The British mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once said, “When we consider what religion is for humankind, and what science is, it is no exaggeration to say that the future course of history depends upon the relation between them.”
These are indeed strong words, but Mr. Whitehead is probably right.
However, before we consider the possible ways in which Christianity and science relate to each other, we should probably define how we are using the terms.
Science, as defined by The Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science is, “A rigorous, systematic endeavor that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.”
Christianity is the essential teachings of the Christian faith derived from Scripture and affirmed by the great historical, ecumenical creeds of church history.
With the table set, can you really believe in science and God?
Four Ways that Science and Christianity Relate to Each Other
Historian Ian Barbour famously noted that there have been four unique models for how the relationship between science and religion has been historically understood.
In recent times, this view has been widely believed and promoted by media outlets and popular culture. According to this view, Christianity and science are locked in a battle for the hearts and minds of the world. Ironically, the conflict view contains both proponents of creation science like Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis as well as Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists. Many Creationists views of Genesis 1 make any kind of evolutionary process (macro or micro) impossible, while the atheistic naturalism of the New Atheists make religious belief invalid. Each side understands the relationship of science and Christianity to be a war.
This view however has its problems. As historian David Lindberg observes, “In those not infrequent cases where Christianity and science have attempted to occupy the same intellectual ground, the historical actors have generally preferred peace to warfare, compromise to confrontation, and have found means—through compromise, accommodation, clarification, reinterpretation, revision and the identification of outright error—of negotiating a state of peaceful coexistence.”
Further, given that God is the author of both Scripture and the natural world, the conflict view has significant challenges for Christians.
It was Galileo who once said, “The Bible is about how to get to heaven, not how the heavens go.” The late Harvard paleontologist Stephen J. Gould echoed this sentiment when he once quipped, “Science gets the age of rocks, and religion the Rock of Ages.”
Thus, the independence view maintains that science and Christianity represent autonomous fields of study because they ask different questions and belong in different domains. While it is true that most of the scientific study done by biologists, meteorologists, and chemists is not relevant to Christian theology, a Christian worldview pushes a certain understanding of the physical world. For example, in the Christian understanding of personhood, people possess immaterial souls and have greater dignity, value, and worth than other creatures because they are made in the image of God. This is simply incompatible with the understanding that people are simply chemical-biological, reactionary machines.
At some point, there will be interaction between theology (theistic or atheistic) and science. Therefore, the independence view also has significant challenges for Christians.
As the late Pope John Paul II said, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.”
The Dialogue view is most often illustrated with the two-books metaphor, a concept that has been used by Christian theologians since around 200 A.D. Theologians like Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas understood knowledge of God being available from two sources—the “book” of nature and the “book” of Scripture.
- The book of nature – often called general revelation – is a source of knowledge by which God’s existence and some of His attributes can be known (Ps. 19:1–4; Rom. 1:18–20).
- The book of Scripture – often called special revelation – is THE source of knowledge by which God’s existence and all of His attributes can be known (2 Tim. 3:16–17; 2 Pet. 1:20–21).
God is the author of both books, so when rightly understood, they are not independent nor do they stand in conflict with each other. However, it is important to remember that our interpretations of each book are fallible. Therefore, when we encounter apparent contradictions between the two books, we should strive to ensure that we are understanding and interpreting each one accurately. For example, when Nicholas Copernicus proved that the earth revolves around the Sun, that meant that this phrase in Psalm 93:1 was not intended to be a scientific statement: Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved. On the other hand, when Psalm 139: 13 declares, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb”, Christians have historically understood that unborn babies are indeed souls, and infinitely more than simply tissue and chemicals.
Accordingly, as opposed to the Conflict and Independence view, the Dialogue view values both Scripture and science while seeking to find beneficial connections between them.
The fourth view for how the relationship between science and religion has been historically understood is commonly called the Integration view. On its efficacy, Professor Bruce Gordon writes, “Dialogue is nice, but it takes you only so far. Moving beyond milquetoast notions of mutually enriching conversations to a robust metaphysical integration of science and philosophical theology is necessary.”
In this view, science both points to God and requires God’s existence to be carried out in a rational way.
While there are certainly challenges with this view, more than the previous three, it seeks a unified approach to both God’s Word and God’s world.
Where the Conflict Really Lies
There you have it. Can you believe in science and God?
Yes. In fact there are four unique ways to do it.
The real issue though has never been the “conflict” between science and Christianity. More than the two even working in harmony, from its inception, the principles and philosophy of the Christian worldview has in fact provided the possibility for the rise of modern science. Professor Noah Efron says as much when he writes, “Generations of historians and sociologists have discovered many ways in which Christians, Christian beliefs, and Christian institutions played crucial roles in fashioning the tenets, methods, and institutions of what in time became modern science. They found that some forms of Christianity provided the motivation to study nature systematically.”
The real issue, or conflict, has always been between theism and atheistic naturalism. I.E.: Is there a God or not?
In his book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, renowned philosopher Alvin Plantinga argued that there is indeed a fundamental compatibility between science and religious belief, while suggesting that there is a deeper conflict between science and naturalism. Belief in God, he says, actually assists scientific inquiry.
Conflict. Independence. Dialogue. Integration.
Regardless of which (I’d suggest Dialogue or Integration), belief in God and belief in science are not only compatible, but the study of one will most likely contribute to the deeper joy and fascination of the other.