The Conflict between Science and Religion

My lecture will be divided into two parts- the first part will be a general discussion concerning the history and nature of the conflict between science and religion.  The second part will be a more focused look at the divide between evolution and the varieties of creationism which have risen to dispute it since the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. 

I would like to preface this lecture by saying that I will be concentrating on affirming that there is a genuine conflict between science and religion, both historically and in the present day.  John Hedley Brooke, a formidable scholar of science and religion, has led the way for some contemporary scholars to focus on what they call the “complex” relationship between the two subjects. They seek to mitigate the true story of what they call “the conflict narrative,” trying to reduce the struggle between science and religion to a “narrative.” I hope to demonstrate that complexity is a soft term for what has happened when religion has been presented with scientific evidence that supernatural thinking is fallacious.  I am calling it a conflict, and in some cases, a war.

Some who would play down this conflict use a clever argument to demonstrate the similarity between the two practices.  The argument often begins in this manner.

Both science and religion require us to accept certain truths that we cannot ascertain with our perceptual apparatus.  The religious advocates ask us to peruse both systems’ requirements. They say we are asked by both religion and science to accept the truth of an unseen reality behind the one that is in front of us.

Religion tells us that everything began with a supernatural figure, a god or gods, using supernatural powers to begin the creation of the universe and all things in it.  Depending on the religion, the supernatural entity, or entities, either began everything almost at once, called occasionalism, or put evolution into motion and let the universe evolve according to certain laws that had been laid down for it.  Members are asked to accept the sacred books of each faith, and the analyses of the people designated as interpreters of the books, to deliver to them the truths they cannot see.

But, the specious argument continues, science also initially requires us to accept the truth of what we cannot see.  We must accept on trust what science tells us concerning our origin- that we share a common ancestor with both the rabbit and the potato.  We are told that the smallest components of all nature are both waves and particles at the same time.  Surely such facts are in conflict with human common sense.  And what about the claim that the earth is not only spinning on its own axis, but is revolving around the sun at great speed?  Our senses tell us that the earth we have our feet on is solid and stable; and we see, or think we see, the sun and the stars seemingly revolving around us. 

So science, as well as its opponent, religion, asks us to believe that there is an unseen reality behind or inside the apprehended one.

The similarity claimed between the two systems of religion and science, while certainly real, is very misleading when used to denigrate science.   Religious truths, or rather pretentions, are ultimately based on faith alone for acceptance.  Religion, when properly understood, necessarily anchors its belief system on some version of supernaturalism.  It does no good to punt, to define religion in a loose and baggy way, as the theologian Paul Tillich has, as anything involving ultimate concerns, or as John Dewey defines it- as any deeply felt commitment. Accumulating great wealth might be an ultimate concern for some people, while practicing to get under par at golf might be a deeply felt commitment for others.  No, religion entails belief in a supernatural being or beings, and in supernatural forces.

There are many thinkers, and even some atheists, who have, both in the past, and in the present day, insisted on minimizing the essential conflict between science and religion.  For example, the late Stephen Jay Gould, an atheist and scientist, advanced the idea of two non-overlapping magisteria, or NOMA, which claimed that science and religion are two separate domains, each holding the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution.  He claimed that the magisterium of science covered the empirical realm, what the universe is made of, and why it works the way it does, in other words, both fact and theory. The magisterium of religion, he stated, devotes itself to the questions of ultimate meaning and moral values. Many religious thinkers, as well as secular ones, rejected NOMA. 

In some theologians’ views, Gould reduced religion to a sort of morality bureau, stripped of its powerful supernatural beliefs.

We need to keep in mind that many of the pathfinders of science, such as Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, Francis Bacon, and even Galileo, prior to his famous trial, (which we shall be discussing shortly,) believed that science and religion could exist in a sort of mutual accommodation, even harmony.  There is a long religious tradition in some faiths that god can be found not only in the book of scripture, but in the book of nature.  Newton and Boyle saw their investigations as aiding in understanding god’s work and plan, not as destroying belief in a creator.  And scholars of science and religion today, what do some of them say?  Here is John Hedley Brook, who states that the serious historical studies undertaken currently “have revealed so extraordinarily rich and complex a relationship between religion and science in the past that general theses are difficult to sustain.  The real lesson turns out to be complexity.”

Nevertheless, much of the secular community does understand that science and religion are in general conflict, competitive, and very often irreconcilable on many counts, such as cosmology, origins of life, and outlook on many moral and ethical issues. In addition, science bases its findings on the scientific method, and on the evidence of both our five senses and logic.

Most scientists rely on methodological naturalism, which does not necessarily deny the existence of supernatural entities. But for the purpose of any enquiry they undertake, scientists act in the manner that only natural processes and events exist.  In the context of science, only natural explanations are acceptable.  Michael Martin, the renowned atheologist, explains that there are at least five rationales for methodological naturalism verification. 

They are testability, the use of laws in explanations, fruitfulness, the promotion of agreement and cooperation, and avoidance of blocked inquiry.

There is not much question that there is contention between science and religion on Martin’s words alone.  There are many points of irreconcilability: their ways of arriving at explanations, their general outlook on life and on morality, their political aspirations, or rather their competition for hegemony in the politics of knowledge, which we will discuss a little later, and so on.  We will be taking up many areas of collision between the two practices in this lecture.

I would like to quote Tom Flynn, the editor of the secular magazine, The Skeptical Inquirer: “…the fundamental stance that all unbelievers share, the conviction that the everyday world of matter, energy and their interaction, is either all that exists or all that matters, has an inescapable significance.”  I hope to establish, with the aid of prominent thinkers in the world of unbelief, that the conflict between religion and science is real, both historically and in the present.  The stakes in the war are very high.  I want to make clear that compatibility notions of science and religion harmonizing is highly unlikely. I want to expose the allegation that the true history of science and religion is one of complexity and not of conflict, as scholarly rubbish.

I have divided my topics into separate areas of inquiry, but with some blending to retain continuity.

I will be spending some time with cosmology, beginning with the background and events concerning Galileo Galilei’s trial by the Inquisition of Rome in 1633. 

I will glance at the Big Bang, fine-tuning and other contemporary ideas in physics, with a small stop at Newton along the way.  We shall also look at origins of life, the god of the gaps, quantum mechanics, the political struggle between theists and naturalists as to who should own the definition of knowledge, geology, postmodernism, and the theological dilemma. 

Many contemporary science historians, too many, wish us to view the trial of Galileo Galilei as one of complex issues, rather than the straightforward collision between science and the Catholic Church.  I believe it is very important to examine the issues at some length, in order to understand that the trial was truly a consequential example of the clash between scientific observation and its conclusions, and faith and its obstructing stance when observation contradicted theology.

Galileo was already famous for scientific and mathematical breakthroughs in his native Italy.  He had spent time teaching in Padua and witnessed the fate of Giordano Bruno, the Dominican monk and scholar, who was burned to death in Rome in 1600, for heresy.  It is unclear whether Bruno was condemned for embracing the Copernican theory, for believing the universe was infinite or for the reasons stated in the Catholic Encyclopedia, which claims Bruno was condemned for errors in theology.  The Encyclopedia states that Bruno believed Jesus was a master magician and that Bruno was convinced transubstantiation was impossible.  Galileo, taking warning from Bruno’s fate, was very prudent for a long time about making public his own views.

At the beginning of the 17th Century, the majority of learned people who took an interest in astronomy believed the old model of the cosmos, the one put forward by the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, was correct. Very few scholars believed that the newer sun centered Copernican model was legitimate.  Aristotle had based his astronomical model on the earth-centered one that Ptolemy, the 2nd Century B.C.E. astronomer, had produced. Note that in the 16th Century after the Common Era, mathematicians and astronomers were continuing to use a 2nd Century BCE model.  The Aristotelian model was believed to work as well as the Copernican one which Copernicus had put forth in 1543 in his volume, On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres.  The Ptolemaic theory had an additional advantage over the Copernican one because it was in accord with the notion that the earth was not in motion.

Galileo became increasingly convinced of the validity of the Copernican model, but he did not speak out about it publicly until about 1604.  1604 was when a new star (actually a super nova) was discovered.  He maintained that the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic theory of immutable skies and a non moving Earth in the center of the universe was incorrect.  Then, in 1609, Galileo learned about the telescopes being made in Holland.  He made some basic improvements to the telescope, finally building one with a linear magnification of about 20 to 30, which was an exemplary instrument for exploring the skies at that time.

We are told that he was able to see “the rugged and mountainous nature of the moon’s surface, not the smooth reflecting sphere claimed by the Aristotelians; to discover Jupiter’s satellites; to describe the nature of the Milky Way as a cluster of separate stars; to perceive the unusual surface of the planet Saturn; to observe the phases of Venus, similar to those of the moon; and to investigate the spots on the sun’s surface.” 

He published his observations in a book, The Sidereal Messenger, 1610. Although he became very famous, there was widespread skepticism concerning the claims of his volume.

Of his ideas and observations, just two examples will help explain Galileo’s thrust against Aristotelian cosmology.  As I mentioned above, he had discovered that Venus, when viewed through a telescope, displayed phases, as the moon did, from a small crescent to a disc. It could be inferred, then, that Venus orbited the sun.  As Thomas Dixon, the science historian, states: “If the Ptolemaic system had been true, and Venus, which was known always close to the Sun in the sky,  described in an orbit closer to the Earth than the sun’s, then it should have always appeared as a thin crescent.”

The Aristotelian scientists firmly held that there were sublunary and superlunary regions, and the moon was believed to be a perfect heavenly body.  But the telescope showed the moon was craggy and mountainous, more like the common Earth, and indeed a satellite, not an ethereal body.  When Galileo discovered that Jupiter was accompanied in its orbit by four satellites, it proved that a celestial body could move in an orbit with a center other than the center of the cosmos.  Dixon explains: “On the Ptolemaic theory, the earth’s moon was treated as the closest of several planets, all of whose orbits centered on the Earth. If Copernicus were right, then the moon would have to orbit the Earth, while the Earth in turn went around the sun.” 

Finally, sunspots helped undermine the earlier theory’s distinction between perfect heavenly bodies and an imperfect, changing Earth.

Galileo was appointed Principal Mathematician and Philosopher to the Grand Duke of Tuscany.  But trouble was brewing.  He had a nasty dispute with a Jesuit who claimed that he had discovered sun spots prior to Galileo.  Galileo was conscious, also, that his Copernican views were receiving Church opposition. It was at this time he wrote the so-called “Copernican Letters.”  He attempted to convince the Church that the newer theory was not in conflict with the Bible if the Bible were interpreted correctly. But at the same time Galileo claimed the independence of science from faith.  When two Dominican friars heard of his statement, they declared that Galileo was a heretic, and the attacks from Church figures began in earnest against him.

One of Galileo’s most telling letters was to the Grand Duchess Christina in 1616.  The text of the letter portrays Galileo as a believer in the principal of what was known as accommodation when science contradicted Scripture, often called the conflict between revealed and natural knowledge.  He drew quite heavily on Augustine, a 4th Century Church father, whose work on the topic was one of the most important. The idea of accommodation was quite a clever one.  It was explained that people were very uneducated at the time the Bible was written, so it was written in a language that accommodated those people. People believed, at the time of the Book of Joshua, that the Earth stood still, and everything moved around it.  Therefore the Bible reflected that belief. 

The accommodationists maintained that Biblical language was shaped by the effort to make people understand god’s message more easily.  Galileo told the Duchess the same notion explained using reference to god’s hand or god’s emotions. 

The phrases were really metaphors.  He argued, therefore, that people should adopt the same attitude to Biblical references to the sun’s movement.  If Biblical text contradicted the best science people had available, the Bible had to be re-interpreted.

Galileo was writing very much in accordance with some Church fathers.  But the historical situation of the time was very challenging.  The Church was still feeling threatened by the Protestant Reformation that had taken place in the previous century and was still a divisive influence in the 17th.  The Reformation had emphasized the individual’s right to read the Bible in his/her own language, not needing the mediation of the Church’s priests or councils to interpret Christian teaching.  The Church, during its Counter-Reformation, made the following pronouncement over the course of many meetings from 1545-1563.  The meetings were named The Council of Trent.  In matters of faith and morals, the Council declared: “…no one, relying on his own judgment and distorting the Sacred Scriptures, according to his own conceptions, shall dare to interpret them contrary to the sense which Holy Mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge their true sense and meaning, has held and does hold, or even contrary to the unanimous agreement of the fathers.  “In other words, the Church interpretation of Scripture was final.  Any other interpretation was a heresy. The cultural tensions of the time made Galileo’s letter about Biblical interpretation seem arrogant, and worse, Protestant leaning. 

When he wrote his 1632 Dialogue, he used vernacular Italian and not the traditional scholarly Latin, exacerbating an already tense and dangerous situation.

A committee was asked to report to the Inquisition on the question of Copernicanism in 1616.  The committee declared Copernicanism false and absurd as science, but even more importantly, contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures and formally heretical. Galileo was summoned to see Cardinal Bellarmine in 1616 and was told he could not hold or defend Copernican astronomy. Apparently Galileo was told that he could use the Copernican model for describing astronomical computations. Copernicus’s On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, which had been largely ignored up to that time, was removed from publication, pending “corrections.” Such was the situation between science and religion in 17th Century Europe.  Do these pronouncements and orders from the Church sound like a complicated or complex relationship between the Church and science or does it sound like a conflict?

When in 1623, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini became Pope, Galileo must have been delighted.  The new Pope Urban VIII had admired Galileo’s work and even written a poem praising Galileo’s telescopic discoveries.  In 1624, the scientist had several meetings with the Pope.  Urban allowed Galileo to discuss Copernican theory in his work, but merely as one theory of the heavens along with other ideas in use at that period.  Urban’s position was that the omnipotent god could make the heavens move any way he wished, and that it was presumptuous to try to be so precise as to describe the singular manner that divine will used to achieve this movement. 

Galileo was somewhat reassured and in 1632 published his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.

 The book’s publication was the turning point in the question of leniency the Church was willing to extend to the elderly scientist.  There were three characters in the Dialogue, one a common sense Everyman, the second an Aristotelian, and the third a Copernican.  Galileo put the best arguments in the Copernican’s dialogues.  The piece was seen as pro-Copernican propaganda.  Pope Urban was switching allegiances at this period of the Thirty Years War, from France to Spain.  He wanted to convince his conservative ally, Spain, of his strong defense of the faith.  Furthermore, Galileo had put the Aristotelian speeches in the mouth of a character called “Simplicio,” the name of a 6th Century philosopher, an Aristotelian, but it was also a name that had the sound of “simple-mindedness.”  Worse yet, the Simplicio character voiced the same argument the Pope had made to Galileo earlier, that god could make the heavens move any way he wanted.  Galileo’s book seemed to be trying to insult the Pope.

Galileo was predictably summoned to Rome immediately to undergo questioning by the Inquisition.  The scientist was around sixty three years old at the time it was decided he must go through formal prosecution.  He was shown the torture chamber at some point in the trial. No one ever doubted the outcome.  Galileo was found guilty of heresy for having contradicted Scripture by saying the sun was immobile and the Earth rotates around it.  He signed an abjuration to avoid more drastic punishment in which he stated that he gave up all his errors and heresies.  His sentence was prison and three years of penitential psalms, but the Pope soon commuted the prison sentence to house arrest for life. Galileo’s Dialogue was banned and stayed on the Church’s Index of Prohibited Works until 1835!

Galileo lived out the rest of his life in partial isolation at his villa near Florence, Italy, but he was scarcely penitent.  He had some help in his work from former pupils and visits from old friends.  Scholars state that following his sentencing, it was only a few days before he was back at his affirmation of Copernican theory. During the last years of his life, he wrote what many thinkers believe was his finest work: Dialogues Concerning the Two New Sciences. It was published by the Elsevier Press in Holland, that hub of book printing, in 1638.  His final work was more rigorous than his earlier ones, and replete with important and extensive use of mathematics.

Does anyone hearing this lecture’s history of Galileo and the movement of the Cosmos believe anything but that the Church and Galileo were engaged in a conflict, no, a war, as to the Church’s right to enslave science by both religious power and commitment to dogma?

I want to remind everyone that the early pioneers of science, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and Rene Descartes, among others, did not set out to undermine religion.  Most of them saw nature as an orderly system, where mechanical interactions responded according to mathematical laws.  Many early scientists believed that people would see evidence of divine power and intelligence in the systems they had discovered.  Some of the researchers believed that god could alter and suspend the orderly laws he had put in place if he decided to do so.  But in the main, their idea of god was of a lawgiver and designer of the universe rather than a setter aside of those laws by means of miracles.

That kind of belief became a theistic problem.  The pioneers proceeded on the assumption, as Thomas Paine says: “…that natural phenomena are indeed governed by strict laws, which can be given precise mathematical expression.”  A further assumption has been made by many thinkers, that such laws will ultimately be reduced to a single, unified theory.  What has come about is that we now have an interesting contemporary situation to deal with. It has become apparent to many that the success of science in explaining nature in terms of rigorous laws seems to point to the unnecessary notion of a god designing natural laws and systems.

We have arrived at the theologians’ dilemma. Theists are faced with explaining how god acts in the world, given the strict laws natural phenomena are governed by. Theologians, if they claim god does indeed act through interventions, called miracles, in nature, are asked to explain why god acts at some moments and not others.  They must also try to explain why miracles are so poorly attested to and how miracles can be compatible with the current understanding of the universe.  But unable to explain such issues, they find if they retreat from the notion of miracles, they end up left with Deism. Deism is the belief system that god created the universe and the laws governing it, and then ceased being active in it.  Most theologians merely affirm that their god does indeed intervene, but not often. 

There are some theologians who take the position that the age of miracles has passed.  None of the positions look particularly cogent- the god of the theologians is either a capricious, tinkering god who acts when he is in the mood, or an absent, indifferent one.  They fall back on mystery as a substitute for understanding.  They maintain that we cannot fathom god’s motives.  Indeed, we cannot.

Thinkers with a religious motive can be discerned in the history of yet another important science, geology.  Geology is the scientific study of the origin, history and structure of the Earth.  We use the data collected by geologists to determine how we conceptualize our Earth.  Here are the known facts and some speculations from geological research first.  Then we shall glance at the conflict between science and religion concerning the science of the Earth.

Most of the scientists working in the field of geology in the present day believe that life most likely evolved on Earth by natural processes, and that it arose from non-living matter.  Here are a few things we know.  The solar system formed about 4.5 billion years ago.  We have ascertained this fact by radiocarbon dating using several different isotopes.  Dust accumulated into larger particles and gravity caused it to gather and form larger and larger bodies.  Paul S. Braterman, the secular chemistry expert, states we have seen just such action in young stars. 

Braterman goes on to explain that as inner planets emerged from the process, part of the solar system would have had myriad rocky accretions, while icy material would have been quite abundant in the region of the outer planets.  Gravity would have led to chance encounters leading to icy cometary infall.  Such action would have not only supplied the water for our oceans, but the carbon needed for life, as well as other so-called volatile elements.

 We do not, because of plate tectonics, have any of the crust of the Earth from that time, but we do know terrains on the moon are 4.2 billion years old and most likely the heavily cratered surfaces of Mercury and Mars are from that time, too. Such cratering indicates the bombarding from icy comets went on for a long time.

The magnitude of such impacts might have caused Earth’s oceans to boil, but life could have survived in the depths and then emerged to recolonize the Earth.  Scientists are fairly sure the evidence points to just such a scenario.

Life was definitely around by 3.85 billion years ago, as there are micro fossils from that period.  In Greenland, we have found that evidence for biological processing is in the country’s Isua formation of rocks, the oldest known sedimentary rocks. The rocks contain carbon granules whose isotopic composition provides strong evidence for biological processing, states Braterman.  He goes on to say that the evidence suggests that life rose on Earth as soon as it could, from which we can infer, but not prove, that the process was not all that difficult.

That is what we know, and can also guess, right now.  But let us go back a bit in history.  Around the 17th Century, geology began to develop rapidly, and became an independent study within the field of natural science. An interesting development took place during that time. There was, if you remember from previous lectures about the Bible (see Biblical Criticism at Atheist,) an interpretative problem because Scriptural texts recounted many different versions of putative events.

One story alone remained fairly consistent- the Flood or Deluge, and with it the belief that an apocryphal flood had formed the Earth’s geology and geography. Religious scholars tried to prove scientifically that the Great Flood had occurred.

We now know that many lands in the Mideast had Great Flood narratives in their mythology. Such stories were common to the Greeks and appeared as far as Central and South America.

The Biblical flood myth was not singular. Each land with a flood myth would likely have had a series of small, but devastating, floods over the years.  Floods wreak havoc on communities and such catastrophes would be remembered. Tsunamis may have deposited shells and fossils from the sea that ancient peoples sought to understand. There is a theory that when the Greeks found shells and fish fossils in mountain areas, which they documented, their explanation was that a huge flood had covered the earth and left behind the deposits they found.

Be that as it may, the fortunate practical result of such unscientific theorizing was more interest and research into the Earth’s composition.  The increased investigations led to the discovery of fossils.  So unwittingly, the outcome of manipulating evidence to “prove” the Bible’s myth with “scientific”facts, was more geological research.  The heated conflict about the Earth’s origin during the 17th Century furthered more systematic investigations into the Earth’s strata. An Earth stratum means the horizontal layers of rock having the same, approximately, composition throughout.

The 18th Century continued the explorative trend, especially with the increased importance of mining in Europe.

 The needs of mining meant that not only the land was studied as before, but minerals.  Mineral knowledge became systematic and extensive. Buffon published his volume in 1741, called Natural History, which attacked Christian works and concepts concerning Earth’s history.  Most importantly secular thinkers could begin, with new techniques and data, to question the age of the Earth, moving it back from 4,000 or 5,000 years to 75,000. 

 While many of its geological dates and speculations were incorrect, the Enlightenment was a watershed era, as geology began moving from religion to science.

With the rise of industrialization, the same rapid rise of science continued into the 19th Century.  In the early 19th Century, geology was emerging as a new science that had very strong boundaries. It was trying to free itself from attempts to reconcile what researchers were learning about the Earth from fossils and other research with the Bible’s accounts of creation. But its practitioners also wanted to distance the field from the attempts of the 18th Century philosophers to find meaning in geology and proof for an anti-religious agenda.  As much as we secular people are drawn to the Enlightenment philosophers and how much we love proof of religious error, science is better off being an independent field of inquiry.  The facts always emerge that natural processes are what created the universe. That is exactly what happened in geology.

For a while, theists and anti-theists were able to come together for research in the field, despite its new parameters.  But then the 19th Century saw the rise of scriptural, or what was called Mosaic, geology, due to the recurrent desire to reconcile the Bible with geology.

Catastrophism was adopted in the attempt, the concept of one huge deluge inundating the Earth and altering its geology and geography. Martin J.S. Rudwick asserts that while many writers were erudite Biblical scholars, many of them had never studied a rock or fossil at first hand. But Rudwick states: “What united all these writers was the conviction that Genesis, if correctly interpreted, embodied an authoritative narrative account of the origin and history of the Earth, and mankind.”

Mainstream geologists disdained the Mosaic theorists, but were threatened by the attempts of so-called scientists to take geology beyond the tacit boundaries of the field.  A good example is provided by accounts of theist attempts to appropriate the work of Cuvier, who extended earlier arguments for the historicity of a recent flood event, like the Biblical one.  Curvier was most certainly a non orthodox Christian, if he was one at all.  He used the Bible records with impartiality but his excursion into chronology threatened the independent stance geology was trying to establish. Unfortunately, some works by Biblical geologists in the early years of the 19th Century improperly used Cuvier’s work to openly assert the literal authority of the Bible.

Scientists such as the British geologist, Charles Lyell (1797-1875,) were determined to maintain geology’s neutral cognitive boundaries. Lyell stated that he was determined “to free science from Moses.”  Lyell saw his task as connecting the present state of the Earth with its past by identifying the successive states it had passed through, in other words, a causal analysis.  He tried to limit his research by insisting that only those forces known to be in action today could be invoked to explain the past.

He was guided by several principles, but one of the most important was that one could date fossil bearing strata by reference to the proportion of extant species they contained.

Lyell challenged catastrophism and vehemently argued, in his 1830 Principles of Geology, for a concept of gradual change, and strictly local floods.  His theory quickly became the more popular one and it was very influential. Lyell strongly believed that clerical geologists should not try to do two jobs at once. 

He made, and was fairly successful, a deliberate attempt to exclude biblical/geological research from geological reasoning.  He depended on known natural causes and nothing else for his sources of knowledge. 

Some historians of religion and science have been attempting to cast the efforts of Lyell and other professional geologists to exclude Biblical tenets from their science as a cultural war, a struggle for hegemony in the field.  I cannot accept such an attempt at minimizing the genuine conflict between Biblical geologists and secular ones.  The story I have just related speaks for itself.  I refer you to Ferngren’s Science and Religion anthology in the Bibliography of this topic on for an extended look at the conflict and the publications engendered on both sides of the divide.  We can be thankful to men such as Lyell that Mosaic geology did not prevail for very long.

I am now going to segue into the 20th Century, when the idea of a determined universe received a shocking contradiction. Newton had never imagined a challenge such as this to his mechanics back in the 17th Century.  The new thinking was quantum mechanics.  Physicists were trying to understand the behavior and motion of the very small- atomic and subatomic particles. One cannot measure the momentum or position of a subatomic particle at the same time.  Both cannot be known simultaneously. Any attempt at observation or measuring creates a change in the movement of the particle.

Entities like photons, which are light particles, are simultaneously both particles and waves; whether they behave like particles or waves is dependent on how the experimental apparatus reacts with them.  You can see how important the role of the observer is in quantum mechanics. 

Thomas Dixon explains that “Quantum systems are governed by probabilistic ‘wave functions’ which do not take on a determinate value until they are observed.  The act of observation is said to lead to the collapse of the wave function and to resolve the system into one determinate state or position than another.  Prior to the observation the system is held to be a ‘cloud’ consisting of all the possible observable states, each with a different probability assigned to it.” The 1920’s quantum work of Erwin Schrodinger and Werner Heisenberg has undermined the Newtonian model, the antiquated picture we had of a determined universe.

There are two important ideas to take away from quantum theory.  The first is that the old clockwork universe of the Enlightenment has been altered to one that is uncertain, probabilistic. Do we even have a material reality? Everything at its most basic level seems to consist of clouds and particle waves.  Second, does the physical world act or even exist without human observers?  The wave function seems to collapse in the very act of observation or measurement. 

Certainty itself, or the notion of one unifying theory for everything, seems to have been subverted.  Richard Feynman, the eminent physicist, said that quantum mechanics deals with Nature as she is- Absurd.

An interesting idea has come from a scientist who is not an atheist but is a philosopher of science.

Nancy Cartwright maintains that modern science shows we do not live in a world governed at all times and places by a single set of physical laws.  She believes we live in what she calls a ‘dappled world.’ It is an idea worth considering.  The dappled world has little areas of order that emerge, or can be made to emerge, using patchwork scientific theories from physics to biology. None of the areas can be applied across all scientific disciplines.

Let us back up just a bit, when we are naturally moved to ask where is god in such an indeterminable universe?  Has there been an answer to where god may be found in a universe discovered and described, even if imperfectly, by science? Religious advocates came up with an answer to science as early as 1893, and it is still brought forward in our contemporary world. Let us look at the fanciful notion, as it is also related to the Christian problem with the miraculous.

The Protestant religion, if you recall from earlier lectures in this series, disliked the corrupt proliferation of the Catholic Church’s practices of selling of indulgences, cults of the Virgin and the saints, selling of relics and so on.  There are two branches of Protestantism in the present day.  One is taken up with miraculous healings and speaking in tongues.

But there is still a strong Protestant tradition that rejects miracles, extolling instead looking to nature, history and Scripture for enlightenment. You have heard me mention Friedrich Schleiermacher, the great German theologian, in earlier lectures. Schleiermacher believed a miracle was a significant event, not something that violated natural law.

Henry Drummond, the Scottish theologian, was also an important advocate of natural so-called miracles.

He gave a series of lectures in Boston in 1893, during which he attempted to solve the problem of evolution for theist believers.  Miracles, he told his audience, were not events that happened quickly. Drummond went on to explain that the whole process of evolution was a long and mechanical process.  Not only had god’s evolution produced everything- trees, mountains, flowers, seas, sky and so on, but god had also produced “Love” in humans.  Love commended itself, he stated, to reason and the heart of humanity.  Love was the real miracle.

Drummond also likely coined the expression, ‘the god of the gaps.” He did not approve of the notion of some theist thinkers who, as he put it, “ceaselessly scan the fields of Nature and the books of Science in search of gaps- gaps which they will fill up with god. As if god lived in the gaps?”  Drummond believed god should be looked for in knowledge, not ignorance. He maintained that if god could not be found except in special and occasional acts, he could be presumed to be absent from the world most of the time. Drummond insisted: “The god of evolution is present in everything.” He was attempting to get beyond the god of what he called “the old theory,” the once in a while miracle producer.

In our contemporary world, many of the gaps where theists formerly found god have been filled in with evidence provided by science.

Contemporary theists do not surrender to reason any more than their predecessors. They have taken up their cudgels in the form of theories. Some of them have brought forth the problematic notion of Intelligent Design, also known as ID. Simply put, ID theists posit the fanciful illusion of a designer that can be discerned in areas where science and observation have found no current, and I emphasize, current information. 

Drummond was more prescient than they.  He asked his audience: “Where shall we be when these gaps are filled up?” He was correct. 

There are areas of evolution and other disciplines where science has not yet found enough information to make definite statements. That is to be expected. But slowly and surely, the gaps are being filled. We shall take up ID in our second lecture on the conflict between religion and science when I discuss evolution and creationism. With each area of knowledge, or stage of evolution that science fills in, the god of the theists is excluded.  God is being pushed out of natural events at a faster and faster rate with the accumulation of knowledge by humans.

 We should be beyond fantasies such as ID.  However, the genius Isaac Newton, in order to answer why the planets in our solar system retained their course and their speed, gave out the hypothesis that every so often, god intervened to help the planets run correctly. Thomas Dixon informs us that Leibniz, the philosopher, pooh-poohed Newton’s idea. 

I quote Leibniz here: “…as if god needed to wind up his watch from time to time, and to clean it now and then, and then to mend it.”  Leibniz abhorred the idea of god as an unskilled workman.  As science began to explain natural order in the solar system in the 18th and 19th Centuries, god began to seem less and less necessary to many people.  When Napoleon asked about the place of god in Laplace’s system of physics, the great French scientist answered: “I have no need of that hypothesis.” There is no better answer today.

I cannot fathom why certain contemporary thinkers are unable to bring themselves to admit that such questions as the god of the gaps and the controversy surrounding it reveal the profound conflict between religion and science.  Could their motive be partly the result of trying to reconcile the two, rather as the late Stephen Jay Gould tried, with his invention of the two magisteria or NOMA, which I discussed earlier?  I am in agreement with the belief of many in the secular community, that such a rapprochement is not feasible. The two systems are far apart, and religion has, time after time, not only been negative toward advances in scientific knowledge, but actively hostile and dangerous, as in the case of Copernican cosmology or naturalism.

Let us turn to yet another fanciful idea. It is not surprising that this notion is very supportive of theistic belief. This new/old fine-tuning theory has the anthropic principle as its underlying presumption. It is easy to find the non-scientific idea of purpose in the universe in its premises.  Fine-tuning is the concept that conditions in our universe seem remarkable friendly for the development of carbon-based life. 

If the Big Bang had banged just a little more vigorously, according to physicists, matter would have been blown apart too quickly and stars and planets would not have been able to form. If the force of gravity would have been slightly less strong, life sustaining stars like our sun would not have come into existence.  Fine-tuning advocates point to such theories, as well as the cosmological constant, and the Earth’s temperature and other necessary conditions, to argue that carbon-based life was inevitable. But secular thinkers and scientists have pointed out that since conditions on our Earth were congenial to carbon-based life, that type of life developed that was suitable for those conditions, not the other way around.

The fine-tuning argument implies that carbon-based life is the only form possible, trying to strengthen the argument that the universe was designed with a purpose. Such a notion is manifestly absurd.  Victor Stenger, the atheist physicist, maintains that: “With 100 billion stars in 100 billion galaxies in the visible universe, and countless others, according to current cosmological theory, likely to lie beyond our horizon, the chances of some form of life developing on some planet seems very good indeed.  Many of the chemical ingredients of life such as complex molecules have been observed in outer space.  Even if all the forms of life in our universe turn out to be of this basic structure, it does not follow that life is impossible under any other arrangement of physical laws and constants.” Stenger concludes: “This fact alone is fatal to the fine-tuning argument.” 

There is absolutely no reason to assume that only carbon-based life is possible. 

As a matter of fact, many physicists maintain that the fine-tuning that seems so obvious to humans is in the eye of the beholder.  These beholders are not sufficiently versed in physics to know that they should not play with numbers so fast and loose.  Because that is what they do- they play with them until the numbers would seem to confirm their belief.  That is not science.

I do not want to get into the argument of multiverses other than to say that many distinguished scientists say the idea is plausible. I am agnostic on the issue.  But we have no real basis for assuming only one universe exists. Stenger states: “Theists like to assert (1) only one universe exists, and (2) god exists. “ There is no proof for either assertion.

Victor Stenger is an invaluable source for rebutting the tenuous arguments of theists.  He explains that theists have two contradictory arguments for believing life requires a creator.  In the first, they claim the universe is so fine-tuned, so friendly to life that it follows life must have been created.  But if that is so, why can we not expect life to develop naturally in a congenial environment?  The second argument is that the universe is so uncongenial to life that life must have been created.  Natural processes, say the theists, would not have been possible, so there would have had to be a creator.  But why could there not have been one improbable accident in all those billions of years, asks Stenger?

People who have been following this lecture series are familiar with the fact that I am very fond of quoting David Hume, the 18th Century skeptical philosopher. 

In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1779, Hume said: “having found in so many subjects much more familiar, the imperfections, and even contradictions of human reason, I never should expect any success from feeble conjectures, and in a subject so sublime and so remote from the sphere of our observations.”  Of course he was speaking before the invention of many of our powerful instruments concerning knowledge of the cosmos.  But he was correct in the main. 

The cosmos is not yet within our understanding.  We do not have the necessary tools.  The best we can do is observe what we can, respect computer models and what they can tell us, and employ logic when speculating about what future discoveries may reveal to us. 

Let me conclude the fine-tuning conflict with another quote from Victor Stenger: “The universe looks just as it would be expected to look if it were not created by god.  From this, we can conclude, beyond reasonable doubt, that such a god does not exist.”  Once again, is there any hint of a rapprochement between science and religion in the fine-tuning argument?  I think not.

Moving from facts and speculations concerning cosmology, physics and geology, I would like to turn to the question of politics and its close relation to the conflict between religion and science.  The elephant in the room is the matter of hegemony concerning the politics of knowledge.  Who will have the say over which theories and facts will be taught in our schools, especially the secondary public schools?  What criteria can be used to further morality and ethics?  (Please see for a link to my lecture on YouTube and the bibliography and Book List after the text under Atheist Ethics.)

Which vocabulary, that of science or religion, is most suitable for discussion of social issues?  It is a truism that the group with the power determines the vocabulary of knowledge for the greater society.  We shall be going into the politics concerning science and religion in our next lecture.  Many of the conflicts between the two fields are blatantly political in nature.

One point about the politics of knowledge is that a great many well-educated people, especially scientists, are non believers.  James Leuba conducted famous surveys and related studies in 1914 and 1933.  The studies demonstrated that the number of disbelievers in god and immortality among United States scientists was quite high. A majority of U.S. scientists did not affirm belief in god or immortality. 

When Leuba studied the “elite” scientists, belief was even smaller.  Interestingly enough, in both the 1914 and 1933 polls, the least likely believers were psychologists, then sociologists, followed by biologists and physicists.

In 1996 and 1998, Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham tried as carefully as possible to replicate Leuba’s studies.  The data remained firm. There was one difference.  Leuba had used the membership from American Men and Women of Science. Larson and Witham had to use the membership of the National Academy of Science to poll eminent scientists because American Men and Women of Science no longer highlights elite scientists.  The two researchers found that nearly 50% of scientists and nearly 75% of the greater scientists surveyed disbelieved in god and immortality.  An additional 15% to 20% are doubters.  I am quoting from the study here: “Disbelief in immortality more than doubled among scientists in general and nearly tripled among ‘greater’ scientists.”

In 1998, Laurence Iannoconne and his colleagues looked at data from 1972 to 1990 and tried to determine scientists’ belief in god.  I am quoting concerning their results: “They found that 19% of professor/scientists have no religion and 10% oppose religion.” Social scientists at 36% were most likely to have no religion, followed by physical scientists and mathematicians, and life scientists.  Among social scientists, 57% of anthropologists had no religion, followed by sociologists and psychologists.  These are very high numbers, indeed.  Now let us look at the general population of the United States.  Around three quarters of U.S. citizens still believe in god and a majority believes in life after death. 

The number of nonbelievers grows every year, which is very encouraging.  However, one can see the seeds of conflict between religion and science, in the disparity of belief between the more educated citizens and the somewhat lesser.  Supernatural beliefs have been largely discredited but a certain portion of our country clings to them.  Self-serving politicians and media pander to the masses.  People with little scientific understanding are not apt to champion the findings of science and abjure creationism and intelligent design, fine-tuning arguments and other notions that have not been found salient or sensible.  Indeed, many Americans believe that creationism should be taught, along with evolution, in United States public schools.  We shall discuss this dismaying situation at more length in our next lecture.

Continuing with the topic of education, postmodernism, before becoming fairly irrelevant and somewhat discredited itself, inflicted significant damage to science among educated people.

It was a dismaying development in academe and some of its effect still lingers. Let us quickly glance at postmodernism’s assertions to get an understanding of its attacks on science.  Postmodernists are against totalizing systems, which they claim include rationality, bureaucracy, and technocracy.  While most postmodernists did not ally themselves with religion, many religious apologists have embraced postmodernism because of its attack on the hegemony of science in our contemporary culture. 

Among postmodernists, I would like to mention some less hostile theologians, such as David Griffin, who maintains that transformations in culture require transformations in religion. 

Griffin believes a compatible partnership between science and religion may bring the two into harmony. With all due respect, I believe that he is wrong.

Another interesting theologian is Mark C. Taylor, a more doctrinaire postmodernist.  He has been trying to forge a new religious system by exploring the space between atheism and theism he calls a/theology.  His readings of the Bible, in a so-called deconstructive mode, have conjured up, Surprise! basic Christian tenets.  He moves close to the negative mystical tradition that claims god is defined by what he is not. It is obvious that some postmodernist theologians have adopted the old canard that science and religion can be brought into harmony.  I have included the most influential of the postmodernist theologians in this lecture because, as Stephen P. Weldon states, one cannot fully understand the relationship between religion and science in the late 20th Century without accounting for the postmodernist point of view.

More influential than the postmodernist stance was the argument raised in the middle of the 20th Century by Thomas Kuhn and Bas van Fraassen, both well-respected scientists.  Kuhn’s book was the most influential.  It is titled, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962, and is a classic in the field, one of the best read volumes on scientific knowledge. Theists have embraced Kuhn’s thinking, in the same selective manner that they took up postmodernism.  Kuhn focuses on paradigm shifts, when one dominant world view replaces another, as when Copernican theory replaces Aristotelian/Ptolemaic, or Einstein’s physics replaces pure Newtonian theory.

Thomas Dixon says this about Kuhn’s opinion of the belief in scientific progress.

 “Kuhn did not think that the improved accuracy and predictive power of later theories showed they had progressed further toward the description of reality, but rather they had been chosen by the scientific community from among various proposed theories because of their improved instrumental power and puzzle-solving ability.”  It is deplorable that religious scholars make deceptive use of Kuhn.  His ideas were not meant to be abused in the manner religionists have attempted.  Theist appropriation of legitimate critiques of science is an egregious practice.

Van Frassen’s The Scientific Image, 1980, uses Darwinian Theory to explain science’s success.  He states that since scientists discard theories that make false predictions, the fact is that, as time passes, their predictions get better.  Those predictions were selected for instrumental success, so scientific success is no miracle.  This is a rather silly notion. 

Of course scientists discard false predictions.  That is the point- science can and does change.  It is not locked into a belief system that contains an unchanging deity and other notions that are non testable and without evidence.

 I would like to glance at one concern about science that has some validity.  There is a tendency for science, having achieved hegemony in contemporary Western society, to take the place of religion.  By this I mean that we moderns might be called the medicalizers of morals.  Take the issue of homosexuality as an example.  Religion had deemed it a crime in many Western countries and so had the law.  But when it was initially placed under the realm of medicine, did the repression of homosexuality cease?

No, homosexual sex was then pronounced a practice of aberrant persons.  The medical viewpoint not only set up a new strict line between normality and deviance, it also became more deterministic.  For quite a while, medical science categorized homosexuality as a medical disorder.  Such absurd claims have now been corrected.  Yet it is interesting that in the present day, most of the opposition to homosexuality is from religious groups. For a time, medicine merely replaced religion as the arbiter of morals with regard to homosexuality.

The same struggle is going on in contemporary society with the practice of circumcision.  It was originally a religious/cultural custom with its own practitioners. The United States is one of the world’s worst offenders with regard to circumcision of baby boys.

Pediatricians and hospitals have taken over much of the surgery performed on boy infants, ostensibly for medical reasons. Misleading studies claim circumcision prevents AIDS and other diseases.  Such studies are statistically incorrect. In fact, there is no good medical reason to continue to circumcise male children. Gay people have achieved their due at last from the medical culture.  Let us hope someday children will also. 

But one can see in both cases mentioned here, a biased medicalization of formerly religious issues. There is some concern that science, technology and medicine are becoming too involved in the attempt to make moral meanings.   Yet, because of its methodology, I remain confident that good science ultimately carries the day, and old, incorrect and prejudiced paradigms will continue to be discarded.

The interdisciplinary study of religion and science is now an established and respected field, with two well-regarded journals, Zygon and Theology and Science. An unfortunate development in the field has occurred, however. The theory of compatibilism has received a great deal of currency concerning the study of science and religion’s history. Contemporary compatibilists give an account of that history which is not fully accurate.  I cannot see how compatibilists can claim complexity rather than conflict in the struggle of religion against science.  I do not think their claim has much validity.  It is to be hoped that more robust theories will take the place of compatibility so that the conflicted relationship between religion and science can be better understood and more fully exposed.

Religion has slowly been forced out of the explanation of the origin and workings of the universe, including the cosmos and the beginning of life.  It is becoming increasingly irrelevant for helping to define morals and ethics.  Indeed, in some parts of the world in the present day, religion shows itself openly as a hate- filled and murderous institution that is quite ready to go to war with nations or murder people who do not share its beliefs and ethics.  Religion is not a kindly old uncle, with slightly out of date notions, but a zealous tyrant, that will enforce its rules and beliefs in any manner and with any opportunity it can seize. 

Religion has attempted, and continues to try, to stop new ideas and concepts in science by torture, imprisonment and sometimes death for the innovators.  In the West, in contemporary times, such practices cannot be carried out without legal reprisal because we no longer have true theocracies. Secular law will bring justice to those who would like to kill to stop scientific advances.

But even in the West and other areas where secularity is prominent, religion has not stopped its war on science. 

Because that is what its behavior demonstrates- a war, not a complex relationship. In the modern world, religion has been forced to adopt new tactics, so the denier of evolution has evolved. It now tries to blunt the force of new scientific discovery or confirmation by reintroducing discarded theories dressed up with fresh and deceptive vocabularies. Religion has also developed complex and invalid theories to invalidate the theory of evolution; it has worked out rationales, such as the necessity of a first cause, to explain the origin of the cosmos. 

Religion has turned to law, particularly in the United States, which has strict constitutional separation of church and state.  In the United States, religious advocates continuously challenge legal separation, as we shall see in our next lecture on evolution versus creationism.  Court battles are well funded by theist organizations, forcing secular groups to spend time and money to combat religious falsehoods and often illegal tactics. I do not see how anyone can deny that religion continues to wage war on science, despite the denials of its advocates. 

Fortunately, religion is losing ground on all fronts.  Let us remember that fact when we suffer defeat in a few battles.  In the long run, we secular advocates are winning the war.  Science has slowly seized hegemony from religion.  The forces of darkness, superstition and obfuscation are being dispelled by sound science, reason and common sense. Brave and brilliant people have suffered and died for this outcome.  Let us make sure that our progress continues.

Video of Lecture: The Conflict between Science and Religion

Lecture: The Conflict between Science and Religion

Video of Discussion: The Conflict between Science and Religion

Discussion: The Conflict between Science and Religion


In addition to the following Bibliography for the Conflict between Science and Religion Lecture, Atheist Scholar contains several Book Lists and Bibliographies, along with Footnotes, under the Heading Atheist Science.  There are lists for Anthropology; Biology, Evolutionary Biology, and Paleontology; Physics, Cosmology and Astronomy.

 Avalos, Hector. “Heavenly Conflicts: The Bible and Astronomy.” Mercury 27, no.2 (1998.)

__________. “Religion in Conflict with Science.” In Tom Flynn, Ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.  647-650.

Bennett, Jeffery, Seth Shostak and Bruce Jakowsky.  Life in the Universe. San Francisco: Addison-Wesley, 2003.

Braterman, Paul S. “Origins of Life and Unbelief.” In Tom Flynn, Ed.  The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 501-506.

Brooke, John Hedley, Ed. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Dennett Daniel C. and Alvin Plantinga. Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Dixon, Thomas. Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction.Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Ferngren, Gary B., Ed. Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction.Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Gould, Stephen Jay.  Rocks of Ages.  New York: Ballantine, 1999.

Iannacone, Laurence, Rodney Stark, and Roger Fink.  “Rationality and the Religious Mind.” Economic Inquiry 36, no.3 (1998.)

Kurtz, Paul, Ed. Science and Religion: Are they Compatible? Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2003.

Larsen, Edward J. and Larry Witham. “Leading Scientists Still Reject God.” Nature 394 (1998.)

Leuba, James H. “Religious Beliefs of American Scientists.” Harper’s Monthly, August, 1984.

Linberg, David C. and Ronald L. Numbers, Eds. God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science.Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Miller, Stanley L. and Leslie E. Orgel.  The Origins of Life on Earth.Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1974.

Weldon, Stephen P. “Postmodernism.” In Gary B. Ferngren, Ed. Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction.  Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 2002. 381-387.

Young, Matt and John Lynch. “Unbelief among Scientists.” In Tom Flynn, Ed. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.  687-690. 

Young, Matt and John Lynch. “Unbelief among Scientists.” In Tom Flynn, Ed. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.  687-690.

Additional references

Jerry Coyne. Science, Religion, and Society: The Problem of Evolution in America.                                WEIT blog. 24 May 2012. Pre-published in the journal “Evolution” on May 17, 2012.

“American resistance to accepting evolution is uniquely high among First World countries. This is due largely to the extreme religiosity of the United States, which is much higher than that of comparably advanced nations, and to the resistance of many religious people to the facts and supposed implications of evolution.”

To read more click here… 

Stenger, Victor J. God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion. Amherst: Prometheus Press, 2012.

”It has become the prevalent view among sociologists, historians, and some theistic scientists that religion and science have never been in serious conflict. Some even claim that Christianity was responsible for the development of science. In God and the Folly of Faith, physicist Victor J. Stenger shows that this conclusion flies in the face of the historical facts.”