The False War: Rethinking the History of Conflict Between Christianity and Science

By Derrick Peterson

On the cusp of the end of the first millennia A.D., a figure in monkish robe sat ornamented by firelight as he hunched over a writing desk with quill and parchment.  Not two years before, the line of Charlemagne had failed.  In just nine months a new millennium would commence, and rumors of the End Times “filled almost the entire world.”  Here every mist threatened to bring with it the dreaded beasts of Revelation, and every moan of wind may well have been the brass section of the Heavens warming up.  

And yet, the notations this monk—an Archbishop, more precisely—was scribbling in the chiaroscuro of the room were not apocalyptic musings, nor esoterica theorizing upon the unutterable things St. Paul refused to speak of in his journey to the Third Heaven.  “On the eve of the Apocalypse,” writes Nancy Marie Brown, “the archbishop of Ravenna and his friend [were in a letter] discussing the best method for finding the area of a triangle.”[1]  This archbishop was Gerbert of Aurillac, soon to be known as Pope Sylvester II, and to write his history, says Brown “is to rewrite the history of the Middle Ages.”[2] 

To be more precise, for our purposes it is one example along a path to rewriting a history that expounds Gerbert’s ages as “dark,” “backward,” “scientifically illiterate,” or, worse, an epoch where the church was “actively hostile to science.”  While the legend of the “Dark Ages” has been increasingly exposed as little more than an invention of 18th century anti-Catholic historiography, the myth itself persists, and often as the more general trope of a perennial conflict between science and Christianity.  As John Hedley Brooke argues in his wonderful book Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, the problem with this metaphor of warfare organizing our understanding of history is not only the little hiccup that it is, in fact, a false interpretation.  More troubling—and indeed more pervasive and difficult to trace—anachronistic notions of science and theology are being smuggled into historical analysis in ways that seem to retroactively skew the data at hand.  It behooves us to ask, then: whose science? Which theology?

In asking these questions, Brooke is taking a historiographical tact to analyze the historical emergenceand invention of discrete category lines of religion and science, and in this way begins to do for the history of science and religion what many others have done to deconstruct the history of the emergence of the categories “religion” as opposed to “secular.”[3] “Conflicts allegedly between science and religion,” Brooke notes pointedly in the introduction, “[often] turn out to be between rival scientific interests, or conversely between rival theological factions.” Even deeper, the very definition of the borderlands between the two are not historically invariable but at times quite promiscuous; just so “it would be artificial to ask about the relationship between ‘science’ and ‘religion’ as if modern definitions of their provenance had some timeless validity” (Brooke, 11).  

Indeed, in the past “religious beliefs may have served as a presupposition of the scientific enterprise” (26).  To return to our friend Gerbert, where the panicked rumors of apocalypse did nothing to squelch his mathematical curiosity, two-hundred years later Roger Bacon proposed that one of the benefits to the study of mathematics and astronomy was that “one could be forewarned of the exact time of [the Antichrist’s] coming” (79).  Not an exhortation one would find in todays textbooks, of course.  Yet historically speaking even in apocalyptic—that most rarefied of religious arenas—the flora and fauna of science in different ways found space and nutrient to flourish and bloom.  Thus of science and religion, a stranger tale than warfare must be told; a more complex one.  This is the work Brooke sets for himself.

Regarding the Scientific Revolution, for example, it is often taught that this resulted in (and was in part caused by) the separation of science from religion.  The picture of such a separation is attractive, he says, because “it conforms to our modern secular perception of what ought to have happened” (72). Nested within this idea of separation, however, is the idea that prior to the revolution science and theology were closely wedded with one another, but then divorced.  “But how closely do these inferences match the reality?” he asks.  Not very, would be the answer expected at this point.  

It is not that science and theology were always the best of chums during the Scientific Revolution, but to speak in simple terms of harmony or divorce is to assume the stability of both science and theology as domains across this interval of time to such an extent that one can schematically enumerate their relations without commenting on how the very boundaries between the two—and not just their extrinsic relations—were often in flux.  The fact is that they reciprocally modified one another, so that in certain areas in the 17th century, for example, it is even possible “that the scientific revolution saw an unprecedented fusion of science with theology,” and that this was so did not leave either completely untouched but “[resulted] in a more secular form of piety” (71).

Not that the separation thesis is wholly implausible: “if we are looking for a separation of science from religion in the seventeenth century, we shall surely find it” (75).  The problem is rather when a series of anecdotal, or even broader social trends are abstracted from their particular contexts and begin to do the work of a general trans-historical hypothesis: “The difficulty is … however strong in outline [the separation thesis is], the characterization turns out to be weak in detail.”  On the one hand, we must as always pay attention to how the terms “science” and “religion” are being utilized.  We cannot, for example, automatically assume 17th century statements regarding the desirability of the separation of science and religion plays in a straightforward manner into current secularization theories of scientific advance, precisely because the domain of these terms is fluid across time:

[These statements regarding the desirability of the separation of science and religion] have to be read against a background in which the excesses of an enchanted universe were straining credulity.  When Francis Bacon, [Robert] Boyle, and others warned against the mixing of science and religion, they were, in part, reacting against the worst excesses of Renaissance magic.  Thus the Paracelsians, who boasted that their account of creation as a process of chemical separation was the only legitimate interpretation of Genesis, incurred Bacon’s displeasure not only for their hijacking of the Bible, but also for their implication that knowledge of nature was in need of Biblical support.  Similarly, for Boyle, there was a sense in which matter had to be divested of spirits and other inherent powers in order to be seen in proper spiritual light [emphasis added]. … Because the forms of bodies [for example] depended entirely on the will of God, it was impious, as well as impossible, to construct a science of nature based on preconceived opinion. This association of empiricism with piety underlines the difficulty facing theses that affirm a separation of science from religion in the seventeenth century. (93-95).

Claims of the separation of religion and science in the 17th century not only fit uncomfortably with what we would mean by such phrases today, in addition (and as we already saw in part) “even some of the century’s most notable achievements were presented in theological terms.”  Descartes justified his principle of linear inertia, for example, by deducing it from God’s immutability; Leibniz conceived of a seamless continuum of causality in nature both on the basis of God’s perfection and omnipotence; an infinite universe and decentralized earth were already championed by Nicholas of Cusa based on the fact that as omnipresent, God was equidistant from all points in the universe which conversely could thus have no center in relation to God; Francis Bacon revered science as a method to regain the dominion over nature Adam lost; J.B. Van Helmont advocated for empiricism in medicine and attacked the dominance of formal logic because of God’s absolute power—no one could simply deduce how God must have made things, for he could have made them any way He liked, thank you very much—thus we must discover through investigation what exactly He chose.  

This is why Galileo insisted that the “book of nature … had been written in the language of mathematics.  No amount of theologizing could be a substitute for mathematical analysis” (104).   And although the term itself has lost its theological edge for us, when natural philosophers (what we would today call “scientists”) spoke of “natural law,” they “were not glibly choosing the metaphor” (26).  Laws were expected to be in place even prior to their discovery because of theological theory: “Laws were the result of a legislation by an intelligent Deity.”  That the scientific endeavor thought it could proceed at all, that the human mind could fathom nature and express it mathematically, found its basis in the assumption that creation expressed God’s mind, and that God’s mind found a mirror in human ratiocination (29).

How then, did such a pervasive feeling of conflict arise if the historical records themselves show a much more variegated story?  There are innumerable reasons, but for our purposes we shall focus on a particularly theological one:

Their [Andrew Dixon White and John William Draper’s] preconception that, as science has advanced, phenomena once considered supernatural have yielded to naturalistic explanation, is not without support.  But it assumes a dichotomy between nature and supernature that oversimplifies the theologies of the past.  If a supernatural power was envisaged as workingthrough, as distinct from interfering with, nature, the antithesis [between science and theology] would partially collapse. … The significance given to explanations in terms of natural causes depends on higher-level assumptions embedded in a broader cultural framework.  In the history of Western culture, it has not simply been a case of nature swallowing supernature.  Something had to happen to change the higher-level assumptions if the conflict between science and religion was to achieve the self-evident status proclaimed by Draper, White, and their successors (47-48).

And so the clue: a transformation in the concepts of God’s interaction with nature occurred that can be indexed by modifications to the concepts of nature, supernature, God, world, humanity (etc. …).  This is a transition that we might summarize by David Bentley Hart’s pithy phrasing: “Ontology had been displaced by cosmology, and cosmology had been reduced to a matter of mechanics.”[4] Here the curious factor that goes unremarked in most histories is that the movement toward a relative scientific autonomy from theology was no self-conscious secular assertion, but emerged largely as a debate internal to theology itself.  On the one hand there had been in the tradition a sort of hierarchical “stratification” between theological and physical-kinetic levels of explanation. This distinction between a properly theological (or metaphysical) and physical explanation, began to collapse, however, as Divine attributes and activities were given “physical meaning” (99).  

Such “transformations of metaphysical axioms into prescriptions for the natural world were extremely common in early modern science.”  Perhaps the most bizarre instance of this was Kepler’s transformation of the meaning of the Trinity as relating to a threefold spherical layout of the cosmos (124).  We might also mention the strangely material and historical form of the Trinity that Thomas Hobbes gave the doctrine, where the Trinity is meaningful only as an essentially unknowable God is “Personated” (that is, represented) in turn by Moses, Christ, and the Apostles.[5]

Whatever idiosyncrasy lay in these two positions, they represent on the whole a much larger trend of transition from metaphysics to physics; the fact of the matter is that this transition into mechanism was not automatically a secularization in the sense of a diminution of religion.  Rather, it occurred withinthe field of belief, and mechanism could (initially at least) serve the arguments of piety quite well. Robert Boyle, for example, saw evidence for the activity of God precisely through a mechanistic “lens” to read reality; for as long as the assumption that motion was in no way necessary to the essence of matter (“for “matter is no less matter, when it rests, than when it is in motion”) then the mechanical philosophy was evidence for God’s direct intervention and injection of energy and motion into creation to sustain and order “so curious an engine” appropriately (180f). 

Nor indeed—again initially—was the mechanistic philosophy quite so readily a “de-spiritualization” of nature.  Given the newly revived and updated atomistic or corpuscular theory of matter—that matter is in fact made up of incredibly small fundamental “units” that served as building blocks for macroscale complexity—led many to find it incredulous that the sheer number of these little building blocks could self-organize and perpetuate ordered structure by mere chance.  The most famous example of this would be William Paley’s design arguments, though Paley for all his brilliance was by no means unique, inheriting a specific tradition of natural theology focused on design precisely because the prevalence of mechanism laid inordinate stress on so-called physico-theology.  

For others, a spiritual principle (or many) including but not limited to the will of God was thought be in play to impose rational order on matter.  Here too, though, physical meaning was accorded to the spiritual in a way reminiscent to Tertullian’s Stoic idea that all spirit is extremely fine matter: “the question of which processes should be placed in the supramechanical [i.e. spiritual-pneumatic] category produced a range of competing answers, with experimental programs in both pneumatics and chemistry designed to capture and reproduce the agency of subtle spirits” (182).

Of the many outcomes of this “physicalization” of metaphysical theology, two mutually reinforcing tendencies are important for our purposes of understanding why nature began to be seen as a competing and eventually victorious explanation to supernature.  The first is that “natural theology [of the physical sort we briefly described] was not so much destroyed by science as eased out of scientific culture by a growing irrelevance” (298).  We have to be careful what is meant here.  It is not that somehow science “disproved” God’s activity (though many of its cruder physical theorizations were rightly discredited). It is rather that the questions that arose due to assuming design in nature “simply became too blunt an instrument to yield precise information at the rock face of research.”  

This growing sense of irrelevance came both from within theology and from without.  From within, many sensed a sort of inanity at the lengths many would go to try and correlate every feature of the universe to some purposeful end. Alfred Russell Wallace “grew impatient” for example, when some praised the soft-scar on a coconut as a wise contrivance of design, which allowed the embryonic shoot to emerge instead of being trapped within.  Far from equating a denial of design with a denial of God, here Wallace thought the extremity of the design argument insulted God—“it was like praising an architect for remembering to put a door in his house” (299).         

More seriously, specific assumptions that went into design arguments seemed to forestall the investigative process by disallowing certain questions to be asked—such as the famous example of “Darwin’s finches” and the general populations of the Galapagos archipelago.  Each island had distinctive species that closely resembled those on the other islands and mainland South America—but not elsewhere.  Why?  This seemed “too tantalizing a puzzle to be solved by invoking the will of God” (300).  

But again let us be specific with what is meant: design of a metaphysical sort is not ruled out here, for it is not even in the purview of the discussion; for “the case for reinterpreting traditional concepts, like that of form, in mechanical terms, had been developing over several decades” (176). “Form” no longer meant that something participated in its ideal archetype, or perhaps an idea in God’s mind or purpose as in earlier Christian Platonism and Aristotelianism.  “Form” now was meant in a purely physical-chemical sense of composition.

“Design” as such references a particular sequence of physico-theology that collapsed the metaphysical into the physical, equating the ability to discern theological “meaning” in the world with one’s ability to describe an organism exhaustively in terms of perfect physical pre-adaptation to fit an environment.  It was design as perfect pre-adaptation which were the theories threatened by Darwinian natural selection (377).   Whatever he ultimately believed (his deathbed conversion being another historical fairytale), Darwin himself, even in the full swing of his theory could at times consider himself a theist. He was, for example, pleased when the Christian socialist Charles Kingsley said that “instead of a God who created as if by magic,” he could now embrace a God who was so wise “He could make all things make themselves” (399).  

This line by Kingsley (intentional or not) seems to recall a wonderful image invoked by Thomas Aquinas in his Sententia Super Physicam Liber II (14.268): “It is clear that nature is a certain kind of divine art impressed upon things, by which these things are moved to a determinate end.  It is as if a shipbuilder were able to give to timbers that by which they would move themselves to take the form of a ship.”[6]  That things make themselves is no problem for a theist; it is, however, a problem for a theist who sees God only in a narrowly defined sequence of designs.  For once those designs can be accounted for in different terms, God seems to become inconsequential as an explanation.

Thus transformations from within theology led to attacks from outside it.  When matter was discovered to have the power of movement independent from an organizing soul (when, for example, muscles removed from the body were shown to automatically contract when given a swift poke by Albrecht von Haller); or when it was shown that the hydra (a freshwater polyp) could regenerate itself when cut into pieces—amply confirmed when “a wave of polyp-chopping swept across Europe” due to extreme curiosity at this most unexpected trait—matter no longer appeared in need of God’s mechanical “push” or external design (235).  

It is in this intellectual environment, for example, that in 1749 Diderot shifted his allegiance from a fashionable Deism to a more radical materialism. … It has been said of Diderot that he was the first modern atheist—both in the sense of making matter the ceaseless cause of all things, and of rendering the question of God’s existence a matter of little consequence.  His shift from a position in which the only proof of a transcendent reality came from what the sciences could say of the organization of nature, to a position in which that last proof was gone, marked the end of the road for the God of the philosophers (236).

At this point Brooke’s rhetorical flair at the end of the paragraph uncharacteristically betrays his own description—for surely this was only the end of the road for the “God of the philosophers” if this God could be wholly equated with the idea “in which the only proof of a transcendent reality came from what the sciences could say of the organization of nature.”  Perhaps Brooke’s rhetoric is making a description from the assumed vantage point of Diderot?  At any rate this equation of the physico-theology with the whole tradition (whether the opinion of Brooke or Diderot) transitions us into the second theological point to be made here.

If the first point was that the road to scientific mechanism was often paved from within theological discussion—where there was a theological shift that began to collapse the metaphysical into the physical—the second point is that often this collapse began to be read back into earlier Christian sources.  If, for example, Paley’s design arguments suffered at the hands of Darwin, so too would Aquinas’ “fifth argument” from teleology.  But this simply is not the case, and to argue otherwise imports anachronistic assumptions regarding the mode and scope of historically situated theology. Etienne Gilson makes the point quite well regarding Paley and Thomas:

But even supposing that we are not mistaken about these wonders—and mistakes of this kind will happen at times—they never introduce us to anything better than a kind of chief engineer of the universe whose power, as astonishing to us as our own is to a savage, remains, nevertheless, within the human order…It is useless, therefore, to press this question, and we must pass to [a] second [question].  Just as the [Thomistic] proof [of God] from movement does not consider God as the Central Generating Station for the energies of nature, so neither does the proof from finality consider Him as the Chief Engineer of the whole vast enterprise.  The precise question is this: if there is order, what is the cause of the being of this order?  The celebrated example of the watch-maker misses the point, unless we leave the plane of making for the plane of creating.  Just as when we observe an artificial arrangement, we infer the existence of an artificer as the sole conceivable sufficient reason of the arrangement, so also when we observe over and over, an order between things, we infer the existence of a supreme orderer.  But what we have to consider in this orderer is not so much the ingenuity displayed in this work, the precise nature too often, perhaps always, escapes us, but the causality whereby He confers being on order [emphasis added] … He is first with respect to the being of the universe, prior to that being, and consequently also outside it.  That, to speak precisely, is why we ought to say that Christian philosophy essentially excludes all merely physical proofs of the existence of God, and admits only physico-metaphysical proofs, that is to say proofs suspended from Being as being.[7]

Brooke tries to intercept such conflations of modern and pre-modern theology before they get off the ground: “To treat the traditional ‘proofs’ of God’s existence as if they were exclusively proofs (and, as such, necessarily failures) is to miss other roles they played in the religious cultures that had nurtured them” (285).[8] Again, he appears to overstate a bit—it is not at all obvious that the proofs as traditionally construed are “necessarily failures” if taken in the strong sense of demonstrative validity. But that is beside the point to be made here: Brooke has elsewhere taken up the famous “Kalaam” cosmological argument, and Anselm’s “ontological argument” as prime examples of how the original contexts of “theistic proofs” are often overlooked.[9]  It behooves us to quote him at length:

Within the Muslim culture of [Al-Ghazali’s] time, he could take it for granted that one lived by a sacred text.  What then was the purpose of his argument about origins?  In the last analysis it had to do with how the sacred text was to be read [emphasis added].  The threat came from within Islam itself, from Shi’ites who were gaining ground politically at the expense of Sunni ‘orthodoxy.’  According to a recent study, Ghazali had a very specific worry—the insinuation of Greek and Hellenistic ideas into Islam through the more speculative Shi’ites.  These ideas included the Aristotelian notion of a world that had existed from eternity.  To accept such a view required a non-literal interpretation of the sacred text.  Ghazali turned his face against these tendencies.  What at first glance looks like a classic theistic proof was actually serving quite a different purpose.  … Ghazali’s project was not the construction of a natural theology independent of his cultural heritage.  He argued about origins in order to protect that heritage from an enemy within. …[So too] the ontological argument of Anselm, commonly abstracted as a theistic proof, acquires a different meaning when relocated into its own place and time—the Benedictine community of Bec in the eleventh century.  For Anselm, God was a being whose non-existence cannot be conceived.  But this was not intended as a piece of natural theology, independent of faith.  His intention was to guide other monks towards a fuller knowledge of God.  This required the recognition that God was not only that-than-which-nothing-greater-could-be-thought, but something greater than which can be thought.[10]

While it is perhaps too much to therefore describe these arguments as “nondemonstrative” as Brooke does, his point is generally well taken: the secularization narrative of the triumph of science and the receding of theology feeds upon glossing over not only the complex history of the interaction of science and theology (the good, bad, and—if not ugly—the really, really strange), but ignores that many of these developments and interactions were due to developments internal to theology itself.  The supercession of science over theology often occurs only within an implicitly theological horizon either forgotten or suppressed, which transformed the theological-metaphysical level of explanation for the physico-theological.  It is inaccurate to describe the scientific revolution as anti-religious.  If anything in much of its life it was obsessed with religion; it is simply that the mode of that religion and theology was often changed in the process.  

But the fact is that every scientific endeavor harbors within itself metaphysical commitments. Historically speaking, both the secular and a purely naturalistic science have to first be “invented” by prior metaphysical and theological commitments that ramify in a nearly indefinite array of directions. It is this messy—but theologically saturated history—to which Brooke has admirably called our attention.  Moreover, with the stories Brooke tells there can be no neat division between “rational” science and “irrational” theology—rather to speak of either science or theology is to speak of the more fundamental mystery of seeking what it is to be human in the world, and to exist before an infinite and infinitely mysterious God.  It is, moreover, a call to caution and sobriety regarding claims to “investigate” this God.  As David Bentley Hart puts so well, to believe in God is not the same as to believe in the current existence of Saturn, or (to use an example from Richard Dawkins), Leprechauns, a teacup in perihelion, or a Flying Spaghetti Monster:

Beliefs regarding fairies are beliefs about a certain kind of object that may or may not exist within the world, and such beliefs have much the same intentional shape and rational content as beliefs regarding one’s neighbors over the hill or whether there are such things as black swans. Beliefs regarding God concern the source and ground and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and the totality of all things, the ground of all possibility of anything at all … God … is the infinite actuality that makes it possible for either photons or (possible) fairies to exist, and so can be ‘investigated’ only, on the one hand, by acts of logical deduction and induction and conjecture or, on the other, by contemplation or sacramental or spiritual experiences. … Evidence for or against the reality of God, if it is there, saturates every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us. [11]





[1] Nancy Marie Brown, The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages(New York: Basic Books, 2010), our intro paragraph here is based on the account given on pages 1-4 of Brown’s book.  The quote comes at page 3.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Brooke’s historical method is strikingly parallel, for example, to William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: The Invention of a Modern Concept (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven: Yale, 2012); Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2012); Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), all of whom in various ways argue that the very concepts of “religion” (as “not secular”) and “secularism” (as “not religion”) are inventions of the modern West, and that the pretensions of secularity to have a monopoly on “the rational” are an illusion based on forgotten or suppressed history that conceals the arbitrary moments in the construction of an arena to be called “secular” (i.e. “not religious”).

[4] David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 56.

[5] Cf. Philip Dixon, Nice and Hot Disputes: The Doctrine of the Trinity in the Seventeenth Century (Bloomsbury: T&T Clarke, 2003) 75ff.

[6] Quoted in Conor Cunningham, Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing, 2010), 151.

[7] Etienne Gilson, The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), 78-80.

[8] Cf. as well Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Migration of the Theistic Arguments: From Natural Theology to Evidentialist Apologetics,” in Rationality, Religious Belief, and Moral Commitment: New Essays in the Philosophy of Religion, ed. Robert Audi and William Wainwright (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), e.g. 39: “The medieval project of natural theology was profoundly different from the Enlightenment project of evidentialist apologetics.  It had different goals, presupposed different convictions, and was evoked by a different situation.  It is true that some of the same arguments occur in both projects; they migrate from one to the other.  But our recognition of the identity of the émigré must not blind us to the fact that he has migrated from one ‘world’ to another.”

[9] John Hedley Brooke and Geoffery Cantor, Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement of Science and Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 143ff.

[10] Ibid., 143-144.

[11] Hart, Experience of God, 33-34.