Christianity and science simply don't go together. Do they?
Increasingly, it seems to be popular opinion that science and religion—especially Christianity—are adversarial entities. They are presented as mutually exclusive; you simply cannot fully subscribe to the tenets of one without minimizing or dismissing the other. Science is often portrayed as the pinnacle of truth and reason, and Christianity as merely a leap of faith “proudly and defiantly [setting] itself in opposition to reason.”1
For those who subscribe to these views, there is a feeling that science arose in spite of the oppressive effects of religion. However, a review of history, a deeper look at Christianity, and a closer inspection of the worldview of metaphysical naturalism will present a different picture.
The History and Philosophy of Science
It is an unavoidable fact of history that science arose and flourished within the worldview of Christian monotheism. Intellectual giants such as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Sir Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, and James Maxwell Clark (among others) developed and advanced the discipline of science in an effort to “think God’s thoughts after Him.”2
There have been numerous technologically advanced civilizations that prospered for centuries or more but whose worldviews undermined the nature of science, including the Egyptians, Mayans, Persians, Greeks, Romans, and the Chinese. Philosopher Kenneth Samples has noted, “The scientific endeavor can take root only in the fertile soil of a particular worldview (a conceptual framework for interpreting reality). And not every culture subscribes to a worldview conducive to science.”3
For example, consider the Greek philosophers. Though their emphasis on the rules of logic and the exercise of reason contributed mightily to human wisdom, Greek polytheism stated that many events unfolded simply due to the whims of numerous competing and emotional gods. One could not reliably predict the motives or actions of a group of impetuous, jealous gods. From this perspective, the concept of science would be illogical.
Indeed, there are certain philosophical presuppositions that must be assumed in order for science to be considered an effective, worthy endeavor:
- The external world is real and knowable.
- Nature itself is not divine. It is an object worthy of study, not worship.
- The universe is orderly. There is uniformity in nature that allows us to observe past phenomena and to understand and predict future occurrences.
- Our minds and senses are capable of accurately observing and understanding the world.
- Language and mathematics can accurately describe the external world that we observe.
Science within Christian Theism
These premises flow logically and naturally from the monotheistic belief that we are beings made in the image of God—with the ability to think, act, and reason freely—in a universe that was created and designed by God for a specific purpose. Christian theism provided a “fertile” worldview from which science could sprout and grow.4
Internationally respected physicist and author Paul Davies readily acknowledges, “Science proper emerged in Renaissance Europe. . . . monotheism increasingly shaped the western worldview during the formative stages of science. . . . Without belief in a single omnipotent rational lawgiver, it is unlikely that anyone would have assumed that nature is intelligible in a systematic quantitative way, mirrored by eternal mathematical forms.”5
The advent of monotheism planted the seeds for science as an enterprise. The idea that the world was created by an intelligent designer allowed humans to begin to think that this design could be deciphered.
The Worldview of Naturalism
However, some people claim that religious belief undermines science because, in their minds, the practice of science requires a commitment to the worldview of naturalism. Some—although they are in the minority—will even assert that it is irrational for a person of faith to be a scientist because any commitment to science is contradictory to a belief in the supernatural.6
However, this criticism fails to take into account the difference between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism. Methodological naturalism is the self-imposed convention of science that assumes naturalistic causation or explanations during the investigation of any issue. Metaphysical naturalism assumes that reality itself is purely natural and composed solely of material objects.
As professor of physics and atheist Victor Stenger recognizes, “Methodological naturalism can still be applied without implying any dogmatic attachment to metaphysical naturalism.”7 In other words, any scientist can practice methodological naturalism in the scientific enterprise without embracing the worldview of metaphysical naturalism.
For example, my doctor is a Christian. As a Christian, he believes in the supernatural (e.g., God) and rejects metaphysical naturalism as a worldview. However, as a practicing physician, he employs methodological naturalism as a matter of procedure. Whenever he treats a patient, he assumes there is a naturalistic cause for whatever is ailing the person. He then generally prescribes a naturalistic cure based upon the best research medical science has to offer.
In the Religion among Academic Scientists (RAAS) study conducted between 2005 and 2008, Rice University professor Elaine Howard Ecklund surveyed nearly 1,700 scientists and interviewed 275 from 21 elite research universities. In her 2010 book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, she detailed the findings of the study. Ecklund noted, “After four years of research, at least one thing became clear: Much of what we believe about the faith lives of scientists is wrong. The ‘insurmountable hostility’ between science and religion is a caricature, a thought-cliché, perhaps useful as a satire on groupthink, but hardly representative of reality.”8
Determinism and Free Will
Furthermore, metaphysical naturalism actually undermines the concept of science and its practice. As many recognize, belief in metaphysical naturalism leads to the doctrine of determinism.9
Determinism is the view that every event that happens—including any human decision—is caused to happen. What happens in the future could not have been different, given what has happened in the past.10
Determinism is implied because, if metaphysical naturalism is true—if everything that exists is strictly physical or material and every event is explicable via the laws of nature— then whatever happens in the universe is determined to happen by the laws of nature acting upon matter.
Determinism means we have no free will. As the Center for Naturalism states, “We are not ‘causally privileged’ over the rest of nature, that is, we don’t get to cause without being fully caused ourselves. To think that would be to hold a supernatural view of ourselves, the opposite of naturalism.”11
However, the very nature and practice of science assumes that we have a freedom of the will. In practicing science, one weighs the facts in order to draw just conclusions. We reflect upon the evidence and formulate theories based upon competing hypotheses, alternative options, and counter-arguments.
For knowledge or expertise to count for anything at all we must be free to say that certain options are invalid. Therefore, metaphysical naturalism actually undermines the practice of science. Determinism offers no “freedom of thought” to reflect, contemplate, deliberate, calculate, evaluate, reason, or simply to be rational and seek the truth.
Conversely, Christian theism—which views humans as beings made in the image of God with the ability to think, act, and reason freely—provides a basis for the notion of libertarian freedom (free will), which seems necessary for science to be a valid enterprise.
Friends or Foes?
The Bible states, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.”12
With the foundation of this understanding, Christian natural philosophers viewed the created universe as rationally intelligible and ripe for study, investigation, and exploration.13 Far from being adversarial to scientific inquiry, Christian monotheism provided the impetus and the conceptual framework that allowed the modern scientific discipline to emerge and flourish.
Science and faith need not be set up as opposing entities. The two are complimentary forces. Despite the attempts of some to create a conflict between science and Christianity, we cannot ignore science’s theological background and history. In fact, as we look more closely at the birth of science, we increasingly see the truth in Paul Davies’s statement that “science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview.”14