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Scientia / Fides

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Are Science & Religion at War?

by Cameron Wybrow

One of the things that most modern people "know" is that religion and natural science are at war. After all, didn't the Catholic Church persecute Galileo, and didn't fundamentalists put Scopes on trial? And isn't it true that throughout history, religion has stood in the way of the progress of science?

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In fact, the notion of an inherent clash between religion and science is relatively recent. It became part of popular culture only in the Victorian era, as a result of works such as A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) by A. D. White. In earlier eras, there was no conception of "warfare" between the two bodies of knowledge. In the thirteenth century, the Dominican Albertus Magnus and the Franciscan Roger Bacon, among many others, regarded "natural philosophy" as something wholly compatible with faith; and the greatest early modern scientists, such as Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, and Boyle, were deeply religious men who saw themselves as thinking God's thoughts after him.

Exaggerated Conflicts

But what of the famous confrontations between science and religious teaching? It turns out that even the most dramatic of these do not support any notion of a general conflict. In the case of Galileo, there were Jesuit astronomers who were sympathetic with heliocentrism; it was largely the Dominicans, who tended to be dogmatic Aristotelians, who were hostile to it. Thus, it was not Christianity as such, but rather Christian Aristotelianism that held back modern astronomy. As for Darwin, the Scopes trial notwithstanding, his notion of evolution was hardly rejected by all of Christendom; his early supporters included many influential Anglican clergy, and the devout Presbyterian Asa Gray of Harvard did much to promote his views in America.

In fact, modern historical study suggests not only that Christianity is compatible with science, but that it was a central historical cause of the birth of modern science. This claim, made by Pierre Duhem, Michael Foster, R. G. Collingwood, Reijer Hooykaas, Francis Oakley, Stanley Jaki, and many others, is now widely accepted among historians of science, even if it has not yet filtered down to the popular press. Foster's version of the argument runs as follows.

Two Views of God

The God of Greek philosophy, even at his closest approach (i.e., in Plato's Timaeus) to the God of Christianity, was not omnipotent. Rather, he was constrained by the limitations of uncreated matter and lacked also the faculty of  arbitrary will, since he was purely rational and hence bound to conform in his ordering of nature to the rational structure of the world of Ideas. The Greek God was thus a "Demiurge," one who informed given matter according to a given plan, rather than a true Creator, who makes his own matter and devises his own plan.

In the Greek view, then, nature is an imperfect reflection in matter of a perfect model in the realm of thought. The Greek natural scientist was far more interested in the perfect model than in its imperfect manifestation. Because of this, Greek natural science was not primarily empirical. Greeks (barring a few exceptions) tended to speculate about how nature ought to be instead of experimenting and finding out how it actually was.

For the Christian, on the other hand, God is omnipotent. He is not limited by flawed, pre-existent matter, since he creates his matter ex nihilo. This means that his results will correspond exactly, not imperfectly, with his intention. Second, God's will is mysterious, not completely comprehensible by even the most perfect human reason. The Christian God has the capacity to will things beyond the requirements of a rational plan. This means that the order of nature, though displaying rational features, will not be completely deducible by thought alone.

Thus, for two reasons, the modern natural scientist, operating under the influence of Christianity, knows that empirical methods are essential for his study. The first point, God's omnipotence, tells him that actual objects are perfect achievements of God's intentions and thus worth understanding in themselves. The second point, the inscrutability of God, tells him that he would be arrogant to think that puny human reason can fathom the purposes of God, which means that he must look at what God did create, not attempt to deduce what God must have created. Thus, Newton and Galileo were successful scientists because they had absorbed into their view of nature the Christian doctrine of Creation.

None of this denies the important role that the Greeks played in the rise of modern science; without the Greek emphasis on reason and mathematics, science would not have been born. But without the understanding that nature was the accurate expression of the will of an omnipotent God, there was no basis for confidence in an empirical scientific enterprise. Modern science, far from being opposed to the doctrine of Creation, is that doctrine's child. 

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