The Harbinger Home Page
Front Page
Religion & Science
June 10, 1997

The Future in the Relationship Between Religion and Science:

How Can They Get Along?

[Editor's note: The following is a transcript of the presentation by Dr. Ed Bunell on May 22 at the Harbinger symposium, "Religion & Science: The Best of Enemies - the Worse of Friends."]

by Ed. M. Bunnell

I want to begin the discussion by thinking about the question that Walter Darring asked in a letter to The Harbinger, and that question was this: Why is there conflict between science and western religions, that is Christianity, Judaism and Islam, but there is little conflict between science and eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism? In order to answer that question, we must understand what the early church was like, and here I will be addressing primarily the relationship between Christianity and Science.

The primitive church under Jesus and His disciples taught a message of love, personal piety and self-denial. There was little in the way of formal philosophy and theology, just a very simple message of love and personal transformation. However, the Church developed, and as it became stronger, especially after it became a State Church -- the official religion of the Roman Empire -- it was necessary to develop a structure of philosophy and theology to give it a base of intellectual support. And in some ways you can say that the church fathers who did this did a very successful job. For a thousand years the system that they developed was dominant in the western world, and even today it exercises great influence, not only among Catholics but among Protestant Christians as well.

One of these early church fathers was St. Augustine, perhaps the best known and in many ways the most influential. His teachings were influenced by two sources. First was the Platonic philosophy, particularly Plato's dualistic idea about the nature of being and ontology. While Plato was looking around for reality in the natural world, he saw nothing but flux and change, and things seemed to be very confusing. He reasoned that somewhere there must be pure forms of the reality that we see in this world. In other words, our world must be copies of objects in a world that exists beyond our sensory perception. In Plato's viewpoint, there is a physical world in which exists real reality, the reality in the nature of form, which is an imperfect copy of the pure form of the metaphysical world. Plato also had a dualistic view of human beings. We have a human body which is developed by conception and birth, but we also have an immortal soul which, according to Plato, existed for eternity and will continue to exist. Of course this was not the only view of the physical world, but it is the one that was adopted and converted by St. Augustine.

St. Augustine saw the soul as being brought forth at birth by God. Now here is an example of the use of revelation. A very important principle of Christian thought is that theology predominates over philosophy; revelation predominates over natural law or natural philosophy, and church dogma is dominant over human thought. St. Augustine believed in revelation; he believed that God has revealed his thoughts to men primarily through the incarnation of His Son Jesus Christ, and the records of the incarnate, the Holy Scriptures, were given to the Church, and the Scriptures were to be interpreted by the Church. Of course, when the Church became a state religion, it guaranteed the power of the state to enforce these beliefs. Therefore, after it became a state religion, the "old" universities, including the one founded by Plato, were considered pagan institutions that were no longer needed. The church was the custodian of all truths, and any error that could be eradicated was to be eradicated through the power of the state. Some have called this time the Age of Belief, but some have also called it the Dark Ages.

Now the system that had been so powerful in the western world remains powerful in the western world, although it has lost a great deal of its power and authority, which is why there has been this schism between religion and science. According to the traditional viewpoints, and a view that is still very strong among religious conservatives and traditional Catholics, the final arbiter of all truth is the Bible -- or the church's interpretation of the Bible.

However, cracks had begun to develop, and slowly other ideas began to creep in and challenge the traditional views. First there was the ongoing Jewish influence; a great deal of medieval thought was really a reflection of the philosophies and thinking of Jewish scholars, although in those days they were not given credit for them, at least amongst gentiles. The second influence was felt primarily in the Iberian Peninsula, after it had been conquered by the Moors. Remember that the Moors were powerful in the Iberian Peninsula for about 900 years, from the late sixth century until the sixteenth century, when the Spanish Inquisition forced the Moors to leave and also forced the Jews to either convert or leave. But for those 900 years, Christians, Jews and those of Islamic faith existed side by side, and there was considerable exchange of ideas among them.

The Crusades were intended to free Jerusalem from the Turks and other Islamic invaders, but they led to further contacts with Islamic society, and the Islamic people knew something about science and about philosophy. They had some ideas that were foreign to Christians but which had a positive influence on later developments in the West. The Crusades also led to trade with the Far East in goods such as spices and silk and other things that enhanced the quality of life in the West. It was during this time that the writings of the Romans and Greeks were rediscovered.

Now let's move on to something that began to bring light to the Dark Ages -- the Renaissance. The Renaissance, which started in Italy , began to focus not primarily on the creator, although there were Christian humanists in those days, but on creation and on man. This was reflected first in architecture, and began to influence western man, not so much as a change in ways of thinking but as a change in the emphasis of thinking. This was the time of the Reformation that split and weakened the Church. I want to quickly point out that the early Protestant theologians -- primarily Luther and Calvin -- were just as supportive, and maybe even more supportive, of the power of revelation and of the power of the Scriptures over science and any other intellectual endeavors as the Catholic Church was. But the Enlightenment Period did weaken the Church, even with the persecution of Galileo and Bruno, as was mentioned in earlier lectures.

During the Renaissance there was another great Christian theologian, Saint Thomas Aquinas, who was influenced by Aristotle, somewhat in the way St. Augustine had been influenced by Plato. St. Thomas Aquinas re-interpreted Aristotle through the theology of his faith. For example, the argument of first cause that Aristotle advanced was used by St. Thomas Aquinas as the argument for the existence of God; of course, that was a great leap forward to jump from Aristotle's first cause to the Christian God of St. Thomas Aquinas. As has been pointed out in one of the earlier lectures, St. Thomas Aquinas also adopted Aristotle's static view of the universe, which held that the universe has remained unchanged since the beginning of creation. St. Thomas Aquinas did, however, reject Aristotle's view of body and soul; otherwise Christianity would have taken a very different path. But again, it was a case of theology dominating over philosophy.

Then in the early 17th Century the mathematician and philosopher Renee Descartes appeared . Descartes was of course a Christian, a Catholic and a dualist, who said the world was split into the physical and the metaphysical, which was to be the domain of the Church; the Church has authority over the metaphysical and the spiritual. As Galileo said then, "let the Church tell us how to get to heaven and let man, the scientist and natural philosopher, study the physical world." Even though this sounded good, there were problems with it. One of the problems was that it was never fully adopted by anyone, and another problem was the idea of mind-body split. That is, Descartes gave the domain of man's mind to the Church; science can study the body but not the mind.

This is very important as we look into the future, because this mind-body concept has been around for a very long time. Now, with the research being done on the brain, there is going to be a new challenge in the relationship between religion and science in the next few years, in the mind-body question. If you want to look at this from a scientific viewpoint, you may want to read a book written in 1944 by Francis Crick titled The Scientific Search for the Soul, which can be read by the layman.

I want to jump ahead now and look at the work of another great writer, Adam Smith. His book, The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, had something to say about the Church. He gave us a model to look at how churches had changed, and how the church might change and continue to change. Smith said the churches that were supported by contributions of the membership were more responsive to the membership. He pointed out that the churches that attracted more affluent and educated membership usually had educated ministers, and the uneducated ministers went to churches of the common men. It was among the common men that churches had grown most rapidly. But the common men wanted simple answers to hard questions, and they wanted ministers who were exciting.

What happened was that the Church continued to be split within itself. The churches of the common men split off, getting common men as their ministers. Now I think this has pretty much happened, first with the Methodist then the Anglican Church. The early leaders were educated men, including John Wesley, but many pastors of the new Methodist churches that were formed at the time of the Great Awakening were uneducated men who were able to excite the crowd and who supplied simple answers to tough questions; they had a literal interpretation of the Bible, and they were more radical than the mainstream ministers.

This led us to another very important movement in the 1900s, the fundamentalist-liberal split. But first let me back up a little. My hypothesis here, and it has been well demonstrated, is that those churches and their ministers who are well educated will generally be supportive of science; those relatively common churches with relatively less-educated ministers will tend to be more antagonistic to science.

The 19th Century was linked to great progress in science: in physics, biology, psychology, and psychiatry. But in religion there had not been great advances, except that some theologians, particularly in the United States, said we need to study the Bible critically and to use scientific techniques to research the Bible. What they found caused a great disturbance in the Church, because it raised questions about the authorship of the Bible: Did Moses write Genesis? No. Did Moses even exist? Possibly not. There were all kinds of questions, not only about the Old Testament but also about the New Testament. There seems to be great contradictions in the stories about Christ, even stories about His birth and about His death.

So the Bible itself was called into question, and the literal interpretation of the Bible was questioned. Christians reacted in two ways. One group said we must re-interpret the Bible; we must look at the Bible not as a literal history or literal truth but as a record of man's experience of God. It's a mythological, symbolic characterization. After all, Jesus talked in symbolic language. There is much about the Christian faith that endears, despite changing times, and the greatest thing about the Christian faith is its teaching of love, which is the teaching of the early church. Therefore, this group says we should teach man to love and to show that love by service to humankind. This has led to the so-called social gospel movement that has gained cognizance among liberal Christians.

The conservatives took a different view. They radically defended the Bible as being inspired by God. In fact, a group of conservative Christian theologians met in the 1890s and drew up the fundamentals that must be defended at all cost, and that's where the word fundamentalist came from. In this view, every word of the Bible is inspired by God and with the authority of God, even though it was written by human authors, so it must be without errors. They believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, in victorious resurrection, and the visible return of Jesus -- these are the things the conservatives say must be defended at all cost. The conservative theologians say, "We must defend the faith."

Therein lies the fundamentalist-modernist controversy that has lasted for the last forty-five years in mainstream American churches. And it has been a very viciously-fought battle. The New York Times criticized both by saying that the liberals lack clarity and the fundamentalists lack charity. In mainstream denominations, the liberals prevailed, but not without tremendous cost, because the fundamentalists split off to form their own churches which outgrew the mainstream churches. For example, the Westminister Theological Seminary was split off from the Princeton Theological Seminary. Now, many of these are really bible schools instead of theological seminaries, where they just teach the Bible. One exception was the Southern Baptist Convention, the second-largest denomination in the United States after Roman Catholic, which was not greatly affected by the first wave of the fundamentalist movement which ended in about 1930. Jay Frank Norris, the pastor of the First Baptist of Fort Worth, Texas, was a real fire-brand; he split off from the Texas Baptist Convention and formed his own seminaries, one in Fort Worth and one in Springfield, Missouri. One of the graduates of the Springfield, Missouri seminary is Jerry Falwell.

I said the first phase of the fundamentalist-liberal debate ended in 1930, but it was revived in the late 1970s. This time it was revived primarily among Southern Baptists, and it is still going on. But the fundamentalists are winning this time around. They have taken over many of the state Baptist conventions, including the six Baptist seminaries, and a formal split will eventually occur. However, the fundamentalists have not won totally, and they have suffered some losses, including institutions such as Baylor University, which remain outside the control of the fundamentalists.

Today, the fundamentalists don't like to call themselves fundamentalists but instead call themselves conservatives, and they call the moderates the liberals. And this brings us up to the current time. I want to point out one important difference between the modern-day fundamentalists and the fundamentalists of the early days, and it is that the modern fundamentalists are more politically active, and that is largely due to the efforts of Jerry Falwell, who established the Moral Majority in the 1980s, which was replaced in the 1990s by the Christian Coalition.

Let's look at the future debate between Christianity and science. There will not be one Christian or religious response to science, but several. I want to summarize these responses into the following categories: For the fundamentalists, the teaching of science must be subservient to the teaching of the authority of the word of God -- the Bible. They will not compromise; they believe they have the word of God in their interpretation of the Bible, and there is no way they will compromise. For them, there will always be confrontations between the fundamentalists and science. However, as powerful as the fundamentalists are, their views are still in the minority. They will attempt to use political power to gain public acceptance, and one area they are working on is public support of private schools.

Now why should we be opposed to that? Besides weakening the public schools by taking money from public education to fund private schools, it will give legitimacy to the teaching of creation science. There will also be many other areas where the fundamentalists will attempt to pass laws or amend the Constitution to give political acceptance and support to beliefs derived from their interpretations of the Bible. So this will be an area of confrontation that will continue indefinitely.

The second category is what we might call the moderate conservative Christians. Again, there is a large number of subgroups within this group, with people ranging all the way from the followers of Billy Graham to Paul Baylor, the leader who is trying to rescue the Texas Baptist Convention from the control of the fundamentalists. This group is less hostile to science.

The third group might be called the liberal Christians, who practice the essence of Christianity, and service to mankind is one way to express that practice. They tend to interpret the Bible symbolically. They will point out that even Jesus spoke in parables and used analogy to teach spiritual ideas. They look at the Bible in that regard. Among them will be some who would like to reconstruct the Bible altogether, such as taking out the supernatural elements. Many women in this group would like to see a greater role for women in the Church. They see women already doing a great deal of work but until recently not being given any official capacity. Even the Roman Catholic Church is now beginning to look at this group of Protestant churches to see how it might better serve women. This group will tend to be supportive and accommodating to science.

Another thing I want to do tonight is talk about some ways that scientists and religious individuals can work together. The first way that religious individuals and scientists can work together is to look at some of the ethical issues that grow out of scientific research such as genetic engineering. The second way is to address scientific illiteracy of the American people, to eliminate some of the misunderstandings about science.

I will close by talking about the good life for a moment. Bertrand Russell gave a good definition of a good life. He said a good life is a life inspired by love and guided by knowledge. All the great religions of the world teach the message that the way to a good life is inspired by love. So we can look to Christianity and other religions to make us more loving of our fellow men, and to science for knowledge to serve humankind.

The Harbinger symposium "Religion & Science: the Worst of Friends -- the Best of Enemies," is supported by a grant from the Alabama Humanities Foundation, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Harbinger is a biweekly newspaper published through the effort of The Harbinger, which consists of area faculty, staff and students, and members of the Mobile community. The Harbinger is a non-profit education foundation. The views expressed here are the responsibility of The Harbinger. Contributions to The Harbinger are tax exempt to the full extent of the law and create no liability for the contributor.