Physician Erik Strandness unpacks the age-old conflict between science and faith

The battle between science and religion is a meme that went viral long before the internet was a twinkle in a computer programmer’s eye. Where did it come from? Was it a Russian disinformation campaign or the collaborative work of academic elites from France, Germany, England and the United States intent on ending the hegemony of religion?

As with most polemics, the origin and development of the conflict thesis is a complex story, full of intrigue and truth-telling, good intentions and animus, sincere historical reflection and propaganda, all of which has been largely based on flawed cursory readings of science, religion and history. Sadly, it has led to ill will between very intelligent human beings on both sides of this apparent ‘conflict’. What’s the truth behind this state of affairs and how can we move towards reconciliation?


Conflict begins

Unbelievable? explored this alleged conflict in two episodes over the summer. The first show dealt with the historical development of the conflict thesis and featured David Hutchings and James Ungureanu, authors of ‘Of Popes and Unicorns: Science, Christianity and how the conflict thesis fooled the world,’ and Tim O’Neill of the ‘History For Atheists’ website.

The second show explored the current state of the debate and the prevailing attitudes of the lay public. It featured Nick Spencer of Theos discussing the recent report ‘Science and Religion: Moving away from the shallow end’, a survey of the British public’s attitudes towards science and faith, and atheist Katherine Mathieson, director of the Royal Institution, who is responsible for promoting public engagement with science.

The conflict thesis contends that science and religion have been at odds with one another for a very long time with religious dogmatism and institutional control holding back scientific progress to the detriment of humanity. This thesis has been questionably supported by a series of historical events where the Church has purportedly persecuted, stifled and demonised the scientific community. Hutchings and Ungureanu offered an example of this divisive rhetoric in their book by quoting John William Draper, one of the early instigators of the conflict thesis:

“As to science…she has never subjected any one to mental torment, physical torture, least of all to death, for the purpose of upholding or promoting her ideas. She presents herself unstained by cruelties and crimes. But in the Vatican—we have only to recall the Inquisition—the hands that are now raised in appeals to the Most Merciful are crimsoned. They have been steeped in blood!” (John William Draper)


Intellectual commerce or one-way street

Hutchings and Ungureanu’s well documented book explores the origins of the conflict thesis and debunks many of the myths upon which it was built. They pin much of the blame on two quite influential books published in the 19th Century, John William Draper’s ‘A History of the Conflict between Religion and Science’ and Andrew Dickson White’s ‘A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. Despite the harsh rhetoric utilised by both men, I was fascinated to learn that they considered themselves Christians and wrote their books not to divide but to unite science and religion.

“Draper himself was no atheist; neither was White. They were not even agnostic. In fact, both thought of themselves as followers of Christ, and viewed their books as significant contributions to his cause. They were writing, the two of them said, not to push science and religion ever further apart, but instead to bring them both back together.” (Of Popes and Unicorns)

It appears that both Draper and White recognised that the tectonic force of the enlightenment had caused the intellectual landscape to shift and fearing they might lose contact with their Christian homeland, tried to create a bridge between the two. Ironically, these two books which were originally intended to bring the two sides together have since been appropriated by the New Atheists to drive them even farther apart.

While Draper and White wanted to build a bridge, they made Christianity pay the highest price because they felt that in order for the span to be secure it had to be supported by scientific pillars and not buttressed by decaying doctrine and dogma. Holding to a Christianity that had more in common with deism than theism, they believed that the Church had failed to keep pace with, and was even complicit in hindering, the gloriously expanding field of science.

Draper felt that a primal Christian bridge already existed but had long since been hidden by an unnecessary and harmful creedal overgrowth. White, on the other hand, believed a new bridge had to be built based on safe and sane scientific specifications and not modelled on a shaky religious prototype. Sadly, both men thinking they were promoting two-way intellectual commerce between science and religion ended up constructing a one-way street, which ended in a religious dead end. Hutchings summarised the motivations for their failed project.

“So their motivations are different but they agree that they need to ditch dogma and doctrine and so they are advocating a kind of Christianity that is not really Christianity at all, it’s bereft of its supernatural elements.” (Hutchings )


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Spoils of war

I think part of the problem with the conflict thesis is that it has been framed as a struggle between science and religion when the real battle is over God’s place in the world. While the conflict may have begun as a skirmish between deism and theism, the sad truth is that once God was marginalised, he soon became irrelevant, and the ageing deist division was replaced by a battalion of New Atheist recruits energised by the addition of the conflict thesis to their evidential quiver.

Sadly, the well-intentioned efforts of Draper and White to keep the divine elephant in the room morphed into a pachydermectomy. Both men failed to anticipate the consequences of their written works. In an interesting aside, White was even warned by a close family friend that his ideas would essentially gut Christianity:

“What if you succeed in creating doubts in the minds of men, in taking from them all trust in the Revelation they have accepted as coming from God. What then? What will you give them in its stead? Your poor starving theories?…A religion evolved from human brains stripped of all that is Divine? An image without a soul?” (Of Popes and Unicorns)

The real conflict, I would offer, isn’t between science and religion but between atheism and Christianity, and science, rather than being a combatant, is the ultimate spoil of war. It has become a battle of worldviews and what greater plunder than science?

Common grace

Interestingly, it appears that this battle is being fought on a remote religious battlefield and the average person is unaware that shots have even been fired. Mathieson, an atheist, says she hasn’t seen any hostility between science and faith in her frequent interactions with the public and is unsure where this idea comes from. “Those kinds of reactions, I’ve never seen them. It’s just not part of most people’s daily experience.” It makes one wonder if this battle is being fought out of sight of the average citizen.

Maybe we got this all wrong. Maybe this perceived battle is little more than a contentious subcommittee meeting in a small smoke-filled room in the basement of a theological or scientific ivory tower. I would have to say that my personal experience in academic medicine was not one of hostility to religion but rather indifference. It wasn’t until I got involved in apologetics that it took on an apocalyptic tone.

I don’t mean to suggest that it should be dismissed as an academic argument, but that it should be revealed for what it is, a conflict between worldviews which has profound cultural significance. While the average citizen may not believe they are in a war, they are nonetheless being influenced by the flyers dropped from the sky by both sides.

Science is powerful and whoever pulls its levers can control the world. Science has a dark side of napalm, atomic weapons and bioterrorism, but it also has a bright side which has eradicated disease, prolonged life and heated homes. Science can destroy the planet as well as make it a better place to live, so we need to make sure that it is allowed to prosper in a responsible way. We need to use it as a tool of responsible agronomy but never forget whose Garden we are tending.

While atheism and Christianity both want to claim science for their own, we need to remember that science is not a possession but a common grace. A discipline that illuminates both the evil and the good, and an intellectual gift that rains down on the just and unjust. So, the issue is not who is more enlightened or better watered but who uses it to help others see more clearly and keep them properly hydrated.

Immaculate assumption

Sadly, the conflict hypothesis, which has been largely eradicated by the academic community, continues to fester in the public consciousness. Popular scientists who wear their atheism on their sleeve continue to be vectors of historical error transmission and these untruths end up going viral. They enjoy reputations as good scientists but then use a sleight of hand to extend that authority over history, and people of good will who respect their scientific accomplishments then uncritically accept their assessments of history as similarly well researched. The conflict thesis is then immaculately assumed when in reality it has been illegitimately conceived.

“There is this weird idea that scientists are somehow a greater authority on history than historians and it’s difficult to get people to see that these are two completely different disciplines and that most scientists’ grasp of history is stunted at around high school level or below.” (O’ Neill)

It is not, however, just the use of scientific reputations as substitutes for advanced degrees in the history of science that has given new life to these long since buried historical fables, but also the rhetorical abilities of its popularisers, such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. Celebrity, however, cuts both ways and is a danger in scientific circles as well as in the Christian sphere when seminarians make scientific assertions and popular pastors pound the pulpit with anti-science rhetoric.

Ideologies need enemies

It’s one thing for atheists to accuse religion of being anti-science because of its obsession with demons, deities and divine revelation, but it runs into problems when it encounters a Christianity that has the audacity to claim that God has put boots on the ground. Materialism can comfortably attack religion when it focuses on the transcendent realm, but meets its maker when it encounters a God who lists incarnation on his resume. Myth becomes fact in Jesus and though atheists often try to use their questionable historical credentials to certify his death and justify a Christian autopsy, they are inconveniently confronted three days later by a Jesus sighting.

The advent of intelligent design and quantum science has exposed the weakness of the materialist story and opened the door to a divine mind. Is it possible that as their materialist arguments slip away, they have to change tactics and instead of characterising Christianity as stupid they turn up the rhetorical heat and label it as evil? I think it was Jordan Peterson who said that every ideology needs an enemy. So, once you realise that your arguments are getting weaker, you are forced to burn a strawman at the stake rather than engage him in conversation.

Telling better stories

We commonly think of epistemology as consisting of revelation, intuition, logic, experience and authority, but perhaps the most powerful way of knowing for the average person is ‘story’. O’Neill suggested that one of the reasons for the success of the conflict thesis is “because it’s a good story.” It has all the components of a great drama; good versus evil, individual versus institution, freedom versus oppression.

Unfortunately, when non-fiction morphs into fiction it becomes, as Hutchings noted, the “most successful conspiracy theory of all time”. The guests suggested that we should begin by moving the conflict thesis from the non-fiction to the fiction section but then be prepared to tell a better story because, as Hutchings noted, the conflict thesis is “a convenient story” easily appropriated by people who just don’t want to believe in God. The Good News is that Christianity not only has history on its side but possesses the greatest story ever told.

For the episode with David Hutchings, James Ungureanu and Tim O’Neill, click here.

For the episode with Nick Spencer and Katherine Mathieson, click here.


 Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.