Christianity and Science

Conventional wisdom has it that there is interminable conflict between Christianity and science, that the two are irreconcilable. The conflict thesis—as this idea is called—was touted in two widely influential books written in the second half of the 19th century:  History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) by John William Draper and History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) by Andrew Dickson White. Draper, for instance, wrote:

The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other.[1]

The tale goes something like this: The theoretical foundations for science were laid by the ancient Greeks when they began the project of seeking natural explanations for natural phenomena instead of resorting to explanations involving the activity of the gods. Thales of Miletus (c. 620-546 b.c.) is often credited with being the first to systematically take this approach and has therefore been dubbed “the Father of Science.”[2] Subsequently the Greeks made a number of very promising advances in scientific knowledge. They discovered the shape of the earth and estimated its size; mapped the stars to mark the seasons for agricultural purposes;[3] figured out how levers and pulleys work; invented geometry and trigonometry; discovered the numerical relationships between musical notes; studied human anatomy and charted the progress of various ailments; etc. Many of these advances were built upon by the Romans and progress ever upward seemed inevitable.[4] But then Christianity happened. In the words of Daniel Boorstin,

Christianity conquered the Roman Empire and most of Europe. Then we observe a Europe-wide phenomenon of scholarly amnesia, which afflicted the continent from a.d. 300 to at least 1300. During those centuries Christian faith and dogma suppressed the useful image of the world that had been so slowly, so painfully, and so scrupulously drawn by ancient geographers.[5]

He writes this in a chapter entitled “The Prison of Christian Dogma,” and although he references geography in particular, he sees the Christian faith as having a retrograde influence over the other sciences as well. He refers to the whole period of a.d. 300-1300 as “the Great Interruption,”[6] a prolonged hiatus from any meaningful scientific activity and progress. Others refer to the period, or at least a portion of it, as the Dark Ages, so called because the scientific discoveries of the past were forgotten and new discoveries were discouraged because: (1) devotion to the pursuit of anything other than the well-being of one’s soul might imperil its eternal bliss, and (2) the discoveries of science tend to contradict the picture of the world as it is drawn in the Bible and thereby undermine the very foundations of the faith. The history of science during this period (we are told) is a narrative complete with lurid accounts of brave scientists facing persecution, torture, and death as they stood fast against the obscurantist forces of Christian dogma.

While the conflict thesis remains widely accepted in the general population, pushed by critics of religion who have an ideological ax to grind,[7] the thesis does not stand up to historical scrutiny. “The ‘conflict model…has been rejected by every modern historian of science; it does not portray the historical situation… Popular tales of repression and conflict are at best oversimplified or exaggerated, and at worst folklorist fabrications.”[8]

There was indeed a brief pause of sorts in the cultural development of the West (including science) beginning in the late fifth century, however this was not due to the spread of the Christian faith, but to the fall of the Roman Empire (a.d. 476) and the loss of the social stability it provided. As Lindberg observes,

Western Europe went through a process of deurbanization; the classical schools deteriorated, and leadership in the promotion of literacy and learning passed to monasteries where a thin version of the classical tradition survived as the handmaiden of religion and theology. Certainly the focus on scientific subjects declined, as the focus shifted to religious or ecclesiastical matters:  biblical interpretation, religious history, church governance, and the development of Christian doctrine. But it does not follow that scientific subjects were abandoned or scientific books were burnt.[9]

It took time for a cultural recovery to take place, and for a while Europe lagged behind the Byzantine East and the Arabic world, but it eventually caught up and surpassed both. Lindberg reviews the impressive scientific accomplishments of the medieval west, accomplishments that would hardly have been possible if the conflict thesis was accurate.[10] While there were isolated episodes of conflict between churchmen and scientists, there was no hostile attitude toward science per se. And for good reason: there is nothing inherent within the Christian faith that tends to discourage scientific endeavor, and nothing inherent in science that is inimical to Christianity. Some of the most outstanding scientists in history—in both medieval and modern times—have also been devout Christians.[11] Conflicts only arise when either Scripture or the scientific data is erroneously interpreted.[12] Scripture, properly understood, will never conflict with the scientific data, properly understood.

But we must do more than simply deny any inherent conflict between Christianity and science; we must affirm that the cultural mandate requires something like the development of the scientific enterprise. This is implicit in the call to “subdue” the earth and “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). This means the development of animal husbandry and agriculture. It means exploring and mapping the world, including the oceans and outer space. It means seeking to understand the composition of atoms; mapping the human genome; studying diseases and finding cures; applying scientific knowledge in the development of new technologies; and so forth.

Of course, not everyone will be equally involved in scientific work. Just as there are varieties of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:4), so there are varieties of vocations. As God calls some to be farmers and others to be mechanics, some to be scholars and others to be software designers, some to devote themselves to healing arts and others to be teachers or soldiers or homemakers or engineers; so he also calls some to the pursuit of scientific endeavors.

[1] John William Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, Kindle edition, Location 32. Gregory Dawes has written, “Draper’s history has been rightly criticized, for its sweeping generalisation, oversimplifications and outright errors.” Galileo and the Conflict Between Religion and Science (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016), p. 4.
[2] Gordon Clark has written, “Greek philosophy began on May 28, 585 b.c. at six-thirteen in the evening.” He calls this claim partly serious and partly facetious. He made the claim because this was the precise moment that an eclipse of the sun occurred that had been predicted by Thales. “Records of celestial phenomena had been kept for centuries by the Eastern sages, but now for the first time Thales had discerned a regularity in the these occurrences, had formulated a law, and had tested his formulation by a successful prediction. Together with Thales’ other speculations this is called philosophy. It had not existed previously.” Gordon Clark, Thales to Dewey (Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1985), pp. 3, 5-6. What we now commonly call science used to be called natural philosophy.
[3] Gen. 1:14, “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And them be for signs and seasons, for days and years.” See also Hesiod’s Works and Days, especially lines 383-640, where he admonishes his brother Perses to track the constellations to determine the proper times for planting, harvesting, and sailing.
[4] For a detailed account, see David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosoophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450 (Chicago, IL:  University of Chicago Press, 2007), chapters 2-7
[5] Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers:  A History of Man’s search to Know His World and Himself (New York, NY:  Random House, Inc. 1983), p. 100
[6] Ibid, p. 102
[7] I have in mind atheists like Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, Michel Onfray in The Atheist Manifesto, and Christopher Hitchens in god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
[8] Lawrence Principe, The Scientific Revolution:  A Very Short Introduction, cited in Joshua M. Moritz, Science and Religion: Beyond Warfare and Toward Understanding (Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, Christian Brothers Publications, 2016), p. 11.
[9] David Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science, p. 194
[10] Ibid, chapters 9-14; see also Morris Bishop, The Middle Ages (New York, NY:  Mariner Books, 2001), pp. 252-255; and for technological advances in the Middle Ages, see Lynn White Jr., Medieval Technology & Social Change (New York, NY:  Oxford University Press, 1962)
[11] Here is a very incomplete list: Copernicus (1473-1543); Bacon (1561-1626); Galileo (1564-1642); Kepler (1571-1630); Pascal (1623-1662); Boyle (1627-1691); Newton (1642-1727); Linnaeus (1707-1778); Cuvier (1769-1832); Faraday (1791-1867); Mendel (1822-1884); Pasteur (1822-1895); Kelvin (1824-1907); Maxwell (1831-1879); Francis Collins (1950-); etc.
[12] An example of a misinterpretation of Scripture: “The Bible speaks in terms of the sun rising and setting (e.g., Mal. 1:11), therefore the earth is stationary and the sun revolves around the earth.” Scripture often speaks—even as we more scientifically educated moderns do—phenomenologically (i.e., according to appearances).
An example of a misinterpretation of scientific data: “Evolution occurs at the micro level (variation within species) by means of natural selection, therefore we are warranted to conclude the same process takes place at the macro level, too (i.e., giving rise to entirely new species).” This is an unjustified extrapolation from the available evidence. Micro and macro evolution are quite dissimilar at a key point: variation within a species requires no new genetic information, while the development of a new species does.


Great article, Doug! Two questions came to mind while I was reading your post: What time is tomorrow's sunrise? What time is tomorrow's sunset? LOL
Doug Enick said…
Ha, ha! Precisely!

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