The Tension between Science and Religion
Regis Nicoll Regis Nicoll's weblog
- 2007 Apr 24
(This article first appeared on BreakPoint.org)
"There are two books laid before us to study, to prevent our falling into error; first, the volume of Scriptures, which reveal the will of God; then the volume of the Creatures, which express His power.” (Sir Francis Bacon)
For the better part of the last century, science and religion have had a rocky relationship. The source of their tension, which has intensified in recent years, can be traced to Enlightenment thought that held unaided reason omnipotent.
From the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, an explosion of scientific discoveries convinced thinkers that the cosmos was a grand machine that could be analyzed without reference to its Designer. By the twentieth century, the overwhelming success of science in modern medicine and technology strengthened the conviction that the universe was a self-contained mechanism.
Although trust in the explanatory power of science soared, faith and religion were allowed a voice—as long as that voice was restricted to man’s spiritual needs. The late Stephen Jay Gould called this bifurcated view, “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA).
According to NOMA, science and religion address two unconnected spheres of the human experience: one, physical—the domain of sense perception open to experimentation and verification; the other, metaphysical—related to questions of being, meaning, and values which are not open to empirical proofs. Since each governs separate spheres and relies on different authorities and methods, they have nothing to say to each other.
Today, naturalistic science and NOMA are reigning paradigms in the scientific establishment. But for the pioneers of science, the study of nature was inextricably linked to nature’s God—specifically, the God of Christianity. But first, a little background.
In primitive history, man found himself in a world of both regularity and capriciousness. Diurnal periods, seasons of the year, moon phases, the cycle of life, and the like, formed a seabed of predictability that enabled man to function in his day-to-day existence. But superimposed on that seabed were earthquakes, floods, droughts, pestilence, and disease—things that came unexpectedly and without warning.
These vagaries caused man to view himself as a victim of mysterious forces that ruled the earth and skies. For him, order and chaos, fate and fortune, or warring gods were in perpetual clash, making any systematic understanding of the world impossible.
But by the fifth century B.C., the Greeks acknowledged a “cosmic principle of order” they called the Logos, which gave rise to a rational, comprehensible universe. This was the seed of natural philosophy—a system of observation and logical analysis. The most influential figures of the period were Plato and Aristotle, who approached the study of nature from two different starting points.
For Plato, the world consisted of matter and forms. Matter was the stuff of sense perception—concrete objects that exist for a time, undergo change, and finally vanish. Forms, on the other hand, were eternal, immaterial ideals which defined the qualities and purposes of matter.
In Plato’s universe, matter and forms were separate and distinct, with the material world but a shadowy projection created by the real world of forms. From this dichotomous perspective, Plato studied the nature not to understand it, but to unravel the metaphysical mysteries of meaning, purpose, and the essence of the good life.
Aristotle, in contrast, held that the material world was real and that nature—its material existence and immaterial forms—was a cohesive, integrated whole. Consequently, Aristotle studied nature for its own sake becoming a prodigious investigator, especially in the classification of flora and fauna.
Although both men applied logic and deductive analysis to their observations, their failure to incorporate experimentation caused them to reach a number of invalid conclusions. For example, Aristotle believed in a geocentric universe and in the celestial substance, aether. He also declared that heavier objects fell faster than lighter ones—a conclusion that, in testament to Aristotle’s enduring influence, would go unchallenged for nearly 2000 years!
Experimentation was shunned because it was associated with physical work—the duty of servants and slaves. For citizens and persons of standing, the only commendable work was the high exercises of the intellect: art, politics, and philosophy.
Natural philosophy was further hampered by a tendency toward dualism. Even Aristotle, despite his belief in nature’s wholeness, reasoned that there were two sets of laws governing the universe: one for the heavens which were pure and eternal, and another for the earth which was corrupt and fleeting.
This led to an emphasis of the heavenly over the earthly, causing the advance of science to languish centuries after Aristotle’s death. Although there were alchemy, astrology and medicine, the deeper understandings of chemistry, astronomy, and medical science would have to await nearly two millennia for a new paradigm.
THROUGH THE LENS SCRIPTURE
The low view of nature held by the ancient philosophers stood in stark contrast to that in Scripture.
In the opening chapter of Genesis, the Creator declared creation, all of it—material and immaterial, seen and unseen, celestial and terrestrial—good! Included were a pair of co-workers who, in contradistinction to Greek dualism—were “living souls” comprised of a material body and immaterial spirit. Their job assignment: to manage, care for, and enrich the Creator’s handiwork.
But it's in the gospel account we find the supreme statement of nature's value. There we read of the Creator assuming corporeality for an earthly visitation to redeem and restore a world wobbling on its axis from sin.
The significance of the material world, as evidenced in God’s dazzling display of love, couldn’t be further removed from that reckoned by the ancient philosophers. Through the lens of scripture, the physical world is of inestimable worth in the divine calculus.
In the thirteenth century a Dominican scholar used that lens to refract the blurry image of the Logos into that of the living God. Like the apostle Paul who stood in the Areopagus calling out the identity of the “UNKNOWN GOD” to the Athenian seekers, Thomas Aquinas declared that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was the “cosmic principle of order” of the Greek philosophers.
Aquinas argued that the universe is intelligible not because it is a product of an impersonal uncaused Cause, but because it is a creation of a rational God. This God, though separate from His creation, sustains it and values it, and destines it for a glorious makeover. In the meantime, He has endowed a special creature—man—with intelligence, giving him the responsibility to exercise his rational powers in caring for creation. For Aquinas, this was the God of scripture.
Thomas Aquinas was pivotal in changing the prevailing sentiment that nature was inherently corrupt. As nature became restored to its proper place, interest in the material world grew and the study of nature became viewed as a noble pursuit. This laid the groundwork for cultural and technological advances that would come later.
THE BIRTH OF SCIENCE
Roger Bacon was a Franciscan monk and a contemporary of Aquinas. Bacon and, later, William Ockham, another Franciscan, introduced the ideas of induction and verification into what would become the backbone of the scientific method. But it wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the crawl to discovery took a sudden, upward lurch. It was then that another devout believer named Bacon—Francis, this time—amended the venerable Aristotelian method with hands-on experimentation. By synthesizing observation and hypothesis with experimentation and validation, Bacon sired a method of investigation which would be a template for all who followed.
Within a few decades, man’s understanding of the world was turned on its head by Kepler, Galileo, and Newton: all men of faith; men whose Christian worldview gave them confidence in a rational, comprehensible world; men who considered the study of nature a sacred calling. They were the vanguard of something that had been held back for millennia by pagan philosophy and mysticism: Science.
After midwifing science, Christian thought catalyzed the scientific revolution and sustained it for the next two hundred years. As historian Alvin J. Schmidt remarks in his book, Under the Influence, “[V]irtually all the scientists from the Middle Ages to the mid-eighteenth century—many of whom were seminal thinkers—not only were sincere Christians but were often inspired by biblical postulates and premises in their theories that sought to explain and predict natural phenomena.”
Well into the nineteenth century, Christian thinkers continued their work on the scientific frontier. John Dalton, Andre Ampere, Georg Ohm, Michael Faraday, Louis Pasteur, William Kelvin, Gregor Mendel, and George Washington Carver were in the legion of committed Christians who made foundational contributions in the fields of electro-magnetism, microbiology, medicine, genetics, chemistry, atomic theory, and molecular motion.
ON THE SHOULDERS
It is noteworthy that despite the technological and engineering marvels produced by ancient Egypt, China, and India, true science did not come out from those civilizations. Because of their transcendental worldview, the workings of Nature were thought to be beyond the grasp of mere mortals. Consequently, scientific advancement went so far, but no farther.
Neither did science emerge from Islamic culture which, after its Golden Age, has been in free fall since A.D. 1200. It was then that Muslims embraced a more orthodox Islam in which Allah was a capricious puppeteer beyond reason and logic, and man his fatalistic marionette.
Granted, these cultures made some great technological achievements, but it is the unique Christian understanding of God and His creation that made modern science possible. Whether they realize it or not, every scientist today stands on the shoulders of those whose work was an outworking of their Christian faith.
“Every unbiased mind must admit that the age in which the chief development of the science of mechanics took place was an age of predominately theological cast.” (Ernst Mach, German physicist)
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