove that this view is not true, but merely a misconception.

My main reasons for arguing against this misconception are in hopes of defending Christianity as it relates to science, and also that both Christians and non-Christians alike will at least acknowledge the positive influence that Christianity has had on science in the past and has on science now. I am not advocating that any other religion reconciles science, except the ecumenical Christian faith. In fact, I agree with many of Hitchens’ (2007) statements about religion, and if he were to reshape his statement that “religion poisons everything” (p. 13) and say instead that false religions poison, I and many others would say “Amen.” Yet, by his statement, he treats Christianity the same as any other religion like Islam or Hinduism. But the Christian religion is completely separate from these religions, and regards them as false. Christians do not believe as Muslim’s in a law that takes “justice” into its own hands, nor as Hindus that “the everyday world of material objects is maya, illusion” (Pearcey & Thaxton, 1994, p. 22). Likewise, even if Atkins rephrased his statement and said that science and false religions cannot be reconciled, Christians would heartily agree. But his assertion stands, and ignores the Christian faith, which, by its nature, is in harmony with science, removing all superstition and holding not only that a triune God created the world, but that he created us in his image as rational beings for a purpose, and works providentially, powerfully “preserving and governing all his creatures; ordering them, and all their actions, to his own glory.” (Confession of Faith, 1979, p. 54). This belief in a God who created all things and holds them all to together, and also that we are all made in the image of God, and called, as the Scripture says in the book of Genesis, to take dominion over the world and imitate God’s creations, is the impetus that drives and motivates Christians to explore the world and vigorously pursue scientific study, assuming that the universe is orderly, and that there is a purpose for everything. The logic of the Christian religion, because of the way it portrays God, human beings, and the world, is reconciled to science.

In relation to the above paragraph and what needs to be addressed now is an argument made by Dawkins against Christianity that doesn’t hold any water. Dawkins argues that while “‘scientific belief is based upon publicly checkable evidence, religious faith not only lacks evidence; its independence from evidence is its joy, shouted from the rooftops’” (as cited in Lennox, 2009, p. 16). But where is the evidence for this claim? The Scriptures do not support Dawkin’s conclusion, and therefore Christians do not support his conclusion. Lennox (2009) argues that,

It is no part of the Biblical view that things should be believed where there is no evidence. Just as in science, faith, reason, and evidence belong together. Dawkin’s definition of faith as ‘blind faith’ turns out, therefore, to be the exact opposite of the Biblical one. (p. 16-17)

In addition, Christians, as the above quote supports and as Richard Swinburne (1996), do not postulate a “‘God of the gaps’, a god merely to explain things that science has not yet explained” (p. 68), but we postulate “a God to explain why science explains” (p. 68). The fact that Christians come to science with philosophical presuppositions about God and the world does not give anyone the right to make false and unwarranted conclusions about what the majority of Christians believe. Neither, according to a traditional definition of science, like the one mentioned above, is it unscientific to believe things that cannot be defined or proved right or wrong within the realm of science. Even atheists come to science with presuppositions. For example, George Klein (1990) writes: “I am not an agnostic. I am an atheist. My attitude is not based on science, but rather on faith . . . The absence of a Creator, the non-existence of God is my childhood faith, my adult belief, unshakable and holy.” (p. 203), and Richard Lewontin says: “‘Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural’” (as cited in Lennox, 2009, p. 35), and in addition writes that “‘materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine foot in the door’” (p. 36). All of these presuppositions, not fully backed by science, support the argument that science is not the answer to everything, and unless there is clear evidence, whether scientific, historical, etc., that disproves an accepted paradigm or belief, we should not go around calling other people’s beliefs unscientific. In all seriousness, to do so would be unscientific. Now let’s take a look a history.

In order to gain a dignified perspective, we must start at the beginning of what we now know as modern science. As Schaeffer (1976) notes in his book, the rise of modern science can be dated back to the lives of Copernicus and Vesalius (p. 130). Schaeffer (1976) declares that, although exceptions existed, the mentality of “medieval science was based on authority rather than observation” (p. 131), as is the foundational mindset of modern science, which was “laid at Oxford when scholars attacked Thomas Aquinas’s teaching by proving that his chief authority, Aristotle, made certain mistakes about natural phenomena.” (p. 131). Here it is crucial to note that Roger Bacon and Robert Grosseteste, who were both Christians, were a part of this group of Oxford scholars, and, to quote Schaeffer (1976) again, Grosseteste was the “most important man . . . who laid the philosophical foundations for a departure from Aristotelian science.” (p. 131). As these freshly laid philosophical foundations solidified overtime, experimentation and observation grew deeper roots, so allowing true science to develop and flourish.

The emphasis here is on the Christians who challenged Aristotelian principles. Clearly they played some role in encouraging and provoking the rise of modern science. And numerous scholars, both Christian and non-Christian, defend this position. Take, for example, Alfred North Whitehead and J Robert Oppenheimer who “stressed that modern science was born out of the Christian world view” (Schaeffer, 1976, p. 132), and to Schaeffer’s (1976) knowledge, were not Christians (p. 132). Lennox (2009) asserts that “at the heart of all science lies the conviction that the universe is orderly. Without this deep conviction science would not be possible.” (p. 20). And Melvin Calvin (1969) says that he found this conviction “enunciated first in the Western world by the Ancient Hebrews: namely that the universe is governed by a single God . . . .” (p. 258), and he declares that “this monotheistic view seems to be the historical foundation for modern science” (p. 258). As is evident by the work of these scholars, the research here is abundant. Clearly, the view that science and religion are at war is not true with respect to Christianity, but on the contrary, the relationship between science and Christianity seems to be characterized by fruitful peace.

This conviction that Christianity has provoked and encouraged the rise of modern science is not backed only by the views of the respectable scholars mentioned above, but also by the lives of numerous reputable scientists past and present who have sought and succeeded in developing and furthering scientific study and progress. For instance, James Clerk Maxwell wrote, quoting scripture, ‘Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them’ (as cited in Lennox, 2009, p. 51), Francis Bacon, as Schaeffer (1976) makes clear, confessed the Christian doctrine of the fall of man into sin (p. 134), and believed that science was a way of repairing life and taking dominion over the earth (p. 134, 140-142). In addition, Johannes Kepler wrote that he gave thanks to the “‘Creator and God’” (as cited in Pearcey & Thaxton, 1994, p. 23) who called him to his work, and Copernicus believed that “the universe was ‘wrought for us by a supremely good and orderly Creator’” (Pearcey & Thaxton, 1994, p. 25). Many other scientists like Isaac Newton held to this Christian worldview, and Schaeffer (1976) writes that,

Indeed, the majority of those who founded modern science, from Copernicus to Maxwell, were functioning on a Christian base. Many of them were personally Christians, but even those who were not, were living within the thought forms brought forth by Christianity . . . . . (p. 138)

Likewise, present day scientists like Lennox (2009) in his book God’s Undertaker, John Polkinghorne (1989) in his book Science and Providence: God’s Interaction with the World, and J. L.Wile (2001) in his book Reasonable Faith: The Scientific Case for Christianity, all defend the Christian worldview. Others who hold this view are Fellows of the Royal Society of London like Sir Ghillean Prance, who was mentioned earlier, and John Houghton, who wrote “Our science is God’s science. He holds the responsibility for the whole scientific story . . . .” (Houghton, 1995, p. 59). Thus, Christians are not alone in viewing that their worldview encouraged the rise of modern science, and heartens scientists today to pursue scientific development; history supports them.

And now we come to two historical accounts that are commonly used to strengthen the idea that science and religion are at war (Lennox, 2009, p. 23). The first account took place between Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church. Galileo, who was, as Lennox (2009) notes (p. 24), a Christian, challenged the authority of the “Roman Catholic Church, which had, in common with almost everyone else at the time, embraced Aristotelianism . . . .” (p. 25). Without getting into much detail, a short answer to certain questions about this account is that the problem was not Christianity versus science, but rather Christianity and true science against a church that was not living according to Biblical principles.

Likewise, the second account, the Huxley Wilberforce debate, was not a battle between science and religion, but rather a debate about the Darwin’s The Origin of Species that, as Samuel Wilberforce declared he and others objected to “‘solely on scientific grounds’” (as cited in Lennox, 2009, p. 27). And, contrary to what people like Kitcher (1984) may think, Bishop Wilberforce was not vanquished by “Thomas Henry Huxley, ‘Darwin’s bulldog’” (p. 1). Historian Frank James declares “‘Had Wilberforce not been so unpopular in Oxford, he would have carried the day and not Huxley’” (as cited in Lennox, 2009, p. 27), to which Lennox (2009) responded, “Shades of Galileo” (p. 27)! Neither, as Lennox (2009) states, was Wilberforce an “ignoramus. A month after the historic meeting in question, he published a 50-page review of Darwin’s work (in the Quarterly Review), which Darwin regarded as ‘uncommonly clever; it picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts, and brings forward well all the difficulties’” (as cited in Lennox, 2009, p. 26-27), (p. 26-27). This goes to show that popular impression does not always signify truth.

On a side note, it is remarkable that before the word scientist was created in 1834, early scientists were likely to be called “churchman. Especially in the English countryside, the parson-naturalist was a common figure.” (Pearcey & Thaxton, 1994, p. 19). Please understand here that I am not arguing that good science can only be done by Christians, for, as Lennox (2009) states, it would be “false to deny that good science can be done by scientists committed to materialistic or naturalistic assumptions” (p. 36). Science is science, and as long as people are being scientific, their science worked out, as Lennox (2009) says of atheists, and which I believe can be applied to other religious groups, “will lead to the same results as science done on theistic presuppositions” (p. 36-37).

While I cannot get into all the details of history, hopefully what I have shown is enough to substantiate the claim that Christianity is reconciled to science historically. To this effect, I would like to include one final quote by historian Colin Russell, who concludes that,

The common belief that . . . the actual relations between religion and science over the last few centuries have been marked by deep and enduring hostility . . . is not only historically inaccurate, but actually a caricature so grotesque that what needs to be explained is how it could possibly have achieved any degree of respectability. (as cited in Lennox, 2009, p. 28)

In conclusion, Dawkins, Hitchens, Atkins, and anyone for that matter, have little reason to not believe that Christianity, instead of being a belief hostile to science, has been a stimulus for scientific growth. Scholars have argued such, and Christian scientists past and present support this stance. Christianity, at its foundation, destroys superstition and, as we have seen, motivates hard work in the field of science. So if somebody tells you that science and religion are at war with each other, please tell them the following. Science is indeed at war with many religions, but Christianity is reconciled to science systematically and historically. There is so much more that could be said, and if I had the time and space, I would argue that Christianity is the only religion that is reconciled to science, but let my first claim suffice.

References

Calvin, M. (1969). Chemical evolution. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Confession of Faith, and Larger Catechism, Shorter Catechism, Directory for Public Worship, Presbyterial Church Government. (1979). Edinburgh, UK: William Blackwood & Sons

Cornwell, J. (Ed.). (1995). Nature’s imagination: The frontiers of scientific vision. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Dawkins, R. (2006). The God delusion. Boston, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Hitchens, C. (2007). God is not great: How religion poisons everything. Boston, MA: Twelve.

Houghton, J. (1995). The search for God: Can science help?. Oxford, UK: Lion.

Kitcher, P. (1984). Abusing science: The case against Creationism. Cambridge, MA & London, UK: The MIT Press.

Klein, G. (1990). The atheist in the holy city. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lennox, C. J. (2009). God’s undertaker: Has science buried God?. Oxford, UK: Lion Books.

Medawar, P. (1984). The limits of science. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Morris, W. (1976). The American heritage dictionary of the English language (New College ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Pearcey, R. N., & Thaxton, B. C. (1994). The Soul of Science: Christian faith and natural philosophy. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

Polkinghorne, J. (1989). Science and providence: God’s interaction with the world. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Russell, B. (1970). Religion and science. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Schaeffer, A. F. (1976). How should we then live?: The rise and decline of Western thought and culture. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company.

Swinburne, R. (1996). Is there a God?. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Wile, L. J. (2001). Reasonable faith: The scientific case for Christianity. Anderson, IN: Apologia Educational Ministries, Inc.

Advertisements

One thought on “The Misconception of Science Versus Religion: A Defense of the Harmony of Science and Christianity

  1. Peter

    Really solid stuff here! Let’s bury this unscientific claim that experimental observations hold the only key to metaphysical truth, or that physics and metaphysics are really the same. Nice summary of the Lennox/Thaxton arguments. I think the key point to hold is that embedded within historic Christianity was the possibility of something like Modern Science. And it appears to be a substantial historical thesis that Christianity also watered the grounds for several centuries. But I think it is also OK if we admit some past and present tensions. The Church is learning too, and sometimes she makes mistakes.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s