Any visit to a local big box bookstore will reveal the works – often prominently displayed – of the “New Atheists,” a small group of Anglo-American intellectuals who argue that all forms of religious sentiment are destructive and that non-belief forms the only acceptable paradigm for building a rational and productive society. Because several members of this informal group are scientists, supporters often present science as evidence to confirm, as Richard Dawkins states in The God Delusion, there is “almost certainly no God.” In his view, those who continue to hold theistic positions are guilty of promoting “a form of mental torture,” particularly when they direct their efforts toward children and youth.1
The rise of New Atheist rhetoric begs a number of important questions: in particular, one concerning the nature of the relationship between religion and science. One common metaphor for this relationship, which Dawkins’ example expresses, is the warfare metaphor. This model for understanding the relationship between religion and science places these two domains in irreconcilable conflict with one another.
Indeed, this is exactly what Dawkins is hoping to convince us to believe. If he can establish that, then any theistic or agnostic scientist who accepts evolutionary science, for example, will be driven irrevocably toward non-belief.
In promoting such a view, Dawkins draws upon a century-old position first propagated by scientist and intellectual polymath John William Draper and Cornell University founder Andrew Dickson White. Although their texts, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, respectively, were influential among historians up to the 1960s, renewed attention into the encounter between religion and science has strongly rejected their conclusions.
Draper’s work is best understood as particular to his individual and historical context, not as one offering genuine insight into the complex historical relationship between religion and science. His polemic was influenced by his own personal hostility to Catholicism, contemporary cultural issues (like the rhetoric emerging from the American Civil War), and the rise of a conservative Catholicism (first Vatican Council 1869–70).
Warfare model defeated
Instead, the weight of the historical evidence stands against the warfare model. The early church did not suppress thinking regarding nature, the medieval church did not believe the earth was flat, and Galileo was not tried and imprisoned primarily for his belief that the sun was at the centre of the universe.2
Likewise, arguments can be made for the affinity of religious faith and the rise of “science” in early modern Europe; Isaac Newton’s theology was intricately related to his attempts to understand nature’s laws; most Christian geologists accepted ancient dates for the age of the earth from the 19th century onward; and many evangelical theologians and scientists incorporated evolutionary theory into their disciplines following the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859.3
As well, there are many contemporary examples of scientists who promote concord between their faith and their academic disciplines. In North America, Francis Collins is both head of the Human Genome Project and someone who speaks openly about his adult conversion to Christian faith. Owen Gingerich, who stands within an Anabaptist tradition, had a long and distinguished career as professor of astronomy at Harvard and at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“Just as I believe that the Book of Scripture illumines the pathway to God,” Gingerich notes in God’s Universe, “I also believe that the Book of Nature, in all its astonishing detail – the blade of grass, the missing mass five, or the incredible intricacy of DNA – suggests a God of purpose and a God of design. And I think my belief makes me no less a scientist.” While we need not agree with everything Collins and Gingerich advocate, of course, both have produced popular works that reveal their stature as leading scientists and act as testimonies to their Christian faith.4
What lessons are there in all this for those who profess a Christian and Anabaptist faith perspective? First, it’s clear the conflict metaphor has been slain by the vast majority of historians who work in this field. While Dawkins – and some Christian authors5 – might advocate irreconcilable conflict between the domains of religion and science, this strategy is designed to serve a specific purpose, rather than honestly engaging the rich tradition of scholarship that lies in opposition to his views.
Second, the rise in the prominence of science in Canadian and American culture over the course of the 20th century has not been the cause of a massive turning away from faith. In 1914, James Leuba asked a thousand prominent American scientists a series of questions including whether they believed in “a God to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer.” Some 41.8 percent affirmed this query.
After nearly a century of unprecedented scientific advance (as well as pronouncements of widespread secularization), Edward Larson (a noted historian) and Larry Witham (a prominent journalist) replicated Leuba’s survey in 1996. The results were virtually identical, with almost 40 percent of scientists indicating a belief in a personal god.6
The failure to negotiate a thoughtful understanding of the interaction between science and faith has resulted in many of us embracing too quickly the common North American evangelical perception that those with faith in the rock of ages cannot trust anything that comes from those who date the age of rocks, particularly if millions and billions of years are assigned to fossil remains and the age of the earth.
While it is true – and has always been the case – that sincere believers can hold differing views on matters of science (or “natural philosophy,” as it was known before the 19th century) and its relation to faith, it is also true that the warfare metaphor has rarely been the dominant model for discerning this relationship. Instead, students of the historic encounter between science and faith have more often recognized the sympathetic relationship between these two domains.
If history has anything to teach us, we need to approach this subject matter with generous portions of humility, intellectual integrity, and respect for the scientific disciplines involved.
–Dr. Brian Gobbett is associate dean (academic) at Briercrest College & Seminary and a historian of 19th-century science. In 2001, he received an award from the John Templeton Foundation for his work in developing a course (which he continues to teach regularly) that explores the historic relationship between science and religion.
1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 323.
2. See Ronald L. Numbers, ed., Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), especially chapters 1, 3, and 8. The flat earth theory was a 19th-century creation (like the misunderstanding around Galileo).
3. On this last point, see David N. Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987).
4. See Francis S. Collins, The Language of God (New York: Free Press, 2006) and Owen Gingerich, God’s Universe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006). In making this statement, Gingerich is not supporting advocates of the current Intelligent Design movement.
5. For a prime – and deeply flawed as a work of historical scholarship – example of the warfare model from a Christian perspective, see Henry Morris, The Long War Against God: The History and Impact of the Creation/Evolution Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989).
6. Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham, “Scientists are still keeping the faith,” Nature 386 (3 April 1997): 435–36.