Tag Archives: Science and Religion

Science, Religion, and a Messy, Messy Universe

Galileo before the Holy Office: a 19th century painting by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury
Galileo before the Holy Office: a 19th century painting by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury

It is an almost unspoken truth in the West that there is a necessary conflict between science and religion. Western religion (historically, Christianity) says that the nature of the universe can be understood by, in an anthropological sense, listening to our elders.

Western science, on the other hand, says that we can understand the universe through observation. How could these two views not be in conflict? These are two very different approaches to what “truth” is.

By extension, they end up also being very different windows into the natures of people, the universe, and knowledge itself. But a question we need to ask ourselves is: “is there only one way to understand something?” An underlying assumption of both systems of thought is that there is one, and only one, “best” way of knowing.

The Rise of Science

It has been argued that Science has been growing in the West since the fall of Constantinople in 1453. It has, in some respects, replaced the authority of the Church in Western culture. Belief in the power of science has become (perhaps ironically) a status marker.

We’re all very familiar with the observational part of science — the root of experimentation. But the second part of science, which we often either take for granted or ignore completely, is the collaborative part of it.

Science, as a way of building knowledge, depends on both observation and collaboration. Sometimes we talk about science as if the observational part were the whole of it. “Scientists have discovered” say the headlines, as if science were wholly a journey of discovery, and not discovery followed by careful collaborative work.

Scientific research, then, implicitly argues that “we can all agree…” on whatever the evidence shows. This aspect of science allows for the testing of theories across different times and places.

After all, if my scientific observations and yours don’t match, it’s clear that we’re going to have to further develop theories so that all of the data can be explained. Science doesn’t depend on the work of lone experimenters slaving away in laboratories, but on their coming together to agree.

Western Science, Western Religion

Back when Science was getting started (going back to 1453), there certainly was a need to cast off the “old ways” of knowing , especially in the domains of knowledge where science was beginning to assert itself and the Church (the big authority on Truth at the time) was saying “nuh-uh.”

Christianity, after vanquishing the pagan ways of knowledge of the Roman empire, had spent more than a millennium enjoying its day in the sun in Europe. It wasn’t until the rise of science that it it experienced any serious challenges to its way of seeing the universe.

This “struggle” between science and religion is ongoing. Sometimes this conflict between scientific and religious followers simply comes down to different assumptions about the nature of the universe. Scientists as a group generally argue that the universe is understandable through observation, measurement, and collaboration (with other scientists). The proponents of religion (in a very Western sense of the word) have a very different view of truth and authority.

The two “opposing” systems still duke it out from time to time, but the official decisions of the government and the upper strata of society are much more in line with scientific knowledge. The easiest way to be certain of this is to “follow the money” and determine whether, in a market sense, scientists or theologians get paid more.

But It’s a Messy, Messy Universe

The argument between science and religion is a little like the conflict between Coke and Pepsi. Both contain an underlying assumption that they want us to swallow. In the knowledge wars, like the cola wars, the assumption is that we should be drinking either exclusively!

The Mythology of Science

Athena Pallas by Luca van Leyden
Athena the Goddess of Wisdom.
If Justice is blind, then Wisdom is heavily armed.

Science, as an intellectual development and a way of seeing the world in its own right, arose in the time of Robert Hooke (CE 1635 – 1703) and Isaac Newton (CE 1642 – 1727) as a new way of defining truth. The West was coming off more than a millennium where truth had been defined by a narrow hierarchy of authority that had limited research through its own brand of conservatism.

Sometimes we think of science rising up and “conquering” the ignorance of backward times. More accurately, it was a “divorce” of the scientific and academic community from the spiritual power structure, the Church.

One only has to look at the history of medicine and the impact of Galen (CE 129 – 216) to see how much science just had to rebel against. For instance, the work on the circulatory system published by Galen in the 2nd century CE stood until the 16th and 17th centuries. Medicine, up until the advent of science, had been tied heavily with spiritual matters. And as the masters of all religion-related matters, the Church could outweigh any evidence offered.

Next, on Ecumenical Divorce Court…

Science left the Church in a messy and bitter divorce that still reverberates today. After all, that’s what the “debate” around Intelligent Design is really about — how to we define “Truth” as a culture?

So why did Science and the Church split? This drastic, and politically touchy, maneuver was a necessary response to the politicization of religious authority — a politicization that goes at least as far back as the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.

For much of that time, at least in the West, the Church had a lock on the Truth. Religious truth, yes. But also academic truth and political truth as well.

The divorce of science and religion was a necessary step in the growth of science and Western Culture as a whole. The Western Church had gotten itself mired in any number of matters. Its unquestioned authority on religious and spiritual matters, when combined with a dash of Neoplatonic theory (the spirit is the source of the physical, God is greater than the world, etc.), allowed justification of one of the greatest power grabs ever.


To be fair, the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire had left something of a power vacuum. It was actually reasonable for an educated, organized elite — the Catholic priesthood — to step in and put some order among the warlords. The Church, one could argue, saved Western civilization.

In the long run, the Church had ended up with “too much” authority outside of its own bailiwick — 1,300 years of institutional empire-building will do that. The growing academic system of the West eventually started straining at its leash. By Copernicus’s time (1472 – 1543) things were getting testy, and by Newton’s, science was ready to spring forth — like Athena from the head of Zeus.