Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

With the ongoing discussions about Bruce Waltke’s video at the BioLogos website and his subsequent resignation from RTS, as well as the long comment thread here at Evangel about events in Genesis, I thought I would post some thoughts about the relationship between science and religion that were gathered from a series of helpful lectures from the Teaching Company. Some might find it helpful and others, I’m sure, will not.


As a child the subject I found most interesting was the natural and physical sciences. Sunday evenings were often dedicated to sitting in front of the television marveling at the entertaining experiments on Newton’s Apple and the elaborate habitats of myriad creatures on Nature. Often I found myself, against my parents wishes, wanting to spend another hour watching Nova explore the vast expanse of the universe, but bedtime was past due. In elementary school we took six weeks to study the anatomy of the human body and were assigned projects to study a favorite animal (mine was the wolf). I always found the digestive system to be absolutely fascinating. Yet every encounter with deep scientific questions were met with deeper questions about the origin of humanity, the age of earth, and how the book of Genesis fit into it all.

Being raised in a conservative religious home in a culture of evolution made for a protective mindset that was adversarial to the public education of biological sciences. Soon the intriguing questions of science became overwhelmed by the dread of a conflict that lingered in the background that seemed irreconcilable: science and religion are at odds, hopelessly at war with one another with no chance for peace. You must choose between one or the other. Though I was not a good Protestant since sola Scriptura didn’t mean very much to me (I never read the Bible much growing up), my scientific curiosities were stifled by the unsettling belief that science left no room for God; that its hostilities towards the supernatural left my cherished beliefs labeled derisively as “creationist.” Why would I want to be a part of that?

Naturally, when I came across the writings of Phillip E. Johnson I felt a sense of intellectual liberation in that I did not have to submit to an a priori commitment to metaphysical naturalism to think scientifically. But there still lingered a feeling of discontent as I surveyed the carnage from the warfare between religion and science perpetuated by the ongoing controversies between “Darwinism” and “Intelligent Design” evidenced currently in Ben Stein’s new movie Expelled. It seems as the cycle of violence will continue as long as advocates of intelligent design try to wedge their ideas into school curriculums and the so-called “new atheists” publish scorching treatises against religion entitled The End of Faith, The God Delusion, Breaking the Spell, and God: The Failed Hypothesis. At some point, after all the publishing, conferencing, legal wrangling, and court rulings one begins to wonder: how did we get to here?

This question is saliently addressed by Dr. Lawrence M. Principe, a professor of the History of Science and Chemistry at Johns Hopkins University and lecturer of the Teaching Company’s Science and Religion series. I came across Dr. Principe’s lectures via advertisement and thought the subject matter would make great listening material while driving seven hours from Chicago to Minneapolis. Consisting of twelve thirty minute lectures, Dr. Principe addresses the problems of defining the terms, how science and religion relate, how they influence each other, and how they have diverged over the scope of a Western history from Augustine to the present. His study was both illuminating and interesting in surprisingly helpful ways.

Faith and Reason

Against the popular notion that science and religion are in conflict, Principe argues that both are in the pursuit of knowledge. Often what happens in what he calls the “conflict thesis” people understand science to be about the obtainment of “facts” and religion the promulgation of “values” but this will not do. Each term has been embedded in a historical context that demands more nuance. Science generally is thought of as a body of knowledge and practices that studies the natural world. Religion can mean among other things “practice,” “theology,” and “faith.” Theology functions like science in that in that generates knowledge claims through certain practices and methods that focus on the supernatural that has implications for the natural world.

One special relationship that arises in each of these disciplines is between that of faith and reason. Principe argues that the belief that religion operates by faith and science by reason is too sloppy. Science often begins with faith statements and depends on them in order to apply its method, while; on the other hand, theology tests its claims by relying on logic and reason. When theology was considered the “queen of sciences” in the Middle Ages masterpieces of logic and reason came out the theological writings of the day that would put much of the contemporary work in theology to shame. Today, the effort to create an impenetrable boundary between science and religion is hopeless in the face of such claims, like for example, that the universe is not eternal and it has a definite beginning. Is this a religious claim or a scientific one? Obviously, it is both, and how science answers this question will have bearing on theological ideas.

How the conflict thesis came to be is blamed on the writings of John William Draper and Andrew Dixon White. Both of these thinkers produced writings in the late 19th century claiming that science and religion have throughout history been in conflict. According to Principe, and most historians of science, their claims are absolutely bogus and totally distort the historical record. It is hard to overemphasize how flawed Principe finds their research. He describes Drapers work as “some of the worst historical writing you are ever likely to come across.” The book in question, A History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, is riddled with twisted chronology, interpretation by declaration, and quotations taken out of context to even say things that are completely contrary to what the author was trying to say. The book is so bad, says Principe, that it is a chore to pick out a section for his students to examine that would not be laughed at. Andrew Dixon White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom doesn’t fair much better in that it employs much of the same fallacious historiography and even cites works of fiction as if they were sources of historical fact. Principe compares White’s tactics with that of a historian citing The Da Vinci Code in a study of the historical Jesus! Still the influence of these two books was wide, and they still give considerable support to the myth that science and religion have always been at war with one another.

The reality is that science and religion have a far more complicated relationship which is typified in the writings and thought of St. Augustine. Augustine’s understanding of faith and reason led him to believe that there can be no final conflict between the “book of nature” and the “book of Scripture” since both are the product of God’s authorship. Since all truth is God’s truth it follows that whatever truth found in Scripture and nature cannot be contrary to one another. If there was such a case of conflict, interpreters of both nature and Scripture must labor to make sure they are seeing things correctly and neither is beyond correction. For Augustine, interpretation of Scripture was much harder because God’s revelation was party obscured by the human language of the inspired human authors. This did not mean the authors were in error with what they wrote, instead they were bound to a particular viewpoint and particular history that is often difficult to grasp as we parse the meaning of Scripture. Correct interpretation is an exercise of reason that follows from the act of faith that seeks to understand the data in light of the best scientific data available. To fail in this endeavor is to bring the Christian religion into disrepute and ridicule for being unlearned. Thus, for Augustine, the knowledge of the natural world was indispensable for correctly understanding the glory of God’s revelation and interpreting the Bible.

More on: Science

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles