Is Science-Religion Conflict Always a Bad Thing? Some Augustinian Considerations

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Is Science-Religion Conflict Always a Bad Thing? Some Augustinian Considerations


The obscure mysteries of the natural order, which we perceive to have been made by God the almighty craftsman, should rather be discussed by asking questions than by making affirmations.


—Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram imperfectus liber 1.1


In this blog post I offer a preliminary glimpse into my work of applying some Augustinian principles to the current discussion about conflicts between religion and science. This post will touch on several themes I am exploring for The Colossian Forum project, Beyond Galileo—to Chalcedon: Re-imagining the Intersection of Evolution and the Fall.

In educated circles, religious resistance to science has a bad name. The most conspicuous contemporary manifestation of such resistance—young earth creationism—is associated with religious fundamentalism, right-wing politics, irrationalism, and ignorance. Moreover, scientific creationism is treated with disdain not only by critics of religion, but also by many Christian denominations. Like the Catholic Church’s premature condemnation of Galileoin the seventeenth century, religiously motivated rejection of evolution seems to put Christianity on the wrong side of history.

Prominent instances of science-religion conflict—contemporary and historical—play a central role in our present discussions of science and religion. Those who dismiss religion regard these instances of conflict as emblematic of the irrationalism of faith; those in many prominent Christian groups use them to support the generalization that such conflict undermines the credibility of religion and gives succor to its opponents. For this reason, the default position amongst this latter group is an advocacy of peaceful relations between science and religion. This is accomplished by proposing either that science and religion occupy separate spheres or, more commonly, that science and religion offer complementary or even overlapping perspectives on the world.

I want to suggest that this common position among the religious —the advocacy of peaceful relations between science and religion—arises in part from an absence of instances of what we might call “good” or “justifiable conflicts”. Creation science and the Galileo affair offer examples in which the relevant science seems undeniably correct. The Galileo affair, in particular, is deployed time and time again to illustrate the folly of religious opposition to science and often cited in the context of illustrating the folly of resistance to evolution. But what if there are other examples that are less clear cut and that might offer alternative models of creative tension or outright conflict? How might these impact the pressures placed on traditional doctrines of human origins and the origins of sin by the theory of evolution?

Before proceeding further it is worth clarifying which “Christian groups” I was referring to above. This includes contemporary Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and most Reformed Churches; and it includes major organizations that sponsor research and activities that promote friendly relations between science and religion, such as the John Templeton Foundation, BioLogos, and the International Society for Science and Religion. These groups have a recognizable identity in science-religion discussions and have been labeled, often in pejorative terms, as “accommodationists” or “neo-harmonizers”. Among these groups we see two approaches to the issue. One position, what I shall call the “strong irenic position”, is that conflict between science and religion is, in principle, not possible.

The strong irenic position assumes that both science and religion are, in some sense, truth tracking, which is to say that both seek to provide access to truth. It follows that conflict between science and religion is impossible because there is only one ultimate truth about things, and if both science and religion are accessing this truth, conflict between them is not possible. One traditional way in which this stance has been expressed is the motif of the “two books”—the book of nature and the book of Scripture. Since both “books” have been authored by God, they cannot be in conflict with each other.

The alternative view, what I will call a “weak irenic position”, holds that concord between science and religion has certainly been true for much of Western history, but that the peace between science and religion is more a matter of contingent historical circumstances. It is not that conflict is impossible for some set of principled reasons; it is just that the content of science for much of history past has just happened not to conflict with religion.

This weak irenic stance involves a much less essentialist understanding of science and religion. Advocates of this position may claim that science is not consistently truth tracking—a view that could be supported by pointing to the fact that scientific claims advanced in one historical period almost invariably conflict with those made in later periods. (Admittedly, this is a rather simplistic way of characterising a complicated issue. Some scientific theories claim empirical adequacy rather than “truth”, and there are differences between the claims of the physical and historical sciences. But this will do for now.) Certainly, there are also changes in the historical understanding of theological doctrines. These considerations suggest that either as a matter of historical fact or as a desirable state of affairs there is a single predominant relation between science and religion.

In the Middle Ages, for example, the doctrine of the eternity of the world was universally rejected by Christian thinkers in spite of the fact that it was advocated in the writings of Aristotle, who was the preeminent scientific authority at that time. Had religious thinkers then adhered to the “no conflict at all costs” principle of strong irenicism, they might have found themselves on the wrong side of history. This was a conflict in which, in the end, the religionists seem to have got it right. It is an intriguing historical curiosity that Augustine’s idea that the universe was created “with time” seems to have been vindicated, to some degree at least, with the advent of big bang theory. So in a sense the religious position on this particular issue seems to have been right all along. Or at least it is right for now.

By the same token, the weak irenic position might also prompt us to look closely at the details of current scientific claims, with the possibility that some aspects of a general theory might be religiously acceptable, but others not. Specifically in the case of evolutionary theory, the argument could be that while there is an undoubted scientific consensus about the truth of evolution it would not follow, of necessity, that Christian thinking must adapt itself to this reality. It would rather be a matter of considering the case on its merits, of scrutinizing every element of the theory and its variations, and of considering whether all or some or none were compatible with core Christian beliefs. (And from the assumption that there are “core” Christian beliefs it follows that some traditional doctrines may be dispensable.)

My suggestion, then, is that we should distinguish between two different irenic positions and consider whether the weaker version may have significant and unappreciated merits. One of its implications is that potential science-religion conflicts need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. As we pursue this line of inquiry, Augustine offers some useful insights for dealing with tension between scientific doctrines and Christian teachings, which further support a weak view of irenicism.

First, Augustine draws our attention to the different aims of Christianity and of what was then called “Natural Philosophy”, the closest analog to modern science. He insists that the value of religion is significantly greater than that of the study of nature.

For Augustine, sound knowledge of nature is not in any sense equivalent, in terms of its worth, to sound religious knowledge and the pursuit of the blessed life [beata vita]. He also thinks that there will always be an unequal partnership between human knowledge and divine knowledge. Nonetheless, Augustine proposes that a proven truth about nature must always take precedence over an apparent literal truth of Scripture; and conversely, in cases of conflict where there is no proof for the relevant science, the literal sense of Scripture must take priority. It was this principle that Galileo sought to deploy, based on his confident assumption that he possessed a demonstrative proof of the earth’s motion (which, in fact, he did not; compelling evidence was actually developed much later).

From these considerations of Augustine’s thought, I offer two tentative suggestions:

  1. Resolving theoretical questions about the natural world is less important than seeking to understand the moral and religious purpose of our own lives.
    Augustine famously declared in the Soliloquies that he desired to know only God and the soul, and nothing more. For Augustine, while knowledge of the natural world is a good thing when it helps us see God more clearly, preoccupation with it is a clear example of a misplaced love—the kind of preference for lower goods that characterizes the fallen condition of human beings.
  2. We must be prudent about the status of scientific knowledge: science changes and it changes in ways that suggest it cannot be invariably truth-tracking.
    Augustine recognized that much contemporary speculation about the natural world fell well short of the strict requirements of scientia—the logical demonstration of a truth. This was the rather high standard that Aristotle had set for genuine scientific knowledge. For this reason, Augustine counseled against too close an alignment of uncertain science with Scripture, since subsequent reasonings or discoveries might put both in doubt.
    (It is interesting that in the seventeenth century English philosopher John Locke rehearsed elements of these Augustinian priorities, but went further to deny that natural philosophy could ever attain the high standard of proof demanded by Aristotle. For this reason, Locke also thought that our primary focus should be morality and not natural science.)

Let’s consider these principles in the context of evolution and human origins. The broad general claim of evolutionary theory—descent with modification—is really a historical claim about past events. Historical claims fall short of logical certainty, yet many of them are so highly probable that it is hardly reasonable to doubt them. But there are specific details about the evolutionary history of humans that remain highly speculative. While there may be some consensus about the history of early humans, much of what we think we know about this rests on slender evidence. Moreover, when we consider the specific mechanisms of evolution we also move into less certain territory. Hence there are spirited discussions about the relative importance of natural selection, gene flow, genetic drift, and developmental constraints in bringing about evolutionary change. Based on the relatively short history of evolutionary thinking, then, we can anticipate that there will be future developments in these areas that change the consensus. Augustine’s principle of prudence concerning premature commitment to particular scientific doctrines seems relevant here.

This is not to concede much, if anything, to young earth creationists. But it is relevant to concerns about the apparent randomness and directionlessness of evolutionary processes, and details about our prehistory—concepts that are in tension with some elements of traditional Christian thought.

There are good reasons for thinking that strong irenicism has significant disadvantages, largely because science cannot be directly equated with “truths about the natural world”. From the fallibility of the natural sciences it follows that there is the possibility that at least some scientific doctrines might presently be in conflict with core Christian beliefs, but that these scientific doctrines could be subsequently revised in ways that reduce that tension. It also follows that we should not always presume that it is Christian doctrines that need to be reformulated in light of new scientific claims—thus my preference for weak irenicism.

The fact is that science sometimes gets things wrong. This seems undeniable from what we know from the history of science. Prudence suggests keeping a respectable distance between science and Christianity. In the specific case of evolution it cannot be doubted that the basic idea of descent with modification is well founded. But it is not a demonstrative truth; nor does it follow that every aspect of the theory is well founded, particularly those that remain the subject of debate within the field itself. It is also important to distinguish well-established theories from what are claimed to be their broader religious and philosophical implications, which may be considerably speculative.

But beyond these prudential considerations is Augustine’s valuing of activities that contribute to the cure of souls and the love of God. This represents an overriding consideration that takes us beyond quarrels about facts concerning the physical world to an advocacy of dwelling upon what is excellent and praiseworthy. Augustine’s priorities serve as a salutary reminder of the danger that well-intentioned attempts to establish peaceful relations between science and religion might lead to a neglect of what is of even more fundamental importance.




Harrison, Peter. "Is Science-Religion Conflict Always a Bad Thing? Some Augustinian Considerations" N.p., 16 Mar. 2015. Web. 15 December 2018.


Harrison, P. (2015, March 16). Is Science-Religion Conflict Always a Bad Thing? Some Augustinian Considerations
Retrieved December 15, 2018, from /blogs/archive/is-science-religion-conflict-always-a-bad-thing-some-augustinian-considerations

About the Author

Peter Harrison

  Peter Harrison is an Australian Laureate Fellow and Director of the Centre of the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland. He holds a DLitt from the University of Oxford, a PhD from the University of Queensland, and Master's degrees from Yale and Oxford. He began his academic career at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast, where for a number of years he was Professor of History and Philosophy. In 2006 he was elected Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford. During his time at Oxford he was Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre and a Fellow of Harris Manchester College. In 2011 he assumed directorship of the Centre of the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland. A Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, he was a recipient of a Centenary Medal in 2003. He was the 2011 Gifford Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and is a Senior Research Fellow in the Ian Ramsey Centre at Oxford. In 2014 he was awarded an Australian Laureate Fellowship to conduct a five-year research project exploring Science and Secularization.

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