The Supposed Warfare Between Christianity and Science

Thanks to the wonderful resource Christian Apologetics Alliance for this resource.

The following is an excerpt from Dr. Douglas Groothuis’ Christian Apologetics, chapter five, “Distortions of the Christian Worldview—Or the God I Don’t Believe In”.  It is posted with Dr. Groothuis’ gracious permission.  The pic is taken by friend Sarah Geis.

Photo credit: Sarah Geis

The Supposed Warfare Between Christianity and Science

Many object to Christianity on the basis that it is hostile to scientific progress.  Much has been made of the alleged “warfare between science and religion,” as if the forces of retrenchment and obscurantism (religion) were always hurling their ideological ordnance against the forces of reason, experimentation, and enlightenment (science).[1] This caricature has been kept alive by Richard Dawkins in his best-selling book, The God Delusion (2006). On this account, Christianity is reactionary and anti-science. But, on the other hand, if Christianity has contributed significantly to scientific betterment, then this would be of positive apologetic value.[2]

The relationship between Christianity and science is extensive and multifaceted. We will look at two areas of Christian response to science. The first response is historical: How has Christianity related to scientific discovery? The second is philosophical and theological: How does the Christian worldview address the nature of the universe and matters of scientific discovery?

The historical record is not one of unmitigated hostility of the church against science, resulting in science always claiming victory over benighted theological assertions. On the contrary, the Christian understanding of nature often inspired scientific research. As part of a long and fascinating research project concerning the relationship of Christian monotheism to Western history, sociologist Rodney Stark argues that the medieval Christian worldview provided a wellspring of intellectual resources for the development of science, technology, and commerce. He argues that the later achievements of the Scientific Revolution were not the results of “an eruption of secular thinking,” but were rather “the culmination of many centuries of systematic progress by medieval Scholastics, sustained by that uniquely Christian twelfth-century invention, the university.”[3] This development was rooted in the Christian belief that nature is rationally knowable and should be investigated and used for the common good and the glory of God.

Science only reached its glories in the Christian west during the Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when new discoveries were made in physics, astronomy, mathematics, and other sciences. This was due in part to the rejection of some of the inherited Roman Catholic ideas of nature held by the Church on the basis of its adoption of Aristotelian philosophy. For example, Francis Bacon and Blaise Pascal (both Christians) rejected certain a priori accounts of nature (strongly influenced by Aristotelianism) for a more experimental/empirical approach. Bacon developed an inductive approach to science (although he engaged in few experiments) and Pascal performed significant experiments concerning the vacuum, the behavior of fluids, and so on.[4] Other seminal scientific figures such as Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo held to a theistic worldview which encouraged the study and development of creation.[5] They did not view the Bible as inhibiting science, but as being compatible with the best investigations of nature.

Despite this record of harmony between religious commitment and scientific aspiration, there has been discord as well—although not to the degree that is usually assumed. Two examples of this discord were Galileo’s conflict with the Roman Catholic authorities and the infamous Huxley-Wilberforce debate over Darwinism. These icons of church-science warfare need to be knocked off the secularists’ trophy shelf.

Galileo, as noted, was a confessing Christian who discerned no discord between the Bible and natural science. He famously stated that the Scriptures tell us how to go to heaven, but not how the heavens go. By this, he meant that Scripture should not be pressed beyond what it was intended to communicate. He was not denying the truth of the Bible, but rather its misinterpretation. Galileo built on the Copernican heliocentric theory and confirmed it through telescopic observation. The church objected to Galileo’s theory more on the basis of their commitment to Aristotelian principles concerning nature than on a conflict between the Bible and new scientific findings. Further, Galileo was rather intemperate in his opinions and thereby left himself open to censure. He was placed under house arrest, but was not tortured or imprisoned in any cruel manner. Galileo’s mistreatment was certainly indefensible, but the whole sorry episode fails to represent any incorrigible conflict between the Bible and scientific progress.[6]

We will discuss Darwinism in detail in later chapters. However, one event is often invoked to demonstrate the futility of criticizing the essentials of Darwinism: the debate between Thomas Huxley (known as “Darwin’s bulldog”) and Samuel Wilberforce, an Anglican bishop. Occurring shortly after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, the debate came to be characterized as a rout for Huxley, who exposed the benighted clergyman as a buffoon through an especially apt one-liner. But the reality was quite different. The event caused very little controversy at the time, and was not written up in local papers until some time later. There was no consensus that Huxley was the victor. Wilberforce, who is usually dubbed as opposing Darwin for theological reasons alone, in fact, marshaled a scientific critique of his theory based on a previously written fifty page article. Far from forever banishing rational criticism of Darwinism, this debate revealed two capable intellects sparring over a very significant topic.

Having briefly looked at historical matters, we need to consider in more detail the intellectual reasons why the Christian worldview encouraged science in the middle ages and especially in the Scientific Revolution. The rise of science in the West is unique in world history. As Stark says:

Real science arose only once: in Europe. China, Islam, India, and ancient Greece     and Rome each had a highly developed alchemy. But only in Europe did alchemy    develop into chemistry. By the same token, many societies developed elaborate     systems of astrology, but only in Europe did astrology lead to astronomy. Why?[7]

The answer lies in the Christian West’s view of God, creation, and humanity. Unlike cultures elsewhere, “Christians developed science because they believed it could be done, and should be done.”[8] Philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead noted in Science and the Modern World that the medievalists insisted on “the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality.”[9]

The deities of other religions (outside of monotheism) were irrational and impersonal, and could not serve as the foundation for belief in an orderly and knowable creation. Lacking any creation of creation, these other cultures could only posit a universe that is, according to Stark, “a supreme mystery, inconsistent, unpredictable, and arbitrary. For those holding these religious premises, the path to wisdom is through meditation into mystical insights and there is no occasion to celebrate reason.”[10] But Christianity, on the contrary, “depicted God as a rational, responsive, dependable, and omnipotent being and the universe as his personal creation, thus having a rational, lawful, stable structure, awaiting human comprehension.”[11]

Although Islam affirms a doctrine of creation, its views of God and humanity are far different from Christianity. The God of Islam is an unknowable commander and humans are Allah’s slaves, not made in his image. Creation is controlled moment-by-moment by God’s arbitrary will, such that laws and processes cannot be discerned. Basic scientific theories are not discoverable, since they depend on natural regularities.[12] According to eminent historian and philosopher of science, Stanley Jaki Islamic thinkers –having assimilated Aristotle nearly wholesale—did not have a conception of God “adequately rational to inspire an effective distaste for various types of pantheistic, cyclic, animistic, and magical world pictures which freely made their way into the Rasa’l [an early Islamic encyclopedia of knowledge].”[13] While Christian thinkers believed in miracles, they deemed them as rare and as not interfering with the basic patterns of the natural order established by God himself.[14]

Kenneth Samples has aptly summarized ten ways in which Christian belief creates a hospitable environment for scientific inquiry.[15]

  1. The physical universe is an objective reality, which is ontologically distinct from the Creator (Genesis 1:1; John 1:1).
  2. The laws of nature exhibit order, pattern, and regularity, since they are established by an orderly God (Psalm 19:1-4).
  3. The laws of nature are uniform throughout the physical universe, since God created and providentially and sustains them.
  4. The physical universe is intelligible because God created us to know himself, ourselves, and the rest of creation. (Genesis 1-2; Proverbs 8).
  5. The world is good, valuable, and worthy of careful study, because it was created for a purpose by a perfectly good God (Genesis 1).  Humans, as the unique image bearers of God, were created to discern, discover, and develop the goodness of creation for the glory of God and human betterment through work. The creation mandate (Genesis 1:26-28) includes scientific activity.[16]
  6. Because the world is not divine and therefore not a proper object of worship, it can be an object of rational study and empirical observation.
  7. Human beings possess the ability to discover the universe’s intelligibility, since we are made in God’s image and have been placed on earth to develop its intrinsic possibilities.
  8. Because God did not reveal everything about nature, empirical investigation is necessary to discern the kind of patterns God laid down in creation.
  9. God encourages, even propels, science through his imperative to humans to take dominion over nature (Genesis 1:28).
  10. The intellectual virtues essential to carrying out the scientific enterprise (studiousness, honesty, integrity, humility, and courage) are part of God’s moral law (Exodus 20:1-17).[17]
While Christianity and science have had their scuffles, there is nothing inherent in the Christian worldview that is inimical to science rightly understood.  We will take the relationship of Christianity and science (particularly Darwinism) in more detail in several later chapters.

[1] Andrew D. White, The Warfare of Science and Religion (orig. pub. 1895; New York: George Braziller, 1955).

[2] See the apologetic criterion concerning human betterment in the chapter “Apologetic Method.”

[3] Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005), 12.

[4] For a brief account of Pascal’s philosophy of science, see Douglas Groothuis, On Pascal (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003). Bacon and Pascal were key players in the Scientific Revolution, but held different understandings of nature. Bacon was far more optimistic about human progress through science than was Pascal. See Douglas Groothuis, “Bacon and Pascal on Mastery Over Nature,” Research in Philosophy and Technology 14 (1994).

[5] Not all these thinkers held to an orthodox Christian view. Newton may have been an Arian. Nevertheless, they were religious people who held a theistic worldview and who did not deem science as antithetical to religious convictions.

[6] See Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 163-166.

[7] Stark, The Victory of Reason, 14.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Alfred North Whitehead, Science in the Modern World.

[10] Stark, Victory of Reason,15.

[11] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, 147.

[12] Ibid., 154-155.

[13] Stanely Jaki, The Savior of Science in Stark, Glory, 155-156.

[14] I will explain more of the biblical understanding and defense of miracle in an upcoming chapter.

[15] I have modified them somewhat, but within the spirit of what he wrote.

[16] On the significance and depth of the creation mandate, see Francis Nigel Lee, The Central Significance of Culture (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1976), chapter one.

[17] On the presuppositions of science, see also J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1987), 198-201

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