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A more detailed overview of
conflicts between science and religion:
Why science and religion sometimes clash:
Scientific findings and religious beliefs are normally quite
separate fields of study:
- Science deals with the study of nature, its forces, processes
and development. It is based on the analysis of evidence largely based on measurements. Scientists assume,
as a working hypothesis, that processes and events happen due to
natural causes, not through divine intervention. They rarely intrude into
matters of morality, the existence and nature of one or more deities, spirituality,
etc. However, this exclusion is in a state of flux as neuroscientists, biologists, physicists, cosmologists investigate topics like deriving moral codes, 1 how the universe started, etc., which many faith groups consider to be their "territory."
- Religion deals with matters of faith. Its main foundation is often
a revelation from a deity -- typically orally transmitted from generation
to generation, or recorded in a sacred text, or revealed
to individuals through prayer. Most religions teach the existence of one or more deities who created
the universe, and continue to play a major role in managing it --
sometimes bypassing the laws of nature to create miracles. A main function of religion is to teach moral
principles, mankind's relationship to the god(s) or goddess(es), behavior towards other humans, spiritual matters, etc.
The main battles between religion and science are in areas in which
Here, the two areas of "truth" often hold conflicting positions. Consider two examples:
- Some Christian groups teach that the universe is less than ten thousand years old, as shown by a literal interpretation of the first part of Genesis in the Bible. The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) in 2012 estimated the age of the universe to be 13.772 billion years, with an uncertainty of ± 59 million years. These two estimates differ by a ratio of one million!
- Many past religious-science conflicts have involved topics that are ultimately traced to human DNA, and which are outside of the control of each person. One example is sex. Women, whose DNA does not normally contain a "Y" chromosome have frequently been discriminated against by some religions. Men whose DNA normally does contain a "Y" chromosome have frequently been given preference. For example, the Roman Catholic Church, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do not allow women to become priests; they limit the priesthood to males.
One of the main driving forces behind the conflict between science and religion is that many people feel that their own religious denomination, sect, or faith group within their religion has the "fullness of truth."
whereas scientific findings and the teachings of other faith groups within the same or other religions are deeply flawed, and invented by error-prone humans. This attitude often fuels
religious conflict, sometimes escalating into mass
crimes against humanity and genocide. The result is that members of different
religious denominations or sects, belonging to the same or different world religions, sometimes battle each other, as well as often disagreeing with the
findings of science.
It is important to realize that Christianity alone consists of tens of thousands of different denominations, faith groups and sects. Thus, even if one faith group does have the fullness of truth, the average probability that a given person's specific Christian group is that that one is slim.
Areas of overlap and conflict:
Some examples of the areas where science and religion overlap, and make
conflicting claims, are:
Generally speaking, in these areas of overlap:
- When religious claims
are evaluated using scientific methods, they are found to be false.
scientific claims are evaluated using the methods of faith, they are found to
The result is stagnation. Neither side can easily or quickly convince the other of
their truth. Sometimes, the conflict continues over centuries before being
resolved. Some conflicts, like abortion access, may be permanently irresolvable.
How science and religion adapt to change:
Science and religion have different methods of adapting to change:
- Science generally welcomes change. Many false hypothesis are
proposed and later rejected or modified as new data becomes available.
This is the method by which science continually advances. It is ultimately
self-correcting. All scientific beliefs are subject to being falsified
if new evidence is uncovered. One example is the cause of stomach ulcers.
For decades, physicians treated patients with ulcers by using
long-term stress relief programs,
permanent dietary changes and continuing medication to reduce stomach
acid. They achieved only moderate success. Then an Australian doctor
proved that many forms of stomach ulcers were caused by a bacterium
that could be eliminated with a single shot of antibiotics. He single-handedly
triggered a revolution in patient treatment.
- Religious beliefs, particularly those based on a sacred text, change
much more slowly. In fact, many faith groups stress the unchangeable
nature of their beliefs. There are at least three methods by which
religions modify their teachings. In Christianity, for example:
- Some Biblical passages that were once considered to be literally true
are now interpreted symbolically. Heaven is no longer necessarily considered to be somewhere "up there." Hell is no longer believed to exist inside the earth. Over the past
century, Bible passages that describe torture methods
inflicted on Hell's inhabitants (worms, pain, flogging, heat, thirst,
darkness, unbearable heat and flames)
have been downplayed and often treated as symbolic. Many view Hell as simply being isolated from God.
- Some Biblical passages are ignored. We no longer execute
prostitutes. When a woman who has married for the first time is found to be a non-virgin, she is not automatically stoned to death. Women engaged in sorcery are not tried, and executed if convicted. When a husband dies, a childless widow is no longer required to have sex with his brother in order to produce a child. Sections of the Bible that condoning and regulate slavery are rarely if ever quoted. The Bible contains dozens of passages that are profoundly
immoral by today's secular and religious standards of
behavior. These verses are largely simply ignored today.
- Still other passages are interpreted as perhaps being valid for the
culture and age for which they were written, but not binding in a different
society or era. Male control over women, treating wives as property, restrictions on female
ordination, prohibiting women from certain professions, etc. have being
largely rejected as sexist, at least by mainline and liberal
Change eventually happens. Most people no longer believe that:
- The earth is flat.
- The sun revolves around the earth.
- Lightning and thunder are caused by Satan and his demons.
- Mental illness, epilepsy, etc. are caused by demonic possession.
- God expects that a certain number of children will die young; thus we should not inoculate our children against childhood diseases.
But there are still many points of major conflict between science and
religion. In each case, only one will eventually win public support. The
historical record indicates that religion wins very few of these disputes.
Stages in conflicts between science and religion:
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." 1 He 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 document a
pattern in these conflicts: they often go through eight
stages before being finally resolved:
- 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.
- A growing number of people will start to disagree with church teaching.
- Churches issue statements which condemn the proposal, citing Biblical passages as
justification for their stance.
- Support for the proposal continues to grow among the public.
- Churches issue statement pointing out that belief in the proposal negates the entire
Christian message, or attacks a fundamental Christian principle.
- Public support continues to grow.
- Churches begin to ignore the proposal, and sometimes ignore the Biblical passages that it once
quoted in opposition to the new idea.
- Many decades or centuries later, churches may incorporate the proposal into their
beliefs and teachings.
Since the advent of the modernist/fundamentalist divide in Christianity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,
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 religious conservatives.
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 denominations and by many
mainline faith groups. Some have integrated the theory of evolution into their
educational programs. Conservative Christians generally retain belief in one of the literal interpretations of the
biblical creation story in Genesis.
Of course, there are many scientific theories that never pass through these
steps. Psychological hoaxes like the recovered
memory movement, multiple 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 did not endure.
Current status of science and religious conflicts:
Many Americans hold two very different views about science and religion. According to a Pew Research Center survey:
- 59% of U.S. adults believe that science and religion are often in conflict vs. 38% who feel that they are mostly compatible. In 2009, 55% believed that they were in conflict. In particular, white evangelical Protestants and Hispanic Catholics feel that science and religion are largely compatible.
- Only 30% believe that their own religious beliefs conflict with science; 68% believe that they do not conflict. Those sensing conflict has been declining over time. they were 36% in 2009. 5
Related menus on this web site:
- A.D. White, "A history of the warfare of science with theology in
Christendom," Prometheus Books, (1896; Reprinted 1993) Read
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
- Irving Hexham & Karla Poewe, "New religions as global
cultures: Making the human sacred," Westview, (1997), Page 96. Read
reviews or order this book
- Sam Harris, "The moral landscape: How science can determine human values," Simon and Schuster, (2011). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
- Dana Nuccitelli, "Survey finds 97% of climate science papers agree warming is man-made," The Guardian, 2013-MAY-16, at: https://www.theguardian.com/
- Cary Funk and David Masci, "5 facts about the interplay between religion and science," Pew Research Center, 2015-OCT-22, at: http://www.pewresearch.org/
Copyright © 1999 to 2018 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Latest update: 2018-NOV-17
Author: B.A. Robinson