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
- Ben Dupré, 50 Philosophical Ideas You Really Need To Know, (London: Quercus Publishing, 2007), 172, 175. Dupre writes, “For [religious believers], the normal standards of rational discourse are inappropriate to religious matters. . . . Belief in God is, ultimately, a matter not of reason, but of faith. . . . In the end, faith is irrational or non-rational; it proudly and defiantly sets itself in opposition to reason and, in a sense, that is precisely its point.”
- “Johannes Kepler,” New World Encyclopedia, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Johannes_Kepler. “Many of Kepler’s writings reflect his deep desire to testify to God’s glory. On one occasion, he wrote, ‘I was merely thinking God’s thoughts after him. Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it benefits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else, of the glory of God.’”
- Kenneth Richard Samples, Without A Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 188.
- It can be argued that the monotheistic religions of Judaism and Islam also contributed to the “fertile soil” that gave rise to science. This article is not intended to minimize the contributions of any other culture or religion that has increased overall human wisdom and understanding and helped provide a foundation of knowledge vital to the scientific enterprise. The point of this article is to acknowledge the historical fact that science did rise and prosper within the worldview of Christian monotheism and to further confirm that science and Christianity are not in conflict.
- Paul Davies, The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search For Alien Intelligence, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2010), 73–74.
- For example, one sociologist who taught at a large university in the Midwest “reasoned that scientists who have faith must be experiencing ‘some kind of schizophrenia between two parts of their lives and fulfilling different functions [rather] than [having] an integrated way of looking at things.’ For this sociologist, science and religion seemed so very much in conflict that it was hard for him to imagine how one could even be a scientist and a religious person at the same time, apart from some measure of mental distress.” Elaine Howard Ecklund, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 19–20.
- Victor J. Stenger, God the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007), 29. See also page 14 for a further discussion on methodological naturalism versus metaphysical naturalism.
- Ecklund, 5.
- Sam Harris, Free Will (New York: Free Press, 2012). Dr. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, author, and world-renowned atheist. Harris embraces the deterministic implications of his belief in metaphysical naturalism. He notes, “Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have. . . . No one has ever described a way in which mental and physical processes could arise that would attest to the existence of such freedom. . . . You are no more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into the world” (pages 5–6, 35).
- Dean A. Kowalski, Classic Questions and Contemporary Film: An Introduction to Philosophy (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 279.
- “FAQs,” Naturalism.org, http://www.naturalism.org/worldview-naturalism/faq. The explanation continues: “Naturalism is simply the understanding that there exists a single, natural, physical world or universe in which we are completely included. There are not two different worlds, the supernatural and natural. . . . Naturalism says we are completely physical, material creatures, a complex, highly organized collection of atoms, molecules, cells, neurons, muscles, bone, etc., produced by evolution. So we don’t possess immaterial souls, or spirits, or any ‘mental’ stuff inside us that’s separate from our physical being. . . . We are products of our social and family environment and the genetics given us at birth. . . . 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.”
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Psalm 19:1–2.
- In the early stages of the formal advancement of science as a discipline, what we think of today as scientists were called “natural philosophers.”
- Paul Davies, “Physics and the Mind of God: The Templeton Prize Address,” First Things 55 (August/September 1995). “In the ensuing three hundred years the theological dimension of science has faded. People take it for granted that the physical world is both ordered and intelligible. The underlying order in nature—the laws of physics—are simply accepted as a given, as brute facts. Nobody asks where they came from; at least they do not do so in polite company. However, even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith that the universe is not absurd, that there is a rational basis to physical existence manifested as lawlike order in nature that is at least part comprehensible to us. So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview.” As quoted in Samples, 196.
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