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Science and Religion: The Casualties of an Unnecessary War | Righting America

by Frederick W. Schmidt

Painting of a portrait of Galileo holding a scroll dressed in traditional attire with a ring in his hand; painted by Justus Sustermans.
“Justus_Sustermans_-_Portrait_of_Galileo_Galilei,_1636” by VLN Physics 12 licensed under CC BY 2.0 

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and academic. He is the author or editor of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination, and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004),  What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005),  Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005),  Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009) and The Dave Test (Abingdon Press, 2013).

In a recent exchange of views Sarah Olson, a formerly conservative Christian-turned-atheist, responded to Razib Kahn, who is a Muslim-turned-atheist.  Kahn argues that Christians should not be afraid of evolutionary theory and Olson argues that they should be.  What is interesting about the exchange is what they hold in common.  Both are atheists. Both assume that conflict between science and religion is a given, and both presuppose a conservative Christian audience.

On the face of it, the entire exchange is unexpected.  Why would atheists care about conservative Christians do or don’t make of evolutionary science or science in general?  But on brief reflection, it is not all that strange.

To understand why topics of this kind matter to atheists, one need only remember that both writers were reared in theologically conservative homes.  We all work out of our personal lives to one degree or another, and writers — more publicly than others — continue to rehearse those experiences. In the case of Kahn and Olson, my suspicion is that both continue to rehearse their departures from their respective faiths, and – understandably – they continue to imagine how those faith communities may or may not process their relationship with science.  Science, in turn, figures prominently for atheists who often treat science not just as a powerful descriptive tool, but as a discipline that also serves an almost metaphysical function.

Be that as it may, exchanges of this kind tend to perpetuate misunderstandings that persist around the relationship between science and religion. Ironically, atheists and religious conservatives have often contributed to the perpetuation of those misunderstandings.

One such misunderstanding is the notion that religion and science are and have been at odds with one another for centuries.  Students of the history of science and better-informed religious historians debunked that assumption long ago, and they continue to try to inform broader audiences of just how little information there is to support the so-called conflict thesis between science and religion.  Among the most recent efforts to make that case with broader audiences are Jeff Hardin (Chair of the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison), Ronald L. Numbers (Hilldale Professor of the History of Science and Medicine at the University of Wisconsin, Madison) and Ronald A. Binzley (an environmental engineer at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources).  Together, Hardin, Numbers and Binzley assembled a group of distinguished historians to make their case in accessible terms in an edited work, entitled The Warfare between Science and Religion, The Idea that Wouldn’t Die.  

As Hardin and Numbers observe in a recent Veritas Forum, the warfare trope is largely a nineteenth century creation and can be traced to the work of John William Draper and Andrew Dixon White who, together, made it their mission in life to promote the impression that science and religion – in particular, science and Christianity – had been at war for centuries.  In fact, as Hardin and Numbers note, science – as we know it – is largely a late eighteenth, early nineteenth century creation, which was facilitated mostly by Christians, who explored nature and restricted themselves to natural explanations. In so doing, they broke with patterns that were well established, even among thinkers like Isaac Newton, who had no hesitation in referring to God when explaining natural phenomena.

Numbers goes onto note that many of the so-called historical illustrations of enmity between science and the church are also predicated on dubious evidence.  Galileo is a good illustration. Referring to the work of Maurice A. Finochiarro, Numbers points out that, when Galileo was questioned by the church, he was accommodated first in the embassies of Tuscany and Florence, and then in the luxurious six-room apartment of the prosecutor.  He was fed by a chef who attended to his dining needs; when he was eventually placed under house arrest, he was already blind, and his daughter, who was a nun, served as his secretary. The language that describes the Inquisition’s interrogation of Galileo suggests that he was “closely examined,” but nothing in the historical record suggests that the church had him tortured.  More importantly, Galileo himself had been ordained and tonsured before his interrogation, and the differences between the church and Galileo were actually far more subtle than the warfare trope suggests. Numbers’ book is pointedly entitled, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion.  

So why, then, does the warfare trope persist?  According to Numbers, some of it is willful. The new atheists, he notes, do not just cherry-pick the history to make a case for the trope, they simply assert the fact of a war between science and religion.  When asked what he would say to new atheists like Sam Harris, who persist in repeating the theme, Numbers responds, “Read some history.” That’s undoubtedly good advice.

I think it is also fair to say that the trope serves certain rhetorical purposes on both sides of the atheist-fundamentalist divide.  For the former, the warfare image serves as leverage, discrediting the church in particular and religion in general. The case for the new atheists is intrinsically stronger, if the picture drawn for readers characterizes religious people as obscurantists who live in childish fear of scientific truth.  The notion of a war also situates the new atheists as the defenders of scientific truth, no matter how much or how little they know about the actual science.

For those who are fundamentalists, the warfare model also presents a rhetorical advantage. The assumption that scientists are “out to get” the church strengthens the hand of fundamentalists like Ken Ham, galvanizing audiences and advancing their financial goals.  Ham himself acknowledged that the debates with Bill Nye helped him to raise enough money to begin work on his “Ark Encounter Project,” estimated to cost roughly 73 million dollars.

But, apart from history and rhetorical leverage, are there any other reasons that even people like Kahn and Olson believe that science-as-a threat-to-religion needs to be addressed?  The answer, I think, lies in attitudes toward Scripture. While Olson begins to identify the challenges, I don’t believe she fully outlines the problem. Because she left behind a fundamentalist form of Christianity, she also doesn’t fully realize that while science is, indeed, a problem for fundamentalism, it is far from being a problem for Christianity.

One reason for the enmity between faith and science lies with notions of biblical inspiration.  Fundamentalists prioritize such claims, and what they are willing to entertain as factual must, by definition, be congruent with that claim.  

Scripture does, indeed, talk about the inspiration of Scripture, but oddly, of course, the passages that suggest or infer divine inspiration rarely claim inspiration for the books in which such claims lie.  So, for example, there are places in Scripture that describe someone receiving a revelation from God — e.g., Moses receiving the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 — but the notion of revelation does not extend to the whole of the Book of Exodus.  Even better known is the description of Scripture as “God-breathed” in Second Timothy 3:16-17, which refers to the Hebrew Bible, but is not a reference to Second Timothy, let alone the New Testament.

This is not to suggest that only fundamentalists believe that the Bible is inspired.  All Christians do in one way or another. But whereas fundamentalists tend to treat inspiration as a quality that that is imparted to Scripture from its inception, much of the rest of Christianity believes that inspiration is deeply connected with the experience of the church, emerges from that experience, and is often only recognized in retrospect.

A second reason lies with the ways in which fundamentalism unpacks the concept of inspiration.  

Because fundamentalists think of inspiration in terms of God acting on the text, they are inclined to understand inspiration in terms of its perceptible impact.  As a result, inerrancy is asserted, and the authority and reliability of the biblical rises and falls on being able to demonstrate that inerrancy.

The difficulty with this point of view is that where notions of inspiration figure into descriptions of the Hebrew Bible or certain revelations in the biblical text, the authors deal in story and metaphor.  They do not quantify the impact of inspiration in perceptible or measurable terms, and while they certainly believe that God has acted and communicated, they do not make claims for the kind of inerrancy that is so often the hallmark of fundamentalism.  The very fact that narrative and metaphor about the inspiration of Scripture becomes the grist for “theories” of inspiration illustrates the problem.

The third reason lies with the exclusive and definitive role that Scripture is forced to play in the theology of fundamentalism.  

Combined with the view of Scripture outlined above, the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura exerts an exaggerated power over fundamentalist theology and cosmology.  The Bible not only names basic assumptions about the nature of reality; it is also forced to serve as a living matrix for understanding the world and all forms of truth.  As such, the Bible not only allows and prohibits certain kinds of thinking, it also functions in ways that its writers never intended, making assertions for example, about the physical process by which the world was created.  That approach is a break with other approaches to thinking theologically in the church, which emphasizes the primacy of Scripture – prima scriptura – and makes room for the construction of theology, relying upon the traditions of the church and other forms of knowledge.

This understanding of inspiration leads fundamentalists inexorably to a fourth reason that science appears to be the enemy of religion: A literalist approach to reading Scripture.

If theories of inspiration reify what is to be expected from Scripture, then a literalist approach to the reading of Scripture makes it easier to account for the effects of inspiration — or so it seems to fundamentalists.  In fact, of course, the wooden insistence on this approach to reading Scripture flies in the face of its very nature. Both the Old and New Testaments are marked by literary variety and sophistication that depends upon history, but depends equally upon metaphor, poetry, figurative expressions, story, parable (which Olson wrongly identifies as the genre of the Genesis story), and mythic narratives (which is a rather more accurate way of characterizing Genesis 1-3).  With this inherent tension in place with the phenomenology of the text itself, conflict is almost guaranteed, and alternative understandings of a text are unavailable to people who do not open themselves to discoveries and information that contradicts a literalist reading of Scripture.

Just how powerfully these four assumptions about Scripture reinforce the warfare trope is clear from the ferocity with which some creationists defend their views, and the extent to which they are prepared to contort their understanding of scientific data or deny it altogether.  But the more poignant evidence of just how powerful those assumptions are may lie in its impact on the faith of people like Ron Numbers. Numbers grew up in an Adventist church and was deeply wed to fundamentalist categories.

Along with a classmate at the University of California where he eventually received his Ph.D., Numbers found that what he learned there about science made his religious upbringing untenable.  Today, he is a gracious and important participant in conversations about the history of science and religion, but he is also an agnostic. Interestingly, his biography cites that fact with a single observation from Numbers himself: “I no longer believe in creationism of any kind.”

Outside of the fundamentalist world, the warfare between science and faith is, as Numbers notes, without historical justification, and theologically, there are also countless alternatives.  But among fundamentalists, Olson is right, it has its casualties.