The Gap Between Science and Religion
The 1960 film ‘Inherit the Wind,’ based on the play of the same name, creates a fictionalized version of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial, wherein a heroic young teacher stands his ground in court, bravely defending the truth of Darwinian Evolution against the entrenched Christian dogmatism of a backwards southern town. Since its 1960 release, the film has been re-made three times – most recently in 1999.
The power of this narrative - which explains its insistent re-telling nearly a century after the events it portrays - falls upon the ever-widening gap between the Christianity which lay at the foundation of American culture, and the science upon which it casts all of its faith and hope: A gap which began with Darwin.
The Modern Fairy-tale of Christian Ignorance
There is a fairytale being told - which is ever more widely believed as time goes on – that Christianity has always been the foe of science. In his article “Tragedy of Religion Stifling Science,” writer Stephen Pastore says:
“Organized religion has stifled science for more than a thousand years. Most of us are familiar with the story of Galileo who discovered that the Earth was not the center of the universe, nor even our sun, but that we were merely one speck among uncountable billions. The church put a stop to him with the threat of torture and death. The same was true of medicine; the study of human anatomy was forbidden.
“Imagine if the church had embraced discovery instead of persecuting scientists and other innovative thinkers. We would be a thousand years ahead of where we are now! Imagine humanity a thousand years into the future. Cancer would be long gone — in fact, every major disease would have been vanquished centuries ago. Is there any doubt we would long ago have traveled to other planets, eased the burdens on our fragile environment and solved all the problems (hunger, energy) we now so dread?”
In point of fact, the Bible – upon which the very early Christian civilization pinned its primary belief – stands in sharp contrast to the competing paganism of the day. Instead of using little gods and heroes pulling the strings to get the sun to rise each day, hold the earth upon their backs, push the grass up from the ground and throw the lightning down from the sky, it places God as distinct and separate from the universe. While a great deal of pagan mythology existed for the express purpose of explaining how the cosmos worked, the Bible serves no such purpose, devoting its pages – whether rightly or wrongly – to the relationship between humans and their God.
Christians, then, were free to explore the functions of the universe without contradicting the pages of the Bible. If a Christian such as Galileo were to discover that the earth orbited the sun, he may have stood in defiance of Aristotle - the prominent voice in science of the day - but he did nothing to contradict scripture.
The Parting of Ways
Indeed, this freedom of inquiry became the root of modern scientific thought. Roger Bacon founded the scientific method, William of Ockham established the famous “Ockham’s Razor,” men such as Galileo, Copernicus and Kepler pioneered astronomy, Newton discovered the laws that define modern physics, and the list goes on and on. The early history of scientific thought is all but monopolized by men of faith.
The ‘crook in the lot,’ the parting of ways, the breakup and divorce of Christianity and the scientific academic world came about through the person of Darwin.
While it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the massively complicated – not to mention enormously controversial – ideas about the function and form which evolution takes, suffice it to say that the perception that Darwin evoked in both the Christian and secular mind was that one could explain the vast, complex, beautiful and diverse tableau of life itself – from soup to nuts – without appealing to any kind of God.
For centuries Christians were content in their understanding that the universe did not require a God in a hamster wheel, plugging away in order to keep everything in motion – that instead, God was a master watchmaker, a beautiful machinist who created and designed a mechanism which could be studied and understood for what it was. But the convergence of science and Christian belief was at the point of origins. The universe may not require a God at a hand crank, but it did require a design and a designer. For someone to suggest some mechanic by which a universe could spill forth; and more importantly the human beings who yearned for philosophy, justice, morality, theology – for scientific understanding, could all come about by the spill of a paint can without any artist at the canvas, this was both the unraveling of Christian foundations and the freedom of secularists eager for some escape from the dominant Christian thought.
Contributions from Religion and Science
There is a truth which is steadily being forgotten and swept under the rug as a result of this gap. The truth is that the moral ideals to which Western culture appeals are a result of its Christian foundations. In his 2015 article “What Scares the New Atheists,” Atheist writer John Gray states:
“It’s probably just as well that the current generation of atheists seems to know so little of the longer history of atheist movements. When they assert that science can bridge fact and value, they overlook the many incompatible value-systems that have been defended in this way. There is no more reason to think science can determine human values today than there was at the time of Haeckel or Huxley. None of the divergent values that atheists have from time to time promoted has any essential connection with atheism, or with science. How could any increase in scientific knowledge validate values such as human equality and personal autonomy? The source of these values is not science. In fact, as the most widely-read atheist thinker of all time argued, these quintessential liberal values have their origins in monotheism.”
Similarly, in his 2010 paper “Morals Without God,” Atheist and Primatologist Frans de Waal states:
“Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately. It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.”
This has become a dilemma for both Christians and Secularists. Except for perhaps the most fundamentalist pockets of Christianity, Christians do not deny the effectiveness of science as a system of inquiry and discovery – but how to get over this gap of origins? Even so, except for the most extremist among them, the non-religious community recognizes that morality and humane values are important to society, but how to divorce them from their religious roots?
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Resolving the Conflict
The fact of the matter is that Western culture at large is not “at war” with Christianity. According to Pew Forum research done in 2014, on a scale of 0 to 100, Americans feel 62 “degrees” positive about Catholics and 61 “degrees” about Evangelical Christians (with 50 degrees being completely non-committal). By comparison, Americans feel 41 “degrees” negative about Atheists – 11 degrees from center, about as negative as they feel positive about Christians.
However, it is Christians that continue to approach the public by framing the debate in terms of science. Christian opinions towards Evolution cover the entire spectrum; from the Institute for Creation Research - which essentially takes the Genesis Creation story as literally as possible, and then provides theories and data to support this model – to BioLogos – which embraces practically every aspect of modern evolutionary theory, only stating that God exists and is still involved in human lives – with a variety of theories running everywhere in between.
However, when a Christian approaches a non-Christian with some kind of data that they say runs contrary to evolutionary theory – all with the purpose of convincing that non-Christian that the Bible got it right – in the Christian’s mind, they are cleverly using science to convince this person of the truth of Christianity. However in the non-Christian’s mind, they are doing the opposite. They are attacking science.
And this is how the public views Christianity: a stodgy Southern lawyer leveling folksy and ill-informed attacks against the heroic instructors of modern day.
Scientific inquiry involves a dispassionate assessment of data compared to models in order to determine how systems work. As such, it may or may not support conclusions convenient to Christian ideas. The fact that it is regularly appealed to in order to both attack and to support Christian ideas (not to mention politics), should serve as a caution.
Just so, it is a true tragedy that Christians ever latched onto science as a tool of evangelism. As acknowledged by even the most brilliant of atheists, the fundamental roots of thought and morality exist in the West because of Christianity. It was not until Christians saw science as a threat that evangelism was ever about anything but the words and deeds of Christ.
The fundamental message of the Christian Gospel, that humans may know a relationship with God through belief in Jesus Christ, has not changed in 2000 years. Science, however, has. And science will continue to change as new data is uncovered and new models are constructed. This is a truth which no generation has ever firmly grasped, as each new generation congratulates themselves as having settled the final word on scientific truth.
Your Angry Theist from United States on January 24, 2018:
This isn't religion vs. science. It is simply naturalism vs. religion. In this case, naturalism is disguising itself under the banner of scientific truth.
Joel Furches (author) from Jarrettsville, Maryland on February 25, 2017:
So here's the problem I see with that, Ron: Christians themselves haven't agreed on the science. A great many Christians are using hard core, fundamentalist 6-day Creationism as their basis for evangelism. They BEGIN the conversation by trying to prove 6-day Creationism. Moreover, they are encouraged by countless ministries and resources to do just that.
Now I'm not going to take a side in the origins debate, but your dedicated Apologists tend to lean toward an old earth model. It makes the various Cosmological arguments more effective, and it is more compatible with the agreed-upon scientific models.
Some even go so far as to confirm every aspect of the secular model of origins with the caveat that God somehow shaped the process that brought about Life, the Universe, and Everything.
So when a Christian goes out evangelizing, which scientific model should they use to prove the Bible and win souls? Give me whatever answer you will, but be prepared to suffer the wrath of dogmatic Christians who vehemently disagree, and are even willing to call you out on your doctrine because you don't embrace the proper model.
Moreover, once you have gained the ear of your audience with a model of origins that calls for a Creator God (as well it ought to), you still have the task of proving that it was the Christian God, and then sharing the Gospel.
Whatever your model of origins, if we can show that Christ was crucified and raised, we have proved both God's existence AND preached the Gospel.
The death and resurrection of Christ is the essential doctrine that ties all of Christendom together, and - whatever our particular dogmas - unites us in the salvation which is our hope.
Science is a very important Apologetics tool. And Apologetics may lead to evangelism. Sometimes it is required for evangelism. But for the purposes of evangelism, the Cross supersedes the controversy over origins.
Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 23, 2017:
Joel, I consider what you call scientific debate to be simply one tool in the evangelistic tool box. There are people for whom clearing away erroneous preconceptions based on what's been presented to them as the findings of science is a prerequisite to gaining a hearing on spiritual matters. For most people that particular tool won't be needed or useful, but with those who believe science disproves the existence of anything beyond the natural universe, that tool ought to be available, finely honed, and ready to be pulled out of the tool box as needed.
Joel Furches (author) from Jarrettsville, Maryland on February 23, 2017:
Thank you for your well framed and thoughtful response to the article, Ron.
Let me ask you this: do you believe that scientific debate should be used as a primary tool for evangelism?
Not apologetics or intellectual inquiry; but evangelism?
Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 22, 2017:
Joel, if I understand you correctly, you believe that when Christians make arguments based on science, the public perceives that they are attacking science. Your conclusion (again, if I'm reading you right) is that Christian communication to the public at large should stay focused on "Christ and Him crucified."
I don’t have direct data on the general public’s reactions to assertions by Christians regarding science, but I suspect they are not as negative as they appear to you. For example, as of 2014 Gallup reports that 73% of respondents believe that God either created humans in their present form, or guided the process of evolution to that end. That says to me that the majority of Americans do not perceive that disputing the explicit claims of many modern evolutionists that science explains the origins of humanity without reference to God is like “a stodgy Southern lawyer leveling folksy and ill-informed attacks against the heroic instructors of modern day.”
I think there are very legitimate reasons for Christians to attack not science, but the idea that science fully explains reality. The scientific method must of necessity assume that all effects can be explained by causes that occur within the closed physical system we call the universe. Since God, by definition, is not contained within that closed system, science has no means of addressing or even acknowledging the role, if any, He may have played in the creation of humankind or of the universe itself. Thus, although science can describe observed relationships between matter, energy, and events (that’s what the “laws of science” do) , it cannot claim to describe reality as a whole. In other words, science cannot give us “truth” about issues outside its limited purview.
Yet the claim is now being forcefully made that not only does science reveal “truth,” but that it is the only reliable source for that knowledge. That claim is what Christians can and should fight.
One way of doing so is to point out, on the basis of science itself, where the evidence does not support the popular understanding of the “truth” science is assumed to have revealed. That is exactly the case with evolution. For example, Darwin himself acknowledged that the fossil record available in his day tended to invalidate rather than support his theory. He believed that as more of that fossil record came to light, that situation would be reversed. That has not happened – the fossil record is still marked by the same gaps Darwin was unable to explain. Yet, most people are not aware of these and a number of other facts that contradict the assertion that evolution has been proven to be true.
In my opinion, it is a definite and legitimate part of the apologetic task to make people aware of the whole story, not just the part that partisans of a purely naturalistic outlook want them to believe.