There is a common notion that science and faith work against one another. Many people believe that the more science a person understands, the less religion that person will need. The more one reasons their way through life, the less they will need faith to cope with life’s ups and downs.
While many people have found a satisfying balance between their scientific reasoning and their religious faith, Atheist author Sam Harris describes the conflict in more absolute terms.
The truth, however, is that the conflict between religion and science is unavoidable. The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science.
In other words, faith has no place for science, and science has no use for faith. The more we have of one, the less we can have–or should have–of the other. Therefore, there is an apparent fight for the minds of people between scientific reasoning and religious faith.
But, here’s the thing…
This is a fight that should have never been.
Here are three reasons why.
#1 – Philosophically, the fight is superficial.
Faith is not without its reasons.
Many skeptics assume that people who hold a religious truth claims do so out of blind ignorance. Harris writes:
Every sane human being recognizes that to rely merely upon “faith” to decide specific questions of historical fact would be both idiotic and grotesque — that is, until the conversation turns to the origin of books like the bible and the Koran, to the resurrection of Jesus, to Muhammad’s conversation with the angel Gabriel, or to any of the other hallowed travesties that still crowd the altar of human ignorance.
My question is, why does Harris insist that believers do not use historical reasoning in conversations about the Bible (and presumably the Koran)? Surely, he has debated enough scholarly Christians to know that is not the case. Yet, he claims, “Faith is nothing more than the license that religious people give one another to believe such propositions when reasons fail.”
Christian faith is not blind. Certainly, there are things we Christians hope for and cannot see. However, we have substantial evidence to believe. Our faith grows in the presence of evidence, not in the absence of it.
Science is not without its faith.
In 2016, the large-scale observatory LIGO observed for the first time cosmic gravitational waves. Physicist around the world celebrated the discovery as it confirmed what was only a theory since Einstein opened the floodgates of general relativity.
Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli remarked that the discovery was the accomplishment of “A dream based on faith in reason: that the logical deductions of Einstein and his mathematics would be reliable.” (emphasis mine) Though it is uncommon to see a scientist be so explicit, the vital role that faith plays in scientific inquiry is more common than many skeptics are willing to admit.
Physicist Paul Davies explained in the New York Times that “The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs.” However,
…to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.
Davies concludes that until scientists explain the origin of and reasons for the physical laws by which science operates, “its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.”
Furthermore, his argument is highlighted by the fact that Davies himself is not a believer.
When we understand the reasoning behind faith and the faith behind science, we see that any philosophical conflict between them is superficial at best.
#2 – Theologically, the fight is artificial.
Faith motivates science.
Any list of pioneers of the modern sciences is essentially just a list of Christian thinkers—Nicolaus Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, Johannes Kepler, Blaise Pascal, Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, and Max Plank just to name a few.
Why is it that so much of what we know about the universe today was first discovered and analyzed by men of faith? Jonathan Morrow explains,
Why? Because Christianity provided the philosophical foundation as well as the spiritual and practical motivation for doing science. The Christian worldview—with its insistence on the orderliness of the universe, its emphasis on human reason, and its teaching that God is glorified as we seek to understand his creation—laid the foundation for the modern scientific revolution.
That legacy continues today. Scholars such as Alister McGrath, John Lennox, Francis Collins, and Owen Gingerich grace the halls of the most prestigious universities as outspoken proponents of the correlation between faith and science.
I eventually moved away from atheism and embraced Christianity and discovered to my delight, it gave me this way of looking at the world that made sense of science. It gave me a motivation for studying science, but also opened up a much bigger vision of reality which answered not simply cognitive questions about how the world functions but deeper existential questions of what the world meant—what I meant.
Science motivates faith.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:” (Romans 1:20)
Observing the world around us leads us to ask all sorts of questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? What caused it all? What must that cause be like by logical necessity? All those questions lead us back to who God has revealed himself to be all along. In other words, science makes us aware of God.
The Psalmist wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.” (Psalm 19:1)
It follows, therefore, that the more we discover about the physical universe, the more we see the glory of God. The more we see the glory of God, the more we are brought to faith in God. In other words, science makes us worshipful for God.
The first chapter of Genesis tells us that God has given humanity dominion over the earth, not to wastefully exploit it, but to faithfully replenish it. This stewardship is a powerful impetus for science. Through science we explore God’s creation, learning how to thrive in it. In other words, science makes us obedient to God.
John Bloom serves as chair of the Chemistry, Physics, and Engineering Department at Biola University. He writes,
From the telescope to the microscope, God’s creation is declaring his glory. Being a Christian working in the sciences is beautiful, as new discoveries stretch our imagination and open new vistas of complexity, ingenuity, awesome power, and unimaginable fine-tuning.
When we understand the correlation between faith and science, we see that any theological conflict between them is artificial at best.
#3 – Historically, the fight was manufactured.
The conflict is more fiction than fact.
Numerous myths have been perpetuated over the past century, giving the impression that Christianity has actively opposed scientific progress over the past millennium.
For example, it is commonly believed that medieval Christianity believed that the earth is flat, ignoring and forgetting Ptolemy’s discovery in the second century. The misconception of a widely believed flat earth is a myth in itself. But, the accusation that the medieval church was to blame is particularly mythical. Science historians David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers write, “there was scarcely a Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge [Earth’s] sphericity and even know its approximate circumference”
Another example is the urban legend that the Christian church opposed the use of anesthetics in childbirth. Historian Timothy Larsen states that no church or Christian group has done any such thing. “In fact,” he writes, “the inventor of chloroform received fan mail from ministers of the major denominations thanking him for helping to alleviate the suffering of women in labor. Rather, the opposition to anesthetics during childbirth came from medical professionals, not from ministers, and for scientific, not religious, reasons.”
Then there was Galileo. He is commonly seen as an intellectual martyr for proposing that the earth rotates around the sun. Sparing the details, Galileo was interrogated by church officials and threatened with torture. However, the conflict was more about political control than scientific understanding. For example, anyone in that era would have found themselves in hot water after calling the pope “Simplicio” meaning “simpleton” or “buffoon” as Galileo did. Regardless of the political censure he received, Galileo was not tortured, much less executed. Instead, lived out the last nine years of his life after the trial, continuing his studies…in his own home…in Florence…with a pension from the Romans Catholic Church.
All of the misinformation about the relationship between science and religion prompted historian Ronald Numbers to assert, “The greatest myth in the history of science and religion holds that they have been in a state of constant conflict.”
The conflict was more induced than intrinsic.
In fact, several historians like Numbers have pinpointed just who is responsible for the idea that religion and science are at war with one another. Numbers writes, ”No one bears more responsibility for promoting this notion that two nineteenth-century American polemicists: Cornell’s founding president Andrew White and University of New York chemistry professor John William Draper.”
In 1869, White gave a speech which was eventually published in a book titled The Warfare of Science (1876). The speech opens as follows:
I purpose to present an outline of the great, sacred struggle for the liberty of science-a struggle which has lasted for so many centuries, and which yet continues. A hard contest it has been; a war waged longer, with battles fiercer, with sieges more persistent, with strategy more shrewd than in any of the comparatively transient warfare of Coesar or Napoleon or Moltke.
Seems a bit of a stretch, does it not? Especially considering that no one had ever made this exacting of a claim before.
Then in 1874, Draper published a book titled History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. In the introduction he wrote:
The antagonism we thus witness between Religion and Science is the continuation of a struggle that commenced when Christianity began to attain political power. . . . 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.
This abnormally influential work circulated widely and underwent 50 editions.
These two men are most responsible for what has come to be called the conflict thesis. Most historians of science have completely rejected the idea. However, the fight between science and religion seems to retain much popular acceptance.
To make matters more regrettable, Larson suggests that the reason why the fight was invented has mostly to do with the professionalization of science. Larson explains:
The purpose of the war was to discredit clergymen as suitable figures to undertake scientific work in order that the new breed of professionals would have an opportunity to fill in the gap for such work created by eliminating the current men of science. …Clergymen (who were doing as much science as anyone at the time) were branded amateurs in order to facilitate the creation of a new category of professionals.
Many people believe that faith has no place for science and that science has no use for faith. Understandably, this becomes a major hindrance considering the truth claims of Christianity. The truth is, however, the supposed conflict between scientific reasoning and religious faith is a fight that should have never happened.
Faith motivates and is motivated by science. Science begins and ends with faith.
The only questions left are what faith motivates our science and to what end does it take us?
 Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, p. 63.
 Carlo Rovelli, “The Waves Are There” (https://slate.com/technology/2016/02/carlo-rovelli-reflects-on-the-gravitational-waves-announcement.html)
 Paul Davies, “Taking Science on Faith” (https://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/24/opinion/24davies.html)
 Jonathan Morrow, Is God Just a Human Invention?,p. 33.
 John Bloom, “What Science Is Really Teaching Us” (https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-science-is-really-teaching-us)
 Wikipedia, “Myth of the flat Earth” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myth_of_the_flat_Earth#cite_ref-FOOTNOTELindbergNumbers1986338%E2%80%93354_5-0)
 Timothy Larsen, “War Is Over, If You Want It: Beyond the Conflict between Faith and Science” (https://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2008/PSCF9-08Larsen.pdf
 Morrow, p. 36.
 Ronald Numbers, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, p. 1.
 Numbers, pp. 1-2.
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