Are Science and Religion Incompatible?

For much of the last two thousand years of human history, the Christian Church has been at the forefront of human intellectual development: reading and writing were the preserve of monks and priests, and those who could afford to pay them to teach them. Many scientists, philosophers and politicians either professed the Christian faith, or were members of the clerical orders. Indeed, intellectual development has not just been limited to Christianity – the Islamic scholars working in Spain and North Africa translated many texts, often of a scientific nature, into Arabic, thus preserving them for posterity after the Greek or Latin originals were lost. And yet, today, there is seen by many to be a division between the intellectual life and the religious life: one cannot be, so some say, both an academic and a person of faith. What was it that happened to bring about this idea? Why do some see religion and science, in particular, as diametrically opposed?

The answer lies in part in two great incidents which have happened in the Church in the last 500 years. Firstly, there was the notable case of Galileo Galilei, who, for his views on a heliocentric universe, was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church and locked in prison – or so some say. Yet an examination of the case of Galileo will show that this is not exactly the case: the affair was more a case of politics and petty jealousies than religion versus science. For the idea of the earth revolving around the sun was first proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543, some 70 years before Galileo. During this period, Copernicus’ ideas were uncontroversial and were used by Pope Gregory in 1582 to reform the Calendar to that which we use today. So why did Galileo fall foul of the Church? When he first proposed his own views on a heliocentric universe in 1613, he didn’t, even though his writings came to the attention of the Inquisition, who declared them to be heretical. However, Galileo had the support of the Jesuits and Pope Urban, and was encouraged to research the idea of a heliocentric universe, but not to advocate it. The result was a book published in 1632, which had the authority of the Pope and the Inquisition. Sadly, Galileo, in this book, had been his own worst enemy: one of the characters in the book, Simplicio (the Simpleton), was clearly Pope Urban, who did not take such ridicule lightly and withdrew his support for Galileo. He was tried again by the Inquisition, his books were banned and he spent the rest of his life under house arrest – a victim not of heresy but of a Pope who feared for his position and his image to the Church.

The second episode which caused people to place science and religion at enmity with each other was that of Charles Darwin, some two hundred years after Galileo. Darwin, in his book, On the Origin of Species, a wide-ranging treatise about transmutation within species, published in 1859, collected, in one long argument, all his thoughts about what we would now call evolution, although he only called it that in the 6th edition of the book in 1872. These ideas had been refined n various publications written since his voyage of discovery on HMS Beagle, some 30 years previously. The reaction to Darwin’s ideas was mixed: some dismissed the ideas, but the majority of liberal clergy supported Darwin, seeing natural selection as an instrument of God’s design. The reason that many now see Darwin’s views as contrary to what the Church teaches and believes stems from the famous incident in 1860 at Oxford. In a debate at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce (grandson of anti-slavery campaigner, William Wilberforce, and the Bishop who dedicated the Chapel here at KESW), argued against the descent of humans from apes, while Joseph Hooker argued on Darwin’s side. It was during this debate that the famous riposte was given, by either Hooker, or Thomas Huxley, that he would rather be descended from apes than a man who misused his gifts: this has gone down in the annals of history as the triumph of science over religion.

But is this really the case? Has science indeed triumphed over religion, and over the Christian faith in particular? It is not clear that it has – some places of worship are still packed each week – but it is clear that those who believe that it has may have an imperfect understanding of both science and the Christian faith. Not only that, such people – such as Richard Dawkins and Steven Weinberg – seem to love perpetuating the conflict thesis, that science and religion have been in conflict throughout history, because, in part, it is a ‘black and white’ viewpoint which is easy to understand and readily sets one person against another. But this conflict thesis – since it was first described in the latter years of the 19th Century has regularly been debunked, by religionists and historians of science alike. So why do so many people still hold to it?

As mentioned previously, it is because of the simplistic nature of this point of view that it becomes attractive. Take, for example, the idea of Creation: in the first chapter of the book of Genesis in the Bible, the writer sets out a reasonably clear view of how the world was created in seven days. Scientists have proved that such a view is untenable, based on our modern understanding of how worlds are created. The obvious conclusion is that Science is right, Genesis is wrong and so the Bible – and along with it all of the Christian faith – is debunked and cannot be believed, neither on this nor anything else. Yet this is to apply false logic and try to compare two very different things. For the story of Creation in Genesis does not set out to be a scientific treatise: it is simply a way for a people of three thousand years ago to try to explain why they found themselves in the world they did and how that world was related to the god whom they worshipped. The writers of Genesis were in no way trying to explain how the world came into existence. The scientific understanding of how the world was made, involving the Big Bang and an ever-expanding universe, is more than compatible with what is found in Genesis, for the scientific explanation is trying to explain how the world came to be, but is less concerned – if at all – with why we are here on it. Thus both science and religion are trying to answer different questions.

The other obvious point that some point to as showing science and religion in conflict would be the miracles described in the scriptures. In this category, it would be sensible to include all those points of the Old Testament where God intervenes in the affairs of humans, such as the parting of the Red Sea, in addition to the miracles performed by Jesus, including his own resurrection from the dead. From the point of view of a person of faith, these are easy to explain as God being able to do what he likes in his own Creation. If he, as the person who made the universe, chooses to break the laws of physics, then that is surely his prerogative? From a scientific point of view, there is no easy explanation of such occurrences in the scriptures, for there is little hard evidence to support them – especially so at this distance in time away from them. Some would say these are simply fictional stories, others would say that some of them are conjuring tricks. It is clear, then, that they are easy to accept as acts of God, if one is a person of faith, but for a scientist they defy belief. Yet, such miraculous things do happen, even in our own day: cancers go into remission, useless limbs gain functions, people even come back from the dead – the Internet is full of such things which even now defy scientific explanation. However, on this one point, there is little conclusive evidence either way – this must be one of those areas where science and religion may have to disagree, but over which, hopefully, they will not come to blows!

In a slight step away from science, in the way that we understand it in the modern world, although remaining firmly in the intellectual world, there is one further aspect of the incompatibility between science and religion which should be examined, as it is often brought up in discussion by those of a scientific persuasion who seek to undermine the Christian Faith. This is, of course, the historicity of the person known as Jesus Christ. It is easy for some to move from the position of not believing that Jesus is the Son of God, to not believing that he existed at all, which would be to fly in the face of much hard evidence that there was a human being in the Roman Province of Judaea in the early part of what we know as the 1st Century AD. At least three reputable Roman authors – Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius – all refer to this person, as do other sources from the 1st century AD: to claim that he didn’t exist would be foolish; to believe in his claims to be the Son of God, that’s a matter of faith and debate beyond the scope of this essay!

The final thoughts of this essay again take the subject wider than just science, to what could be considered the heart of the matter – the difference between faith and intellect, of which science is simply a part. Faith, some maintain, is so devoid of intellectual rigour, that those who profess a faith cannot possibly be intelligent. Yet, as stated earlier, some of the greatest thinkers of the last two thousand years have been Christian – Anselm, the 10th Century Archbishop of Canterbury, whose notion of faith seeking understanding encourages us to apply our minds to all aspects of the faith that we don’t understand – even if we cannot find an answer; Thomas Aquinas, the 13th Century Dominican Friar & Priest, whose idea of the ‘prima causa’ or ‘prime mover’ behind everything allows a Christian to accept the Big Bang; Michael Faraday, the 19th Century physicist and chemist, whose unerring faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus stood by him in all his speculations. These are only three in an extensive list of scientist and thinkers who have professed the Christian Faith, but, as mentioned earlier, this says nothing of those of other faiths who have shown equally great intellectual prowess – the thousands of Islamic and Judaic scholars in particular who furthered mathematics and science, and preserved academic learning at times when Christianity was not in a position to do so. Were it not for people who were strong in the faith, our understanding of this world would be much poorer. Are science and religion incompatible? Most certainly not: they may, at times, be mutually exclusive, but they can also be mutually beneficial, with a little understanding on both sides.

Rev Dr D Standen

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