Are Science and Religion in Conflict?

Galielo croppedFlickr Wally Gobetz (CC)

We can divide this question into three components. First, do people generally believe that science and religion are in conflict? Second, does the historical record suggest an enduring or inevitable clash between science and religion? Third, ought science and religion be in conflict?

Note that the first two questions concern matters of fact that, in principle at least, should admit of relatively straightforward answers. Sociology can help us with the first question; history with the second. The third question is trickier, since it takes us from the sphere of empirical fact to that of norms and values — from what is the case to what ought to be the case. In this essay, I will take up these three questions in turn, devoting most attention to the last two.

Conflict in the Present
There’s an abundance of sociological data that can help us answer the first question. Here on Big Questions Online, Jonathan Hill provides an excellent survey of American attitudes toward science and religion in his essay “Do Americans Believe Science and Religion Are in Conflict?” According to Hill, while the data suggest that a slight majority of Americans believe that science and religion are in conflict, they do so for different reasons.

Some think that science and religion deal with different questions, and that conflict arises only when one or the other steps outside of its proper domain. So while conflicts do sometimes occur, they are not inevitable and do not signal an inherent incompatibility between science and religion. Another subgroup of Americans worries about conflicts between religion and specific aspects of science. According to the latest Pew survey, from October 2015, the primary issue for these people is evolution, with general concerns about belief in God and miracles in second place, and abortion and beginning-of-life issues in third place. Here the perceived conflict is genuine, though it doesn’t concern science in general, but only the knowledge generated by a particular field of science, or certain interpretations of the scientific outlook, or the moral and social implications of particular biomedical and reproductive technologies. The third subgroup, by contrast, perceives a genuine and inherent conflict between religion and science in general. They believe, in diametric opposition to the first subgroup, that science and religion compete directly to answer the same kinds of questions and that conflicts are therefore inevitable. About half of this subgroup plumps for science, half for religion.

In sum, very few Americans — seventeen percent of the total sample — believe in a genuine conflict between science and religion. And those who do believe that science and religion have overlapping explanatory domains, making such conflict inevitable.

Conflict in the Past
If it is true that conflict between science and religion is inevitable, it seems likely that the historical record will reveal an enduring pattern of this conflict. History, in other words, has the potential to corroborate or to challenge the beliefs held by those in the third subgroup identified above.

The history of the relationship between science and religion has enjoyed considerable scrutiny over the past thirty years, and the overwhelming verdict of historians of science is that there is no enduring pattern of conflict. Following the pioneering work of British historian John Hedley Brooke and American historians David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, most now believe that what we see in the past is a complex range of relations between science and religion — some negative, many more positive, and others more or less neutral.

One reason for this is that the relevant disciplines were arranged very differently in the past. For medieval thinkers — and indeed for many thinkers up until the nineteenth century — theology itself was classified among the sciences. If theology is a science, the idea of a conflict between theology and “science” makes a lot less sense. In fact, our modern, Anglophone understanding of science as the specialized, formal study of nature arguably arose only in the nineteenth century. Before that, natural philosophy and natural history were considered to be exemplary sciences — roughly equivalent to what today we would call “science.”

However, a key difference was that past disciplines such as natural philosophy and natural history were not naturalistic in the same way as modern science today. Indeed, they often included references to God and were directed towards the discovery of God’s design of the natural world. Religion, in short, was to some extent integrated into both natural history and natural philosophy. (My recent book, The Territories of Science and Religion, deals in detail with this aspect of the history of science and religion.)

Yet another reason why the historical interactions between science and religion are complex is that religious considerations can impact the scientific study of nature in a number of different ways. For instance, many scientific innovators throughout history were explicitly motivated in their scientific endeavors by religious considerations. To name just two, Johannes Kepler regarded his astronomy as a form of divine praise, while Robert Boyle characterized scientists as “priests of nature.” Other scientists saw their work as having religious goals, including Isaac Newton, who hoped the principles outlined in his famous Principia Mathematica might promote “belief of a Deity.”

Religion also provided social legitimation for science throughout history by demonstrating how scientific practices can be religiously useful. Francis Bacon, for example, maintained that modern science could help the human race re-establish its God-given dominion over nature — a gift that had been lost in the primeval Fall. Bacon also insisted that because scientific advances promoted human welfare, science was itself a form of Christian charity.

Finally, religion could furnish the presuppositions upon which science itself is based. At the time of the seventeenth-century scientific revolution, the new conception of laws of nature was a thoroughly theological idea which relied on the assumption that God was always and everywhere exerting a causal influence on the world in a regular and lawful way.

Of course, there were negative interactions, too. Here the famous Galileo affair is hard to ignore. But, in fact, this was not a straightforward case of science-religion conflict at all. At the time, there was compelling scientific evidence against the Copernican view defended by Galileo. Moreover, the condemnation of Galileo was quite atypical of the Catholic Church, which had for centuries been the most prominent supporter of astronomical research in Europe.

Another place where scientific discoveries led to genuine tensions between science and religion is, of course, the advent of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. But here we should remember that Darwin had both religious supporters and scientific detractors, suggesting that there was more going on that just straightforward “conflict.”

This survey, however brief, suggests that the historical record does not support the view that science and religion are in enduring conflict. If anything, the preponderance of the evidence suggests more positive relations.

Ought Science and Religion Be in Conflict?
One of the puzzles facing historians of science is where the idea of an enduring conflict between science and religion — “the conflict myth,” as it is known — comes from, and why it remains so prevalent today. A brief analysis of the origins and persistence of this myth will help shed light on our third question, “Ought science and religion be in conflict?”

Historians of science typically locate the origins of the conflict myth in the late nineteenth century. The key texts here are John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Together these books project back into the historical record a narrative of ongoing conflict. (To these works we could add John Tyndall’s “Belfast Address” (1874) and various writings of “Darwin’s Bulldog,” Thomas Henry Huxley.)

Draper and White offer extensive and influential catalogues of putative instances of conflict. The Galileo affair figures prominently in both, along with historical examples now discredited (or complicated) by historical research: Hypatia’s death at the hands of a Christian mob; medieval belief in a flat earth; papal excommunication of a comet; the Church’s ban on dissection; Copernicus’s dethroning of humanity; and Bruno’s execution as a martyr to science. (For a dispatching of many of these myths, see Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, edited by Ronald L. Numbers.)

The motivations of the progenitors of the conflict myth varied. Draper’s book is less about science and religion than science and Catholicism. It was stimulated in part by contemporary issues concerning Catholicism, not least the promulgation of the controversial and conservative Syllabus of Errors (1864) and the declaration of papal infallibility at the first Vatican Council (1869–70). White had been wounded by staunch clerical opposition to the founding of Cornell University, one of the first American institutions of higher learning to lack a religious affiliation. In England, a key element of the motivations of Huxley and Tyndall was their desire to professionalize science, advance its social status, and liberate it from the domination of the Anglican clergy.

But irrespective of the motivations of these historical actors, in the background of all these works lay an influential nineteenth-century understanding of historical progress. In essence, this was the view, made famous by Auguste Comte, that human societies naturally evolve through defined stages — beginning, for example, with magic and superstition, progressing through religion and philosophy, and ending with modern science. Viewed through this historiographical lens, local tensions between science and religion could be viewed as skirmishes in a long, historical battle that science was destined to win. The conflict myth, then, was more than a long catalogue of purported instances of conflict; it exemplified a particular vision of history as it related to contemporary circumstances.

The motivations of contemporary advocates of the conflict myth can be understood in a similar way. Specific events — such as parochial controversies concerning the teaching of evolution in schools or, on a larger scale, the tragic events of 9/11 — are supposed to exemplify this larger clash between science and religion. However, while the originators of the conflict myth could comfort themselves with the conceit that they were witnessing the final stages of a struggle that science was destined to win, that cherished narrative of inevitable progress has now lost some of its luster.

The persistence of religion and the apparent inadequacy of the secularization thesis — whether celebrated or lamented — represent a serious challenge to the nineteenth-century conviction that all human societies are destined to divest themselves of the trappings of religion and smoothly transition to science-friendly, secular modernity. This has generated a new urgency among the more extreme advocates of conflict, for whom science remains our best chance to crush religion and facilitate the emergence of a brave new scientific society. Thus “Science Must Destroy Religion” is the mantra of Sam Harris and the new atheists. This is a moral imperative: Harris urges scientists to relinquish their sentimental religious tolerance and devote themselves to “blasting the hideous fantasies of a prior age.” This view is both naïve in its understanding of the historical process and sinister in its vision of the future.

On the other side, there are those who maintain that science and religion ought to be in conflict because they reject the theory of evolution on religious grounds. At one level, this battle is not between science and religion but between evolution and (some types of) Christianity. In fact, creationists and intelligent-design proponents are, in a sense, quite science-friendly, insofar as they seek to invest their religious beliefs with scientific prestige and believe that evolution is not genuinely scientific. But here, too, there is a larger ideological picture.

These critics of evolutionary theory think that it is to be resisted not simply because it is incompatible with certain religious beliefs but because it brings with it an amalgam of undesirable moral values. Evolution is regarded as a de-humanizing ideology that erases the distinction between humans and animals and, by so doing, undermines the foundation of moral morality and social order. This suggests an interesting symmetry between the two sides of the debate, with each holding that “science” is the bearer of a larger set of normative commitments.

Also relevant in this context is the belief, discussed above, that conflict arises when either science or religion strays beyond its legitimate boundaries. In the case of religion, this typically occurs when the doctrine of creation — which traditionally concerned the world’s metaphysical dependence upon God and posited a special relationship between God and creatures — is conflated with scientific arguments about temporal beginnings. This can lead to a contamination of science by religion as well as of religion by science.

In the case of science, the danger is that of scientism, the claim that science provides a unique and privileged source of truth on all matters. There are many reasons to resist this tendency. As philosopher Ray Monk reminds us, there are many questions that do not have scientific answers because they were not legitimate scientific questions to begin with. Many of these questions concern the things that are most important of all: faith, hope, love, truth, beauty, and goodness — these do not lie in the territory of science. All of us — including scientists — have an interest in resisting the barren intellectual monoculture of scientism.

In conclusion, most people do not believe in an inherent conflict between science and religion, and the historical evidence suggests that they are correct. If we look beneath the surface when tensions do arise, we typically find deep-seated conflicts between values that have only tenuous connections to science and religion.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the legitimate boundaries of science and religion, and who gets to determine what they are?
  1. Is conflict between science and religion ever a good thing? If so, in what circumstances?
  1. Are the patterns of belief about the science-religion conflict in the United States typical of other Western countries, or is the U.S. a special case? What about elsewhere in the world?
  1. Why has the conflict myth persisted despite convincing refutations by historians of science?

Discussion Summary

My essay suggested that there are three ways of approaching the question “Are Science in Religion in Conflict?” (1) Do people generally believe that science-religion conflict exists, and if so, is it inevitable? (2) Does history bear witness to a repeated pattern of science-religion conflict? (3) Should there be conflict between science and religion?

On the first point, the sociological evidence suggests that only a small minority believe that conflict between science and religion is inevitable, or inherent in the very nature of science and religion. That said, significantly more people — in the US context at least — see conflicts over specific issues, particularly around evolution and potential applications of the biomedical sciences. Regarding the issue of historical conflict, I pointed out that the almost unanimous verdict of historians of science is that there is no consistent pattern of opposition between science and religion. The third question takes us into the realm of normative judgments. My own view is that if science and religion remain within their proper spheres, conflict is very unlikely. Conflict, then, is justified when one or the other steps beyond its legitimate domain.

Many of the comments, in various ways, focused on this last issue, which concerns the legitimate bounds of science and religion, and whether it’s possible to provide clear definitions that delimit the scope and methods of these two activities. One common, if somewhat misleading characterization is that science relies on reason and/or evidence, while religion relies upon faith. A more formal version of this distinction, proposed by a number of discussants, was that science makes claims that are in principle falsifiable, while religion does not. If true, this would suggest that scientific claims have an evidential basis that religious beliefs lack. On this view, conflict arises because of a clash between warranted (i.e. scientific) beliefs and unwarranted (i.e. religious) beliefs.

My response to this was to point out a number of known difficulties with the criterion of falsification — not least of which is that science simply doesn’t work that way, never has, and never should. In fact, the knowledge claims advanced within the spheres of science and religion are both made on the basis of experiences of various kinds, and these experiences are typically not publically available. Thus, being subject to the relevant experience requires participation in a community of one kind or another, or access to a particular tradition regarded as authoritative. This is not to say that the knowledge claims of science and religion are essentially of the same kind — rather that the question of justification of beliefs is relevant to both spheres, and that the justification of scientific theories is not necessarily any more straightforward than the justification of religious beliefs. Both occur within particular contexts. In the case of science these are experimental setups, research programs or paradigms, and a scientific literature. In the case of religion, these are communities engaged in religious practices of various kinds, and (often) canonical documents produced within such communities.

More broadly, this discussion leads us to two further sets of exploratory questions. One has to do with the nature of science, how scientific theories change over time, and the justification of scientific theories. The other concerns the more general question of the foundation of and warrant for beliefs: how is it that beliefs are justified in the first place? And how do we know when this process of justification comes to an end?

New Big Questions: 

  1. Is there a single scientific method and, if so, how does it guarantee the reliability of scientific knowledge?
  1. What does the history of science which, pessimistically viewed, could be regarded as a record of the successive failure of scientific theories, tell us about the nature of science?
  1. How are beliefs (religious and scientific) justified? Is there an end to justification?

30 Responses

  1. David Katz says:

    2 reasons:

    1. Science depends on propositions being falsifiable. Religion is based on revelation and its propositions cannot be falsified.
    2. Since religious beliefs are not based on logic, logical argument will not change them.
    • Steve says:

      I think you mean, “Since religion is not based on falsifiable premises….” Once the religious premises are given, religionists can proceed logically though often don’t. Logical argument can tear apart religious arguments which are illogical but, I agree with you, that won’t mean those who accept the illogical arguments will change their minds. In logic, a sound argument is one that is not only logical but has true premises. You can have false premises and still construct a logical argument from them–to wit, “All pink things can fly; all elephants are pink: therefore, All elephants can fly” is a logical argument but not a sound one.

      • Peter Harrison Peter Harrison says:

        Again, we need to remember that it is simply a common misconception, albeit oft repeated, that science is based on falisifiable premises. Science is typically based on observations, and sometimes these are given in very specific, tightly controlled experiential contexts. This means that the specific experiences on which they are based are simply not available to all. Neither is it the case that science proceeds through deductive logic (of the syllogistic kind that you provide an example of here). The exception would be Aristotle’s idea of science, which was rejected as barren and useless at the time of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century.

    • Charles Pulsipher says:

      True; however, if the theology of any religious tradition is internally inconsistent, or if it can be disproven by unassailable facts, then the religious tradition can be marginalized.

      • Steve says:

        Marginalized by whom? If a “religious tradition is internally inconsistent, or if it can be disproven by unassailable facts,” then neither someone who already marginalizes religions nor someone who is a dogmatic believer of the particular religion is going to be moved much. A few less dogmatic believers can always be moved but are replaced by new converts. It also depends on how crucial the pieces are that are inconsistent or disproven. The Pew Research Council’s study, although its studies show increasing numbers of Americans refusing to identify themselves with any religion, predict that religiosity, world-wide, will increase as this century moves on.

    • Peter Harrison Peter Harrison says:

      1.  The idea that falsifiability is a criterion of scientific knowledge was proposed in the middle of the last century by Karl Popper, who was seeking to find a way of distinguishing science from pseudoscience. This was the so-called “demarcation” issue, for which Popper relied upon some of the ruling trends in contemporary logical positivism. But while falsificationism represents an improvement over naive inductivism, and while many scientists still believe that if offers a distinguishing mark of genuine scientific knowledge, most philosophers of science have long since abandoned it — and for good reason.

      For a start, it assumes that for every scientific claim there is a critical test. But in practice this is rarely the case, since scientific claims are typically embedded within broad theoretical frameworks. (Lakatos spoke about “research programs,” and Thomas Kuhn spoke about “paradigms.”) Moreover, as historians of science have pointed out, science just doesn’t work that way. The Copernican hypothesis, for example, should have been falsified by the apparent lack of stellar parallax at the time. But the hypothesis had other things going for it, and, eventually, a way was found to account for this and other anomalies. Finally, there are many instances of what philosophers call the “underdetermination,” which arise when the empirical data simply do not provide information that would enable scientists to make a rational choice between competing theories. In short, science has never been grounded in the principle of falsification.

      2.  Science is not “based” on logic either. Many sciences do rely on logical induction, but there are numerous problems with naive versions of inductivism (as Popper realized). Other sciences, such as evolution, cosmology, and aspects of geology, are more historical — which is to say, they are about establishing past facts. Arguably, the starting point for both science and religion is some form of experience, and the point is to make sense of that experience.

      • Charles Lindgart says:

        Let us assume for a moment that “while many scientists still believe that if falsification offers a distinguishing mark of genuine scientific knowledge, most philosophers of science have long since abandoned it.” Do ‘most’ philosophers of science reject falsification outright, or only naive falsification? In either case, do the alternatives help establish a closer relation to ‘religion’ or reaffirm the same juxtaposition? Very basically, falsification just indicates that there is something which could, in principle at least, disprove a certain claim. That certainly does hold true for the vast majority of what we call ‘science’. However, it seems that specific examples of what we call ‘religion’ avoid that principle. For instance, theistic Christian belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God should in principle be falsified by the existence of evil. Yet, there are reams of literature trying to reconcile the existence of evil with the existence of that incarnation of God.

        One might also make the case that what philosophers of science espouse is not necessarily what science is and does anyway. In that case, it wouldn’t especially matter what most or any philosophers of science say and the persistence of falsification among scientists themselves would constitute stronger evidence of the idea’s applicability.

        • Peter Harrison Peter Harrison says:

          Thanks Charles. Three quick points. First, it’s simply not the case that falsification is true for “the vast majority of what we call science.” When anomalous data (i.e., observations with a falsifying potential) crop up in routine science, scientists are typically reluctant to abandon an otherwise well-established theory, and rightly so. Often they will invent ad hoc placeholders to fend off falsification. Postulating the existence of “dark matter” and “dark energy” is an instance of this. Similarly, when some scientists recently came up with experimental evidence that the speed of light in vacuum might vary, there was not universal abandonment of the idea of ‘c’ as a constant. Rather, attention was turned to the experimental conditions that yielded the anomalous data. So scientists are frequently in the position of having to decide whether the observation/experiment provides a genuine instance of falsification, or whether there was a problem with the experimental setup. One final example, invocation of a “multiverse” is a very common way of avoiding some of the implications of “fine-tuning” arguments. But the existence of a multiverse is unfalsifiable. Does this make it an unscientific claim? Here we would appeal not to falsifiability, but something like “inference to the best explanation.” That is to say, some theories remain the best available explanation, even though there might be acknowledged difficulties with their evidential basis.

          Second, yes, philosophers of science do sometimes get it wrong, typically when they are not paying attention to the actual practices of scientists. Popper was a case in point, postulating falsification as an ideal that did not match how science worked in practice.

          Third, any evidentialist framework must rest upon premises that are themselves ultimately not capable of justification — otherwise the process of justification would never end. Call these “foundational beliefs” or “basic beliefs.” Some theistic philosophers, such as Alvin Plantinga, have suggested that belief in God is one such properly basic belief. It would then be true that this belief was not subject to the principle of falsification. But we commit to such basic beliefs because they enable us to get the business of justification up and running, and they enable us to make sense of the world. It is true that the problem of evil must count against traditional theism, but whether it does do decisively depends upon what else we lose by giving up theism. In this respect the situation is quite similar to the way in which scientific theories resist falsification — it’s not that there is no anomalous evidence, it’s just that we lose much else that is explained by the theory if we give it up. Again, inference to the best explanation is the model.

          • Charles Lindgart says:

            My comment does not read “falsification is true for “the vast majority of what we call science.” What I said was that falsification is basically just the recognition that something could, in principle at least, disprove a certain claim. It is that recognition which I see as pertaining to most of what we call science. Of course the specific point at which a given (inaccurate) claim is rejected will depend not only on evidence but also external factors (such as the sociological ones Kuhn drew attention to many decades ago). Equally, there are indeed many instances where ad hoc measures are employed to extend the lifespan of a claim. Nevertheless, what can be validly called science eventually changes as per the evidence. Also, note that “vast majority” does not equate to all. Therefore a single instance like the multiverse does not undermine my argument. In fact, there have been suggestions that because it is unfalsifiable the multiverse does not count as a scientific claim. That would certainly seem to reinforce the position of falsification as a means of demarcation.

            I have to question your wording in that second point. Saying “philosophers of science do sometimes get it wrong” could be taken to imply that you know what right is. However, as the philosophy of science itself shows, these are still open questions so it would be foolhardy to simply espouse what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in an ongoing debate.

            With that final point it sounds to me like you’ve shifted from historian to theologian. Are you saying that theism is the “best explanation”? I realise that is something of a different argument but it would be interesting to know as your stance on that certainly could be regarded as pertinent to your assertions about whether science and religion are in conflict.

  2. Charles Pulsipher says:

    Thank you for your well thought argument. I had a chemistry teacher in high school who argued that science seeks to understand how things come (or came) to be while religion seeks to understand why. I have not in the intervening 48 years between my chemistry class and now heard a more plausible explanation of the roles of the respective camps.

  3. Charles Lindgart says:

    While in and of itself this post is an interesting read, some fundamental points about the ‘big question’ it broaches are left unaddressed. Chief among these is the problem of whether one can usefully dissect the question of conflict between science and religion without ever defining three key terms – science, religion, and conflict.

    Totalising language that speaks as though ‘science’ and ‘religion’ are categories or terms that can be deployed and withdrawn at will is not without its risks. Saying “Draper’s book is less about science and religion than science and Catholicism” could be read as implying that Catholicism exists outside of the category of ‘religion’ (at least as the author understands it). Such an argument would need to be substantiated. Catholicism is a clear example of religion and a tradition that has been very prominent in Western history and episodes within the history of science. To exclude it in such a casual way is highly unusual to say the least.

    Furthermore, using language such as “inherent” and “genuine” to qualify the main focus – conflict – could be taken as obfuscation. At a very basic level there is either conflict or there is not. Common assent (what “most people believe”) does not determine this either. If religion in the form of the Bible states the world was created in a certain way but the most accurate scientific findings from cosmology and related fields indicate otherwise then this contrast could be validly described as conflict, given science and religion are providing conflicting accounts.

    In sum, absent the ‘science’ and ‘religion’ in question one cannot determine whether there is a conflict now or historically.

    • Peter Harrison Peter Harrison says:

      I’m pretty much in agreement with much of what you say, here — specifically, that unless we get a handle on what is meant by ‘science’ and what is meant by ‘religion,’ the question can be difficult to answer, unless we are simply concerned with measuring people’s attitudes. Typically, advocates of inherent conflict will define science and religion in global terms. For example, science = falsifiable claims and religion = non-falsifiable claims; or science = reason, religion = faith. (We see examples of this kind of over-generalization in some of the other comments here). Once you set these definitions in place, you can simply ‘read off’ the relationship between science and religion. The historical reality is much more complicated, however. So I wouldn’t want to be seen as advocating some simplistic use of the categories ’science’ and ‘religion’. On the contrary, my recent book (The Territories of Science and Religion) is devoted to precisely an untangling of these two concepts.

      Just on the last point, that the Bible states the world was created in a certain way. Throughout history, the biblical creation narratives have been read in many different ways, and insistence on a literal six-day creation is a relatively modern phenomenon, restricted to a fairly small minority (although this may not be the case in your neck of the woods). So it’s just not possible to say that the Bible definitively states ‘that the world was created in a certain way,’ equate that to ‘religion,’ and then conclude that conflict is valid.

      • Charles Lindgart says:

        Thank you for your response, Peter. But I still see problems in defining the terms. (I have read parts of your recent compendium of lectures, Territories of Science and Religion, and had similar issues there, especially in the epilogue.)

        Regarding the Bible, there a couple of things at issue. Firstly, the claim that literal interpretations are a “relatively modern phenomenon” requires evidence. It would need to be shown that earlier interpretations were predominantly non-literal and that the “insistence on a literal six-day creation” emerged at a specific and fairly recent time. Secondly, that “biblical creation narratives have been read in many different ways” is a matter of interpretation not textual content. What the Bible says is what the Bible says, even if what the Bible means is an open question.

        Even if we assume for the sake of argument that a literal reading is recent and a minority position there is still a glaring issue: the vintage of an interpretation, and the level of agreement it receives are not factors in determining its truth. Yet again, the majority position cannot be taken as synonymous with the correct one. To remain solely focused on the Bible also wades into Euro- and Christian-centric waters. Are there not a vast number of people for whom the Bible, regardless of interpretation and what science says, is not an accurate account of creation?

        The point of the simple contrast drawn in my original post is to show that the answer to the question “are science and religion in conflict?” relies on the specifics. It is not intended to prove a global or universal conflict. It no more proves such a sweeping sentiment than specific instances of science and religion getting along prove the opposite. Perhaps generalization, itself, is untenable.

        • Peter Harrison Peter Harrison says:

          I certainly agree with your conclusion — that there is not a general pattern. And I’m quite happy to concede present conflict that involves the creation narratives of Genesis.

          On the issue of the history of the interpretation of Genesis, I provide a body of evidence in The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge, 1998) that shows how medieval and patristic exegetes typically read Genesis in a non-literal way. On the modernity of young earth creationism, go no further than Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists (Harvard, 2006).

          • Charles Lindgart says:

            In effect then, the best one could say is that the question ‘Are Science and Religion in Conflict’ cannot be answered. (Unless, as I continue to suggest, one defines the terms in some workable way.)

            As for the Bible, all we’re left with are competing interpretations. The real issue is that, without any way to make a final judgement of which is correct, all interpretations are on equal footing. It really doesn’t matter whether the interpretation is patristic, medieval, modern, or idiosyncratic. And again, there’s a wealth of other options that don’t even include the Bible whether literal or metaphorical.

  4. Steve says:

    The terms of the question are too broad to begin with, although some of the qualifications given — like “some” Christians and not science per se but scientism — set that straight. There are so many religions that are not Bible-based that do not have any form of the conflict. And science, when it sticks to science, should have nothing to say about religion except that it is beyond its expertise.

    I found the remark, “creationists and intelligent-design proponents are, in a sense, quite science-friendly, insofar as they seek to invest their religious beliefs with scientific prestige and believe that evolution is not genuinely scientific” to be quite misleading since such creationists and evolutionists are being manipulative in their argumentation and have ulterior motives.

    Also, the statement, “Evolution is regarded as a de-humanizing ideology that erases the distinction between humans and animals and, by so doing, undermines the foundation of moral morality and social order” misses the point that there is no established fact of a divine foundation of morality and social order. Yes, it is a religious foundation insofar as it is people’s belief that moral teachings come from God. To echo the New Testament, if it is from God, no science can undermine it; but if it is of man, it can remain of man even if religion were to disappear.

    • Peter Harrison Peter Harrison says:

      I agree that the question is broad, but this is the form in which we typically encounter it. So we do need to be much more precise in our deployment of the relevant terms, and that was part of what I had hoped to convey.

      I stand by the claim that creationists and ID proponents are ‘science-friendly,’ at least in the general sense that they are not opposed to science per se. This is a matter of sociological fact. Moreover, more than other adherents of religion they are concerned to couch their religious beliefs in scientific terms — hence  ‘scientific creationism.’ For young-earth creationists, then, it is matter of conflict between true science and false science.

      On the third point, again we are dealing with matters of sociological fact: this is how many young-earth creationists view evolution. (The issue about the foundations of morality is not really the point, since I am not necessarily agreeing with the logic of religiously motivated opponents of evolution.) Related to this: it is also important to understand that divine-command moral theory is only one of a number of meta-ethical options available to those who have religious commitments. Natural law theory and virtue ethics are common alternatives.

  5. RA Gillmann says:

    Good summary article. One surprise from the contemporary scene is that dissident scientists are questioning evolution while establishment clergy are defending it (establishment scientists ignore critiques of evolution). The roles are the reverse of the standard story-line.

  6. Laurence Cox says:

    I think that the science writer Jim Baggott comes close to a good definition of what constitutes science when he writes in ‘Farewell to Reality’: “The principal requirement of a scientific theory is that it should in some way be testable through reference to existing or new facts about empirical reality.” He goes on to add the usual caveats, as you did above to Popper’s falsification argument.

    Baggott’s concern, shared with others like Lee Smolin, is that string theory is pseudoscience because even its protagonists cannot propose any way of testing it in principle, let alone in practice. In contrast, a theory like General Relativity made testable predictions; even though it took a century directly to detect gravitational waves, they were predicted by the theory.

    I accept that scientists use placeholders like ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’, but that is part of normal science. Wolfgang Pauli proposed the existence of the neutrino because it was the only way to retain Conservation of Energy in beta-decay. Likewise, evidence from a range of different observations including both supernova redshifts and baryon acoustic oscillations in the cosmic microwave background is consistent with General Relativity only if there is more matter and energy in the universe than we observe.

    As for Popper, I think that his falsification argument was more about ‘this is how science should be done’ rather than ‘this is how science is done’. We have to remember that he developed his views in opposition to the Vienna Circle, who believed in verification of theories. To say that Popper was wrong, is like saying that Newton’s Theory of Gravitation was wrong, because it was superseded by Einstein’s General Relativity. The point that I would make is that Popper’s approach is still useful for practical purposes, just as Newton’s Theory is still used to guide spacecraft. Thinking in terms of falsifying a theory is more likely to lead to a crucial experiment than thinking in terms of verifyiing it because it directs the experimenter to the weaknesses rather than to the strengths of the theory,

  7. G Nelson says:

    Just one thought: why did this questioning omit philosophy? The scientist gathers facts. The philosopher gives meaning to scientific facts. The religionist gives value to these meaningful facts. The only conflict occurs with personal egos, when any of the above insists that their field of study describes the sum total of reality.

    Science typically denies spiritual realities because they are not demonstratable as fact. Can you quantify any value? Can you measure the mass of a meaning? Can you deny the existance of meanings and values? Where do meanings and values come from?

    The scientist may describe the mind on the physical level as a brain. But it is not too difficult to consider this same mind as dominating matter on the spiritual level of reality. The religionist may describe this as a miracle, the scientist in terms of cause and effect, and the philosopher may inquire what this all means.

    I personally see no conflict between science, philosophy, and religion, just a big lack of understanding of the true nature of the physical, spiritual and the intellectual realms.

    • Steve says:

      Well, that’s a very optimistic and idealistic view of science, religion, and philosophy. But, mostly, a very odd description of philosophy: “The philosopher gives meaning to scientific facts.” I have an MA in philosophy from U.C. and don’t relate at all to that description. If anything, I would say religionists read meanings into events and even into their own scriptures–all too often any meaning they please. Philosophers mostly look at arguments for the the truth of propositions and analyze if they are logical and sound. The more humanistic philosophers look at whatever helps them pursue the question of what it means to be a human being; thus, there is philosophy of science, philosophy aesthetics, philosophy of language, existential philosophy, political philosophy, etc. Philosophy is not so much something you have (as in, Hey, Joe, what’s your philosophy on that?”) but something you do and what a philosopher does is not give meaning but clarify and analyze meaning.

  8. Damon Casale says:

    It’s unfortunate that religion, at least in the West, has developed even the mythos of being anti-science. As the original article pointed out, such intellectual giants as Newton and even Einstein were themselves religious.

    I apologize in advance, but because non-Western religions are quite different in their expression and purpose, I’ll stick to discussing the three Western, Monotheistic traditions. Now the major problem stems from attempting to 1) view religion in terms of its modern, cultural and sociological expressions, and 2) view religious texts, such as the Bible, in light of modern attempts to understand it.

    Firstly, despite what certain fundamentalist sects might think, religion has always evolved and changed over time, as a result of changing circumstances, evolving cultures, and various social and economic factors. For instance, with modern Christianity in particular, the great majority of Christian priests, pastors and ministers are not salaried and derive their livelihood from the tithes and offerings of the people and the communities they serve, as the communities see fit to give them. Judaism, on the other hand, salaries its rabbis because synagogue members are expected to contribute a certain minimum amount in order to retain their membership. Just as in the private sector, this leads to having a more consistent and higher level of education for rabbis than for Christian priests, pastors or ministers.

    I’m not pointing this out to claim that Judaism is somehow “better,” but that Christianity’s *modern expression* (take careful note of that) includes a large number of non-college educated priests, pastors and ministers. Culturally, Christianity’s modern expression is more comfortable with “ignorance” than with scholarship and study. Naturally, there are exceptions to this rule — and there are many scholarly religious institutions, Christian and otherwise, which devote themselves to a more nuanced understanding of their faith.

    Part of the mistaken impression that religion and science could or should be in conflict stems more from a cultural difference — that of being comfortable with ignorance vs. more educated and more widely exposed to different cultures, other viewpoints and different religions — than it does with religion itself. The belief that “the bible has all the answers” simply feeds into that cultural narrative, rather than being the cause of it.

    Secondly, for the most part our modern religious understanding of ancient texts is woefully inadequate. An earlier commenter mentioned “what the bible says is what the bible says, even if what the bible means is an open question.” It’s an open question because, largely, we do not study the cultural milieu that formed and shaped these texts. (And before someone jumps in and shouts that “the bible was divinely inspired,” the “biblical” culture that existed 2000 years ago was very different from the “biblical” culture that existed 3500 years ago, leading to different modes of expression in the same text corpus.)

    To pick the thorniest of textual issues that are easily answered by looking at the cultural context, other ancient Creation literature WAS NEVER MEANT TO BE UNDERSTOOD LITERALLY, even though it often had literal elements. For instance, comparing the Epic of Gilgamesh, there really was a King Gilgamesh, but he never went in search of the fabled “plant of life.”

    Secondly, other ancient Creation literature wrote about things that were culturally and geographically relevant to them. Egyptian creation literature described “the place where creation occurred” as being in Heliopolis (a city in ancient Egypt). Babylonian creation literature described “the place where creation occurred” as being in Eridu (in Sumer, the precursor to Babylon). When the biblical text speaks of the garden of Eden, it’s referring to this “place where creation occurred” — which is not in Iraq, not at the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates, despite what the geographical description in the text might lead you to believe. Rather, it would be in a place well-known to and in close proximity to the authors of the text. It would be somewhere in the land of Canaan.

    Thirdly, a literary analysis of ancient Creation literature shows that its purpose was to explain, not how man or creation itself came to be, but what the proper order of things was (e.g., in the local polity where the people lived) and partly *why* it was that way. And so it is in the biblical text as well.

    As has been well understood by many biblical scholars, Genesis 1-3 is a polemic, a slanted rebuke against other ancient religious beliefs and practices. Whereas other creation texts described the heavens, stars, etc., as gods or divine beings, the biblical text uses the same imagery and even some of the same verbage to describe the created order as being created by God. Whereas, for instance, there was an ancient practice of ritual temple prostitution, the biblical text stresses the sanctity of marriage.

    Other biblical passages make it clear that animals were sometimes symbolically or metaphorically used by the text to represent people. Rather than being condescending or ethnocentric, the text intended to highlight ethical, “human” behavior vs. more questionable, brutish or violent, warlike behavior. What has heretofore been unrecognized is that Genesis 1-3 *does the same thing*. Why else would Adam seek a mate *from among the animals*? (Gen. 2:18-20) This passage merely highlights the contrast between having a wife from the same cultural and ethical background versus one from another culture with different beliefs and practices.

    Rather than being a tale of cosmic origins, Genesis 1-3 simply describes a rest stop on a major trade route between Egypt and Sumer (later, Babylon), and the eloquent literary defense of ethics contrasted to other ancient beliefs and practices.

    That’s not to say that those other ancient cultures didn’t have ethics or just laws themselves (look at the Code of Hammurabi, for instance) but it was in the literary interest of this text to paint their neighbors in the worst light possible, to show the greatest contrast.

    Now, through all of this I’m NOT defending the religious views of the bible, or of its adherents. What I’m attempting to do is to show that, properly understood, the cultural origins of this text should have no conflict whatsoever with science.

    At its heart, Western religion is an expression of a social contract between man and the divine, between man and nature, the proper order of things. This is best seen through the Mosaic legal code in the bible, but the cultural relevance of a social contract goes far beyond religious institutions. The Republican “Contract with America” of the 90’s had a tremendous impact, especially on evangelical voters, precisely because of their fundamental orientation towards a social contract as a template for how life should be.

    In the bible, the mode of social contract between God and man evolved tremendously over time. At Israel’s inception, it consisted of an agreement for long life, land ownership, and numerous descendants. But with the rise of great foreign military powers like Assyria and Babylon, that social contract could not endure. Ancient cultures viewed their gods as protecting their particular towns, cities or nations, and it was a traditional practice for the idols of foreign gods to be captured and displayed in a victory parade, when one nation conquered another. But in the bible, instead of explaining that their god had failed them, instead the prophets explained that their god had judged them for their ethical failings. That, in turn, led to a change in the understanding of their social contract.

    At a time when northern Israel was being taken away into captivity by the Assyrians, the prophet Isaiah wrote in chapter 26 that they (the enemies of Israel) “are now dead, they live no more, their spirits do not rise.” But in contrast, “your dead will live, Lord, their bodies will rise. Let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy; your dew is like the dew of morning, and the earth will give birth to the dead.”

    Rather than simply being a promise of resurrection from the grave, this was the author’s metaphorical way of grappling with the fact that the old social contract of the promise of long life and land ownership was being broken. He promised a reversal of this, and an eventual return to the status quo, despite anything that Assyria might do in the short term. Whether Isaiah had the concept of resurrection from the dead in mind from the beginning is questionable, but he most certainly had in mind the return to the expected social order in mind, despite that social order being upset.

    Later developments literally forced an evolution of the social contract between god and man. Instead of being promised an inheritance in the land of Israel, the Jews were told to dwell peacefully in the foreign lands where they were being sent into exile, and make new lives for themselves there. “If it prospers, you too will prosper,”

    Yuval Levin’s book “Fractured Republic,” hits upon these same themes. The Left views the social contact between government and man through the filter of the 60’s and seeks a return to that golden age, whereas the Right views the social contract between government and man through the filter of the Reagan era. Both sides are nostalgic for times past, but the reality is that things have moved on, and answers must be sought that are appropriate to this day and age.

    It’s not just religion that tends to get stuck in the past, as it were. It’s a human condition to desire a return to “the proper order of things,” however that might be viewed by whichever religious or secular faction or group might speak on this topic. We do need to seek to understand our past, not to return to it, but to better understand it and ourselves. Nevertheless, we have to live in the now and face the future, not with fear and apprehension, but with hope for real solutions.

    Not solutions that will be dropped out of the sky by any god or government that might deign to give them to us, if we would just worship them in the correct, prescribed way.

    • Steve says:

      1. I don’t think it works to first warn readers that we should not confuse modern understandings of the Bible with what it meant to its authors, readers, and hearers at the time it was new, only to turn around and look at the biblical creation story with all these symbolic and metaphorical interpretations from modern times and pretend that they represent how ancient Hebrews understood their stories. Or when you pretend to know what Isaiah had in mind, e.g. not a literal rising of the dead but the resurrection of the social contract. 2. There was no “biblical culture” 3500 years ago.

      • Damon Casale says:

        What are you talking about? These aren’t interpretations from modern times. And that’s precisely the problem I have with any biblical scholar who, for instance, talks about Genesis 1 in terms of the creation of the universe, or assigns long periods of time to the seven “days.” Those ARE interpretations from modern times, because those concerns are purely modern ones.

        As far as where I’m getting my interpretation of Genesis 1-3 from, Genesis was originally written as an inverted chiasmus. A simple example of a chiasmus is found in Genesis 6:22:

        A – Thus did Noah
        B – According to all that God commanded him
        A’ – So he did.

        It’s a textual structure that’s very common in the biblical text. Other, related chiastic structures found in the text are A – B – B’ – A, A – B – A’ – B’, etc.

        Genesis 1-3 is a very complicated chiasmus with the Sabbath day as the central point of focus. Google “two creation stories aishdas” and click on the first link. Yes, I’m fully aware that Genesis 1:1-2:4a and 2:4ff-3:24 were written by different authors, as most biblical scholars attest. What they’ve failed to understand is that they were written to form a unit and that the two authors were fully aware of each other.

        The serpent of Genesis 3 represents a nation (just as other biblical passages associate animals with people), and its chiastic parallel in the structure of Genesis 1-3 is the “tannin” of Gen. 1:21. This is commonly translated as “great sea creatures” or “whales” but the basic meaning of the term is “something elongated.” It should be better translated as “crocodiles.”. (Compare a similar use of the exact same term in Eze. 32:2.) Together, the serpent and the crocodile represent Sumer and Egypt, respectively. They were the two major powers that existed at the time Genesis 1-3 were written.

        This has nothing whatsoever to do with a modern interpretation. It’s only using the ancient culture as a source reference.

        When the Septuagint was translated in the second century BCE by Jewish scholars living in Alexandria, Egypt, they piously added 100 years to the age of each of the postdiluvian patriarchs’ ages. Why? Because they had been exposed to the history of ancient Egypt and knew that there was no global flood between then and the founding of Egypt, circa 3100 BCE. They were interpreting the story of the flood in Genesis in light of their own, then-modern understanding.

        Yes, there was a flood, and no, it wasn’t global. See David Rohl’s “Legend” for more details (as fixing the Egyptian chronology due to the 21st and 22nd dynasties of Egypt overlapping instead of being sequential, as conventional chronology would have them, is required in order to pinpoint the archaeological evidence for it). Yes, the flood story used cosmic terms to describe a local, admittedly very massive flood, because of an ancient recollection of a much more massive flood thousands of years prior to it.

        As far as whether Isaiah himself had in mind resurrection from the dead, he certainly may have. But the concern that he was addressing to his audience wasn’t one of what happens after death. It had everything to do with what would happen to Israel if their covenant of long life in the promised land was being broken.

        As far as there being no biblical culture 3500 years ago, I assume the patriarchal narratives don’t count for anything? Look in any decent biblical encyclopedia and you’ll find descriptions of such typical cultural practices as sister-wives, making a covenant by taking hold of one’s “thigh” (penis), land ownership negotiations, etc. All of these were practiced by non-Hebrews in the local cultural milieu that formed and shaped the biblical text.

        • Steve says:

          One would think that a “biblical culture” is one in which people are living by or are influenced by the Bible. It does not refer to events or cultures as they existed before there was a Bible. It’s anachronistic to refer to the times and lives of the Patriarchs as themselves “biblical.” If there did indeed live a character named Abraham, he later became a central figure in the the Tanakh but the times and culture he lived in were not biblical.

          As for the rest, they are observations by later readers of the form of the writing. You write, “This has nothing whatsoever to do with a modern interpretation. It’s only using the ancient culture as a source reference.” Okay, and who is using culture as a source reference? Moderns. They study forms of the text, archeological and other evidence and come up with hypotheses.

          Rabbis and ministers get the education they get before they are hired at synagogues and churches so how do salaries from synagogue members and tithes from church members lead to different quality educations for their clergy?

          I’ve been reading biblical scholars for about 35 years. Granted there are more I have not read than ones I have. But 1. I’ve never heard one describe Genesis 1-3 as a polemic and 2. To simply state a different point of view is not polemic.

          You state that other biblical passages make it clear that animals are used symbolically but do not demonstrate that that is so much less that that is what the author of Genesis 1 was doing. Why else would the writer have Adam looking among the animals for a helpmate?

          There is a difference between the method and forms and structures used by authors and their intentions. Remember the words from courtroom scenes, “Objection: that goes to motive.” Maybe, in spite of the symbolism and all these things authors might have employed and moderns analyze, their intention might have been to write stories their readers would take literally. What is your evidence that the stories were not intended to be taken literally? I guess you think you’ve given it; I don’t think you have.

          I’m gonna stop here. I just wanted to add some thoughts — too busy to keep this discussion going.

          • Damon Casale says:

            I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere, Steve.

            Forgetting the religious setting for the moment, would a person with a certain level of education be qualified to take a position that required a higher level of education? No, right? Would someone with that much higher level of education be satisfied taking a position that requires a lower level of education? Probably not, right?

            Then even if their level of education *beforehand* wouldn’t be influenced by their salary *afterwards*, it would still make a difference in the sorts of positions that they’re each qualified to take. And would therefore influence the cultural “comfort zone” of the people they preach to and teach. That was my point.

            As far as a “biblical culture” goes, we can sit here and pick nits all day on what that term should mean. It obviously means something different to you than it does to me, but are we going to quibble about the meaning of that term, or are we going to discuss the cultural context of the bible — which includes more than the so-called “biblical culture” as you define the term? That’s what I was primarily getting at.

            Next, I googled “Genesis polemic” and quite a few search results popped up. Take your pick.

            As far as the symbolism of animals in the bible, look up “clean and unclean animals” in the Jewish encyclopedia. Basically, although there are multiple different interpretations, one of the Jewish interpretations of the underlying meaning of “clean” vs “unclean” animals had to do with righteous or ethical behavior.

            You can also look at the book of Daniel for more animal symbolism.

            As far as the evidence that these stories weren’t intended to be taken literally, look at any decent analysis of ANE creation literature. Even some of the ancient writers themselves declared creation literature to be allegorical in nature. Google “berossus allegorical” and click on the livius.org link.

            But I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere because no matter what evidence I provide, it won’t make any difference to you. That’s fine, but let’s leave it there.

  9. Gnelson says:

    Let’s just think about my response more as a process as opposed to describing distinct fields.

    I like to believe there exists a little scientist, religionists and philosopher in everyone. To help with this proposal consider the concepts of truth beauty and goodness. I’ll hypothesize that everything that exists is true, beautiful and good. This is synomous with facts, meanings and values or discovery by science, philosophy and religion. Are you familiar with any absolute fact, meaning or value? I’d guess not because they are all relative. Relative to what is the (philosophic?) question.

    My effort here remains to put forward the idea that there is no conflict between science and religion. If there is, it exists within the person who precieves the conflict, it does not exist in reality. It’s an ego distraction from honest inquiry. One must make an effort to get to the truth.

    And here we go again: is the fact that we are talking about being relative, itself, true? How about meanings and values? Can these be true t? What is truth (another topic for some other time)?

  10. gnelson says:

    The big question is about possible conflict between science and religion, not science and the bible or science and genesis. Lets forget about the holy books and think about true religion and what it really is. Lets also try to forget the idea that the physical universe that we relate to with our senses is all that exists. I think this big question has a better chance of getting some througt provoking and interesting answers that really make sense to everyone.

  11. ELIE Mosseri says:

    Science deals with cause and effect and that can be tested. Religion cannot be tested.
    True religion, however, should not be against logic. If it is, then it will not make sense. What does
    not make sense will not be followed in the long run. Therefore science and true
    religion are not in conflict.

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