Some people see science and religion as enemies, at war for leadership in our modern culture. Others see science and religion as completely separate and unrelated facets of life. However, science is not the only source of facts, and religion reaches beyond the realm of values and morals. In fact, religion can have a positive impact on science, such as in the development of modern medical ethics. Many early scientific leaders were devout Christians, as are some scientific leaders today. Science can also enhance the spiritual life of believers. Christians rejoice in scientific discoveries that reveal the glory of God the creator.
(Updated June 27, 2012)
Many voices today say that science and Christianity are opposed to each other. Some atheists claim that science has debunked religion and superstition of all forms. Many in the general public think that the church is anti-science. And within the church, science is often portrayed as challenging important Christian beliefs. None of these voices, however, hint at the positive and fruitful relationship between Christianity and science. Here we review several ways to view the relationship between science and Christianity.
Are Christianity and science at war?
When creation and evolution clash in a courtroom, the daily news fills up with stories suggesting that there is some profound conflict between science and Christianity. Inevitably, someone mentions the historical incident of Galileo. Galileo was charged with heresy by the church in 1633 for teaching that the Earth orbits the Sun. From Galileo to textbook battles, the hasty conclusion is that science and Christianity are engaged in an endless debate, fundamentally opposed to each other.
Yet the Galileo incident and today’s conflicts are often about much more than the particular claims of science or faith. Personalities, politics, and culture wars all come into play when drawing the battle lines. In many instances, science and scientists are not themselves in conflict with Christian belief. In fact, Galileo himself was a Christian who believed “that the glory and greatness of Almighty God are marvelously discerned in all His works and divinely read in the open book of Heaven”1 Many scientists then and now2are Christians who see no conflict between their scientific work and their faith. Most things studied via the natural sciences—such as the migration patterns of birds or the interior of atoms—do not raise any theological or Biblical concerns.
The “warfare” model, then, is not very helpful for understanding evolution and Christianity, since it assumes conflict from the start. A few particular areas of scientific study—like the big bang and evolution—do raise concerns for Christians, but most of the BioLogos website (see Questions by Category on the right) is devoted to showing that evolution and Christianity are not truly at war. In the rest of this answer, we’ll explore other models for the working relationship between science and Christianity.
Are Christianity and science completely separate?
One way to erase the conflicts between science and Christianity is to view them as entirely separate endeavors, with different purposes, methods, and bodies of knowledge. This view emphasizes that science is a system of knowledge about the world and its behavior, whereas religion is about morality, God, and the afterlife. Thus, Christianity and science cannot conflict, because they are addressing different sorts of questions.3
This model has some weaknesses (see below), but it does help us understand some important aspects of the relationship. Many apparent conflicts between science and religion occur because of a lack of understanding of the fundamental differences between the two. When someone claims that the Bible answers a scientific question, and another claims that science answers a question about God, the conflict immediately flares up. Many conflicts become enflamed because participants forget that Christianity and science do generally address very different questions.
This model also reminds us that science is not the only source of knowledge. There are many sorts of questions that simply do not fall under the domain of science. Borrowing an example from the Rev. John Polkinghorne, there is more than one answer to the question of “Why is the water boiling in the tea kettle?”4The scientific answer might be “the water is boiling because at this temperature it undergoes a phase transition from liquid to vapor.” Another acceptable, though nonscientific, answer is “the water is boiling because I put the kettle on the stove.” A third answer might be “the water is boiling because my prayer partner is coming over for tea.” None of the answers is wrong; rather, each gives a different perspective on the question. The scientific answer does not tell the whole story. Science cannot answer questions like “Is my friend trustworthy?” or “Is this poem well written?” Science is tremendously successful in understanding the physical world, but we should not let that tempt us to think it can be used to understand everything in life.
Science cannot answer the question “Does God exist?” Some people argue that God’s existence is actually a scientific claim that could be tested like a chemical reaction. But science studies the natural world, not the supernatural. No amount of scientific testing or theorizing could prove or disprove the existence of a supernatural creator. The claim that “God exists” is a metaphysical one, not a claim about nature or physical laws
This model also reminds us that the Bible is not the only source of knowledge. The Bible is silent on most of the topics that concern scientists, like protons, photosynthesis, penguins, and Pluto. The Bible is not a science textbook, in the same way that it is not a textbook of plumbing, agriculture, or economics. Instead, God teaches us about these things through his general revelation in the created order.
However, this model has some significant weaknesses. It isolates religion from science, which can be a first step in marginalizing religion from public discourse. By defining religion and science as separate, this model doesn’t help us understand the interactions they do have, either negative or positive. The model also sets science on its own, apart from religion, while Christians believe that no part of our lives is outside of our walk with God.
Science and Christianity interact, correcting and enhancing each other
While many questions can be clearly categorized as “science” questions or as “Bible” questions, other questions are on the boundary. For topics like evolution, medical ethics, and climate change, we need to consider both science and faith when seeking out God’s truth. For such complex questions, we need all the knowledge and wisdom we can get, rather than handicapping ourselves by looking only to science or only to the Bible. If we look to only one or the other, we will get a distorted view of the issue. As Pope John Paul II wrote,
Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.5
God reveals himself in the book of Scripture and the book of Nature. To learn more about God and his work, we study both books. When one book is confusing or ambiguous, insights from the other book can help us understand it. In both revelations, we look for the underlying truth of who God is and how he made the world. Rev John Polkinghorne wrote, “Science and theology have things to say to each other, since both are concerned with the search for truth attained through motivated belief.”6
Faith can have a positive impact on science by guiding the practical application of scientific discoveries. With the rapid advance of science and technology, many ethical questions are facing our society. Development of safe nuclear energy is not far from the development of nuclear weapons, new medical imaging techniques save lives but are too expensive for the poor, and DNA testing improves treatment of genetic disorders at the risk of the results being misused.7 To address these complex questions, we need both science and the moral grounding of religion. We can’t just give a quick answer from the Bible without studying the scientific complexities, nor can we look to science alone to guide ethical decisions. Christianity and other religions lay the groundwork for the moral standards that are essential for the appropriate use of science and technology.
Science also has a positive impact on the faith of the believer. The Bible teaches that “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). Christians see God’s glory when looking up at the stars, and in colliding galaxies seen through a telescope. God’s glory is revealed in the beautiful symmetry of a maple leaf, and in the complex biochemical activity inside each cell in that leaf. Science and technology have shown us much more of God’s creation than was known in Biblical times, revealing more and more of God’s glory.
Finally, Christianity can provide the belief framework for how and why we do science. Christians need not set aside their faith when they sit down to do science.
- Galileo, The Letter to the Grand Duchess Cristina, 1615, translated by Stillman Drake (web article)
- See Karl Giberson “No room at the inn,” Biologos Forum, August 17, 2009 (blog) for an overview of Christians who are or were top scientists. Of the 52 scientists during the emergence of modern science in medieval Europe, 62% could be classified as devout, 35% as conventionally religious, and only two scientists (4% percent), could be classified as skeptics. Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 160-63. For statistics on the religious beliefs of scientists today, see “Are you there God? It’s us, scientists” BioLogos Forum June 24, 2012 (infographic).
- This view is held by Stephen J. Gould, who describes science and religion as “Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” or NOMA. ‘[Each] subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority—and these magisteria do not overlap (the principle that I would like to designate as NOMA, or “nonoverlapping magisteria"). The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact), and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).’ Stephen J. Gould, "Nonoverlapping Magesteria," Natural History Magazine106 (1997). See also: Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Christianity in the Fullness of Life, 1st ed. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999), 88. Note that by reducing religion to morals and values, Gould strips religion of major parts of its definition, including beliefs about the afterlife and the existence of God.
- John Polkinghorne, “Is Science Enough?” Sewanee Theological Review 39, no. 1 (1995): 11-26.
- Pope John Paul II, Letter to Director of the Vatican Observatory , 1.6.1988, in Papal Addresses, p. 300
- John Polkinghorne, “The Science and Christianity Debate – an Introduction.” Faraday Papers, The Faraday Institute, 2007. (PDF)
- See, for example, Francis Collins “Appendix: The Moral Practice of Science and Medicine: Bioethics” inThe Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006), p.235ff. (book info)