New Atheists, the God of the Gaps, and What’s Wrong with the “Conflict Thesis”

| By and (guest author) on Reading the Book of Nature

ABOVE: No historian has done more to debunk the Conflict Thesis than John Hedley Brooke, shown here in 2012 at the Science and Secularization Symposium, sponsored by the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. Photograph by Conrad Erb, courtesy of Chemical Heritage Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0 (image source).

Introduction by Ted Davis

Last week, historian Stephen Snobelen presented some examples of prominent New Atheists who embrace the infamous “Conflict Thesis about science and religion.  Today he critiques the frequently stated claim that there is an essential conflict between science and religion.  The central message (which he takes from historian John Hedley Brooke) is not well understood outside of historical circles, but in my opinion it’s absolutely correct: “There is no such thing as the relationship between science and religion.”

Dr. Snobelen begins by replying to Richard Dawkins’ view that Christians foolishly rely on “God-of-the-gaps” thinking—something that is often associated with Isaac Newton, but not usually in an accurate way, as Dr. Snobelen and I like to point out.  

Incidentally, this past week the AAAS released a series of films from their Science for Seminaries project.  One of them is devoted to the Conflict Thesis, and I appear (with Dr. Lawrence Principe of Johns Hopkins) as one of the two main speakers.

Dr. Snobelen’s essay continues after the next heading.

Richard Dawkins and the God-of-the-Gaps (by Stephen Snobelen)

Like Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins makes a claim of the inexorable retreat of religion, in his agenda-driven afterword to Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing (2012):

“the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ shrivels up before our eyes as you read these pages. If On the Origin of Species was biology’s deadliest blow to supernaturalism, we may come to see A Universe from Nothing as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is devastating.” (p. 191)

Dawkins wants us to believe Krauss’s book should be “devastating” to theists. Since millions of Christians find evolution perfectly compatible with their theistic faith and millions of other Christians hold various creationist perspectives on origins, describing Darwin’s magnum opus as “biology’s deadliest blow to supernaturalism” is at best an exaggeration. It is valuable, however, for helping to clarify how Dawkins sees the world. And to compare Krauss’ interesting, but slender and popular work to one of the most important works in the history of science is just plain silly and does a disservice to Darwin. The Origin of Species is read in my university’s Great Books programme. I can guarantee that Krauss’s book never will be, even though it contains some useful explanations of current astrophysics. This kind of self-congratulatory back-slapping does not do much to promote deep thinking on cosmology and astrophysics—but it does help reinforce the Conflict Thesis in the public sphere. Dawkins uses strong words here and elsewhere in his promotion of the Conflict Thesis, but what he is peddling is a construction—and a self-serving one at that. Once we recognise this, it is the Conflict Thesis rather than “the last remaining trump card of the theologian” that shrivels up before our eyes.

There is need for some balance here. Sometimes theologians and other believers really have argued that a particular feature of the universe or nature can be explained only by God, exclusive of natural causes, though I would argue that this is much less common than frequently claimed. In such cases, believers may have set themselves up for the critique that science is continuously taking over their territory. This myopic strategy is often called the “God-of-the-gaps,” because when current science fails to explain something, God is invoked to fill that gap in our knowledge. Dawkins is making just such a claim in his afterword to Krauss’s book.

Insofar as some religious people deploy God-of-the-gaps arguments, the New Atheist assertion that religious explanations are gradually giving way to scientific ones may have some purchase. Yet, as is well known to those who work on the history of science and religion, the critique of God-of-the-gaps reasoning actually originated as an internal one, coming from Christian theologians and scientists rather than atheists. The Oxford mathematician and chemist Charles Alfred Coulson, a devout Methodist, helped canonise the God-of-the-gaps critique in his 1955 book, Science and Christian Belief. Before him, the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer offered a similar critique. Interestingly, Dawkins begins his own critique of the God-of-the-gaps by referring to Bonhoeffer’s, speaking of those like Bonhoeffer who raise this concern as “thoughtful theologians” (Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 151).

Coulson wasn’t actually the first to use the words “God” and “gaps” in close proximity. The Scottish evangelist Henry Drummond (a friend of legendary American preacher Dwight L. Moody) raised concerns about it in the late Victorian period: “There are reverent minds who ceaselessly scan the fields of Nature and the books of Science in search of gaps—gaps which they fill up with God. As if God lived in gaps!” (The Lowell Lectures on the Ascent of Man, p. 333.)  The idea expressed by Drummond and Colson connects with some earlier conversations in which different terms were used.  For example, three hundred years ago one of Newton’s close confidants, theologian and philosopher Samuel Clarke, got into a protracted argument about God and nature with the great German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz.  Leibniz contended that in philosophy one must stick with natural explanations, otherwise one could lazily explain anything by calling on God as the only explanation; as he famously put it, “Deus ex machina,” God from the machine (cited below). Clarke’s own view in this debate was similar to what Coulson said in 1955: “Either God is in the whole of Nature, with no gaps, or He’s not there at all” (Science and Christian Belief, p. 22). Thus, one theological response to the limitations of the God-of-the-gaps is to avoid singular causation and either/or thinking: the universe can simultaneously have physical and theistic explanations. On this view, since God works with the material world, material causation and effects are still there to study. Here we see that the greater conflict actually comes from pitting a singular causation (God-of-the-gaps) theistic argument against a singular causation (physical objects and processes) atheistic argument.

The Main Problem with the Conflict Thesis: Failure to See Real Complexity

All of this aside, the chief problem with the Conflict Thesis is that it is based substantially on the historiographical and philosophical sin of essentialism. To speak in unqualified terms of “conflict” between “science” and “religion” in the past and present is to invoke three essences: that “conflict” is a persistent historical constant; that “religion” is a thing with core essences that remain fixed and unchanging across time irrespective of cultural context; and that “science” is an identifiable rational practice that can be located from Antiquity to the present. Yet those who study the history of science and religion speak of particularity and complexity rather than the general and essential. One such scholar is John Hedley Brooke, who in a 1991 book advanced what is now called the Complexity Thesis for science and religion:

There is no such thing as the relationship between science and religion. It is what different individuals and communities have made of it in a plethora of different contexts. Not only has the problematic interface between them shifted over time, but there is also a high degree of artificiality in abstracting from the science and religion of earlier centuries to see how they were related” (Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, p. 321, bold type not in the original).

History is complex and it is the historian’s job to recover this complexity.

Proponents of the Conflict Thesis generally assert or assume that conflict is an inherently bad thing. Or, if they characterise it as a good thing, they mean that it is good because it involves science beating down religion. But any thorough consideration of conflict must acknowledge that there are all kinds of conflict in human affairs: between political parties, between sports teams, between corporations, between philosophical schools, between religious movements and, yes, even within science. Much of this we accept as part of the human condition and some of it we take to be good.

Conflict, including the conflict of competing ideas, can be healthy and act as evidence that we are not living in an autocracy. It is equally clear that some conflict is unhelpful, creates unnecessary stress and hostility and can even grow when it gets trapped in feedback dynamics. An example of this reflexivity in science and religion conflict is seen in the publication of Jerry Coyne’s book, Faith vs. Fact. Coyne has said more than once that it was push-back from some religious believers against his earlier book, Why Evolution is True, that led him to study science-and-religion relations and ultimately come to the conclusions he does in Faith vs. Fact. The religious believer, especially those who oppose Coyne’s views on evolution, should attempt to see the world as Coyne sees it and try to understand why he might think science and religion relations are by nature agonistic. Relatedly, some religious people promote the Conflict Thesis in their own way by characterising or implying that science is hostile to faith. Surely this is one reason why the conflict metaphor has such longevity: it is endorsed by significant numbers on both sides. But these camps tend to shout from the more extreme ends of the spectrum.

Furthermore, if the Conflict Thesis is problematically essentialistic (as I have argued), then so is its polar opposite, which we could call “the Harmony Thesis.” Yes, there has been a good deal of harmony between science and religion. In my main period of study, the early modern period, there is much more harmony, mutual reinforcement and compatibility than conflict. But conflict has existed and continues to exist. It may be good or bad depending on the example, but the goal of understanding the history of science and religion accurately is not served by denying conflict altogether. One thing the Conflict Thesis and Harmony Thesis both do is latch on to particular examples, interpret them in a way favourable to the cause and then extrapolate outwards to generalise from these instances. Thus, the conflict and harmony metaphors are often used in totalising ways that crowd out other metaphors or models. Neither is acceptable to the historian who strives to dwell in the world of the messy historical realities.

Ted notes: The late David C. Lindberg, a leading historian on ancient and medieval natural philosophy, helped pioneer the modern historical view that the Conflict Thesis is fundamentally wrong. With his close friend and colleague Ronald L. Numbers, Lindberg led multiple large projects to create publications that are (in general) far more reliable than much previous historical work about science and religion. Like Dr. Snobelen in this column, Lindberg and Numbers denied “that all was harmony—that serious conflict did not exist—only that it was not the simple bipolar warfare described by White” (image source).

To see what I mean, pick up a copy of a recent book edited by Ronald Numbers, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (2009), in which a group of historians debunk twenty-five common myths and stereotypes about the relationship between science and religion. The Conflict Thesis is the foundation for many of the myths deconstructed in this useful book. The book’s credibility comes not only from the professional qualifications of its contributors, but the fact that they represent a range of personal beliefs, all the way from evangelical Christian (such as Ted Davis) to atheist (such as Michael Ruse). Written for general readers, it’s an assigned text for the two science and religion courses I teach at King’s College.  (I offer a fuller account of the book that expands on some of its main arguments and discusses problems with the Harmony Thesis in “Declaring war on the Conflict Thesis: a review essay.”)

What of the world of historical reality? The irritating thing about historians is that they take a lot of fun out of cherished historical myths. The tragic case of the Italian monk Giordano Bruno is one of those myths. It’s now time to return to the cartoon presented in the first episode of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos (see the previous column) for an encounter with the messiness of history. How does it measure up to history? The answer is that it’s a mixture of truth, misleading intimations and outright error. Yes, Bruno was burnt at the stake in 1600, but for religious heresy—not for holding definable scientific ideas. Although Tyson doesn’t explicitly refer to Bruno as a martyr for science (as many did in previous generations), and while some of the religious heresies are duly noted, why is his life and death used as the first historical example in a science documentary? Bruno’s belief in an infinite universe is of course relevant to the very title of Cosmos. Tyson explicitly says that Bruno was no scientist and that his beliefs about an infinite universe were a “lucky guess”. But the intended message behind the story of a free-spirit being condemned in the worst possible way by religious authorities was not lost on secular supporters along with both religious and secular critics, as the vigorous debates about the vignette that cropped up online as soon as it aired demonstrate. Discover blogger Corey S. Powell said that Tyson picked the wrong hero, leading astronomer Steven Soter, co-writer of Cosmos, to defend the choice, because “Freedom of thought is the life blood of science.” At the same time, historian Tim O’Neill, an atheist,  argued that “Cosmos got the story of Bruno Wrong,” on precisely the same grounds that I have given here: “Bruno is a simple answer to a intricate question.  Nuance and complexity are the first casualties in a culture war.”

Tyson’s narrative and the animation make the misleading claim that Lucretius’ De rerum natura had been banned by the Catholic Church. Not so—it was in fact available in print. It’s not just what Tyson says, it’s what he doesn’t say. As inspiration for his ideas, Bruno credits not only Lucretius—a Roman Epicurean and a kind of practical atheist—but also Nicolaus of Cusa, who wrote of a universe of indefinite size a century before Bruno. Cusa was a philosopher, astronomer and Catholic priest who eventually became a cardinal. But Cosmos leaves Cusa out of its tale.

The inclusion of the tragic story of Giordano Bruno in the first episode is no accident. For decades prior to the documentary’s release there has been a pop culture myth about Bruno being a martyr for science. Bruno’s death is commonly seen as emblematic of what happens with free-thinking scientists encounter close-minded “religionists.” Bruno, was a martyr, to be sure—but for theological heresy, religious insubordination and occultic views, not science. The idea that Bruno was a martyr for science was debunked convincingly before the Cosmos vignette was written and produced (see the chapter by Jole Shackelford in Galileo Goes to Jail, mentioned above).

What of Tyson’s dig at the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther? Here is a missed opportunity. There is an anecdote in which Luther disparages the idea that the earth is in motion, but he does not mention Copernicus by name in the anecdote, nor is there any mention of Copernicanism or heliocentrism in his writings. But whatever the well-educated Luther may or may not have thought of Copernicus (whose book came out only three years before the Reformer’s death), once again the problem with Tyson and his team’s history is that they misrepresent through their selection of data. Thus, we hear nothing of Georg Joachim Rheticus, the young Lutheran astronomer who was Copernicus’s earliest convert and who published a precis of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory three years before the release of De revolutionibus (1543). Owing to Rheticus, Copernicus’ book was printed in Nuremberg, a Lutheran town. Another early convert to Copernicanism was another Lutheran, Michael Maestlin, one of Johannes Kepler’s teachers at Tübingen. Kepler himself published a Copernican work in 1596 and, although some of the faculty at Tübingen asked him to refrain from including an argument that heliocentrism was compatible with the Bible, Kepler’s Astronomia nova (1609) included this argument. Kepler’s astronomy was powerfully motivated by both Pythagorean number mysticism and his profound Christian theism. He saw himself and other astronomers as “priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature.” It is true that the University of Wittenberg advocated using Copernicanism only as a calculating device (the so-called Wittenberg interpretation of Copernicanism), yet this got Lutheran astronomers talking about the theory and teaching it to students. It is also true that the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, another Lutheran, believing the Bible to teach a stationary earth, felt able to come up with a version of geocentrism that incorporated only some of the mathematical advantages of heliocentrism without putting the earth in motion. Yet he also backed up his (correct) rejection of crystalline spheres with Rabbinic exegesis on the watery firmament of Genesis 1. Thus, the story of Lutheranism and Copernican was far from entirely conflictual. This is why historians prefer the Complexity Thesis, or something like it. The version of Bruno’s story in Cosmos is unfortunately a cartoon in both senses of that term. We have to conclude that the animation was animated by the Conflict Thesis, or something like it.

Not all non-believers embrace the Conflict Thesis and uniform hostility towards religion. Philosopher of science and atheist Michael Ruse has decried Dawkins’ efforts to label Darwinism atheistic, because in Ruse’s view this will only confirm creationists’ worst nightmare about evolution. Dawkins has spoken of Ruse as belonging to “the Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists” (The God Delusion, p. 91) for taking an “accommodationist” position of religion and evolution. Kip Thorne, the retired CalTech physicist who was the scientific advisor for the science fiction film Interstellar (2014), said the following in an interview for The Guardian: “There are large numbers of my finest colleagues who are quite devout and believe in God, ranging from an abstract humanist God to a very concrete Catholic or Mormon God. There is no fundamental incompatibility between science and religion. I happen to not believe in God.” In a different kind of example, the renowned entomologist E. O. Wilson (no friend of creationism) has argued that, for the sake of the environment, scientists and religious people should put aside any metaphysical differences and work together (The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth). And of course many scientists are also religious.

Nevertheless, there are no signs that the Conflict Thesis is going to disappear anytime soon. For many it is seemingly too intuitive. For others, including the New Atheists, it is just far too useful.

Looking Ahead

In a few weeks we will return to Snobelen’s essay, when we present his comments on the “medieval gap,” the widely believed notion that the Roman Catholic Church all but extinguished science for many centuries during the middle ages.  The late Carl Sagan and others have popularized that view to such an extent that many people take it for a basic historical fact, but it’s badly wrong.  In the meantime, however, I’ll offer a column of my own about the Conflict Thesis, based on a research project I’m now finishing.




Davis, Ted. "New Atheists, the God of the Gaps, and What’s Wrong with the “Conflict Thesis” " N.p., 12 Jan. 2017. Web. 21 July 2017.


Davis, T. (2017, January 12). New Atheists, the God of the Gaps, and What’s Wrong with the “Conflict Thesis”
Retrieved July 21, 2017, from

References & Credits

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

An earlier version of this essay was published as Stephen D. Snobelen, “Science, religion and the New Atheism,” in The New Atheism, ed. Susan Harris (Charlottetown: St. Peter Publications, 2013), pp. 109-44.  BioLogos and the author are grateful to St. Peter Publications (the only source for purchasing this book) for permission to publish this updated version online.

The quotation from Leibniz comes from his Fifth Paper in A collection of papers, which passed between the late learned Mr. Leibnitz, and Dr. Clarke, in the years 1715 and 1716. Relating to the principles of natural philosophy and religion (London, 1717), p. 263.

About the Authors

Dr. Snobelen's research and teaching interests include history of science (early modern and nineteenth century), science and religion, science in popular culture, the popularization of science, radical theology in the early modern period, and millenarianism. His primary research efforts are currently devoted to interpreting Isaac Newton’s theological manuscripts and understanding the relationships between Newton’s science and his religion.

Dr. Snobelen has consulted for and appeared in television documentaries on Isaac Newton, including Newton: The Dark Heretic. His most popular course is on science fiction film, which he uses to introduce historical, philosophical, and ethical themes about science and technology to undergraduates in the humanities, sciences, and engineering. He and his wife Julia have four children who help keep them grounded in the more important things of life.


More posts by Stephen Snobelen

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

More posts by Ted Davis