Science and Religion: A Review Essay

As a child the subject I found most interesting was the natural and physical sciences. Sunday evenings were often dedicated to sitting in front of the television marveling at the entertaining experiments on Newton’s Apple and the elaborate habitats of myriad creatures on Nature. Often I found myself, against my parents wishes, wanting to spend another hour watching Nova explore the vast expanse of the universe, but bedtime was past due. In elementary school we took six weeks to study the anatomy of the human body and were assigned projects to study a favorite animal (mine was the wolf). I always found the digestive system to be absolutely fascinating. Yet every encounter with deep scientific questions were met with deeper questions about the origin of humanity, the age of earth, and how the book of Genesis fit into it all.

Being raised in a conservative religious home in a culture of evolution made for a protective mindset that was adversarial to the public education of biological sciences. Soon the intriguing questions of science became overwhelmed by the dread of a conflict that lingered in the background that seemed irreconcilable: science and religion are at odds, hopelessly at war with one another with no chance for peace. You must choose between one or the other. Though I was not a good Protestant since sola Scriptura didn’t mean very much to me (I never read the Bible much growing up), my scientific curiosities were stifled by the unsettling belief that science left no room for God; that its hostilities towards the supernatural left my cherished beliefs labeled derisively as “creationist.” Why would I want to be a part of that?

Naturally, when I came across the writings of Phillip E. Johnson I felt a sense of intellectual liberation in that I did not have to submit to an a priori commitment to metaphysical naturalism to think scientifically. But there still lingered a feeling of discontent as I surveyed the carnage from the warfare between religion and science perpetuated by the ongoing controversies between “Darwinism” and “Intelligent Design” evidenced currently in Ben Stein’s new movie Expelled. It seems as the cycle of violence will continue as long as advocates of intelligent design try to wedge their ideas into school curriculums and the so-called “new atheists” publish scorching treatises against religion entitled The End of Faith, The God Delusion, Breaking the Spell, and God: The Failed Hypothesis. At some point, after all the publishing, conferencing, legal wrangling, and court rulings one begins to wonder: how did we get to here?

This question is saliently addressed by Dr. Lawrence M. Principe, a professor of the History of Science and Chemistry at Johns Hopkins University and lecturer of the Teaching Company’s Science and Religion series. I came across Dr. Principe’s lectures via advertisement and thought the subject matter would make great listening material while driving seven hours from Chicago to Minneapolis. Consisting of twelve thirty minute lectures, Dr. Principe addresses the problems of defining the terms, how science and religion relate, how they influence each other, and how they have diverged over the scope of a Western history from Augustine to the present. Such a study is shockingly illuminating and deeply invigorating.

Against the popular notion that science and religion are in conflict, Principe argues that both are in the pursuit of knowledge. Often what happens in what he calls the “conflict thesis” people understand science to be about the obtainment of “facts” and religion the promulgation of “values” but this will not do. Each term has been embedded in a historical context that demands more nuance. Science generally is thought of as a body of knowledge and practices that studies the natural world. Religion can mean among other things “practice,” “theology,” and “faith.” Theology functions like science in that in that generates knowledge claims through certain practices and methods that focus on the supernatural that has implications for the natural world.

One special relationship that arises in each of these disciplines is between that of faith and reason. Principe argues that the belief that religion operates by faith and science by reason is too sloppy. Science often begins with faith statements and depends on them in order to apply its method, while; on the other hand, theology tests its claims by relying on logic and reason. When theology was considered the “queen of sciences” in the Middle Ages masterpieces of logic and reason came out the theological writings of the day that would put much of the contemporary work in theology to shame. Today, the effort to create an impenetrable boundary between science and religion is hopeless in the face of such claims, like for example, that the universe is not eternal and it has a definite beginning. Is this a religious claim or a scientific one? Obviously, it is both, and how science answers this question will have bearing on theological ideas.

How the conflict thesis came to be is blamed on the writings of John William Draper and Andrew Dixon White. Both of these thinkers produced writings in the late 19th century claiming that science and religion have throughout history been in conflict. According to Principe, and most historians of science, their claims are absolutely bogus and totally distort the historical record. It is hard to overemphasize how flawed Principe finds their research. He describes Drapers work as “some of the worst historical writing you are ever likely to come across.” The book in question, A History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, is riddled with twisted chronology, interpretation by declaration, and quotations taken out of context to even say things that are completely contrary to what the author was trying to say. The book is so bad, says Principe, that it is a chore to pick out a section for his students to examine that would not be laughed at. Andrew Dixon White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom doesn’t fair much better in that it employs much of the same fallacious historiography and even cites works of fiction as if they were sources of historical fact. Principe compares White’s tactics with that of a historian citing The Da Vinci Code in a study of the historical Jesus! Still the influence of these two books was wide, and they still give considerable support to the myth that science and religion have always been at war with one another.

The reality is that science and religion have a far more complicated relationship which is typified in the writings and thought of St. Augustine. Augustine’s understanding of faith and reason led him to believe that there can be no final conflict between the “book of nature” and the “book of Scripture” since both are the product of God’s authorship. Since all truth is God’s truth it follows that whatever truth found in Scripture and nature cannot be contrary to one another. If there was such a case of conflict, interpreters of both nature and Scripture must labor to make sure they are seeing things correctly and neither is beyond correction. For Augustine, interpretation of Scripture was much harder because God’s revelation was party obscured by the human language of the inspired human authors. This did not mean the authors were in error with what they wrote, instead they were bound to a particular viewpoint and particular history that is often difficult to grasp as we parse the meaning of Scripture. Correct interpretation is an exercise of reason that follows from the act of faith that seeks to understand the data in light of the best scientific data available. To fail in this endeavor is to bring the Christian religion into disrepute and ridicule for being unlearned. Thus, for Augustine, the knowledge of the natural world was indispensable for correctly understanding the glory of God’s revelation and interpreting the Bible.

At the center of the issues is the relationship between God and nature. Understanding this thorny subject is a difficult task since one must be able to define a wide variety of terms as they relate to causation, both natural and supernatural. Is causation fundamentally natural, supernatural, or both? It is important to note that a matter of orthodoxy is the conception of a singularly creative and omnipotent deity who provides a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for the scientific enterprise. The implication is that regularity of law-like action is ensured by the sustaining order of the deity’s providence.

In the same way providence is a decisive factor in theological doctrine, so it is in science. How we construe God’s interaction with the created order will determine how we think about and practice science. Almost universally rejected is the naïve supernaturalism of theological determinists who insist that for every effect in the natural world there is a supernatural cause. In other words the explanation for why your hair grows is “God did it.” This view undermines the scientific enterprise since its explanations are deemed sufficient and no further knowledge can be gained. Instead, the history of Christian thought has affirmed the idea that God governs and sustains the created order through secondary means. Creation contains a system of causality that is reliable, regular, and observable, yet remains original or “final” in the will of God. Thus the natural causes are sustained by God’s concurring providence.

Though God can do anything, he adheres, though not strictly, to a type of “covenant with creation” where scientific investigation is made possible. However, those times where he breaks with that covenant, where scientific investigation is not possible, are when the miraculous becomes a reality. Miracles are the suspension of the laws of nature (which God normally upholds) that bring about an effect of the divine will or a disproportionate effect to a secondary cause (for example, the wind blowing so magnificently that it parts the Red Sea). While miracles are supernaturally caused and cannot be explained in scientific terms, they do not necessarily stop science from investigation. To verify a miracle one must do a searching inventory of possible natural causes to conclude that none of them would be adequate to explain the event in question. Daniel Dennett, a notorious naturalist, agrees, “Miracle-hunters must be scrupulous scientists” (Dennett, 2006: 26).

After this highly philosophical lecture, Principe switches gears and addresses two of the great examples that are often cited to support the conflict thesis between science and religion: Darwinian evolution and the so-called “Galileo affair.” Starting with Galileo we are introduced to the subject of heliocentrism through Copernicus. Interestingly enough, both Copernicus and Galileo were theists who did not see any conflict between their scientific endeavors and their religious beliefs. Copernicus’s book was published by the urging his fellow clergymen (Copernicus held an administrative role in the Holy Order) though it was not well-received. The prevailing view of the day, that sun went round the earth, simply did not fall by the wayside since it fit with common sense experience (we don’t feel the earth move, we see the sun move, and so on) and traditional readings of the Bible (Joshua’s passage of the God making the sun stand still implied that the sun moved). In other words, it took time for his views of the verified by other scientists.

Galileo is most famous for his conflict with the Catholic Church over espousing and expounding Copernicus’s views, but the story is often characterized in cartoonish metaphors of him being drug off in chains before a nefarious Inquisition. In reality, the affair spanned a great deal of time. The Inquisition was often disinterested in the charges against Galileo by intellectually inferior monks, and deferred to others to evaluate his scientific theories. Unfortunately for Galileo those outside sources are what got him into trouble when they declared his theories to be “foolish and absurd.” Nonetheless, Galileo found himself lightly reprimanded and was counseled to write in more hypothetical language (rather than sounding absolute).

A fact that is often lost in casual citations of the Galileo Affair is that he was friends with Pope and had his blessing in his studies. The Pope wished for a moderated debate between the two theories as there were clergy that were on both sides of the issue. In fact, the famous quote, “The Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go” came from a Cardinal sympathetic to Galileo’s cause. Regrettably, through a publishing snafu and the irrepressible nature of Galileo’s scathing wit, his book Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems alienated his old and very powerful friend. Due to the pressure from external events such as the Protestant Reformation and the Thirty Years War the Pope could not deal with the internal strain and personal affront Galileo caused and had him tried and convicted of heresy. Nevertheless, the judgment was not signed by the Pope’s nephew or the two Cardinals which suggests the trial was more for show than anything else. It is true that the events of the day led to a sad ending for Galileo, but centuries later the papacy lead by John Paul II fully vindicated him.

The arise of the mechanical philosophy, the view that sees the world as one large machine-like entity, lead to a promotion of materialism, that matter is all there is, and in turn encouraged atheism. Various responses to this involved what became known as “natural theology”—the practice of using examples from nature to demonstrate God and the wisdom of his character.

Though natural theology would become prominent in the 18th and 19th centuries, two important precursors of the movement were Richard Bentley and Sir Isaac Newton. Newton was as deeply religious as he was a mathematical genius; though his theological views were considered heretical by Augustinian standards (he tried to correct the “corruptions” of Scripture). Nevertheless, his classic text of physics Principia Mathematica expounded in detail about the attributes of God and sought to identify evidence for the mind of the deity. By the same token Bentley produced arguments from the orderliness of the Solar System for an ultimate designing intelligence. Later in the 18th and 19th centuries thinkers like William Paley and John Ray would permeate the cultural and intellectual milieu of the English Enlightenment with widely read treatises on natural theology popularizing the notion of the “watchmaker.”

However, though natural theology was a popular phenomenon it was not without its cultural despisers. Another intellectual giant of the times, David Hume, marshaled several important criticisms against natural theology, particularly the argument from design, that have had a lasting impact even until today. Hume argued that the argument from design didn’t necessarily take the observer to theism and certainly not the God of revealed religion. For example, let’s say one is able to infer design. It does not follow that there is one designer—there could be many (polytheism). Furthermore, the argument works analogically, and the places where the analogy does not fit are telling. For example, biological substances grow from seedlings into embodied entities without any external help, but mechanical things, like watches, do not grow over time nor do they reproduce. We also have no real criteria for establishing design since we can’t compare a world that is designed with one that is not. Finally, the argument from design appeals to ignorance claiming that since a natural cause cannot be found it must be the handiwork of a designer. The infamous “God of the gaps” fallacy emerges especially when a natural cause is later found.

It is not hard to imagine where Principe falls on the debate over Intelligent Design (ID) theory. He maintains ID is an updated form of natural theology developed to combat Darwinian evolution—the principle doctrine of materialistic atheism that historically has been feared throughout the ages. He even goes so far to interact with ID theorist William Dembski who avers that ID is a scientific enterprise able to provide the impetus for better scientific explanations. Principe is doubtful. He contends that if a natural explanation cannot be found for the emergence of design then we exhaust our search for a secondary cause and are left with direct primary causation. Direct primary causation may be possible and recognizable, but it is not explainable. What we are essentially left with is a miracle and miracles end scientific investigation.

Princepe is not naïve to the challenge Darwinism poses to religious people, though he laments the fact that so few have learned much about their Augustinian traditions. Fundamentalists have done a hearty disservice to themselves by forgetting the importance of the no-conflict thesis between the book of nature and the book of Scripture and go so far to embrace a literalism that concludes the earth is only 6,000 years old. However, he does not savage them uncritically like most academics. He is aware that for most of Western history that the age of the earth was only thought to be under 10,000 years old, because there was no reason to think there would be a reason for God to have a world around for so long (billions) before the appearance of mankind.

There is also the matter of materialism utilizing the theory of evolution to remove God and the supernatural from people’s worldviews. The idea of humankind being made in the image of apes rather than God was too much to bear. Finally, a great reversal has happened between science and religion where science has been professionalized, and theology has been culturally downgraded from the “queen of sciences” to science’s handmaid. For most of Western history science was done casually by eccentric characters, most of which were of theological variety. Today, professional standards and research economies have secularized the field which demands highly trained specialists to publish their findings in refereed peer-reviewed journals. The days of fashioning a modest telescope and writing a fictional dialogue about the tides are over.

Yet theology has retained its character in high philosophy and is still a force to be reckoned with. Its flexibility has proved its durability in the face of change, and far from simply turning its sails with the wind it has found moments of vindication. One example is in the theory of the “big bang” that seems to demonstrate the universe had a definite beginning and is therefore not eternal. The long-ridiculed doctrine of creation ex nihio gained an intellectual respect it had not enjoyed before. Agreement between the book of nature and the book of Scripture can be found that furthers and confirms our knowledge.

Today the ongoing conflict between evolution and creationist agendas gives the appearance that science and religion have always been at war. Yet the facts are that many religious (even conservatively religious) people don’t see such a conflict. Even when Darwin’s theory burst on the scene it was viewed ambivalently with one side seeing humanity devalued and the other seeing the biblical teaching of all humans descending from Adam consistent with common ancestry. The conservative Baptist theologian A.H. Strong argued that humans are no less even if they arose from beasts. Catholics have discussed the matter in virtual agreement under the heading of “theistic evolution” denying materialism and affirming the supernatural by seeing the human soul as directly created by God. Conservative Protestants debate over the day-age theories when interpreting the book of Genesis and even see evolutionary theory being compatible with the doctrine of inerrancy. If that seems outrageous, you might want to see the documented writings of the grand architect of the inerrancy doctrine B.B. Warfield, a conservative theologian of staunchest variety who is considered a forerunner of the Fundamentalist movement. He was a supporter of evolution (albeit a supernaturally guided form).

In conclusion, Principe sees the real problem of the warfare thesis perpetuated by the likes of atheist activists like Richard Dawkins who excoriate religion in the name of science and the creationist lobby who want its theories taught in public schools before they become accepted as scientific theory. When we find our blood boiling over the legal battles, the expulsion of professors from the academy, the jeremiads of militant atheism, or the ignorance of naïve literalism, we should stop and take a breath and consider the complex yet cordial relationship science and religion have enjoyed over the centuries. In the end faith and reason serve one another.

While I am not in total agreement with everything Principe has taught there is much to be commended in this series. His is a scholarship of integrity that honestly evaluates the highly complex issues surrounding tumultuous historical events and handles philosophical arguments competently and admirably. Though I still find myself sympathetic the scientific interests of the ID project, particularly with regard to development of a criterion to detect design, I recognize that the design argument has its limits. Today’s advocates should abandon the attempts to have it taught in the public schools and focus its energies on testing its hypotheses. It may be a fact of life that the scientific establishment is sold out to naturalism and will not allow any project that postulates intelligent causation for patterns in question and that is lamentable. But the questions don’t stop with court-rulings, tenure denying’s, or rejections from peer-reviewed journals. ID theorists may have to resort to doing science the old fashion way: doing simple experiments, forming cogent theoretical explanations, and publishing the results in popular books. There will be no shortage of review from scientists and curiosity from the public. If they do well enough, the paradigm will shift. If it was good enough for Darwin it is good enough for design.

Principe is correct that methodologically speaking, looking for natural explanations is the best way to do science. It may not be the only way or the perfect way, but it furthers investigation the most. He is also correct that miracles do not necessarily halt investigation altogether since it takes a robust inquiry to verify one. With all the arguments trying to refute claims of irreducible complexity, this seems to be the only positive result of the conflict between ID and evolution has produced. And why should we be surprised? This has always been the inspiring outcome between science and religion.


5 thoughts on “Science and Religion: A Review Essay

  1. Sorry for the generic comment, Adam…

    I know either you read my blog at times and/or I really enjoy YOUR blog. I need to make my blog private for a time and possibly move to a new URL. If you are interested in continuing to read (even ocasionally, no commitment for daily reading required!) I want to invite you to my private blog.

    If you’d like an invite, please go to my site via my name here in the comments and follow the directions.

    Sorry to be such a pain. :P

    Have a happy day!

    PS. Anyone else who wants an invite is welcome, too.

  2. Adam,

    Very good post. It is unfortunate that the two sides who are are war seem so bent on making it appear science and religion are’s all but ignored how much they can and do intersect to this day. But if you view religion as the place for superstitious fools or science the place for godless materialists…well, you really don’t have anything to gain by acknowledging a middle ground. :(

  3. The problem with miracles is that you can’t ever really conclude that they are ‘supernatural’. All you can conclude from them is that “we don’t understand how that happened… yet.” And even if you do have an explanation, you can’t be sure it’s the right one. There’s a possibly-apocryphal story of some French natural philosophers called to the countryside to examine a stone that had fallen from the sky. They confidently explained that rocks didn’t fall from the sky, of course, but the peasants had probably seen lightning striking the ground… and gee, here’s a metal rock right in the center of the damage.

    Others have made the mistake the other way, though, like J.B.S. Haldane who confidently asserted that no ‘mechanism’ could ever account for inheritance and cellular reproduction. Then, a few decades later, the structure of DNA was discovered.

    I don’t see what accepting miracles as an ‘explanation’ could ever buy you. All it seems to me is a declaration that someone doesn’t want to understand something. When it comes to things like the origin of the universe, all I think we can say is, “We don’t know… yet.”

  4. Ray, I am in general agreement with you about silly claims to the miraculous being squeezed out by good science. But what could a genuine miracle “buy” you? Well for starters evidence of supernatural causation would be one. And I would not agree that they necessarily indicate a lack of desire to understand something. I think their possibility motivates us to understand better–both to find a natural cause or rigorously verify an instance of supernatural cause.

    Though, I am sure we are not in agreement about some specifics, it would be very interesting to me to hear a natural explanation of how as my friend Josh puts it “someone comes back from the dead in the pink of health a couple days after being crucified.”

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