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.

Republished by permission.

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