The "Conflict Thesis" between Science and Christianity

As described in the previous post, Christians are often caricaturized as holding on tightly to anti-scientific views, such as a flat Earth and geocentrism, in spite of strong scientific evidence to the contrary.  In later posts in this series, I hope to provide primary source documentation to help us understand the issue of belief in the flat Earth and the debate between geocentrism vs. heliocentrism, especially as it pertained to the trial of Galileo. But first it is important to understand a bit of the history behind this idea that Christianity and Science have always been in opposition, sometimes referred to as the "Conflict Thesis."

The Origin of the Conflict Thesis
The popularization of the “Conflict Thesis” can be traced back to two influential textbooks (both of which are still being printed and sold today):

John Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1875)
Andrew White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896)

Consider these statements by Draper and White:
“Roman Christianity and Science are recognized by their respective adherents as being absolutely incompatible; they cannot exist together; one must yield to the other; mankind must make it’s choice – it cannot have both.” (Draper, History… 363)

“In all modern history, interference with science in the supposed interest of religion, no matter how conscientious such interference may have been, has resulted in the direst evils both to religion and to science.” (White)

Even two hundred years later, their influence continues.  As I mentioned, both of these books are still being sold today, and one particular review of White's book on Amazon caught my attention. It's titled: Great history of the torture of scientists by theologians:

“Originally written in 1886, this is a comprehensive account of clashes between theological and scientific claims about how nature works. White systematically chronicles the persecution all the major areas of scientific inquiry had to go through from theologans before they were accepted : geology, mechanics, medicine, meteorology, biology, etc....  [B]ased on historical evidence, religious thinking *in science* [sic] only stunts the creativity and logical thought processes of scientists. In my experience in neuroscience, I have seen this many times.” (E. Thomson)
You may also find the review by Keith Wells, one of my colleagues from Biola's MASR program, and the subsequent comments, interesting.

A Scientific Revolution Against Religion?
E. Thomson's review gives the conventional wisdom of today, that scientists had to struggle to free science from the shackles of religious thinking.  The common belief is that the Scientific Revolution was a triumph of reason over religion, as these early scientists formulated and applied the scientific method to provide conclusive evidence which finally undermined the authority of the Church.  But this description of the agenda of the Scientific Revolution would be emphatically denied by the very scientists upon whose work much of modern science is based. Rather than being a revolt against religion, the basic principles of the Scientific Revolution are in fact rooted in the theological beliefs of these early scientists.

A Belief in a Rational Universe
A critical component to the rise of modern science is a belief in the rationality of the universe.  The universe follows laws that are defined, consistent, and uniform.  It was the Christian belief in an infinite, eternal, and personal God who made this universe which gave the fathers of modern science a basis for the rationality of the universe. 

To men like Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Bacon, the creation was orderly and uniform because it was created this way by an orderly, rational God.  In their own words:

Johannes Kepler
“The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order and harmony which has been imposed on it by God and which He revealed to us in the language of mathematics.”  (Defundamentis Astrologiae Certioribus, Thesis XX, 1601)

Isaac Newton
“This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.... This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God….  In him are all things contained and moved.” Isaac Newton, Principia

Writes historian John Hermann Randall:
“The whole form of Newtonian science practically forced men, as a necessary scientific hypothesis, to believe in an external Creator.”
(quoted in The Soul of Science by Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton, p. 91)

Presbyterian theologian Thomas Derr
“As the creation of a trustworthy God, nature exhibited regularity, dependability, and orderliness.  It was intelligible and could be studied.  It displayed a knowable order.”
(quoted in Pearcey and Thaxton, The Soul of Science)

Commented C.S. Lewis in his book, Miracles
“Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator.  In most modern scientists this belief has died: it will be interesting to see how long their confidence in uniformity survives it. Two significant developments have already appeared-the hypothesis of a lawless sub-nature, and the surrender of the claim that science is true. We may be living nearer than we suppose to the end of the Scientific Age.”

The Scientist as Priest
And rather than persecuted and tortured by theologians, many of these scientists were theologians themselves.

Johannes Kepler
“Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it befits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else, of the glory of God.”

Kepler actually wanted to serve as a full-time minister and theologian, but was instead led to study the stars. Late in his life he wrote, “I had the intention of becoming a theologian … but now I see how God is, by my endeavours, also glorified in astronomy, for ‘the heavens declare the glory of God.’”

“I give you thanks, Creator and God, that you have given me this joy in thy creation, and I rejoice in the works of your hands.  See I have now completed the work to which I was called.  In it I have used all the talents you have lent to my spirit.”
(Kepler, Harmonies of the World, quoted in Pearcey and Thaxton, The Soul of Science, p. 23)

Nicolaus Copernicus
“To know the mighty works of God, to comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power; to appreciate, in degree, the wonderful workings of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom ignorance cannot be more grateful than knowledge.”

Imagine conveying to our students the idea that gaining an appreciation of the wonderful workings of the universe through the study of science was considered an act of worship!

Writes Morris Kline in Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty, quoted in The Soul of Science by Pearcey and Thaxton:
“The search for the mathematical laws of nature was an act of devotion which would reveal the glory and grandeur of His handiwork....  Each discovery of a law of nature was hailed as evidence of God's brilliance rather than the investigator's.”

The glory for each discovery was given to God for creating nature in such a magnificent and comprehensive manner.  Rather than undermining faith, these scientists believed that their work strengthened faith in God, for only a divine Creator could have ordained the laws that proscribed the workings of the universe.

Describing the origin of modern science, Loren Eisley gave credit to “[t]he sheer act of faith that the universe possessed order and could be interpreted by rational minds . . . The philosophy of experimental science . . . began its discoveries and made use of its method in the faith, not the knowledge, that it was dealing with a rational universe controlled by a Creator who did not act upon whim nor interfere with the forces He had set in operation.” (Loren Eisley, Darwin's Century, p. 62).  He continued, “We must also observe that in one of those strange permutations of which history yields occasional rare examples, it is the Christian world which finally gave birth in a clear articulate fashion to the experimental method of science itself.”

Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton describe in The Soul of Science that:
“Far from impeding the progress of science, Christianity had actually encouraged it—that the Christian culture within which science arose was not a menace but a midwife to science” (p. 20).

Consider this list of believers who led the way in science:
  • William Foxwell Albright, archaeologist
  • Charles Babbage, creator of the computer
  • Francis Bacon, father of the scientific method
  • Robert Boyle, founder of modern chemistry
  • John Dalton, father of modern atomic theory
  • Leonhard Euler, mathematician
  • Jean Henri Fabre, chief founder of modern entomology
  • Michael Faraday, founder of electromagnetic induction and field theory
  • William Thomson Kelvin, thermodynamics
  • Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, co-inventor of calculus
  • James Clerk Maxwell, electromagnetic theory of light
  • Gregor Mendel, father of genetics
  • Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph
  • Blaise Pascal, mathematician and hydrostatics
  • Louis Pasteur, formulator of the germ theory of disease
  • William Mitchell Ramsay, archaeologist 
Our students need to be informed that, rather than standing in the way of science, history shows that Christians have in fact been at the forefront of the scientific endeavor.

For Further Reading
Nancy R. Pearcey and Charles Thaxton, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy.

Christianity and the Scientific Enterprise, by Charles Thaxton

Gladio Mentis and the "conflict" between science and religion - The Sword Of The Mind: The Imaginary War (STM)

Gladio Mentis also presents an annotated roster of some of these scientists who were firm believers in God:
The Sword Of The Mind: Unnecessary Necessities (Part 1) and (Part 2)

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  1. Gabriel Mckee said...

    You might want to check out the July/August 2007 issue of the science fiction magazine Analog, which includes Michael Flynn's story "Quaestiones Super Caelo et Mundo"-- an alternate history in which the scientific revolution takes place a few centuries early. It's got some good stuff on the links between early science and medieval theology. Flynn also wrote a non-fiction piece, "De Revolutione Scientiarum in 'Media Tempestas,'" which refutes the idea that the Middle Ages were an "Age of Faith" supplanted by an "Age of Reason," and even the idea that "faith" and "reason" are inherently opposed. I reviewed the issue here:

  2. Kendalf said...

    That is a great link! Thanks Gabriel! By any chance is Flynn's article available online anywhere? I'd love to see what he has to say, although I did enjoy your review.

  3. Anonymous said...

    Great blog. I found you as your referenced you Flat Earth Myth entry at Thinking Christian.
    In arguing against the myth created by the conflict thesis I mentioned once that much of the propagation of this faulty position in our society is owed to the Soviets. By the late 19th century (the time of White's and Draper's books - and after Marx) to be a member of the intelligentsia was to be an atheist and socialist.
    Challenged on this point I can not find my reference.
    Have you heard this angle and, if so, do have a citation?
    Thanks in advance.

  4. Kendalf said...

    Welcome! I've not heard the connection between intelligentsia and socialists, but you might try asking the people on the Quodlibeta Forum as they have much more research on the history of science and religion.

  5. PippinGaret said...

    According to this, the idea of an orderly, mathematical universe was originated by Christians. Yet that very idea of an orderly universe has scientists around the world trying to prove it without allowing God into the equation. This is the kind of thinking and intellectual progression that has led us into was my Bible teacher Mr. Wells calls "post-modernism", where people don't have the faith to follow Christ nor the confidence to lean on science. In a world filled with doubt and skeptics, this paradox is a very important part of the past.

  6. Mike Flynn said...

    By any chance is Flynn's article available online anywhere?

  7. Kendalf said...

    Thank you Mr. Flynn for making this available! And thank you for your contributions to this discussion!

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