What is the Relation between Science and Religion

William Lane Craig

Examines several ways in which science and theology relate to each other.

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Back in 1896 the president of Cornell University Andrew Dickson White published a book entitled A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. 

Under White’s influence, the metaphor of “warfare” to describe the relations between science and the Christian faith became very widespread during the first half of the 20th century. The culturally dominant view in the West—even among Christians—came to be that science and Christianity are not allies in the search for truth, but adversaries.

To illustrate, several years ago I had a debate with a philosopher of science at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver , Canada, on the question “Are Science and Religion Mutually Irrelevant?” When I walked onto the campus, I saw that the Christian students sponsoring the debate had advertised it with large banners and posters proclaiming “Science vs. Christianity.” The students were perpetuating the same sort of warfare mentality that Andrew Dickson White proclaimed over a hundred years ago.

What has happened, however, in the second half of this century is that historians and philosophers of science have come to realize that this supposed history of warfare is a myth. As Thaxton and Pearcey point out in their recent book The Soul of Science, for over 300 years between the rise of modern science in the 1500’s and the late 1800s the relationship between science and religion can best be described as an alliance.

 Up until the late 19th century, scientists were typically Christian believers who saw no conflict between their science and their faith—people like Kepler, Boyle, Maxwell, Faraday, Kelvin, and others. The idea of a warfare between science and religion is a relatively recent invention of the late 19th century, carefully nurtured by secular thinkers who had as their aim the undermining of the cultural dominance of Christianity in the West and its replacement by naturalism—the view that nothing outside nature is real and the only way to discover truth is through science. They were remarkably successful in pushing through their agenda. But philosophers of science during the second half of the 20th century have come to realize that the idea of a warfare between science and theology is a gross oversimplification. White’s book is now regarded as something of a bad joke, a one-sided and distorted piece of propaganda.

Now some people acknowledge that science and religion should not be regarded as foes, but nonetheless they do not think that they should be considered friends either. They say that science and religion are mutually irrelevant, that they represent two non-over-lapping domains. Sometimes you hear slogans like “Science deals with facts and religion deals with faith.” But this is a gross caricature of both science and religion. As science probes the universe, she encounters problems and questions which are philosophical in character and therefore cannot be resolved scientifically, but which can be illuminated by a theological perspective. By the same token, it is simply false that religion makes no factual claims about the world. The world religions make various and conflicting claims about the origin and nature of the universe and humanity, and they cannot all be true. Science and religion are thus like two circles which intersect or partially overlap. It is in the area of intersection that the dialogue takes place.

And during the last quarter century, a flourishing dialogue between science and theology has been going on in North America and Europe. In an address before a conference on the history and philosophy of thermodynamics, the prominent British physicist P. T. Landsberg suddenly began to explore the theological implications of the scientific theory he was discussing. He observed,

To talk about the implications of science for theology at a scientific meeting seems to break a taboo. But those who think so are out of date. During the last 15 years, this taboo has been removed, and in talking about the interaction of science and theology, I am actually moving with a tide.

Numerous societies for promoting this dialogue, like the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology, the Science and Religion Forum, the Berkeley Center for Theology and Natural Science, and so forth have sprung up. Especially significant have been the on-going conferences sponsored by the Berkeley Center and the Vatican Observatory, in which prominent scientists like Stephen Hawking and Paul Davies have explored the implications of science for theology with prominent theologians like John Polkinghorne and Wolfhart Pannenberg. Not only are there professional journals devoted to the dialogue between science and religion, such as Zygon and Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, but, more significantly, secular journals like Nature and the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, also carry articles on the mutual implications of science and theology. The Templeton Foundation has awarded its million dollar Templeton Award in Science and Religion to outstanding integrative thinkers such as Paul Davies, John Polkinghorne, and George Ellis for their work in science and religion. The dialogue between science and theology has become so significant in our day that both Cambridge University and Oxford University have established chairs in science and theology.

I share all this to illustrate a point. Folks who think that science and religion are mutually irrelevant need to realize that the cat is already out of the bag; and I daresay there’s little prospect of stuffing it back in. Science and religion have discovered that they have important mutual interests and important contributions to make to each other, and those who don’t like this can choose not to participate in the dialogue, but that’s not going to shut down the dialogue or show it to be meaningless.

So let’s explore together ways in which science and religion serve as allies in the quest for truth. Let me suggest six ways in which science and religion are relevant to each other, starting with the most general and then becoming more particular.

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