Many of you know how committed I am to the reasoned interface between science and religion. It’s something I touch on indirectly, but rarely speak directly about. Today’s post is intended to answer precisely the question: Are science and religion compatible? It has been inspired by two wonderful conversations. One was with a friend who feels they are completely opposed and another with a friend who integrates them in his daily life.
I would like to take a few minutes to address the common claim that Christianity is incompatible with science, and the even stronger claim that it actively opposes science. I must confess from the outset that this proposition utterly baffles me. It seems to be baldly false historically and philosophically and yet it has become incredibly popular. So let me see if I can pin down exactly what concern people have and what evidence supports it.
Let us first ask what people mean by Christianity opposing science.
Does Christianity Suppress Science?
One of the most common challenges I hear is that Christianity suppresses science. “Scientists are deeply curious about the way the world works, willing to question anything and their noble pursuit of the truth has consistently been thwarted by the church, which tries to replace scientific discovery with traditional doctrine.” This narrative has been popular, particularly in retelling stories of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin.
The question is not whether the church has ever suppressed inquiry or new information, but whether the church consistently does so or on balance suppresses more than it supports. No doubt anecdotal cases of suppression can be found, but a consistent trend simply does not appear in the historical record. Quite to the contrary, the church has a good record of funding and supporting science research, with Copernicus and Galileo at the very least providing stellar examples.
In both cases, it turns out to be the religious/financial class system that funded their research. Copernicus had the resources, both time and money, to pursue astronomy because he was a canon of the cathedral of Warmia, living off the income of the diocese. Galileo was not funded directly by the church, but his funded positions as a teacher and his patronage by the Medicis was not unrelated to clerical favor, particularly by Maffeo Barberini, later Pope Urban VIII.
Prior to 1900, almost all science was done by members of the upper class (the leisure class). The general public didn’t have the opportunity, meaning it was a pursuit for the wealthy or their dependents. Thus the lists of early scientists are littered with the names of clerics. Among the most notable are Copernicus, Mendel, Secchi, and Priestley. For a list of Roman Catholic cleric scientists, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Roman_Catholic_cleric-scientists.
I must admit to mixed feelings about the close association of privilege with the church, but it cannot be denied that wealth led to science, often through the church.
But didn’t the church suppress Galileo? Yes, but again, this is not a function of Christianity, but of institution. (I will argue below that Christianity favors science.) Large authoritarian institutions stifle creativity and innovation. They always have. One need only look to the Soviet promotion of Trofim Lysenko in the 20th century to see a clear example of this. Soviet biology floundered, because Lysenko, a prominent biologist, rejected certain insights of Darwin and Mendel that became central to modern biology. Young scientists who argued against this orthodoxy were suppressed. Galileo, likewise, ran into an authority structure when the Pope favored Aristotelian orthodoxy (in physics) over Galileo’s novel ideas.
It looks as though the Christian Church, but particularly the Roman Catholic hierarchy, both collected wealth to produce a leisure class (good for science) and suppressed creativity (bad for science). Given that the system produced Copernicus, Galileo, and Mendel (and later Lemaitre and Secchi), we’d be hard pressed to say it’s been bad for science. [It may have been bad for faith, but that’s another article.]
Meanwhile, the Anglican strand of Christianity in England and Scotland produced many more scientists and some of the foundational philosophies that make modern science possible.
Does Christianity Support a View of the World Harmful to Science?
If Christianity on balance has not suppressed science directly, perhaps it is guilty of an indirect suppression. Can we argue that the scientific worldview trends away from the religious worldview? Can we say that the two pull you in opposite directions?
It turns out that the opposite is the case. Modern science is rooted firmly in the philosophy of men who not only saw science as compatible with their faith, but deeply integrated into it. Almost all of the ideas held dear by scientists (even the atheist ones) come from profoundly religious philosophies, dare I say it, theologies.
One of the greatest divides that arises within Christian thought is that between a Platonic worldview and a Nominalist worldview. Much Christian theology that seems incomprehensible to modern minds (including transubstantiation, eternal souls, and Divine omnipotence) rest on a Platonic worldview. Plato and Aquinas thought that the best way to reason was downward from universal truths to specific instances. They saw categories of things (Animals, Humans, Whiteness) as more real than the things we encounter with our senses (dogs, Bob, the white of the screen). This was the dominant way of philosophy and science prior to the 14th century.
William of Ockham turned that around. He invented Nominalism, the idea that categories are just names we use to describe collections of real individuals. Science as we know it would be impossible without this key shift in the way we think – without this notion that data matters. Ockham is also responsible for Ockham’s Razor, perhaps the most famous statement of “parsimony” – the idea that simpler explanations are better. Parsimony is also key to modern science.
Ockham (1287-1347) was an English member of the Franciscans, a religious order embracing poverty. While we cannot attribute his membership to personal conviction – he joined somewhere between 7 and 13 – his later writings show a clear commitment to Christian philosophy and ethics. His preference for simplicity seems to be related to his ideas of God’s simplicity as well as the simplicity of his order.
Ockham set the stage for Empiricism – the idea that all knowledge comes from observation of the external world. That philosophy would be proposed by Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Often considered the great turning point of modern science, Bacon’s insistence on arguing up from particular observations to general rules may be the core of science as we know it. Bacon not only thought this was a good way to reason, but felt it was the only possible way to know things about the natural world.
Bacon was an Anglican Christian, solidly within the church of his day, though that may be expected of a man who became Lord Chancellor under King James I. His penchant for reasoning based on the material world did not appear to conflict with his faith. Indeed, he argued that in the Fall, humans had lost their relationship with God and their mastery of creation. God, he believed, had given us the church to solve the first problem and science to solve the latter.
Bacon was not the only one to tie together humanity’s unique position, being made in the image of God, and science. Many others have commented on the necessity of a divine intelligence to comprehend the universe and give it order and the necessity of a parallel human intelligence to “divine” that order. The parallel between our minds and God’s gives us the ability to do science. For the record, I’m not sure I agree with this line of argument, but it is prevalent in early philosophy of science and appears in some form as recently as Erwin Schrödinger.
Bacon’s enthusiasm for strict empirical reasoning would need to be softened. We also make “scientific” arguments based on logical necessity and broad inference. Those ideas would be brought into Western thought by Newton, Leibniz, Kant, and Descartes, none of whom could be thought of as orthodox believers, but all of whom showed a profound commitment to God as a universal creator. It is difficult to discern their thoughts on God as a personal presence (and this question has been hotly debated). It should not however effect our central question, as all four were the product of intensely Christian cultures, promoted Christian worldviews, and participated as believers in their societies.
So where does that leave us. If we are to say that Christianity and science are incompatible, but cannot establish that Christianity argues against or suppresses science, we will need some other tactic. Perhaps we can argue in a more modern vein that the two things are incompatible.
Can we say that Christians make poor scientists? Not really. The Jesuit order alone provides many examples of deeply devoted believers (8-14 years formation for priesthood), personally committed (vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience), who nonetheless make excellent scientists.
Consider Angelo Secchi (1818-1878) the Jesuit astronomer who was first to collect spectra of stars, founding the field of astronomical spectroscopy. Previous astronomers treated stars as points rather than chemical processes. Secchi’s shift in perspective and subsequent discoveries helped us start to think of stars as chemical processes.
Consider also Georges Lemaitre (1894-1966), not a Jesuit himself, but a priest and trained by Jesuits. Lemaitre is responsible for the central ideas in the modern understanding of the Big Bang and the expanding universe.
Einstein and Schrödinger may have ambiguous relationships with faith and belief. They, like Newton and fellows, expressed strong commitment to a universal God, but had doubts about a personal God. Where that leaves us with regard to Christian scientists is unclear, but Secchi and Lemaitre provide incontrovertible proof that the two coexist.
Institutions and Dogmatism
I am not denying that there have been many historical cases where institutions used religious grounds to suppress discoveries. Nor would I deny that many believers support the idea of dogma – doctrines thought to be beyond question. What I do deny is that these are necessary or even normative for faith. They are, instead common products of any group of humans with a common mission – from the Roman Catholic Church to Mao’s China, from the Boy Scouts of America to the Journal Nature. In order to get things done, groups invest themselves in common structures of thought and administration. They calcify our thoughts in a way that allows work to be done, but also can hinder progress.
Our challenge, as truly open minded people, interested in the world, will be to establish structures that are strong enough to do work and flexible enough to change. Universities are a great example. We can think of the general benefit of political correctness, as well as the abuses when we try to enforce it. Again, periodicals (even scientific journals) need to set bounds on the types of research they will publish to keep the readership interested and focused. They will have editorial standards ranging from grammar to tone to content. But sometimes it’s necessary to reevaluate those standards in order to communicate important information. Institutions always have (and always will) struggle with this balance. It should come as no surprise that religious institutions face the same trial.
Personally, I am a big fan of institutions and have an aversion to dogma that approaches dogmatism. I recognize that others balance these concerns differently than I and I like to hear how they put everything together.
Still, I’m tired of people acting as though faith groups were the only (or even the worst) abusers of the common trust, the only dogmatics and the only authoritarians. Christian societies in the West provided fertile ground for the growth of scientific reasoning precisely because Christian theology calls for curiosity, consistency, and a comprehensible universe, precisely because Christian scholars believed in a communal enterprise of seeking the mind of God in creation.
Science and Christianity
Science need not and has not stayed within the realm of Christianity, but to say that the church has been actively suppressing science low these many years is just nonsense. There is a strong anti-science pro-faith movement around the world right now. I want to tell you that it offends terribly against my scientific sensibilities, but far more it offends against my theology. It pretends that God made the world incomprehensible and that God wills us to be ignorant and uncritical. Christianity calls me to bring all I have to bear (heart, mind, soul, and strength; memory, reason, and skill) to the worlds problems. Anything that gets in the way of that – including dogmatic ignorance – is against God’s will. So I believe (Here I stand, I can do no other).
The myth that science and religion stand opposed misses key developments in the history and philosophy of science. It runs counter to the historical evidence and demeans the very valuable scientific work done by Christians in ages past and in the present. I hope that, being confronted with the evidence, it will pass away. Just like any other insufficient theory.