Conflict between Science and Religion

<Science vs. Religion - What we have learnt so far...>
  • Ideas like heliocentrism  contradicted teachings from the Catholic Church.

  • Churches lost faith from people when their theories and teachings were contradicted.

  • Many scientists were subsequently punished by the churches. There is an evident conflict between science and religion

  • Religion provides people with moral and spiritual guidance. Science, on the other hand, provides the kind of knowledge which gives us predictive power and control over our environment.

  • Science assumes that God is irrelevant to understanding nature as the Scientific Method prohibits appeal to miracles, divine purposes, religious experience or Scriptures in its explanation.

  • Science is willing to question the old established beliefs/truths so that new truths can come along.

  • So what is exactly Science and Scientific Method?

  • “Science was the major discovery, or invention, of the 17th century. Men of that time learned - and it was a great, revolutionary discovery, how to measure, explain, and manipulate natural phenomena in the way that we today call scientific.” - Charles van Doren in History of Knowledge.

  • Then, why is the period between 15th to 17th centuries in Europe called the Scientific Revolution?

  • “For this reason, the 17th century is possibly the most important century in human history. It instituted irrevocable change in the way human beings live on earth... We can only wonder if the change was in all ways for the better. - Charles van Doren in History of Knowledge.

<Three Different Theories on the Relationship between Science and Religion>
  1. Hostility Theory
  2. Harmony Theory
  3. Indifference Theory

<Similarity between Science and Religion>
  • Both aim to tell the truth about the world.

  • Religious propositions/claims – metaphysical

  • Scientific propositions/claims – empirical

  • Tension between science and religion – which has the authority to pronounce on a claim in question? (e.g. Life was made by God vs. Life was evolved via natural selection)

<Hostility Theory>
  • Science and religion cannot coexist.

  • When Science is right, religion is wrong and vice versa.

  • E.g. Church’s Geocentrism vs. Copernicus’ Heliocentrism
  • The Bible implicitly meant that the Earth was motionless, “You have established the earth on its foundations; it cannot be moved.” Hence, most of the Christians believed in geocentrism.

  • However, Copernicus offered a simpler version of the universe by formulating the heliocentrism (the earth moves around the sun). This simplified the navigational calculations which required the positions of the stars and planets during different periods of time.

  • Copernicus’ findings in the On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres lacked solid observational evidence which was later provided by Galileo.

  • E.g. Newton’s discovery of the giant mechanical world – atheism vs. theism
  • Newton’s discovery of the giant mechanical world (i.e. the world is made up of a few strong physical principles) split the world into two camps. Newton discovered that the Law of Universal Gravitation can be applied to all the matter found in the universe. His discovery had a wide range of implications for science and religion.

  • The ‘atheism’ camp believed that since humans can explain the world with the few physical principles and without referring to the Bible or God, there is no place for any divine beings in the universe. The universe was purely made up of matter which follows the few physical principles.

  • On the other hand, the ‘theism’ camp believed that the simplicity provided by the few physical principles is the indication of the existence of God. Only God can make such simple, intricate yet universal principles. The claim that all these universal principles were made out of nowhere does not make sense. There must have been a divine intervention which made it possible. NOTE: This view is closer to the view of “Harmony Theory”. It is mentioned in the “Hostility Theory” section of this article to demonstrate how an idea can divide people into two mutually hostile camps – anti-religion (atheism) and pro-religion (theism).

  • E.g. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution vs. Genesis
  • The conflict between Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and religion is an example of the most recent and most hotly debated conflict between science and religion. This Darwin example will be used in other sections of this article “Harmony Theory” and “Indifference Theory.”

  • Evolutionists believe that life on Earth has been evolving randomly via natural selection (Theory of Evolution) over millions of years.

  • However, creationists believe that everything including life was created by God in a six-day period a few thousand years ago. This view is known as the “young earth creationism”.

<Harmony Theory>
  • The Harmony Theory states that both science and religion are compatible. They can coexist together.

  • Proponents of the Harmony Theory like the Reformer John Calvin encouraged Christians to study the natural philosophy (an ancient term for science) in order to better understand and appreciate God’s handiwork and nature’s workings. In other words, by studying science, the Christians (or followers of any other religions) will come to believe even more in the existence of God behind all those nature’s workings.

  • E.g. Proponents of the Harmony Theory states that the Theory of Evolution is the mechanism God has devised and used to give rise to all the different species of life on Earth. This seems to contradict the biblical account in Genesis which states that God created life and Earth in 6 day-period. The proponents of the Harmony Theory the biblical account has symbolic meaning rather than telling the actual account.

  • In fact, many of the scientists and philosophers like Newton from the Scientific Revolution believed in the Harmony Theory and tried to reconcile both science and religion.

<Indifference Theory>
  • The Indifference Theory states that scientific and religious claims are unrelated to each other.

  • Science and religion are attending to disparate issues, and the answers they give have no implications for the other discipline.

  • Science pertains to the classification of empirical observations.

  • Religion pertains to ethics, ritual, and propositions (such as the assertion that a divine being exists) which have no empirical entailments.

Further Reading (The Conflict between Science and Religion) – This website explains clearly various areas (not just origin of life) in which science and religion clash. (Conflicts & occasional agreements
in "truth" between science and religion) (Conflict between Science and Religion) (Creation-evolution controversy)

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Stages in the Conflict between Science and Religion [Enrichment]

In 1898, Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), a professor and co-founder of Cornell University, wrote a rather notorious book called  "A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom.1He tracked many religiously-based conflicts, and showed that they often take decades or even centuries to resolve. Although his book exhibits a heavy -- sometimes vicious -- bias and opposition against religion, he did notice a pattern in these conflicts: they often go through eight stages before being finally resolved:

  1. Some individual or group will propose a new belief system that is in conflict with established religious beliefs. The official religious institutions generally ignore this.
  2. A growing number of people will start to disagree with church teaching.
  3. Churches issue statements which condemn the proposal, citing Biblical passages as justification for their stance.
  4. Support for the proposal continues to grow among the public.
  5. Churches issue statement pointing out that belief in the proposal negates the entire Christian message, or attacks a fundamental Christian principle.
  6. Public support continues to grow.
  7. Churches begin to ignore the proposal, and sometimes ignore the Biblical passages that it once quoted in opposition to the new idea.
  8. Many decades or centuries later, churches may incorporate the proposal into their beliefs.
Since the advent of the modernist/fundamentalist divide in Christianity, religious liberals have tended to readily accept scientific findings and incorporate them into their theology and morality. Thus White's eight step process now mainly applies to conservative Christians.

The theory of evolution is a classic case. "A scientific theory of evolution [was] first proposed by Charles Bonnet (1720 - 1793)...The theory was developed by Charles Lyell (1797 - 1874).2 But there was minimal theological reaction until Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species in 1859. At the present time, evolution of the species has been accepted by the Roman Catholic church, by liberal Christian churches and by many mainline churches. Some have integrated the theory of evolution into their educational programs. Conservative Christians generally retain belief in the biblical creation story in Genesis.

Of course, there are many scientific theories that never pass through these five steps. Psychological hoaxes like the recovered memory movementmultiple personality disorder, abuse in former lifetimes, etc. are introduced, gain some acceptance, and collapse due to lack of evidence, typically within two decades. Eugenic and race-based quasi-scientific theories similarly do not endure.

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