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Are Science and Christianity Related?

When it comes up in conversations that I’ve studied science and religion, people often respond with some variation of “Aren’t those the opposite of each other?” The popular understanding is that Christianity and science don’t go together, that either they don’t overlap or they’re conflicting. While these are common notions in today’s culture, they’re not actually true. In this article, we’ll look at the interaction of science and Christianity and see how Christianity was critical to the foundation of modern science.

Science & Naturalism

When we first encounter the idea that science and religion are the opposite, we might first respond as Christian apologist Greg Koukl would by asking, “What do you mean by that?”1 or “Why do you think that?”2 We need to understand what is meant by “science” and “religion.” Let’s consider science first. 

Broadly speaking, science refers to the study of the natural and social realms. For this article, I will be looking specifically at the natural sciences. We should note there’s a difference between the methodology and philosophy of contemporary science. Methodological naturalism is the framework from which science operates today. It asserts that only natural or physical explanations are acceptable within science. And indeed, we don’t usually assume that God will supernaturally intervene when we’re conducting scientific investigations. Many things can be explained by natural causes. 

However, certain cases exist when these limits imposed on science can be just that — limiting. This happens when naturalistic methodology extends to naturalistic philosophy, meaning naturalism dictates the permissible conclusions. Biologist and geneticist Richard Lewontin expresses this view: 

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.3

In other words, only conclusions in line with naturalism are acceptable, even if such conclusions aren’t the best explanations of the evidence. 

But we see cases when such conclusions are insufficient, as in cases of first causes or origins. Big Bang cosmology, for instance, points to a singular point and time for the beginning of the universe and everything within it, suggesting a transcendent cause. Indeed, the evidence convinced philosopher and former atheist Antony Flew. He wrote, 

I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence. I believe that this Universe’s intrinsic laws manifest what scientists have called the Mind of God. I believe that life and reproduction originate in a divine Source. Why do I believe this, given that I expounded and defended atheism for more than half a century? The short answer is this: this is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science.

As we can see in Flew’s example, scientific discoveries can have positive implications for theism. 

Another related idea to keep in mind is scientism — the idea that science is the only way to discover truth. Notice that this is self-refuting, and self-refuting statements are false. That is, what scientific study led us to the conclusion that science is the only source of truth? None. Moreover, scientism fails to account for the presuppositions of science, which is a matter of philosophy.

Christian Faith

Next, let’s look at religion, specifically Christianity. In her research, sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund found that many scientists have a comprehensive understanding of science but a limited understanding of faith. She explains, in terms of “language codes,” that “although scientists have extraordinarily elaborate codes in some areas of their intellectual lives, when it comes to talking about matters of faith, they often have restricted code based on shorthand stereotypes.”4 A limited understanding of Christian faith may be true of our culture at large. 

We need to clear up what the Christian faith is. It’s not blind faith; rather, it’s confident trust. We have confident faith because we have good reason to think that Christianity is true. After all, God wants us to love him with all our minds (Matt. 22:37). Consider that when sharing the gospel, the apostle Paul often reasoned with people to persuade them of the truth (Acts 17:2-4). And testing to discern truth is a notable quality in Scripture (1 Thess. 5:19-22; Matt. 7:15-20; 1 John 4:1-3; Acts 17:10-12).

Science’s Foundation

Now, it was not always the case that people were surprised to hear of Christianity and science interacting together. In fact, it wasn’t until the turn of the twentieth century — largely due to the influence and works of Andrew Dickson White and John William Draper — that the perception of conflict between Christianity and science became widespread.5 So, to help clear up some misconceptions regarding the relationship between science and Christianity, let’s examine how they’ve interacted historically. We’ll find that the Judeo-Christian worldview was fundamental to the emergence and development of modern science. 

First, Christianity encouraged studying the natural world. Scripture informs us that nature is a reliable source of information, revealing God and truth (Ps. 19:1-4; Rom. 1:19-20). It was understood that God revealed himself in two ways: through the Bible (special revelation) and through the natural world (general or natural revelation). As God is the author of both the Bible and the natural world (Gen. 1:1; John 1:3; 2 Tim. 3:16), Scripture and nature could work together harmoniously. Scientific pursuits were then beneficial for increasing knowledge and glorifying God. 

The founders of modern science, like Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Robert Boyle, had this in mind throughout their scientific careers. Kepler said, “I strive to publish [my observations] in God’s honor who wishes to be recognized from the book of nature…. I had the intention of becoming a theologian…but now see how God is, by my endeavors, also glorified in astronomy.”6

Even some contemporary scientists are concluding that nature reveals God. Biochemist Fazale Rana shares, “Though I once embraced the evolutionary paradigm, its inadequate explanation for the origin of life coupled with the sophistication and complexity of the cell’s chemical systems convinced me as a biochemistry graduate student that a Creator must exist.”7 Rana came to believe in God from the design evident in nature.  

Moreover, while other cultures deified nature or believed matter to be illusory — preventing scientific investigation — the Judeo-Christian worldview says that an eternal, personal God created the world out of nothing (ex nihilo). The natural world was thus understood to be impersonal, an important step for the rise of scientific study. 

According to the Judeo-Christian worldview, nature follows regular or fixed patterns (Gen. 8:22; Jer. 33:20-21, 25-26) — a vital requirement for making scientific study possible. As C. S. Lewis put it, “Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator.”8 The universe exhibits a rational ordering and structure because it was created by a rational God. And since humans are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27), we’re rational beings, able to comprehend the ordering of the natural world. Kepler summarized this idea: “God wanted us to recognize them [i.e., mathematical natural laws] by creating us after his own image so that we could share in his own thoughts.”9 Therefore, Christianity accounts for nature’s intelligibility.

Further, the Christian understanding of humanity’s fallen nature and capacity for error contributed to the importance of careful testing and experimentation — significant qualities of the scientific method. The Judeo-Christian worldview provided the necessary soil for modern science to grow and flourish.

Cases of Conflict

But what of historical cases of apparent conflict between science and Christianity? Many of us are familiar with Nicolaus Copernicus’s heliocentric (sun-centered) model of the universe. This is a textbook example of the “war” between science and religion: Copernicus advocated a model that displaced mankind from its central location in the universe, which had previously paralleled humanity’s significance. Religious superstition, however, rejected science, and religious authorities attacked Copernicus and subsequent scientists like Galileo for holding to this model. 

However, when we look into this further, the popular perception turns out to be false. In the words of literary scholar Dennis Danielson, “The great Copernican cliché is premised upon an uncritical equation of geocentrism with anthropocentrism.”10 But the center of the universe, considered Earth’s location since Aristotle’s time, was not viewed as the place of supreme importance in the universe and wasn’t employed as an argument for humanity’s importance. Rather, “Earth in pre-Copernican cosmology was at the ‘bottom’ of the universe,” the lowest place where the heavy, gross things of the universe were collected.11

The outermost reaches of the cosmos were seen as the most honorable location; Galileo thought removing the Earth from the center of the universe exalted it.12 Copernicus personally saw harmony between the heliocentric design of the universe and Christianity. He was himself a church administrator, even dedicating his book to the Pope.13 Copernicus’s model wasn’t widely accepted in the sixteenth century because there was no convincing evidence or observational data to support it at the time.14 Overall, this isn’t a case of warfare between Christianity and science.

Closing Thoughts

In discussions of science and faith, we should first clarify what we mean by science and by Christian faith. The history of science reveals that the two have had positive, though sometimes complicated, interactions. Despite widespread notions of conflict between science and Christianity, the latter played a key role in modern science’s origin.

References

  1. This is known as the first Columbo question. Gregory Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, 10th ann. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 65.  ↩︎
  2. This is the second Columbo question. Koukl, Tactics, 80. ↩︎
  3. Richard C. Lewontin, “Billions and Billions of Demons,” New York Review, January 9, 1997, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1997/01/09/billions-and-billions-of-demons/.  ↩︎
  4. Elaine Howard Ecklund, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (New York: Oxford University, 2010), 27. ↩︎
  5. Stephen Jay Gould, Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine, 1999), 99-103. ↩︎
  6. Johannes Kepler, Letter to Michael Maestlin, October 3, 1595, quoted in Michael Newton Keas, Unbelievable: 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science and Religion (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2019), 157.  ↩︎
  7. Fazale Rana, The Cell’s Design: How Chemistry Reveals the Creator’s Artistry (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), 17.  ↩︎
  8. C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: HarperCollins, 1947), 169.  ↩︎
  9. Johannes Kepler, Letter to Herwart von Hohenburg, April 9/10, 1599, quoted in Keas, Unbelievable, 157.  ↩︎
  10. Dennis Danielson, “The Great Copernican Cliché,” American Journal of Physics 69, no. 10 (October 2001): 1030.  ↩︎
  11. Guillermo Gonzales and Jay Richards, The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2004), 226. ↩︎
  12. Gonzales and Richards, The Privileged Planet, 228, 239. ↩︎
  13. Keas, Unbelievable, 92. ↩︎
  14. David Lindberg, “Galileo, the Church, and the Cosmos,” in When Science & Christianity Meet, eds. David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2008), 37. ↩︎

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