Science and Religion – Where is the Conflict?


“History is often about reminding us of things we’ve forgotten,” said Prof. Lawrence M. Principe of Johns Hopkins University in a course titled “Science and Religion,” one of The Great Courses of The Teaching Company (, published in 2006.  Professor Principe is both an organic chemist and a historian of science.  He wants to remind us that science and theology have not, historically, been at war with each other.  They have come into conflict over particular scientific or theological positions, but so does conflict arise between scientific positions and between theological positions.  Conflict is typical of intellectual discourse, be it about the natural world or about the world beyond the material we can sense (directly or indirectly).  The two types of truth-seeking have grown up together within Western Christianity with much in common, informing each other along the way. 

Theology Informing Science

Theology pioneered the logical analysis and disputational techniques we think of now as distinctive to rational inquiry, science in particular. More surprising may be that medieval theologians developed the modern preference for explaining natural events in terms of natural causes.  They realized that only natural causation is really comprehensible to the human mind.  While a natural cause, like the wind, may itself have a supernatural cause, like God, only the natural or secondary cause we can comprehend has any explanatory power.  Recourse to the supernatural is pointless, because it is beyond our comprehension.  This is “methodological naturalism,” a practical theological invention that has become the foundation of modern science.  This is not the same as “philosophical naturalism,” which claims the “natural” is all there is, that there is no “supernatural” world.  This is a philosophical, not a scientific, assertion.  The very nature of science puts the supernatural beyond the scope of scientific understanding.

Science Informing Theology

On the other hand, according to Prof. Principe, St. Augustine asserted “the need for up-to-date demonstrated natural knowledge among theologians and exegetes [interpreters of Holy Scripture].”  St. Augustine himself (A.D. 354-430) spent 15 years in rational interpretation of Genesis I in light of Greek philosophy and mathematics and then-current knowledge of the natural world.  He concluded that the universe started in an instantaneous moment of creation and developed over time into what contemporary astronomers could see.  The Big Bang Theory was thus anticipated before medieval times by one of the most foundational leaders and thinkers of Christianity!  Prof.  Principe also claims the idea that living beings could arise naturally from non-living matter would have surprised no medieval theologian.  “Christian theology has proven itself remarkably flexible in its ability to adopt, adapt, and explore new scientific findings— to see in essence what they mean.”  “Theology has come away from the encounter with new views of man’s place in relation to the creator of time, space, and nature.”

A 20th-Century Conflict – Social and Political, Not Intellectual

What to make then of the conventional wisdom that science and religion are perpetually at odds?  In 12 excellent lectures, Prof. Principe lays out the historical argument that this conflict is more apparent than real and relatively recent historically and surprisingly trivial intellectually.  It seems Charles Darwin was reacting to an unnecessarily narrow and distinctively English Protestant interpretation of God and Christianity.  Moreover, the modern-day conflict between evolution and creationism (or intelligent design) is just that, modern, a phenomenon of the 20th century, not the 19th.  And it is more a social and political conflict among naïve interpreters of science and Christianity than it is an intellectual conflict.

Charles Darwin in Proper Historical Context

Before further exploration of the life and work of Charles Darwin after his return from the voyage of the Beagle, I will explore in the next few posts the general history of the relationship between science and religion, using Prof. Principe’s lectures as my primary guide (triangulation from different sources to come later).  As I have argued at the outset of this project, it is critically important to put Charles’s thinking in the proper historical context, so that we understand to what he truly was reacting as he developed his theory of evolution and his ideas about God and religion.

Defining Science and Religion 

Prof. Principe carefully defines his terms.  “The content of both science and religion is made up of statements and claims about the way things are; science, about the way things are predominantly, but not entirely, in the natural world; theology predominantly, but not entirely, about the way things are in the spiritual world.”  They each include both a body of knowledge claims and a set of methods for gaining, assessing, accumulating and integrating the knowledge claims.  Methodologically, good science and good theology are quite similar, even though their knowledge claims are mostly about quite different realms of reality.

Prof. Principe distinguishes religious practice, theology and faith.  Practice refers to “the observances and actions that flow from a religious commitment, for example, attending church, giving alms, praying, fasting at particular periods, moral self-discipline, and so forth.”  Theology “is the intellectual, methodical study of God, the spiritual world, God’s attributes, actions, and relationship to creation [the natural world].”  Faith “is a method of arriving at knowledge claims.  The method is by simple belief, by assumption, or suspended disbelief.”  When talking about the interaction of science and religion, we are very often talking about science and theology and typically in the historical context of Western Christianity, which created the culture within which modern science arose.

Traditional Christian theology generates its knowledge claims not just from faith but also logical argument, deduction, and reason.  Prof. Principe points out that the works of medieval theologians are masterpieces of logical analysis and rational argument.  For example, we scientists often fall back on a logical principle called Ockham’s Razor, named after a 14th-century Franciscan theologian.  Likewise, science depends on a number of faith statements (implicit assumptions) in order to operate, such as the natural, physical world having an independent existence outside our minds, and that our senses are giving us (directly or through an instrument, like a telescope or a microscope) reliable information about the natural, physical world, and that this real world behaves in ways that are regular and law-like (the rules don’t change every few minutes).  Prof. Principe assures us that these and similar assumptions, or leaps of faith, cannot be proven true.  Nonetheless, they prove themselves useful, indeed essential, for science to progress. We are comfortable with these leaps of faith, because they allow us to generate reliable and useful knowledge claims about the world around us.

No Easy Distinction of Science and Religion

Thus, we cannot distinguish science and religion simply by saying that one is informed by reason alone and the other by faith alone.  Nor can we segregate them by saying the realm of science is the natural or material world that we can observe and the realm of religion is the spiritual world which we cannot know with our bodily senses.  Prof. Principe is careful to say their realms of study are “predominantly, but not entirely” distinct, because there is overlap, and some of the most productive interaction between science and theology has taken place in these overlapping areas. 

St. Augustine and the Two Books

Christian theologians have made testable claims about the natural world, as St. Augustine did regarding the origin and evolution of the universe.  His sources were what he called the Two Books, the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture, the two ways St. Augustine believed by which God reveals himself to humankind (inspiration of scripture authors and creation of the natural world).  St. Augustine’s methods were both faith (Christian belief) and reason (Greek philosophical knowledge drawn from astronomy and other observations of the natural world).  St. Augustine insisted on the unity of truth; if reason tells us one thing and faith tells us another, then this disagreement must be resolved.  There is no teacher of truth but God, he wrote, and since God is omniscient and always consistent, there must be a single truth.  This is a fundamental faith-based assumption that underpins both theology and science; it is a claim that pertains to both the spiritual and natural worlds—here is a major overlap of faith and theology into study of the natural world.  Scientists don’t have to believe in God to make this leap of faith, to assume the unity of truth, but the assumption is fundamentally theological (drawn from knowledge claims about the characteristics of God). 

Unity of Truth

The unity of truth requires St. Augustine to assert that the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture cannot contradict each other.  However, both Books require careful interpretation.  If they appear to contradict, then St. Augustine would insist this is solely because of incorrect interpretations.  Understanding Nature does not reliably come from just using our senses; we have to apply rational analysis.  Understanding Scripture is even more difficult, since the passages have literal, allegorical and moral meanings simultaneously. 

“Literal” Interpretation of Genesis I

Much to my surprise, St. Augustine claimed that the literal meaning is the hardest to get right.  The surprise comes from our modern notion of biblical literalism as “believing every word of the Bible”—the surface meaning of the words.  Prof. Principe points out that for St. Augustine and all theologians until recently, “literal” means “interpretation of a passage in such a way that it maintains its connection to the topic it seems to be describing and assigns meanings to the individual words so that the passage makes sense in relation to other sources of knowledge.”  St. Augustine spent 15 years working out his literal interpretation of Genesis I.  He was not satisfied with his work until it resolved contradictions within the text itself and “provided an account of creation harmonious with both reason and knowledge from other sources” (the Book of Nature, in particular).  Prof. Principe quotes St. Augustine: “Interpretation of biblical passages must be informed by the current state of demonstrable knowledge.” St. Augustine warned against the danger of embarrassing the reputation of Christianity by being ignorant or dismissive of the demonstrated scientific knowledge of the day.  From the viewpoint of traditional Christian theology, science is essential for full understanding of the “literal” meaning of divinely-inspired scripture (and vice versa).

History of Partnership

Science and religion continued in intimate partnership through the medieval apogee of the Roman Catholic Church in Western Europe and even through the rise of Protestantism and the birth of modern science and the Enlightenment.  Very often the early “natural philosophers” (not commonly called scientists until the 19th century) were in holy orders, because a position in the Church allowed time and even incentive to pursue knowledge of the natural world and how it works.  Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton saw their scientific work as discovery of the divine rules governing the universe and even the nature of God.  Prof. Principe devoted two lectures to explaining that even the famous conflict between Galileo and Pope Urban VIII was not truly about the resistance of the Roman Church to the heliocentric conclusions of Copernicus and Kepler.  The Galileo affair was driven by personal arrogance and misunderstandings, bureaucratic rivalries, political problems of the Roman Church, and Galileo’s insistence on his theory of what causes the ocean tides, which later was proven wrong, showing the wisdom of Church safeguards against being too quick to rewrite doctrine in response to new scientific “discoveries.” 

Even in modern times, churchmen have been responsible for major scientific advances.  Gregor Mendel’s experiments in breeding garden peas laid the foundation of modern genetics and ultimately the modern understanding of biology and Darwinian evolution by natural selection.  Mendel was also the abbot of an Augustinian monastery in what is now the Czech Republic.  The modern Big Bang theory of an expanding universe began with a 1927 paper by Georges Lemaître, a Belgian Catholic priest who also had a PhD from MIT and was a professor at the University of Louvain.  In 1960, Lemaître became president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.  Speaking of the Catholic Pontiff, Pope Pius XII endorsed the Big Bang theory n 1951, after Einstein’s endorsement and well before the theory’s full acceptance in 1966 over the competing Steady State theory, promoted by the vociferously atheistic, anti-religious physicist, Fred Hoyle. 

Other Forces Driving the Science-Religion Conflict

Good science does not necessarily beget atheism, nor does formal religion necessarily negate good science.  Scientists and theologians do not now, and history shows they never did, divide into opposite camps.  There was indeed conflict between them but also within the two professions.  The range of responses among theologians to scientific discoveries and theoretical propositions spanned the full range from blind prejudice to full embrace.  In summary, there are other forces at work in driving the Science and Religion Debate besides science and religion. The next blog will explore these other forces and how they have driven the debate into a kind of culture war.

Copyright 2008 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (


2 Responses to “Science and Religion – Where is the Conflict?”

  1. 1 RBH February 1, 2009 at 5:35 am

    Paraphrasing Prof. Principe, you wrote

    They [science and theology] each include both a body of knowledge claims and a set of methods for gaining, assessing, accumulating and integrating the knowledge claims. Methodologically, good science and good theology are quite similar, even though their knowledge claims are mostly about quite different realms of reality.

    I have to take issue with the notion that good science and good theology are methodologically similar. They differ enormously in one very critical respect: their method for justifying knowledge claims and resolving conflicts. Science in the end appeals to evidence — systematic, intersubjectively observable and replicable research that yields data that both sides of a scientific dispute can agree is dispositive. Theology as Prof. Principe defines it, on the other hand, has no comparable methodology for resolving conflicts. It depends on rhetoric and persuasion rather than evidence of the sort science uses. That’s not to say rhetoric and persuasion are irrelevant in science, but that in science evidence trumps rhetoric.

    The history of religion in the western world amply illustrates the three methods religions use to resolve conflict: suppression (and not infrequently repression) of dissenters, mutual agreement to paper over differences (usually an unstable state), and schism. Professor Principe is over-stating the similarity and seriously understating the difference between the two.

    Further, there’s this:

    Nonetheless, they [alleged components of scientific “faith”] prove themselves useful, indeed essential, for science to progress. We are comfortable with these leaps of faith, because they allow us to generate reliable and useful knowledge claims about the world around us.

    That statement contains its own refutation. Were the knowledge claims about the world around us that are generated by science not “reliable and useful,” we would know immediately that our “faith” is false — our “faith” is subject to test in a way that theological “faith” is not.

    Augustine was undoubtedly a sharp guy, but to interpret a vague resemblance between his speculations about the beginning of the universe and its subsequent development as a foreshadowing of Big Bang theory is on a level with attributing prophetic powers to Nostradamus on a tortured reading of his predictions. I’m not impressed, frankly.

    Nevertheless, I do look forward to the rest of your posts on this topic. Thanks for putting in the time.

    (And I sure miss comment preview: I click “Submit” with trepidation over formatting!)

  2. 2 chrisdunford February 1, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    Dear RBH,

    Actually your formatting came out fine. Sorry about the lack of “preview” for comments. Mine is a low-budget website. By the way, your Panda’s Thumb is very cool! Since you’re about defending the integrity of science, I welcome your thoughtful comment. You make an excellent point that theology and science, while they have similar methods, are not “quite” similar methodologically in the sense they are the same. Prof. Prinicipe’s point, and my point in the post. is that science and theology are more similar methodologically than is generally believed, especially among those who feel threatened by theology. Prof. Principe is talking about “good” science and “good” theology. Neither depends on rhetoric and persuasion. Both depend upon reason, especially the application of logic, to justify claims. You are right that theology often deals with issues that have no possible reference to observable evidence, but theology does have to take into account the evidence that is observable (current scientific knowledge). St. Augustine argued that (good) Christian theology cannot make claims that don’t square with what we know about the material world (the Book of Nature); therefore, whatever claims are made about the immaterial world (assuming there is one) have to be logically consistent with what scientists can convince us is true in terms of available evidence. As for resolution of conflict, I want to repeat Prof. Principe’s distinction between theology and religion, the latter being a human institution that may or may not be informed by good theology (as St. Augustine and others define “good”). Institutional religion, especially when it is given political/economic power, has and does use the three methods of suppression you list. However, if you have spent time in a university or a dispersed research community, which I’m sure you have, surely you have seen all three of these methods applied to “dissenters” from current scientific conventional wisdom, even when the dissenters are supported by better evidence. These are ugly traits of human society in general, but more shocking when seen among highly intelligent and schooled scientists or theologians. You are right that material evidence makes it a lot easier for scientists to resolve such conflict in favor of the truth than it is for theologians dealing with immaterial phenomena. Finally, in the interest of defending the integrity of theology as well as science, I encourage you to avoid dismissing St. Augustine as a mere speculator. His works are often masterpieces of both inductive and deductive reasoning (even if you cannot agree with his starting assumptions), not all that dissimilar from the masterpieces of Charles Darwin and other esteemed natural philosophers (a.k.a., scientists).
    Thanks for your interest. Stay tuned for new posts, but you’ll have to be patient. I have a very demanding day job.
    All the best,
    Chris Dunford

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Welcome to DarwinWatch

This blog by Chris Dunford explores the meaning of Charles Darwin's life, work and words in relation to the Science-Religion Debate. It is committed to intellectual honesty and historical perspective. Please click on the "Why this Blog" tab under the banner photo to learn more. Started in July 2008, this has been a very slow work-in-progress. Be patient with me and check in occasionally, if only to enjoy the banner photo!

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