This series explores key historical encounters which are often presented as “conflicts” between science and Christianity.
I believe that the perceived “conflict” is overwhelmingly based on a revisionist presentation of history, as well as fear and misunderstanding on both sides of the discussion. My intention is to explore the actual events and characters involved in each case, and understand them in their proper historical context.
Essays in this series include:
Notes on the “conflict” thesis
I believe that the root cause of this issue is inappropriate “bundling” of scientific theory with metaphysical implications. For instance, if evolution and atheism are bundled together as mutually supportive, that will inevitably lead to difficulties. For a Christian whose deepest personal experiences and entire understanding of the world is based on their relationship with a personal God, atheism is a ridiculous proposition. Science, as I have argued previously, has nothing directly to say on the question of God’s existence, and to imply otherwise puts unfair weight on any scientific theory.
Let me illustrate this by example:
Sally is a Christian. One day, an atheist goes up to Sally and says, “Evolution proves that God doesn’t exist”. The only rational reaction from Sally is: “Then there must be something wrong with evolution, because I know that God exists.”
Note that this does not imply that she is irrational. Let’s assume that she is not a specialist in evolutionary biology, but that she has personal experience of God. Presented with a false dichotomy of “evolution + atheism / anti-evolution + theism”, she is simply responding rationally by going with the strongest evidence that she personally has available. If she were presented with evolution as a theory with no metaphysical implications, she may respond to it differently. Indeed, she may find it more convincing than a literalistic reading of Genesis 1. But if the science is presented as having inseparable theological implications, she will not be able to evaluate its validity in isolation.
I also want it to be clear that I am not lumping all the blame for this false dichotomy on the atheist camp: I think that a certain share of the problem also comes from inadequate instruction from the Christian side. Both sides inappropriately try to use scientific theory to bolster a non-scientific proposition, whereas a more honest discussion of the theories all around would improve the understanding of currently contentious scientific propositions.
I believe that Christian leaders and educators have a duty to communicate scientific theory responsibly, and that they do a disservice to those who hear them when they offer trite responses like: “That can’t be true because it contradicts my understanding of the Bible”. We can do better than that. We must do better than that. Integrity to both our faith and our intellect demands that we grapple with these difficult questions rather than avoiding or deflecting them.
For more thoughts on reconciling science and Scripture, see my post “On reading both books“.
Gould’s alternative: Free inquiry vs Dogma
The great evolutionary biologist and historian of science Stephen Jay Gould, writing on the meeting of Bishop Wilberforce and T. H. Huxley (see essay 3 in this series), reflected thus on the conflict myth:
“This cardboard dichotomy seems favourable to science at first (and superficial) glance. It enshrines science as something pure and a part from the little quirks and dogmas of daily life. It exalts science as a disembodied methodfor discovering truth at all costs, while social institutions – religion in particular – hold fast to antiquated superstitions. Comfort and stability resist truth, and science must therefore fight a lonely battle for enlightenment…
“But no battle exists between science and religion – the two most separate spheres of human need. A titanic struggle occurs, always has, always will, between questioning and authority, free inquiry and frozen dogma – but the institutions representing these poles are not science and religion. These struggles occur within each field, not primarily across disciplines. The general ethic of science leads to greater openness, but we have our fossils, often in positions of great power. Organised religion, as an arm of state power so frequently in history, has tended to rigidity – but theologies have also spearheaded social revolution…
“…If scientists lose their natural allies by casting entire institutions as enemies, and not seeking bonds with soul mates on other paths, then we only make a difficult struggle that much harder.”