On Science, Faith, and the Myth of Conflict

Responding to: The Complementarity of Science and Religion

By: Patrick Mulcahey

May 30, 2018

When discussing the relationship between science and faith, I think that it is useful to distinguish, à la Anselm of Canterbury, between their relationship in intellectu and their relationship in re. Their relationship in intellectu refers to the intellectual questions surrounding the metaphysical groundings and epistemic methods of science and faith, and their relationship in re refers to the relationships among religious and scientific institutions and individuals. The aim of this short piece is to describe distinct challenges in each relationship and in so doing to convince those concerned with advancing the common good that such challenges are worth comprehension.

Inasmuch as the intellectual relationship between science and faith requires philosophical competency, it requires historical literacy. It would be wrong to claim that the study of nature and of God never coexisted par excellence—one need only to look to medieval Christian scholastics like Roger Bacon or to polymaths of the Islamic Golden Age like Ibn Sina. The historical data seem to suggest that intellectual harmony between science and faith can exist. 

Why, then, do so many prominent modern scientists from Dawkins to Hawking claim that such harmony is impossible? The answer, I think, lies in the philosophical groundwork of modern science. Empirical science, as part of its presumptions about the world, assumes a certain metaphysic, a system of understanding what is, called materialism. Materialism, in short, is the belief that all that exists is a result of matter and material interactions. Accordingly, answering questions like whether empirical evidence proves the existence of the immaterial (i.e. God)—typically in the negative—is not honest intellectual work. It is glorified question begging. 

My intuition is that empirical science will never be able to disprove the metaphysical claims of any religion simply because science presumes the metaphysics of materialism. Even if the conclusions of natural science are correct, they cannot prove the base metaphysical assumptions used to come to them. Modern science not only lacks the tools to verify claims about God and the soul but also to verify the claims of ethics, aesthetics, and logic. As such, I answer with a resounding yes—science and religious faith can honestly exist in intellectual harmony. The narrative of conflict is a myth. Of course, esoteric debates over which metaphysical claims are coherent continue in the hands of philosophers, but we move forward to the embodied relationship between science and faith.

This discussion of the in re relationship of science and religion will use the exemplar of the relationship between evolution and creationism. Since Darwin, evolution has long bothered certain groups of American Christians. As such, the reaction of such groups has been to further promulgate the faulty Enlightenment-era narrative of intellectual conflict between science and religion and to wage war against evolutionary theory, from the passage of legislation like the 1925 Butler Act in Tennessee banning the teaching of evolution in public schools to the campaign “Teach the Controversy” that promoted intelligent design. This unfortunate saga draws out two major problems central to the science-religion conflict myth.

The first problem is that the myth of conflict threatens the integrity of scientific education and literacy. Of course, this is true historically in the case of evolution, but these ingrained religious attitudes against scientific education have unfortunate consequences for discussions about healthcare, military technology, and climate change. We need only to note the stark contrast between the fatalistic attitudes and eschatological rhetoric of many evangelicals towards climate change science and the fiercely engaged attitudes of the “green pope” Benedict XVI and Francis’s Laudato Si—at once radically sacramental and profoundly undogmatic.

The second problem is that the myth of conflict threatens religious liberty. In short, religious attacks on evolution confuse evolution qua scientific theory and evolution qua anthropology of the human person. The conflation of the two views of evolution ultimately promulgates the conflict myth. This, in turn, threatens to delegitimize and disenfranchise religiously-framed arguments about a range of issues from economic justice to abortion and capital punishment in the public forum.

As citizens in this global age faced with the complexities of this broad-reaching debate, we must endeavor to be stewards of ideas—to understand what we believe and why we believe it—both in the cases of science and of religion. Moreover, let us not be fooled by this myth of conflict—it is simply too dangerous to the integrity of science, religion, and society. As Pope John Paul II wrote, “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”

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On Science, Faith, and the Myth of Conflict