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Do Christianity and Science Oppose Each Other?: Part 1

American conservative Christianity, especially conservative evangelical theology influenced by fundamentalism, still struggles with science.

And, of course, many scientists struggle with religion – except that which is completely privatized and makes no truth claims about reality outside the self.

Cornell University’s late, former president Andrew White’s “warfare of science with theology in Christendom” goes on – especially in the “trenches,” so to speak.

By “the trenches,” I mean the pulpits and pews of local congregations and hearts and minds of individual evangelical Christians.

In addition, I mean in many Christian schools and home schooling contexts. It even goes on in many evangelical Christian colleges and universities although usually at a higher level of reflection.

Many people are convinced that modern science is Christianity’s enemy; many modern scientifically informed and minded people are convinced Christianity is science’s enemy.

The flashpoint of controversy is often “evolution” without any clear description of that concept on either side.

Mention “creation” in many contexts, religious and secular scientific, and many people immediately jump to “evolution versus creation” – as if the whole point of the biblical and Christian doctrine of creation were to oppose evolution.

And conservative evangelical Christians often wrongly equate belief in an ancient creation, as opposed to “young earth creationism,” with belief in secular, naturalistic evolution. Mention of “theistic evolution” provokes suspicious stares.

Popularizers of modern science bear much of the responsibility for the tense situation that exists and strenuous opposition to science itself because they often smuggle naturalism into their explications of modern science.

Here’s one example. Every semester I teach a course on modern Christian theology and begin with the Enlightenment and scientific revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries.

I show the tail end (last chapter) of a documentary called “Infinitely Reasonable: Science Revises the Heavens.” It’s part of a 10-part series with the overarching title “The Day the Universe Changed.”

The host, narrator and author of the book the series is based on is British journalist James Burke.

Much of the episode deals with “the Galileo affair” between Galileo’s proof of Copernicus’ belief in a sun-centered solar system and the Catholic Church’s traditional belief in an earth-centered system of sun and planets.

Then Burke talks about post-Galileo scientific discoveries about nature ending with Isaac Newton.

He never mentions, of course, that Newton was a strong believer in God who was obsessed with discovering the date of the return of Christ.

At the very end of the episode, Burke is standing in the library of Empress Maria Teresa’s palace in Vienna talking about Roger Boscovitch and how he brought about the pope’s lifting of the ban on Copernicus’ book about the solar system.

Just before that he was on a roller coaster and another carnival ride talking about Newton’s laws of nature – especially gravity – and how their discovery made possible the exact prediction of the late return of Halley’s Comet.

Burke stands at a window looking out over the city of Vienna and says (paraphrasing) that all this modern science stuff leading up to the conclusion that the universe is a clock-like machine that works by mathematics is wonderful if you have the “confidence” to realize that what it means – that man is alone in the universe, that there is nobody “out there” who cares.

Of course, I lead the students in a discussion of what a non sequitur that is. Newton, I tell them, thought that physics was “thinking God’s thoughts after him.”

Hardly anyone in Newton’s time would have drawn the conclusion that Newton’s discoveries of natural laws like gravity require atheism.

Many Christians actually used his discoveries as part of a project of natural religion to form a basis for Christian apologetics – arguing (like contemporary believers in “intelligent design”) that the scientific revolution supported belief in God.

What I wonder, though, is how many school children and young people viewing that film in a secular education setting, without guidance from a Christian professor, realize how idiotic Burke’s conclusion is – based on what went before it in the film?

The film illustrates a very common problem contributing to the tension between conservative (traditional) Christianity and modern science – popularizers of modern science smuggling naturalism and even atheism into modern science as its logical concomitant.

I could mention more examples, such as documentary series “The Cosmos,” which was re-released (with some updating) recently.

It begins with popularizer (a scientist in his own right) Carl Sagan saying, “The cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be.”

Talk about a presupposition that science itself cannot prove. And yet, how many school students have been swayed by such popularizations of science that smuggle naturalism into it?

On the other side, of course, are the many anti-modern science books, films, podcast lectures and so on produced by conservative Christians.

These publications bash modern science using flimsy evidence and arguments to attempt to prove that the Bible teaches and “real science” supports that the earth was created in six days of 24 hours each about 10,000 years ago.

I have yet to meet a deeply committed Christian scientist with strong credentials in scientific research (biology, geology, anthropology and so on) who agrees with that.

Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Against Calvinism” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a longer version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.