If you have enjoyed Bede's Library, you can order
my book, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages
Launched the Scientific Revolution (US) from
Amazon.com or God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the
Foundations of Modern Science (UK) from
For my latest thoughts on science, politics,
religion and history, read Quodlibeta
Science and Christianity
Part One - Atheists against Religion
Part Two - Christians against Science
Bibliography and Sources
Part One - Atheists against
Canadian radio personality Peter Gzowski was interviewing two
neuroscientist-philosophers, the Churchlands - Paul and Patricia. During their
dialogue, the inextricable connection between mind and brain was explained.
Sounding startled, Gzowski said: "Does that mean I have no soul?" Their answer,
in short, was unfortunately not. The assumption was plain: they had proved
traditional religion totally false. Paul offhandedly mentioned that this showed
that there was no God. "I like to go on long walks outdoors as my way of
spirituality," said Patricia. Gzowski accepted this without much fuss and they
moved on to more important matters.
Had a thinking person who valued faith pursued this, they would have found
that religion was not so easily silenced. Theologians, philosophers and
scientists have long been considering the implications of contemporary
neuroscience for Christianity and have produced a number of totally orthodox
views on the matter. A major strand has been the re-discovery of the Hebraic
notion of psychosomatic unity, which is expressed in the Bible, and a
questioning of the Hellenistic and Cartesian dualities that have marked some
Christian thought. Jesus, after all, did not speak of some incorporeal soul, but
rather, the resurrection of the body. Man is not given a soul in Genesis - he
becomes one. Nevertheless, these scientists were sure they knew what Christians
believed, and they knew it was false. No questions asked.
The lesson is this: Scientists are often lousy philosophers. While totally
competent, even brilliant, within their field, they can display astonishing
ignorance and prejudice about other disciplines. Further, a lifetime of
specialization often leads on to apply the insights of one's field as rules for
all other areas of inquiry. While this can yield interesting results, there is
an imperial tendency among some scientists. This is why we have scientists
attempting to collapse biology into chemistry, chemistry into physics, and
sociology, anthropology and psychology into biology. As for theology, well, as
E. O. Wilson, sociobiologist extraordinaire, wrote in his book
Consilience: "Theology is not likely to
survive as a separate discipline." This expert in insect biology contends that,
like ants or bees, humans are almost completely controlled by their genes.
Religion's truth-claims are elaborate illusions used to maximize reproductive
fitness. John Polkinghorne, ex-physicist and Anglican priest, quotes Jeffery
Wicken in his Science and Christian Belief: "Although
scientists may officially eschew metaphysics, they love it dearly and practice
it in popularized books whenever they get the chance," and goes on to comment :
"If we are going to be metaphysicians willy-nilly, let us at least be
consciously self-critical about it."
I recall coming across an essay in which Carl Sagan, science populizer and
atheist, questioned the Golden Rule. (I'm afraid I don't remember the book this
was in.) He showed an incredible lack of knowledge of what that rule was. He
contended that, while everyone admired the Golden Rule, no one actually
practiced it. However, the principle he mocked was actually "Do good to others
at expense to your own well-being," not "Do unto others as you would have them
do to you," which takes into account the enlightened self-interest he was
recommending! After all, Jesus did not say: "Love others more than yourself, "
but rather, "Love others as you love yourself." As Holmes
Rolston III, professor of biology and of philosophy states: "After all, the
Second Great Commandment urges us to love others as we do ourselves, and that
presumes self-love as an unquestioned principle of human behavior and urges us
to combine this with loving others."
In many cases, hostility to religion can cause and otherwise brilliant person
to wear blinders. This is glaringly obvious in the case of Richard Dawkins,
British evolutionary biologist and God's own atheist. An excellent writer and
accomplished scientist, his unremitting hatred of all things religious colours
all of his writings. His well-known "selfish gene" metaphor/theory is
exceedingly interesting but is ultimately damaged by its muddled metaphysics,
which seem to have been devised for no other reason than to make the idea
repugnant to religious folk. In the end, his fulminations become somewhat
baffling and a tad embarrassing because they are so angry. Like a bull charging
a red flag, much dust is raised, but not much is accomplished - at least not on
the part of the bull. In fact, Dawkins' attacks have done a great deal to
encourage the dialogue of serious Christian thought with serious scientific
philosophy. Paraphrasing Voltaire, it has been said that "If Richard Dawkins did
not exist, the Christian community would have been forced to invent him." See
thinkers like Michael Poole's
exchange with him and
Holmes Rolston's Genes, Genesis and God for excellent
critiques of Dawkin's anti-religious arguments.
As with the Churchlands, what Sagan and Dawkins attack is not genuine
Christianity, but a straw man: a flawed representation of Christianity
constructed out of their own imaginations, so that they might have the pleasure
of kicking the stuffing out of it. Let us be sure we do not fall into the same
trap. No Christian should use the examples of a few hostile scientists to bash
science or scientists in general. A religious person who uses Dawkins' hostility
to Christianity to attack often-maligned (in conservative Christian circles)
evolutionary theory is unwittingly allying with him, since he claims that
science and religion are undying enemies. Nothing could be further for the
truth. It is the duty of every committed Christian to be aware of what
contemporary science has to say to religion and vice versa. In my next part of
this article, I will consider the other side of the story - the mistakes and
bungles which Christians have made which contribute to the perceived conflict
between science and Christianity.
Part Two - Christians against
Christians believe in "God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth",
whom, they assert, brought all things into being out of nothingness.
This means, then, that for Christians the universe is readable. It may be
terrifyingly vast. It may be incredibly complex. It may even be subject to a
large degree of chance and random circumstance. It will however, be
intelligible, and rational minds, given enough time and information, will be
able to discern its patterns. These patterns will not be figments of the
perceiving minds. These are present in the universe itself, because it is the
creation of a rational intelligence, and because it has existence independent of
perceiving minds. (If a tree falls in the forest and there's no-one around, does
it make a sound? Yes.) Further, God (Christians assert) is not the universe. The
universe is not God. While God's sustaining power is necessary for its
existence, it is distinct and separate from Him.
These beliefs constitute one of Christianity's great intellectual strengths -
its cosmology and philosophy of nature. Modern science was born and raised
primarily in Western Christendom precisely because of these ideas. Other
cultures and systems of thought certainly contributed to the emergence of
science, and had their own discoveries in mathematics or astronomy, but it was
only in the intellectual matrix of Christianity that empirical and experimental
science as we know it was established.
At this point someone invariably says: What about the Greeks? The ancient
Greeks had a highly developed mathematical knowledge but did not go far in
experimental science. Edward Gibbon claimed this was due to Christianity's
repressive rise. A closer reading reveals that the Greek beliefs in Fate and in
a myriad of fickle gods who altered reality at a whim partly undermined their
ability to study the natural world. Some philosophers emphasized intangible
spirit as perfection and matter as corrupt. Not only did Aristotle's natural
philosophy state that a heavy object will fall faster than a light one, a vacuum
is impossible, the universe is eternal and the earth is at its centre, but he
went so far as to claim that these things had to be so. In fact,
Aristotelianism (highly influential on the medieval scholastics) proved to be a
hindrance to the development of experimental science in the West. The medieval
debates about God's ability to create alternate worlds (Aristotle's teachings
said no, the Church said yes) were not pointless theological nit-picking but in
fact were highly significant to the birth of science.
So Christianity and science should be, theoretically at least, fairly
compatible. However, there is a price to be paid. The corollary of believing in
an intelligible universe, a rational Creator, and claiming to love truth is
this: we must accept the results of unbiased scientific investigation, whether
or not they fit our prejudices and particular theological presuppositions. This
is where the problems begin.
All too often, Christians act as if we have a "get-out-of-jail-free card"
when it comes to the natural sciences. We refuse to accept findings that perturb
our neat and tidy interpretations of scripture and wave away things that make us
uncomfortable. Ideas that would force us to return to the sources and develop a
new understanding are pushed away with a "No, I don't believe in that, I believe
in the Bible." This conveniently ignores the fact that scripture doesn't pretend
to be a science textbook. "I believe in the Bible", in this context, often means
things like "I believe in Milton's interpretations of scripture", "I believe in
nineteenth century popular theology" or "I don't feel like thinking about this."
To be fair, all worldviews find certain facts difficult to work into their
system. All belief systems encourage people to sweep things that don't fit under
the carpet. However, Christians believe in one God who has created the entire
universe. All truth is thus God's truth, and any honestly gotten information
will somehow reconcile with all the rest. If it doesn't, this does not mean that
it is false, but that our theology is not broad enough. Christianity includes
within itself a self-critical truth-seeking imperative.
These issues are not new. Augustine had to counsel some of his fellow
Christians about their attitude to natural science (what there was of it in
those days). It seems that some uneducated Christians were speaking as if their
faith and their knowledge of scripture made them experts in every field of
knowledge. This caused their educated hearers to sneer and scoff at what they
saw as Christianity's fairy tales. Augustine himself had left the Manichean
religion because, as he writes in his
Confessions: "I had read a great many scientific books which were still
alive in my memory. When I compared them with the tedious tales of the Manichees,
it seemed to me that of the two, the theories of the scientists were more likely
to be true." He thus taught that scripture's primary purpose is to teach us
about our relationship to God, not to explain the natural world. As
Alister McGrath writes, he "argued for a twofold sense -
a literal-fleshly-historical approach and an allegorical-mystical-spiritual
sense, although Augustine allows that some passages can possess both senses.
'The sayings of the prophets are found to have a threefold meaning, in that some
have in mind the earthly Jerusalem, others the heavenly city, and others refer
Nevertheless, throughout Christianity's history, many believers have
tenaciously taught theological ideas as scientific facts - turning many away
from "the tedious tales" of the Christians! Luther, for example, had a very dim
view of science. The contemporary Christian philosopher Peter van Iwagen writes
in his section of
the Philosophers: "A fundamentalist-turned-logical-positivist once called me
a wishy-washy theological liberal because I read the book of Genesis in a way
that was compatible with modern cosmology. I asked him whether he thought that
Augustine was a wishy-washy theological liberal. "Yes," he said."
One reason that there are militantly atheistic scientists and
"fundamentalists-turned-logical-positivists" is that sometimes Christians are
massively, bone headedly, and dogmatically wrong in their claims to have
absolute knowledge of the world. The condemnation of Galileo was a complex
struggle that had more to do with politics than with religion. So was the Scopes
trial. In both, a close reading of the historical context is necessary.
Regardless, these were cases in which the church and large numbers of Christians
used dogma and obscurantism to suppress scientifically gained truth.
Prince Charles spoke out in his
Reith Lecture against the hazards of genetically engineered foods, an issue
which, to be sure, is a legitimate concern. However, he based his arguments on a
hazy theology of nature that had more to do with Platonism than Christianity.
Scientists (especially Richard Dawkins in this
were not impressed and gave the impression that the two sides can only talk past
One of the major causes of Christian misunderstanding of science is the God
of the Gaps. This is a term coined by the devout Christian and chemist Charles
A. Coulson to describe the way some believers mix science and theology. Anything
which is currently unexplained or poorly understood by science is explained by
saying "God must have done it." While this supposed proof of God's activity
makes some people feel comfortable, it never lasts. Time and again, the sciences
advance in their understandings and the gaps are squeezed shut, usually
incurring emotional pain on the believers in question. They feel that their
faith is under assault by an aggressively atheistic science. This attitude is
based on an 'either/or' view of science and religion, wherein anything explained
by science can have nothing to do with God.
One symptom of this are the 'urban legends' that circulate through the
Christian community. A common theme of such stories is "science defeated or
confounded by religion." They include "deep drilling operation breaks into
Hell", "NASA discovers Joshua's missing day", "man swallowed by whale/shark
survives for three days", "soul photographed leaving the body", and the popular
and remarkably stupid sermon illustration "science unable to explain the flight
of bees - only God's power can do that." On closer inspection these are all
nonsense, but they are still circulated by those Christians who feel that
science and religion are at war.
There are atheists and skeptics dedicated to a vision of science as hostile
to religion - and there are fundamentalist and dogmatic Christians who share
that vision. These two extremist groups feed off of each other and, strangely
enough, reinforce each other's paranoia. Is there a balanced middle ground to be
found? Certainly, and a great many Christians are already there. They see
theology and science as different ways of exploring and describing the same
reality. Each field can shed light on the other. Science must respect its limits
and function, and so must theology, and yet both have insights to share. This is
essentially the view promoted by Pope John Paul II. As one Jewish writer (and
lawyer) recently counselled, believers who are confronted with new scientific
discoveries should take several deep breaths and then calmly think about the
theological implications. Most often they are minimal.
It is also important that Christians keep themselves educated about science
and its impact on the world and their worldview. In our time, when some
postmodernists aggressively deny the existence of an objective reality,
scientists and Christians have a great deal in common. There are many brilliant
theologians and scientists writing on the relationship between science and
Christianity who deserve to be read and discussed (as I hope my bibliography
will demonstrate). In this way we can support both faith and reason - remaining
faithful both to God and to the truth.
Bibliography and Sources
An enjoyable little book on the basic philosophical and theological ideas to
be found in the relationship between science and Christianity. Polkinghorne is
an Anglican priest and retired theoretical physicist. His books are always quite
accessible, reasonable, and avuncular, but he doesn't shy away from hard
questions. He's one of the famous trinity of "scientists turned theologians",
who (all in their seventies) are still hard at work in this field. The two
others are Arthur Peacocke (molecular biologist) and Ian G. Barbour (physicist).
A capable, technical, though still popular, introduction to the issues. A
prolific younger (40-something) writer, McGrath is better known for his popular
books on theology and Christian belief. However, his first doctorate was in
molecular biophysics and he maintains a keen interest in the dialogue between
science and religion. An Anglican, he splits his time between Oxford and the
University of British Columbia. Being a popular writer and working at Oxford, he
has been groomed as something of an antidote to Richard Dawkins, whose writings
also issue from Oxford.
When the rector of my church visited McGrath's Oxford office, he found two
computers running word processor programs side-by-side. This led him to
speculate on McGrath's prolific output - does he write his academic and popular
books simultaneously?. A comparison of this book and the above one will reveal
that they are very similar - in fact, there are patches that are identical.
However, this book is more technical and is aimed at an academic audience of
students in theology, philosophy, and the natural sciences. It is meant to
develop "the agenda set out by Thomas F. Torrance in his 1969 work Theological
Science. Like Torrance, McGrath sees the need to examine the relation between
Christian theology and the natural sciences at the level of method…"
Written by an impressive group of experts (including the redoubtable Michael
Poole), this is a very accessible and clearly written introductory text for
beginners. Designed for first year university courses, it's quite comprehensive
and wide-ranging. It includes sections on physics, evolutionary biology,
psychology, ecology, education, divine action, technology, and bioethics. A
chapter on Islam's interaction with science (by Michael Robert Negus) is
particularly fascinating. As with Polkinghorne, McGrath, Peacocke and Alexander,
the authors of this book are all British. Why are there so many more Brits
writing in the field of science and Christianity than there are North Americans?
The British seem to have a far more balanced view of science's relationship to
religion (Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins notwithstanding). Biblical literalism
and Christian fundamentalism are not as widespread, and special creationists are
few. This is in contrast to America, where at least 40% of the general
population refuse to accept evolutionary biology of any sort, thanks to a
literal reading of Genesis. (Perhaps the Anglican tradition can be thanked for
This is an engaging, friendly book - part autobiography, part popular
science, part apologetic. Consolmagno is an American Jesuit with a Ph.D. in
Planetary Science who now spends much of his time working at the Vatican
Observatory. One of the first scientists to postulate the existence of
fossilized evidence of single-celled life forms in meteorites from Mars, he
recounts his trip to Antarctica to retrieve and study such meteorites. He also
examines the politics and context of the Galileo debacle, discusses what led him
to become a Jesuit scientist, and firmly defends the compatibility of
Christianity and science.
The material in this book derives from Polkinghorne's Gifford Lectures (1993
- 1994). A deep and fascinating theological survey, Polkinghorne provides a
line-by-line analysis of the Nicene Creed, to examine how Christianity relates
to the universe described by the natural sciences.
"Bede" is the pseudonym of a British man, who, while working on a physics
degree at Oxford, abandoned his atheism and converted to Catholicism. Bede's
Library, which is hosting this article, deals extensively with the relationship
between theology, philosophy and science. His essays and reviews are flavoured
by an understated British wit. One of his major themes is the way in which,
historically speaking, Christianity encouraged the birth and growth of science.
"Here you will find a host of materials offering new views on such complex
issues as the evolution/creation controversy, biomedical ethical challenges, new
insights from neuroscience, and much more." This site contains an almost endless
wealth of valuable (and totally free!) information on science/Christianity
issues. Very high levels of scholarship are evident, making this the best site
of its kind. An excellent resource for those who already have some knowledge of
the nexus between theology, philosophy, and science. It also offers many
excerpts from God, Humanity and the Cosmos (check out the
between Steven Weinberg and John Polkinghorne, a confrontation I had always
hoped would happen). The Counterbalance Organization is based in Seattle.
Biology and Evolution:
Alexander is a British biologist and a Christian, and his essay on evolution
serves as an excellent introduction to the topic of evolutionary biology's
theological implications. He writes: "…the religious significance of
evolutionary theory is in fact rather limited, and … as a biological theory it
can readily be accommodated within a robust version of Christian theism." His
straight-forward explanation of what evolution is and how it works is quite
helpful. (His article
- friend or foe? - is also quite good.)
Miller is an American biologist, and a Christian. His book is an absolute
necessity for any Christian who wonders if they should take evolutionary biology
seriously. While his philosophical and theological perspectives are quite
ordinary, his explanation of the scientific principles involved is excellent.
With a scathing brilliance, he devastates three concepts that are common among
those Christians and Jews who do not accept Darwinian evolution: Young-earth
creationism (Henry Morris), special creation (Philip Johnson), and Intelligent
Design (Michael Behe). After this he goes on to explore the philosophical and
social reasons behind these ideas, and then turns his guns on those who claim
that evolution somehow disproves Christianity - militant atheists and
polemicists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and E.O. Wilson. While
Miller's theological reasoning is surpassed by authors like Holmes Rolston III
and John Polkinghorne, this book is a valuable, up-to-date resource for anyone
interested in Christianity's relationship with biology.
A massive tome packed with single-spaced small print, this book gathers
together a great many esteemed thinkers in the science/religion conversation.
Not for the beginner, this is aimed at a more academic audience. Ayala is a
well-known evolutionary biologist, while Russell is one of the leading experts
on Christianity's relationship with the sciences.
Another must-read for those interested in religious faith and evolutionary
biology. This book constituted the Gifford Lectures for 1997. Rolston is a
philosopher with a background in both biology and religion. Here he shatters the
reductionist arguments of those, like Dennett and Wilson, who claim that
evolution has "disproved religion." In a series of interlocking arguments, he
examines culture, science, ethics and religion and devastates the claims of
reductionistic sociobiology. What emerges is a beautiful vision of a created,
fruitful universe that generates real values. Not for beginners, but readily
accessible to those who have already learned a bit about evolutionary biology
and the philosophical views that stem from it.
A theological perspective on evolutionary biology which offers ways of
thinking of God's creative acts in ways that go beyond a simple concept of
design. Drawing on process thought and ideas of kenosis and emergent novelty,
Haught challenges Christians to incorporate the long-term view of life's history
that evolutionary biology gives us into a mature theology of creation. He also
exposes the philosophical viewpoint of reductionists and militant atheists as
narrow and self-limiting. Some knowledge of biology and theology is required.
A collection of essays and source materials on the theological and
hermeneutical errors of "scientific" creationism, which was, at the time,
experiencing a resurgence. With contributions by both Jewish and Christian
authors, including Owen Gingerich and Langdon Gilkey. Also included are "Natural
science and religion" by Darwin's colleague (and friend) Asa Grey, and "Science
and Christianity" by Pope John Paul II. Use it to irritate your fundamentalist
© Hieronymus 2001.
Last revised: 27 October, 2001.