Posts Tagged 'Reason'

Science and Religion – Where is the Source of Authority?

In previous posts, I offered this hypothesis: Personal and social factors influenced Charles’s attitude toward God and religion at least as much as his observations of nature and Man and his theory of evolution by natural selection. 

And more generally about the “social factors” influencing Charles’s thinking: There are other forces at work in driving the Science-Religion Debate besides science and religion.

At this point in the development of my book about Charles and Emma Darwin on the question of God (working title: Walking Fish), I want to do a series of posts on social, political and intellectual history of Western Europe to identify and describe these “other forces at work.”  I aim to make this a short but deep dive into the evolution of Western European thinking about God and Nature.  For those schooled in this academic discipline, I hope you will be entertained by my gross generalizations, and I ask your forbearance and correction (Comment, please!).  For other readers less steeped in intellectual history and philosophy, I hope to make the topic interesting in itself but also show how essential this ground work is for the project when I return to the early and mid-19th century and Charles and Emma themselves.

Here is the overriding question:

Who Gets to Say What is True and Right and Good?

Who, where or what is the source of Authority?  The term authority has so many meanings and connotations, evoking all sorts of emotional response.  Here I don’t mean authority in the sense of who has the Power, the control over others in the social structure or in the marketplace or on the frontier with other societies – that is the authority that derives from possessing greater strength or weaponry.  If you maintain that Might Makes Right, you are often right in specific situations and for periods of time.  However, to endure, this political authority must be legitimized by a higher authority, a source of knowledge about what is True from which flow ideas about what is Right Conduct that leads to what this authority asserts to be Good.  This is the Moral Authority which ultimately has to underpin any lasting political authority.

Let me explain with a couple of examples.

Consider the coach of an athletic team, like my son’s baseball team.  This man is in charge.  My son and I fear displeasing him, because he has the power to decide whether or not my kid gets to play a particular position, or at all, in the next game.  But to remain coach for the whole season, and especially year after year, this man has to demonstrate to the great majority of kids and parents certain qualities of character and knowledge of the game and ability to motivate kids.  We give this man permission to have the power he has because he earns at least minimal respect for his knowledge of what is True about the game, for his Right Conduct with the kids and on the field, and his ability to lead the team to what we collectively agree is Good (fair play, winning games, skills development and having good, clean fun).  His political authority depends, in the long run, on his moral authority.  Note: this moral authority is collectively defined and supported by all involved – without defining from scratch what is true and right and good.  Our notion of what is “moral” is culturally defined and passed (with modification) from one generation to the next.

Now consider the Constitution of the United States of America.  The American citizenry give permission to the federal, state and local governments to have the power they have because the moral authority of the Constitution legitimizes this government structure.  If you doubt this, consider the passionate conflicts that are resolved by U.S Supreme Court decisions simply by reference to what is “constitutional.”  There are winners and losers in these Supreme Court decisions, and the losers often vow to fight on for their cause.  Nonetheless, the losers respect the power of the Supreme Court decision, and the necessity to fight on within the bounds defined by the Constitution-mandated government.  Why?  Because of the citizenry’s collective respect for the moral authority of the Constitution, which derives from the ideals of the 18th Century Enlightenment, particularly as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers.  Even in the 21st Century, there is collective agreement among the citizens of the United States that ideals of the Enlightenment, such as the right of the individual person to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, define what is True and Right and Good in governing the United States of America.  

God or Me or Some Other Person 

We have to go further back in history to find the source of moral authority for the Enlightenment ideals.  In simplest, starkest terms, the answer to “Who gets to say what is True and Right and Good?” is either God or Me or Some Other Person.  Only a few who choose “Me” as their answer are audaciously self-confident; the vast majority is simply intellectually lazy.  They don’t really care about sources; they simply “know” what is true and right and good – enough said.  But a truly thoughtful person has to admit that her or his development of moral beliefs is based on more than personal experience. 

Think about it—how often do you accept something as true or right simply because it comes from a source you trust and admire, to whom you look up to?  Most of the time, right?  You are “taking their word for it.”  There is no shame in this.  It is how we humans efficiently gain knowledge without having to experience everything ourselves or do all our own original thinking. We depend on our sources having done the hard work of unearthing and examining facts (including experience) and making sense of them through logical analysis leading to rational conclusions.  Who are these sources?  They are parents, friends, teachers, coaches, authors, scientists, religious leaders, politicians (sic), journalists, news anchors, op-ed writers, books, movies, etc.  More implicitly, you trust and admire your source because you believe this person has looked at reality through the same lens or worldview that you would look through, if only you had the necessary skills, experience or data, and time.  Your source has saved you the trouble of working hard (even taking risks) and thinking deeply for yourself.  You can also have “anti”-sources—if information comes from them, it must not be true or right.  It works both ways, does it not?

We all have been strongly influenced by the moral beliefs of other people, often from the writings of long-dead other people. So, where did these “other people” get their moral beliefs? 

The intellectual history of Western Europe traces the source of moral authority to the God of Christianity. If this is self-evident to you, you can skip the rest of this series of blog posts.  But for those who do not accept this assertion at face value, the burden of proof is on me!  For starters, it is irrelevant whether or not you believe in this particular god.  This is not about your worldview or mine.  It is about the worldview in which Charles and Emma Darwin grew to intellectual maturity and to which today’s scientists are the intellectual heirs.  It is a long, man-made road from the original Christian story to the intellectual life of 19th-century England. 

Bear with me in the next few posts!  This is important.  I promise to be as brief as possible.

Copyright 2011 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (

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 (

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!