Science & Faith: An Alleged Rivalry

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I grew up in Michigan, but when it came time to go to college, I did not follow my friends or the advice of my counselors. I went right past Ann Arbor and didn’t stop until Evanston, Illinois. Since then, I’ve felt a strong sense of rivalry between my beloved Northwestern Wildcats and the Michigan Wolverines.

Everybody knows about the huge rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State, particularly in football. But in my mind, the big rivalry is between NU and UM. Sadly, I’m almost alone in feeling that way, but let me tell you why.

Michigan and Northwestern are elite research universities, one with a winning athletic department and the other with, well, a somewhat different athletic history. I attended during the last four years of what we call the Dark Ages (1973-1995) which, thank goodness, are a thing of the past. In any case, there is no real conflict between universities.

So what do we do when our perceptions of conflict are false? How do we change false perceptions in the minds of others? You probably see where this is going—from college football rivalry to faith and science conflict—so let’s take on the so-called warfare thesis.

Science and Faith: It’s Complicated

There’s been a longstanding warfare thesis about the alleged rivalry between faith and science. But in the words of historian Ron Numbers, it’s “more propaganda than history.” Decades of research—by believers and non-believers—is unanimous on this point. The history of science and religion is not the history of an enduring conflict. There is no war, but a pervasive perception of conflict.

Two 19th-century books are the root of the problem. Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom and John William Draper’s History of Conflict between Religion and Science have repeatedly been shown to be misleading at best. Draper’s was as much an anti-Catholic treatise as it was history, and White was trying to loosen Cornell from unwanted church influence. Yet, these texts continue to set the tone, putting not just the church but all religious faith at odds with science.

What does a more accurate historical picture tell us? Well, it’s complicated. That’s why many historians of science refer to the “complexity thesis” when addressing religion and science. You can tell a tale of perfect consonance or you can tell one of warfare if you cherry-pick your examples, taking them out of the context of a bigger picture. Reality is usually more complicated than any single individual’s perspective on it.

The conflict thesis isn’t the only myth floating around. There are several about Darwin—that belief in evolution destroyed his faith, or that he came back to Christ on his deathbed. Or Galileo’s torture and imprisonment for advocating Copernicanism. Or that the church across the ages suppressed science. These and many other myths help sustain the warfare thesis and make our work of engaging science for ministry a much greater challenge than it needs to be.

  • Stephen Snobelen and Ted Davis walk us from the conflict myth to the complexity thesis in this BioLogos post.
  • These short essays will help you identify and debunk those myths.
  • I went deeper into Darwin and faith in these two essays from 2018.
  • We recommend these resources (including several additional newsletters) for further exploring the conflict thesis.

A New Apologetic

How different would it be for the church if everyone knew this history? And what about ministry to non-believers who trust science more than religion? What if they understood the history of the church’s relationship to science—a complex one, yes, but with many instances of collaboration?

The church needs a new apologetic strategy regarding science. We need to help our congregations and our wider culture get this history right. Yes, there are historical moments where the church looks bad on this front. But there are also remarkable tales of faith and science working together for discovery and progress, moments that declare the glory of God.

Faith and science are a wicked problem for our culture, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can begin to change the perceptions by getting the history right.

Once that is done, we can deal with the actual issues. And that will be so much easier when both churched and unchurched understand that for every instance of tension, there will be ones of harmony that advance science and glorify God.


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