There is no denying that there have been times when science and religion have been in conflict. Particularly in Western society, it appears that Science and the Christian faith are often pitted against one another.
Perhaps the widest known example of this conflict concerns Galileo. Galileo supported Copernicus’ claim that the earth revolved around the sun, whereas the Catholic Church at the time maintained that the sun revolved around the earth. Thus, Galileo, who was himself a Christian and believed his model of the solar system was consistent with his understanding of the Bible, was accused of promoting heresy. Galileo was put on trial, found guilty by the Inquisition, and lived out the remainder of his days living under house arrest (Langford, 1993).
Another prominent example would be the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. In this legal case, a Tennessee high school biology teacher named John Scopes was put on trial for teaching the theory of evolution. At that time, teaching the theory of evolution instead of the Christian concept of creation was in violation of Tennessee law. While this court case was actually between two branches of Christianity—fundamentalists vs. modernists—it became emblematic of the conflict between science and religion (Larson, 2006).
Since that time, these kinds of conflicts have received much media attention and have escalated to the point that many people assume science and religion are always at odds with each other. This perception has even made its way into popular literature and film. For example, Dan Brown’s book Angels and Demons used the conflict between science and religion as a major plot device (Brown, 2000). When director Ron Howard was turning the book into a movie, he referred to this conflict as “the age old struggle between science and religion” (Townley-Covert, 2009)
But is this true? Are science and religion always in conflict? The answer is no, they are not. Most times, there is no interaction between science and religion. When they do interact, they are usually complementary.
For example, the Old Testament books of Leviticus and Numbers supports modern medical science in that they contain several instructions regarding the quarantining of disease, the maintaining of personal hygiene, and the proper preparation of food (Numbers 11:8, Leviticus 13:47–58, New Revised Version). Likewise, modern science supports the book of Proverbs in linking a positive outlook with good mental and physical health (Proverbs 15:17, 17:22, New Revised Version).
Through much of history, the Christian Church employed the top scientists of the day and funded scientific progress. It was at the forefront of scientific discovery. According to sociologist Rodney Stark, author of The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, Western society progressed at a far greater pace than Eastern society specifically because of the influence of Judeo-Christian beliefs and values. While not a man of faith himself, Stark observed that instead of restricting scientific progress, faith promoted progress (Stark, 2005).
Sir John Polkinghorne, former professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University, believes science and religion are complementary. Polkinghorne argues in Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship that there are five points of comparison between the ways in which science and theology pursue truth: moments of enforced radical revision, a period of unresolved confusion, new synthesis and understanding, continued wrestling with unresolved problems, deeper implications (Polkinghorne, 2007).
So what about the high profile conflicts between science and religion that do exist? Those conflicts are the exception rather than the rule. Such conflicts are predominantly limited to areas such as the origin of the cosmos and evolutionary biology. Even in these cases, most of the conflicts deal with theoretical and not observable science. Other conflicts tend to be more ethical than scientific, such as the pursuit of embryonic stem cell research.
In reality, science and religion are seeking the same thing. They both strive to discover truth, whether it is spiritual truth or scientific truth. However, science and religion approach truth from different angles. For instance, Jews and Christians believe that understanding the world will help them understand the Creator. Scientists, on the other hand, seek to explore and understand the world with the hope that it will help people improve themselves and achieve technological advancement.
The methodologies employed are different, too. Science relies heavily on experimentation and observation, using the scientific method. Religion factors in an additional element: revelation. The revelation of God to humanity cannot be reproduced by experimentation, so it is beyond the ability of science to study it. Yet revelation is crucial to a faith-based understanding of the nature of the universe.
These differences in approach and methodology have sparked the occasional conflict. Yet science and religion are not mutually exclusive belief systems. A recent study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Pew Research Center found that 51% of scientists believe in some form of deity or higher power (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2009).
Yes, there are points of conflict between science and religion. Yet these conflicts do not demand that people choose one or the other. Science and faith can coexist and can even support each other, despite the occasional disagreement. What are your thoughts on this subject?
American Association for the Advancement of Science (2009). Discussion of the beliefs of scientists is based on a survey of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which partnered with the Pew Research Center on the survey.
Brown, D. (2000), Angels and Demons. New York, NY: Pocket Books.
Langford, J. (1993). Galieleo, Science and the Church. An Arbor, MI: Ann Arbor Paperbacks.
Larson, E. (2006), Summer for the Gods: And America’s Continuing Debate over Science And Religion. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Polkinghorne, J (2007). Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship, 15-22. New Haven and London: Yale University.
Stark, R. (2005). The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. New York, NY: Random House.
Townley-Covert, P. (2009). Are Science and Faith Enemies or Allies. Retrieved from the Organization Web site: http://www.assistnews.com/Stories/2009/s09090112.htm
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