On the Conflict Between Science and Religion

Is there a conflict between science and religion? Perhaps even more fundamentally, why should we care about such conflicts? Well, thanks to science we’ve learned more about the physical world in the last 400 years than in any other time period [1]. Thus, as Alvin Plantinga notes in Where the Conflict Really Lies, any belief system in conflict with science at the very least has some explaining to do.

Science & Theism

Take evolution. Many atheists – and even many Christians – agree that Christianity and evolution can’t both be true. It’s one or the other. To see why, let’s lay out some of the claims made by evolution:

(1) The Earth is billions of years old
(2) Descent with Modification – offspring differ in small ways from their parents
(3) Common Ancestry – all living organisms share a common ancestor
(4) There is a mechanism driving this process – e.g.: natural selection

Much of the debate is centered around (1). The Smithsonian reports, “based on the very old zircon rock from Australia we know that the Earth is at least 4.374 billion years old”. However, a straightforward reading of Genesis, many contend, entails that the Earth is much younger. Somewhere on the order of 6,000-10,000 years. Here at least we seem to have found a conflict.

First, it should be noted that this alleged conflict is really between science and a specific interpretation of Genesis. A billions-of-years-old Earth, for instance, doesn’t mean Jesus is still in a tomb somewhere. Secondly, establishing a conflict here is going to be pretty tough. Theologians as far back as St. Augustine (354-430) doubted that the days of creation correspond to 24-hour periods. It’s not a cut and dry issue by any stretch.

“Theologians as far back as St. Augustine (354-430) doubted that the days of creation correspond to 24-hour periods.”

But let’s suppose a straightforward interpretation is in fact correct. Hud Hudson has recently demonstrated that even still there is no genuine conflict between science and Christianity (at least without certain assumptions). Given a particular metaphysical view of time, both (1)-(4) and a literal rendering of Genesis can be true. For more on this fascinating theory, see [2].

Science & Naturalism

Let’s now turn to another conflict, not between science and religion, but between science and naturalism (naturalism being the view that nothing like God exists). Alvin Plantinga argues in Where the Conflict Really Lies that there is a deep conflict between evolution and naturalism. One can’t sensibly believe both are true.

The argument is roughly that, on Naturalism & Evolution, it is adaptive behavior rather than true belief that is selected for. Evolution is about survival. Features that aid in survival are selected for and passed down. But, says Plantinga, true beliefs are not required to produce the right kind of behavior (ie: survival). But if that’s true, then the person that holds Naturalism & Evolution has reason to doubt that any belief produced by their brains is true. For, on this account, brains are the product of blind evolutionary forces. And there’s no reason to expect such a brain to produce mostly true beliefs.

As Charles Darwin famously said, “But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” For more on the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, see here and here.

As it turns out, the conflict is not between science and religion, but between science and naturalism. Obviously much more could be said on this topic. Suffice it to say that Plantinga believes this is a good argument, and who can question something on which Plantinga is in agreement?


[1] It might also be noted that the Judeo-Christian worldview arguably played a crucial role in the birth of science.

[2] See The Fall and Hypertime. Hudson is being widely regarded as having settled the issue once and for all. Groundbreaking stuff! The basic idea would be that what really exists are time blocks. Secondly, these blocks can be sliced up and combined with other blocks containing different histories. So a block containing the literal Genesis account could have been sliced and combined with the block containing an evolutionary history. On this view, the literal Genesis account would be in our “hyperpast” while evolution would be in our ordinary past. Note that this theory of time doesn’t have to be true or even probably true to resolve the conflict. It needs only to be possible. What this shows is that science, free of metaphysical or theological assumptions, does not conflict with a literal Genesis.

About the Featured Image

I suppose it’s appropriate to feature an image of the Grand Canyon in a post on the conflict between science and religion (many argue the Canyon must have taken millions of years to form). The image itself was taken during my first and only visit. We actually took our Christmas card photos here. I hear the South Side is a bit more scenic.


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