The Warfare Myth: Is Christianity at War with Science?

By Sean McDowell Published on November 26, 2017

The claim that Christianity is at war with science is one of the most common claims I hear from young people today. In fact, the belief that Christianity is opposed to modern science is one of the top reasons young people cite for leaving the church. That’s why in the updated Evidence that Demands a Verdict, my father and I respond to this charge first. Only then do we advance the historical evidence for Christianity.

But where did this idea come from? Is it accurate? In 1896 Cornell University president Andrew Dickson White released a book titled A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. White is largely credited with inventing and passing along the idea that science and Christianity are opponents in the search for truth. White cast Christians as fanatics who clung to scriptural claims that the earth was flat. But is this account true? Sociologist Rodney Stark responds (p. 123 here)

White’s book remains influential despite the fact that modern historians of science dismiss it as nothing but a polemic — White himself admitted that he wrote the book to get even with Christian critics of his plans for Cornell. … many of White’s other accounts are as bogus as his report of the flat earth and Columbus.

The Warfare Myth

Why has this warfare myth had so much influence? The truth is that the supposed warfare between religion and science is a polemical device used in the secular attack on faith. In reality, Christian belief was essential for the rise of modern science.

How so? In their book The Soul of Science, Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton show that Christian beliefs provided the backdrop out of which the scientific revolution emerged in Europe. For example, there was the idea that nature is lawful (since it was the creation of a rational God) and that it’s good use science to reduce toil and suffering.

Most scientific pioneers were theists. 

Most scientific pioneers were theists as well, including prominent figures such as Copernicus (1473–1543), Boyle (1627–1691), Newton (1642–1727), Pascal (1623–1662), Kepler (1571–1630), Pasteur (1822–1895), Bacon (1561–1626), and Max Planck (1858–1947). Many of these pioneers intently pursued science because of their belief in the Christian God.

The Real Conflict

So the theistic worldview fosters the growth of science. Ironically, though, naturalistic (atheistic) evolution undermines it. According to naturalism we humans are the product of a blind, purposeless, and unguided process of evolution. How then can we trust our rational faculties to produce true beliefs?

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In his book Where the Conflict Really Lies, Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga explains that what naturalistic evolution guarantees is that we act “in such ways as to promote survival, or more exactly reproductive success.” He goes on,

The principal function or purpose, then, of our cognitive faculties is not that of producing true … or nearly true beliefs, but instead that of contributing to survival by getting the body parts in the right place. What evolution underwrites is only (at most) that our behavior is reasonably adaptive to the circumstances in which our ancestors found themselves; hence it does not guarantee mostly true … beliefs. Our beliefs might be mostly true … but there is no particular reason to think they would be: natural selection is interested, not in truth, but in appropriate behavior. (314–315)

Certainly, some Christians resist science. We can’t deny that. And, as Plantinga observes, some Christians hold beliefs that are in tension with modern science. But this is only shallow conflict. No real conflict between theism and science exists. The real conflict—the deep conflict—is between science and naturalism.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, part-time high school teacher and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.

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  • GPS Daddy

    With Darwinian evolution “appropriate behavior” is the behavior that guarantees survival. So the Indian government that allows child labor in the granite mines in Karnataka is as it should be. There is no conflict with this worldview. The Indian government is guaranteeing its survival on the backs of those kids.

    If these kids breaks the cycle there then they were more fit and thats also consistent with Darwinian evolution. But if they do not then those kids were not more fit and Darwinian evolution has again spoken.

    Bottom line: our world is EXACTLY as it should be from a Darwinian evolution point of view.

  • John Doane

    Speculations about evolution in the past are falsely called science, since the supposed events are not observable or repeatable. Hence the conflict about origins is not about science vs religion. What we are in is a spiritual conflict, according to Ephesians 6. In the context of discussions about origins, therefore, it’s no surprise that the conflict is a religious one. Namely, a kind of pantheism vs Biblical Christianity. This pantheism presupposes that: 1) there is no supernatural Creator outside of nature; and 2) one can find meaning in aligning with the principle behind nature, which is perceived to be evolutionary progress. Naturalism is simply an expression of this pantheistic religion.

  • Trilemma

    Christianity is at war with science when it comes to homosexuality and transgenderism. Young Earth Creationists are definitely at war with science. They believe the Earth was created as a huge ball of water and that God used this water to form all the stars and galaxies as He stretched the water across the universe.

    • Micha_Elyi

      “Young Earth Creationists are definitely at war with science.”–Trilemma

      Let’s suppose that this claim of yours is true. Yet so what? “Young Earth Creationists” may be Christian but they are not Christianity. Try again.

      “Christianity is at war with science when it comes to homosexuality and transgenderism.”

      I disagree. To claim that homosexual sexual orientation is always a fixed behavior but transgenderism proves that gender is fluid isn’t “science” it’s contradictory! The Catholic Christian churchmen who invented what your call “science” held as one of their principles that truth cannot contradict truth. Try again.

      • Trilemma

        Christianity is its people. If some of its people are at war with science then that part of Christianity is at war with science.

        Homosexuality and transgenderism are two different things so the science of one doesn’t necessarily apply to the other.

  • Reason0verhate

    Atheists live in a nation full of Christians, yet they have no clue how real Christians actually think or behave. “Christians are anti-science” is one of their dogmas, and it has no grounding in reality.

    Wheaton College, considered the best evangelical college in America, with a highly regarded pre-med program, exhibits in its science hall a mastodon skeleton. The plaque at the exhibit reads: “This restored specimen, found nearby in Glen Ellyn in 1963, was one of many such animals which roamed over most of North America about 11,000 years ago.” Obviously the Wheaton science division does not believe that the world was created in 4004 BC. The excavation of the mastodon’s skeleton was a joint project of Wheaton College and Chicago’s Field Museum. That’s right – one of the premier science museums in the world, the Field Museum, collaborated with the best-known evangelical college in America, Wheaton.

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