The conflict between religion and science is one of the principal arguments against religious belief, but it is also one of the most nebulous and badly demarcated battlefields of the God wars. When asked for a demonstration of this argument from the most vocal proponents of unbelief, one commonly hears something of Galileo and the repressive Catholic Church, no doubt something about Darwin and the Genesis account. After this we are told that no other conclusion can be made but that religion and science are engaged in nothing short of an epistemic battle for land. Religion plants a flag here and science claims something there, but in the end science will win out, explain everything, and all the religious people will be ashamed of their stupidity. This, give or take, is the mythos that underpins much of arguments purporting a stark conflict between religion and science. So, why should we believe there is a conflict between religion and science? There are at least four ways in which science can be seen to conflict with religion. Firstly, the conflict can be seen as deep-seated, general metaphysical and epistemic conflict (rather than peripheral and particular conflict). This is the more extreme view, which says that science has disproved religion. Another way is when scientific theories appear to conflict with particular areas of revelation or theology. A third way is through a particular area of theology called natural theology, in which the nature of God is expounded without appeal to revelation ( these are arguments for God’s existence) which is often accused of using “god-of-the-gaps” reasoning. A fourth way in which religion can be seen to conflict with science is through miracles. So let’s address each.
1) A Metaphysical conflict between Science and Religion?
When atheist enthusiasts contrast the intellectual virtues of science with the intellectual vices of religion, they already assume that science can stand on its own as a metaphysics to compete with religion. Science can only compete with religion as a system of knowledge if it has the capacity to be a self-contained metaphysics. Science as metaphysics is called scientism or naturalism not science simpliciter. Science and religion discussions are often carried out as though they can be compared to one another as two metaphysically independent systems. This means that the question has already been answered in favour of naturalism before the conversation has even started. Science and religion cannot be compared in a vacuum because, when they’re compared as such, their characteristics depends on the underlying worldview in which they are embedded. So if we ask whether science contradicts religion in a sort of generalized way irrespective of the worldviews in which they are embedded then we are already assuming that science can stand on its own. This means that what really ends up being discussed is whether naturalism conflicts with religion, not whether science conflicts with religion.
If we pose the question generally, then the answer is really rather simple. If nature is all there is, then science is obviously in conflict with religion. If nature is not all there is, then science is obviously not in conflict with religion. If nature is all there is, then science is the study of ultimate reality, which would make it the competitor of religion ( which is also a study of ultimate reality). Conversely, if nature is not all there is, then science is not the study of ultimate reality, which would place it on a different metaphysical shelf than religion. So unless you want to debate specifics (i.e. whether biblical accounts of things contradict science) there is no general reason why science need conflict with an idea of the supernatural. The answer to the question is ” it depends”. Whether you think science does conflict with religion simply depends on what you consider to be ultimate reality. The question has no substance beyond that. Science in itself can obviously not give reason to think that nature is all there is, because to use science as a way of saying that nature is all there is would be circular. Science is methodologically naturalistic, which means that it already considers only the naturalistic as suitable subjects of study. This makes it clearly irrational to conclude that it disproves something that it has methodologically excluded from the outset. We may try to make it neutral. That is, we may try to suspend all metaphysical presuppositions in order to determine whether science really conflicts with religion. But people’s presupposed views on the place of science and religion inevitably comes into play. What happens then is that when science and religion is attempted at being discussed in this “metaphysical vacuum” the result is simply that both science and religion are taken as metaphysically and epistemologically “on par”, which finishes the debate before it has begun. The debate is finished in favour of scientism. The entire debate is about whether science and religion are metaphysically on par, or whether they can be treated as metaphysical competitors so to compare them in this way has already decided the question.
Jean Paul Sartre said that science disproved God in concurrence with a trend in popular intellectualism of that day and today. How can science disprove something that is non-naturalistic when it’s metaphysical “jurisdiction” is only the naturalistic? It has no say, one way or the other, about the non-naturalistic since it is methodologically limited to the naturalistic. The only way that science could disprove God is if God were a physical being, which Christian theology has always denied. It’s like conducting a study in which all the subjects of your sample are prison convicts and then concluding that well-adjusted people do not exist. You cannot disprove something with a methodology that has, by assumption, excluded what it is you are trying to disprove.
Naturalists frequently say that science gives us this and this and proceeds by reliable measurements whereas religion does something less desirable. The assumption here is that science and religion are to be evaluated against one another ( but this would mean that a conflict has already been presupposed). The very notion that science can win some kind of epistemic victory over religion must assume that there was a epistemic conflict between them to begin with. Or to weigh the methods of science against the methods of religion must assume they study the same reality, or that science is capable of studying ultimate reality, which presupposes scientism. They only study the same reality if they both study ultimate reality. Whereas if science studies something less than ultimate reality, and if ultimate reality is not physical, then you would expect religion and science to have difference approaches. This is very apparent, for example, in Bertrand Russell’s treatise on the subject in Religion and Science. He begins the book by making the assertion: “Between religion and science there has been a prolonged conflict, in which, until the last few years, science has invariably proved victorious.”[i] After this he proceeds to argue for the conflict he assumes, including contentions that cosmic purpose, morality, the soul and free will are all grounds where religion conflicts with science. Do you see what has happened? By assuming from the outset that science can be epistemically and metaphysically self-contained, anything that cannot be commented on by science, or is not knowable through it, becomes a ground of a conflict. This assumption makes clear that Russell is not talking about science, but about scientism, and it is not controversial, of course, that scientism conflicts with religion. By assuming that science is the only valid form of knowledge acquisition, anything contentious that is not amenable to it is seen as being in conflict with it. This need not be the case. Science does not conflict with the notion of cosmic purpose unless you already assume that science is the only valid form of knowledge. Russell assumes throughout the book that the last word on what there is and how to know it belongs to science, which is obviously an assumption of scientism. This is no more clear than when he speaks about morality: “I conclude that, while it is true that science cannot decide questions of value, that is because they cannot be intellectually decided at all, and lie outside the realm of truth and falsehood. Whatever knowledge is attainable must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.”[ii] (Emphasis added)
2) Scientific Conflicts with Particular Areas of Theology
Do apparent conflicts between very small parts of religious doctrine and science prove a deep-seated intellectual conflict? The conflict between Galileo’s advocacy of heliocentrism and the Catholic teaching was hardly cataclysmic for Christianity and Christianity’s principal claims have not been damaged by admitting “defeat” in this debate. A more recent and perhaps more significant event in this vein is of course the advent of Darwinism, which dispossessed the (then) common belief that the universe was truly created in 6, 24-hour days. Even though it was a common belief, it is common for apologists to point out that it was not the only one. In fact St. Augustine warned against a literal interpretation of Genesis long before Darwinism graced the pages of history, and several other church fathers did not read Genesis literally. This blows out of the water claims like those of Sam Harris, that reading the Bible allegorically is a result of modern pressures. Besides, it is rather absurd to say that an allegorical interpretation of the Bible is always the result of cognitive dissonance. Only someone who is completely ignorant of the Bible could claim that the Bible is only written in genres which demand literal interpretation, when large swaths of the Old Testament are clearly written in verse ( and use metaphor copiously) and other non-literal genres more easily identifiable by scholars. But anyway, back to the conflict. But even if this were not the case, should religious people be more worried by events like these? I don’t believe so. Even if a figurative interpretation of Genesis was only developed in response to Darwinism, does this say something grievous about the intellectual integrity of theology? As the distinguished theologian and scientist, Alistair McGrath, points out, theology is a human creation. It is a human appraisal of what is infallible (revelation). In speaking of the development of doctrine and heresy in Early Christianity, McGrath describes doctrine as an “intellectual scaffolding” to preserve the truths of revelation:
“The critical point to appreciate is that such an intellectual scaffolding is not itself entirely disclosed through divine revelation. Doctrine is something that is at least partly constructed in response to revelation, in order to safeguard what has been revealed…Theology will always prove inadequate to doing justice to the realities that lie at the heart of the Christian faith…”[iii]
Being such a human appraisal, it will inevitably have a few blemishes. What this does mean is that scientific discoveries that appear to contradict with certain aspects of theology are not nearly as significant as many atheists seem to think they are. They don’t imply or even suggest something deeply wrong with the integrity of theology or revelation. It is not as if Heliocentrism and Darwinism represented the first instances in which the established church made changes to their theology. The Reformation represents a much more radical change in accepted Christian theology ( for Protestants) and the Council of Trent that occurred in its wake would forever change what was considered correct doctrine ( for Catholics). The fact that representatives of the established churches concede error doesn’t mean very much. It is only hugely significant if theology is always thought to be infallible, which it is not. Orthodox Christians will believe that there is an infallible core to theology or that it points to something infallible. But it is not infallible in itself ( even if the Bible is believed to be infallible in itself). Any respectable intellectual field (including science itself) undergoes frequent revisions and changes in response to new knowledge. A revision or change in theology does not imply a fundamental defect in its intellectual integrity anymore than it does for another intellectual field. It should also be noted that science always conflicts only with doctrinal minutia and not with large segments of theology, even in light of the advanced science we have today. This is so, because the writers of the Bible were not primarily concerned with the workings of the material world, but with the workings of the spiritual world. Religions concern themselves primarily with existential and moral truths. A good example is Christ’s well-known aphorism ” the truth shall set you free”. It is hard to interpret this as applying to all kinds of truth. Recognizing that gravity is true and that it acts on me is profoundly inconsequential in my life. Certainly, gravity determines a lot in my life, but whether I recognize it or not is not likely to give me some sort of liberation. Conversely, being honest with ourselves about our intentions and feelings and in our relationships, taking ownership of our actions, does have a liberating effect in our lives.
So, why should we not interpret the few conflicts science has had with theology as implying a deep metaphysical conflict between science and religion, rather than an occasionally agitated project of knowledge acquisition? How you answer this question depends entirely on the assumptions you bring to the table, not on anything intrinsic to this subject.
3) The Legendary Gaps: Scientific Conflict with Natural Theology?
Traditional arguments for God’s existence as well and trope religious explanations are often derided for being “God in the Gaps” thinking. Namely, God is inserted where science has not yet reached. This objection attempts to contend that there is an explanatory conflict between science and religion. The god-of-the-gaps objection is normally based on the past successes of science in explaining things that were mysterious to us and things that were normally explained with reference to God. You can see a detailed treatment of this objection here.
The last front on which science can be seen to conflict with religion is miracles. This is probably the easiest objection to answer. In fact, I’ve already answered it. Whether miracles are seen to conflict with science or not also depend entirely upon the assumptions you bring to the table. If science is seen as a self-contained metaphysics, then miracles obviously do conflict with a scientific worldview. If science is not a self-contained metaphysics; then miracles can either occur or not ( then there is nothing inherently problematic with the concept of a miracle). Can one discuss the reconcilability of miracles and science without those assumptions? I don’t think one really can for the following reason. Miracles are defined as a disruption in natural laws. Whether you think such a disruption is possible depends only on whether you think the natural laws have the “last word” or not. If we bracket this question, it only becomes a question of whether any individual miracle has enough evidence.
Is Naturalism Friendly to Science?
It is confidently assumed that naturalism, the dominant form of atheism, is the greatest friend of science. It is, after all, seemingly organized around science. But more than that, it seems to make science into its god. Science is omniscient – everything in reality can only be known through it. Science is omnipotent ( or as close to it as anything can come). Science gives us ever more advanced technology, which gives us the power to do ever more impressive feats, eventually leading us into a techno-paradise where there’ll be universal basic income and the only thing we’ll have to worry about is that the robots we made will be too smart and start to kill us. Science is also, according to people like Sam Harris and Michael Shermer, our source of moral values ( even though this doesn’t make sense). And anybody who does not wish to participate in this foolish worship is denounced as a superstitious enemy of science. But is naturalism a boon to science? The scientific method makes certain assumptions about the world that naturalism implicitly denies. Science assumes that inductive patterns in nature require explanation. If atheism is true, there is no reason why this should be the case. Why does a pattern require explanation? What makes it more special than disorder? Why does order require explanation, but disorder does not? Purpose. Order requires explanation, because it represents purpose. Indeed, a set of things is ordered only by virtue of a purpose or set of purposes. And purpose only comes from purposive agents. It is impossible for things which are incapable of purposive action to organize themselves according to a purpose, without a purposive agent. A worldview that denies the purposiveness of nature is no friend to science. A worldview that often wants to dismiss every patterned series of events or set of coincidences as mere chance, is hostile to science in a fundamental way. More than this, making science into the only source of knowledge ends up eliminating much of what it means to be human, including, interestingly, our own rational faculties by which we do science. Finally, science is, importantly, a social institution. It depends upon people being honest in their research. It is built on integrity and could not function properly without it. It should be troubling to us that some scientists, especially biologists, are moral skeptics ( or nihilists), at least more are than in the general population. They do not believe there is such a thing as objective morality. These atheists think that science is the only route to knowledge, so that if science cannot tell us that morality is a objectively and universally binding thing that transcends mere social convention or genetic fitness, then it isn’t. When beliefs like these start to shape the wider culture and systems of social sanction, we will start to eat its bitter fruits. Science as an institution will not survive if influential scientists ( like Richard Dawkins) don’t believe that honesty and integrity are irrevocably binding upon them and others. It requires a great deal of cognitive dissonance to hold to moral skepticism and to believe that no matter how many people believe this, there will be no effect on a moralistic system of social sanction that we currently have and on which science relies.
So we are told that science and religion don’t mix, but maybe this is only the case when science itself is awkwardly forced into the place of religion by its overly eager practitioners.
[i] Bertrand Russell, Religion and Science, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) p. 7
[ii] Ibid., p. 243
[iii] Alister McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending The Truth, ( New York: Harper Collins, 2009) p. 28