Science and Christian Faith: Conflict or Cooperation?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Origins of the Conflict Model: J. W. Draper and A. D. White

If the beliefs of biblical theism played such an important role in nurturing the beginnings of modern science, why is it that science and religion are so often portrayed as antagonists? The warfare, or conflict, model was advanced by two very influential books: John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1875)7 and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896).8 Draper and White saw science and religion as two contending powers—one dealing with testable facts, the other deserting reason for faith; the one expanding, the other contracting, as science conquered more and more territory from religion.

Draper’s book was a diatribe against the Roman Catholic Church, in reaction to the 1870 announcement of papal infallibility and a papal encyclical stating that public institutions that teach science should not be exempt from the Church’s authority. White was an American historian and the first president of Cornell University. He was upset by clerical opposition to Cornell’s nonsectarian charter.

Much of the tension between scientists and the Church during the second half of the 19th Century can be attributed to sociological factors. This is the period in which science was first recognized as a professional activity. In fact, the word “scientist” was not in use before 1834. Previously, persons we would identify as scientists were called natural philosophers. Those who studied geology and biology in England tended to be amateur, gentlemen naturalists, often clerics, who were either wealthy themselves or supported by wealthy patrons. Part of the reason for antagonism between the newly emerging class of professional scientists and the Church was a struggle for independence, funding, and cultural prestige. Leading contemporary historians of science such as David Lindberg, Ronald Numbers, and John Hedley Brooke believe that Draper and White “read the past through battle-scarred glasses,” and that their warfare model is deeply flawed.9 Unfortunately, the image of science and religion as conflicting, polar opposites persists in the public mind, and it is kept alive by a small minority of scientists who, in their popular writings, advance a materialist worldview in the guise of science.10

The Galileo Affair

Supporters of the conflict model often cite the clash between Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church as a textbook case of the victory of enlightened science over obscurantist religion. That description, however, oversimplifies the story.11

In the 16th Century, the philosophy of Aristotle reigned supreme in the universities. Aristotle believed that the earth was the center of the universe with the sun and the planets revolving around the earth in perfect circular motion. He also believed that heavenly bodies differed from earthly objects in being incorruptible, perfect spheres, and that no changes could take place in the heavens. Aristotle’s ideas had been integrated into Christian theology by Thomas Aquinas, and so both the academic and ecclesiastical establishments were dominated by the philosophy of Aristotle. All of this was challenged by the Copernican model of the solar system, the elliptical planetary orbits of Kepler, and the supernova of 1604. Furthermore, through his telescope, Galileo observed mountains and craters on the moon and sunspots on the sun, demonstrating that neither of these heavenly bodies is a changeless, perfect sphere.

As a medical student at the University of Pisa, Galileo began a running controversy with his Aristotelian professors that lasted for nearly half a century. He was an argumentative character known by the nickname, “The Wrangler.” When Galileo returned to Pisa at the age of twenty-five as professor of mathematics, his older Aristotelian colleagues would sit in on his lectures and hiss at comments with which they disagreed. Later, in his Dialogue on the Two World Systems, Galileo put the arguments of the Aristotelians into the mouth of Simplicio, a foolish fellow who articulates the anti-Copernican viewpoint. Because Galileo had so alienated the academic establishment, it is not surprising that the academics enlisted the Church in their effort to discredit him. In popular accounts of this affair, however, one seldom hears of the role of the Aristotelian university professors.

Part of the conflict between Galileo and the Aristotelians arose from a literal reading of biblical texts such as Psalm 93:1 which says, “The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.” Galileo believed that God has given us two books, the book of nature and the book of Scripture. He said, “Both the Holy Scriptures and Nature proceed from the divine Word,” and that these “two truths can never contradict each other.” He warned against “the carrying of Holy Scripture into disputes about scientific conclusions.” In the Bible, he said, the Holy Ghost intends to teach “how one goes to Heaven, not how the heavens go” (Galileo, quoting Cardinal Baronius).

The lesson for us, I believe, is that the texts from the Psalms are poetic expressions of praise and worship and are not intended to teach astronomy. When a literal reading of a biblical text is in clear contradiction with a demonstrated scientific fact, the literal reading must be reexamined because the truths of Scripture and the truths of nature cannot contradict one another.

3 comments for “Science and Christian Faith: Conflict or Cooperation?

Comments are closed.