Science and Religion

It is commonly held that the declining power and popularity of religion that we see in almost all modern industrial societies owes much to the rise of science; science and religion are competitors in a zero sum game, with the former being vastly more persuasive.

As US sociologist Robert Merton pointed out, many of the pioneering natural scientists in the seventeenth century (e.g., Robert Boyle) were pious men who saw their work as demonstrating the glory of God’s creation. Yet science has challenged what were once taken for granted elements of theistic belief systems (such as the idea that the earth was the center of creation and that God created the variety of life forms). In 1633 the Catholic Church tried, condemned, and imprisoned Galileo for continuing to promote the Copernican view that the earth moved around the sun after he had been instructed to desist. In the nineteenth century, leaders of the Church of England tried to refute the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and his followers. In the contemporary United States, conservative Protestants try to use the courts to force schools to give equal time to ”creation science” as an alternative to naturalistic evolution.

This zero sum game view of the relationship between science and religion is largely misleading as an explanation of change. That many highly educated people whose standard of living depends very directly on natural science can continue to hold traditional supernaturalistic beliefs shows us that there are a number of ways in which the disconfirming effect of science can be deflected. One successful way of responding is to rewrite theistic religious beliefs so that they accommodate new knowledge. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the mainstream Christian churches reconstructed their belief systems: heaven and hell were changed from being external realities to being psychological states. Heaven became a sense of contentment; hell became alienation, loneliness, and so on. Miracles were explained away. For example, events described in the Bible as miraculous (such as Noah’s flood or the parting of the Red Sea) were taken to be misunderstandings of natural phenomena. Faith healing was explained not as divine intervention but as the workings of a placebo effect. By such trimming an omnipotent deity was preserved, not as an alternative to the causes of phenomena discovered by scientific explanation but as the author of the complex processes which natural science was discovering.

An alternative to rewriting the faith is to turn science against itself. Those who wish to continue to believe in divine creation, for example, can cite the Popperian view of the logic of scientific discovery to the effect that the findings of science are only ever hypothetical. In natural science properly understood, nothing is ever firmly proved to be the case. The cautious claim that our current state of knowledge is only the best we have at this point in time is, judo like, used to throw any scientific proposition that threatens religion.

More generally, the idea that scientific discoveries undermined  religion  requires that believers were aware of the conflict and of the weight of evidence behind the problematic findings. That may not often have been the case. Even in those societies with extensive compulsory schooling, very many people have little or no understanding of physics, chemistry, or medical science. For example, very many consumers of alternative medical therapies are unaware that they are implicitly subscribing to models of causation for which the best science offers no empirical support. It is difficult to see how homeopathy, with its central idea that a chemical agent can be so watered down that no trace of it can be detected and yet retain the ability to stimulate in the body a curative response, can be sustained within conventional notions of causation. Yet some trained medical scientists use homeopathy and many patients seem satisfied that such cures are legitimately “scientific.”

What this suggests is that while the battle between specific findings of natural scientific and religious ideas engaged the experts on each side, it probably played little part in the long term decline of religion. Too many people are simply unaware of the ideological clashes or were insulated by the sorts of rhetorical strategies listed above. To explain secularization, we must identify the social changes associated with industrialization that weakened the ability of ideological communities to reproduce themselves; the rise of individual freedom and the increase in social and cultural diversity are much more powerful agents of change than any particular naturalistic idea.

But science does threaten religion in two rather subtle ways: it alters our images of the world and our images of ourselves. Religions assume that there is a supernatural realm: a world beyond the material. Although most modern scientists are careful not to stray beyond their competence and hence do not directly challenge such beliefs, the general assumption of the scientific community (and of the wider culture informed by it) is that the material world is to be understood in its own terms and that those terms are wide enough to encompass most of what interests us. For example, natural disasters are just that; they are not divine interventions. Personality defects are the result of biological or psychological, rather than spiritual, problems.

Science has also given us unprecedented technological power, which has two sorts of effects on religion. Firstly, the occasions for resort to religion have been much reduced. In pre industrial societies, appeal to God or the gods often provided the only response to uncertainty and risk. Without accurate weather forecasting and self righting boats, the best a fishing community could do to ensure the safe return of its crews was to pray and to placate a possibly wrathful God. When effective solutions to problems are devised, it is possible to continue in the old ways – to suppose that the chemical that will kill worms in sheep only works if we pray before we administer the dose – but it soon becomes apparent that the worm dose works as well for the ungodly as for the godly. In 1349, when the Black Death ravaged England, the national church instituted weeks of special prayers and fasting. When AIDS (at first dubbed the ”gay plague”) appeared in Britain in the early 1980s, the Church of England’s response was to call for the government to invest more money in scientific research. And the second response was more successful than the first: systematic research provided first the explanation for AIDS, and then the technology that allowed HIV positive people to live relatively normal lives. The rise of effective technologies reduces God from being omnipotent to being the much lesser ”God of the gaps.” Gradually, the number and range of occasions on which people resort to religious activities to solve problems are reduced and the authority of the churches is correspondingly reduced. Religious authorities can no longer claim to validate all knowledge and are left with the much reduced role of safeguarding religious doctrine and trying to maintain control over sociomoral issues.

Technology has also produced a fundamental change in human self images. It is characteristic of most religions that they present humankind as tiny and powerless in the face of divine providence. Like the tormented Job of the Old Testament, people are expected to put up with whatever God or the gods inflict on them and hope that their obedience will eventually be rewarded, in some future life if not in this one. Although there is an obvious dark side to technology, it has made us considerably more powerful than we have ever been before. Instead of having to work within the natural world, we can hope to dominate it. A people that can extract oil from the depths of the North Sea and use it to vastly increase the comfort and lengths of our lives is a people of power and significance. Right or wrong, and for good or ill, we differ from our ancestors of the pre industrial world in being able to imagine ourselves masters of our fate.


  1. Bruce, S. (2004) God is Dead: Secularization in the West. Blackwell, Oxford.
  2. Carlson, R. F. (2000) Science and Christianity: Four Views. InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.
  3. Cox, H. (1968) The Christian in a World of Technology. In: Barbour, I. G. (Ed.), Science and Religion: New Perspectives on the Dialogue. SCM Press, London, pp. 21-80.
  4. Merton, R. K. (1970) Science, Technology, and Society in the 17th Century. Fettig, New York.
  5. Polkinghorne, J. (2003) Belief in God in an Age of Science. Yale University Press, New Haven.

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