Science and Spirituality: Is Harmony Possible?

Week 2: Are Science and Religion at War?

February 5, 1999, Loren and Deborah Haarsma

(A shorter version of this handout was distributed at the talk.)

Models of the way science and religion interact:
1) Warfare: Religion and science, by their definition and their methods, are in continual conflict.
Example: "The antagonism we thus witness between Religion and Science is the continuation of a struggle that commenced when Christianity began to attain political power. A divine revelation must necessarily be intolerant of contradiction; it must repudiate all improvement in itself, and view with disdain that arising from the progressive intellectual development of man."
-- John William Draper, History of the conflict between Religion and Science

2) Complementarity: Science and religion cannot conflict, and indeed cannot interact, because they speak to fundamentally different realities: science to the physical world and religion to the spiritual world. They have nothing to say to each other.
Example: "... There is no fundamental conflict between being a person who believes in the value of the scientific method and being a person of faith. They simply operate in different spheres of your life. Science is intended to explore the natural; faith explores the supernatural."
-- Francis S. Collins, in remarks at a commencement address at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

3) Interaction: Science is mostly about the physical world, but those data can significantly impact our philosophy. Religion is mostly about the spiritual world, but makes some claims about the physical world. The two can speak to one another.
Example: "Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish."
-- Pope John Paul II, John Paul II on Science and Religion

Science as a new player in age-old worldview debates:
Worldview debates existed long before science. Now that we have science, people are using and sometimes misusing the results of science to back up their favorite worldview beliefs.

Sometimes, people will claim that their worldview demands certain scientific observations. (Historical example: debate in 17th century regarding subterranean oceans)
If the observation is questioned or disproved, you can:

1) Question whether the worldview actually demands that observation, or
2) Accept that the worldview demands that observation, and say that the worldview is untrue.

Sometimes, people will claim that a scientific observation or theory proves a worldview claim. (Historical example: Aristotelian metaphysics at the University of Paris, 13th century)
If you disagree with the worldview claim, you can:

1) Question whether the science actually proves the worldview claim, or
2) Accept the line of reasoning, and try to disprove the scientific observation or theory.

A famous case: Galileo and the church
Psalm 93:1 "The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved."
Joshua 10:1-14 (Joshua commands the sun to stand still)
Psalm 104:5 "He set the earth on its foundations, it can never be moved."

Solar system models:
Ptolemy, c. 150 A.D.: sun and planets orbit earth in perfect circles with epicycles
Copernicus 1473-1543: earth and planets orbit the sun in circular orbits
Tycho Brahe 1546-1601: moon and sun orbit the earth, other planets orbit the sun, circular orbits
Kepler 1571-1630: earth and planets orbit the sun in elliptical orbits
Galileo made and publicized important observations which disproved the Ptolemaic system, but which did not convincingly support the Copernican system.
Jesuit scholars in the church supported Galileo's observations, but promoted Tycho's system.
University scholars supported Aristotelian Ptolemaic system, in sharp academic battle with Galileo.
Personality and political conflicts escalated the debate on all sides.

Other methods of knowledge
Worldviews are built from various kinds of knowledge and experience, not just scientific.

Historical knowledge and evidence;
Legal knowledge (eye witnesses, forensic evidence, etc.);
Personal experience;
Social knowledge (the knowledge & experience of people you trust);
Spiritual knowledge (revealed knowledge, the voice of conscience, etc.)
The scientific method does not give much useful information in these circumstances.
We can, and often do, make strong commitments based upon these other types of knowledge,

"Nothing But-tery"
The fallacy of assuming that the scientific level of description is the only valid level of description.

Ex: A Shakespeare sonnet is nothing but letters on a page.
Ex: The brain is nothing but nerve cells and electrical signals.
Ex: Medical patient is nothing but an illness to be cured.
Ex: Human interactions are driven by nothing but the desire to survive and reproduce.
Ex: Physical laws are nothing but automatic mechanical processes.
Ex: Humans are nothing but intelligent primates on an ordinary star in one of billions of galaxies.
Simply remove the words "nothing but" from these statements, and they change in meaning significantly. With the words "nothing but", one true factor has been blown out of proportion.
The knowledge we get from historical, legal, personal, social, and spiritual sources can create valid and important parallel levels of description.

Does science take the wonder out of the natural world?
Walt Whitman wrote:

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figure, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer lecture with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick.
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

But just because there is a scientific explanation for a phenomenon doesn't mean that we can't appreciate it on an emotional, aesthetic, or spiritual level. A scientific explanation can often increase our sense of wonder.

A emotional and spiritual description of a thunderstorm:

Ascribe to the LORD, O mighty ones,
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;
worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness.

The voice of the LORD is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the LORD thunders over the mighty waters.
The voice of the LORD is powerful;
the voice of the LORD is majestic.
The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars;
the LORD breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the LORD strikes
with flashes of lightning.
The voice of the LORD shakes the desert;
the LORD shakes the Desert of Kadesh.
The voice of the LORD twists the oaks
and strips the forests bare.
And in his temple all cry, "Glory!"

The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD is enthroned as King forever.
The LORD gives strength to his people;
the LORD blesses his people with peace.
-- Psalm 29

Spiritual lesson: God is even more beautiful and powerful than his creation.
Scientific understanding of a thunderstorm doesn't diminish its beauty and power, instead it enhances our understanding of the beauty and power of its Creator.

Reason and Faith:
Religious faith is not a "leap of faith" which believes something without evidence.
Religious faith can be and should be based upon evidence.
Reason is important for shaping the content of religious faith.
Religious faith means having faith in God's character and ability. God is trustworthy.
Religious faith means acting "in good faith" towards God as we make all our life's daily decisions .
Religious faith means being faithful -- sticking with what you believe even when it seems difficult or costly.

Faith is not the opposite of Reason.
The opposite of Reason is Irrationality. The life of religious faith needs reason.
The opposite of Skepticism is Gullibility. Proper skepticism is a part of reason.
The opposite of Doubt is Certainty. Faith can live with some level of doubts.
The opposite of Faith is Unbelief. Both are deliberate choices.

The evidence for evaluating a religious worldview comes partly from science, but even more so from the other types of knowledge -- historical, personal, social, spiritual. The combination of evidences, along with the unified worldview they create, is sufficiently compelling to make a life commitment.

A Framework for Resolving Difficulties: All Truth is God's Truth
Whether the source of the truth is science or scripture, religious or secular, the truth is still from God.
Nothing true we learn by non-religious study can ultimately lead us from God. Rather, these are the gifts of God.
God revealed himself in creation, and in human history (scripture), and these must be speaking truly.
The human endeavors to understand these (science and theology, respectively) can both be in error.
"All Truth is God's Truth" reminds us that we are free to investigate issues by all types of human scholarship, and gives us hope that apparent conflicts will eventually be resolved.

Further reading on Galileo:

Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, Translated with an Introduction by Stillman Drake (Anchor Books, 1957)
The Sleepwalkers, Arthur Koestler (The Universal Library, 1963)
Drake portrays Galileo as conscientious hero in the face of church attacks.
Koestler portrays Galileo as arrogant, stubborn, and unwilling to accept a reasonable church compromise.
Both include extended excerpts from writings of Galileo and his contemporaries, so you can decide for yourself.

Further readings on historical interaction of science and Christianity:

Cross-currents: Interactions Between Science & Faith, Colin Russel (InterVarsity Press, 1985)

Questions you'd like to see addressed in coming weeks? Send us email:,

Copyright 1999 Loren and Deborah Haarsma

Return to outline of the series: "Science and Spirituality: Is Harmony Possible?", Last updated February 4, 1999