Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
An Unnecessary War? How Science and Christianity Conflict and Cooperate | Righting America

by Sarah Olson

Sarah Olson is an undergraduate student majoring in microbiology at Oregon State University, and a member of the National Association of Science Writers. She works at a bookstore curating their science and math sections and reviews popular science books on her blog readmorescience.com. In addition to pursuing a career in science writing, Sarah frequently writes about the intersection of religion, feminism, and science. She currently lives in Corvallis, Oregon with her fiance. You can connect with her at saraholson.net and on Twitter and Instagram at @ReadMoreScience.

Photo of a TV screen showing a picture of Carl Sagan next to a white chair looking into the cosmos in a futuristic looking room.
“Carl Sagan: America’s Doctor Who” by Rob Dumas is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

Continuing the conversation around whether America’s conservative Christians have reason to reject or accept evolution, Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt Jr. suggests the conflict between science and religion is an unnecessary war. Instead, he argues it’s a trope asserted by New Atheists and fundamentalists, and that Christianity in America today is entirely compatible with science. In regard to my post, he believes “exchanges of this kind tend to perpetuate misunderstandings that persist around the relationship between science and religion.” But can the friction between religion and science truly be reduced to misunderstandings and historical conspiracy?

It’s worth noting that theologians have a stake in persuading the public that science and Christianity are not in conflict. By reducing it to a centuries-old conspiracy between fundamentalists and atheists, theologians position themselves as more reasonable cooperators. Cooperation is a means of survival, and Christianity is determined to survive. In order to do so, theologians cannot possibly position themselves against science – they would forsake reason. But Christianity cannot simply tolerate science in order to survive. It needs to embrace it, and in many ways, non-fundamentalist Christianity in America has done exactly that. But while Christianity may need to accommodate science in order to survive in modern America, I am not convinced science should do anything more than tolerate religion in exchange.

The dilemma lies in that science and religion both claim to reveal fundamental truths about our world and our existence. When their assertions conflict, which will bow to the other? When religion refuses to accommodate reason, as is evident in the belief of a worldwide flood in which Noah’s Ark survived, we call it fundamentalism. When science bends to accommodate belief, as is the case with “creation science,” it becomes pseudoscience. Scientists and reasonable believers alike know how problematic these issues are, and why fundamentalism and pseudoscience fuel the conflict between science and religion.

Dr. Schmidt argues that science and Christianity can coexist peacefully, and that they have done so through cooperation. With historical references to Galileo and Isaac Newton, he suggests science was “facilitated mostly by Christians, who explored nature and restricted themselves to natural explanations.” Perhaps this was generally true when science as a field of study was in its infancy, before a young Darwin set off on his voyage in 1831; but after he proposed his theory of evolution, the relationship between Christianity and science changed forever. Science made a claim that directly conflicted with the Bible and the story of creation. Now scientists began to question faith. Darwin himself had doubts about God’s existence, and Einstein even rejected the God of Abraham. Debating the religious beliefs of famous scientists may be trivial, but today, we know scientists around the world are generally more agnostic than the rest of the population.

Perhaps the way to move toward peaceful coexistence is for the Bible to be understood as inspirational rather than factual. Many Christians argue that the Bible should not be taken literally, and some claim it was never meant to be. As evangelical author Rachel Held Evans wrote in her 2018 book Inspired, which I have been pouring over in light of her recent and tragic passing, the Bible is not a science or a history book, but a collection of divinely inspired stories. I found it odd that Dr. Schmidt would argue inspiration could cause enmity between science and Christianity, but theology is his expertise, not mine. Evans suggests that “Christians believe the bible to be uniquely revelatory and authoritative to the faith, [and] we have no reason to think its many authors were exempt from the mistakes, edits, rewrites, and dry spells of everyday creative work.” Seen this way, the Bible is no longer a manual or textbook, but “inspired and inspiring.”

For non-fundamentalists as well as non-believers, it’s much more palatable to accept the Bible as stories rather than facts. I greatly appreciate literature (during my first two years of college, I even intended to major in it), and like Evans, I grew up inspired by Biblical stories. But when I witnessed the way those stories were used to undermine science, medicine, and equality, my belief faltered. I can accept the values of a religion that teaches love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control. But as an atheist, I know these values exist outside of the context of religion. I know the power science and technology hold to do good for the world, and I think believers know it, too. But in America today, where Christian fundamentalism is continuously used to undermine science, when our Evangelical-endorsed president denies climate change and pseudoscientific conspiracies grip vulnerable populations, will non-fundamentalist Christians help lead these wayward believers back to reason?

My brother recently asked me if it wasn’t too negative a message to say conservatives “should fear” evolution. I realized that my post likely came across that way, when I intend it to be read as conservative Christians have good reason to fear evolution. I think it’s worth any believer’s time to understand the ways science may conflict with their scripture. It allows for productive, beneficial discussions around science and the existence of the divine. While I may not find belief a necessary or fulfilling addition to my life, as a science communicator, it’s worth considering why someone else might. Recovering from the pain caused by fundamentalist Christianity can sometimes lead to nonbelief, as it did for me. But what does a conservative Christian-turned-atheist have to gain by turning her back on her family’s faith? What does an aspiring scientist have to profit from dissecting a theology many in her field accept and embrace?

The pain I experienced losing my faith and relationships with my family and community is not something I have or would ever take lightly. But I truly feel I’ve found a more accepting community in secular humanism. The atheism of my generation is not the flawed version of the New Atheists, but an attempt to move toward a more tolerant, reason-based world. Neither is our secular worldview a form of “scientism,” in which we’ve simply replaced religion with a distorted dependence on science. Dr. Schmidt is wrong to assume non-believers and scientists such as Khan and myself “treat science not just as a powerful descriptive tool, but as a discipline that also serves an almost metaphysical function.” There is nothing metaphysical about a method with which to describe and understand our natural world. I am driven by a sense of wonder, not faith.

Wonder, as Socrates once wrote, is the beginning of wisdom. I believe it is also a scientist’s greatest tool, and “one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable,” as Richard Dawkins once stated. One of Christianity’s merits is its encouragement of wonder. In this, science and faith may even encourage one another, like when Dr. Schmidt described some of the early naturalists and their spirituality. This said, I tend to agree with Carl Sagan:

No contemporary religion and no New Age belief seems to me to take sufficient account of the grandeur, magnificence, subtlety, and intricacy of the Universe revealed by science. The fact that so little of the findings of modern science is prefigured in Scripture to my mind casts further doubt on its divine inspiration. But of course I might be wrong.