Science and Christian Faith: Conflict or Cooperation?

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The popular image of the relationship between science and Christian faith is one of antagonism, conflict, and even warfare. By contrast, I will attempt to show that despite some episodes of tension, the overall relationship between science and biblical theism has been largely cooperative and fruitful. We’ll look first at the origins of modern science and the origins of the conflict thesis; then at the Galileo affair and the reactions of Christian scientists and theologians to the theory of evolution. Finally, I’ll make a few remarks on the complementary relationship between science and Christian faith.

The Origins of Modern Science

The scientific revolution

Modern science arose in Western Europe in the 16th and 17th Centuries. The events of that period are known to us as the scientific revolution. The first (in 1543) was the publication by Nicholas Copernicus of his heliocentric model of the solar system.1 Among the developments that followed were Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, Galileo’s telescopic observations, Newton’s law of universal gravitation, and experimental studies of gases by the chemist Robert Boyle. It is significant that the scientific revolution occurred in a culture permeated with a Christian worldview and striking that nearly all its leaders were deeply committed to the Christian Faith. Both Copernicus, an administrator of the Roman Catholic Church, and Johannes Kepler, a Protestant, were devout Christian believers. Galileo remained faithful to his church, despite the opposition of individuals in the academic and ecclesiastical establishments who were unable to accommodate his discoveries to their Aristotelian view of the world. Newton spent more time studying the Bible than doing science,2 and both Newton and Boyle were prodigious theological writers.

Why did modern science arise in Christian culture?

One can ask the question: Why is it that modern science arose in the Christian culture of Western Europe, rather than in ancient Egypt, Greece, China, or the Middle East? Though non-Christian societies made important contributions to mathematics and astronomy, none of those societies produced anything remotely like modern science.

For science to get going, one needs a set of presuppositions, or foundational beliefs, about the natural world. These beliefs include the following:
1. The universe is good, and it is a good thing to know about it. If people believe that matter is evil, they won’t be inclined to investigate it.
2. The universe is regular, orderly, and rational. If people believe that material behavior lacks order, they won’t bother to study it.
3. This order could be of two types. It could be necessary order, in which case we should be able to discover the order by pure thought. Alternatively, it could be contingent order, in which case we must discover the order by observation and experiment. Belief in necessary order is disastrous for science, whereas belief in contingent order is essential to its development.
4. Human sense perception and reason are basically reliable, and the regular patterns of material behavior are intelligible to the human mind.

These beliefs seem obvious to us, but only because we live in a culture that has held them for hundreds of years. Other cultures held quite different beliefs about the material world.

A number of historians have suggested that modern science arose in a Christian culture because core Christian beliefs provided the presuppositions needed for science to get started. British scholar, R. G. Collingwood, has written:

“The presuppositions that go to make up this Catholic faith, preserved for many centuries by the religious institutions of Christendom, have as a matter of historical fact been the main or fundamental presuppositions of natural science ever since.”3

How do these presuppositions follow from core Christian beliefs?
1. The scientists of the 17th Century believed the material world to be good because God had made it good. Genesis 1 ends with the comment, “God saw all that he had made and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). Moreover, the essential goodness of matter is affirmed by the Incarnation.
2. The founders of modern science believed that the universe is regular, orderly, and rational because God is personal, rational, and faithful.
3. They believed that the order of the universe is contingent because the existence and behavior of the created world depends on the will of a sovereign Creator. The importance of this theological perspective, for science, is that one cannot deduce the behavior of the natural world from first principles. God could have made a world that behaved in any way he wished, so if you want to know how the world does behave, you have got to go and look. Hence, the importance of observation and experiment, an approach that distinguished the science of the 17th Century from the deductive approach of the ancient Greeks.4
4. 17th Century scientists believed that the behavior of the material world is intelligible to human reason because God has made us in his image and given us a mind with which to think.

All these beliefs follow from the Christian doctrine of creation.

19th and 20th Century Christian scientists

It is true that there was a decline of religious faith among scientists following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Nevertheless, Darwin’s work does not seem to have shaken the faith of the great physicists of the 19th Century. Michael Faraday, James Joule, Lord Kelvin, and James Clerk Maxwell, for example, were all devout Christian believers. In the 20th Century, the astronomer Arthur Eddington, Charles Towns and William Phillips, Nobel laureates in physics, and Francis Collins, the director of the Human Genome Project, have publicly affirmed their belief in God. Collins has expressed the spiritual wonder of scientific research in these words: “When something new is revealed about the human genome, I experience a feeling of awe at the realization that humanity now knows something only God knew before.”5

I mention the theistic beliefs of these leading scientists, not to claim that most contemporary scientists are theists, but simply to challenge the popular image of conflict between science and religion.6

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