On the Alleged 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.

Evolution & Christianity

I can’t speak for all religions, but seeing as though this is a Christian website, I’ll focus in on whether science and Christianity are in conflict. Many atheists–and even many Christians–argue 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

Let’s look at (1). The Smithsonian reports that, “based on the very old zircon rock from Australia, we know that the Earth is at least 4.374 billion years old.” But, many contend, a straightforward reading of Genesis 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. Science clearly teaches the Earth is old. The question for us is: does the Bible teach that the Earth is young?

First, it should be noted that this alleged conflict is really between science and a specific interpretation of Genesis; it’s not between science and Christianity. An old Earth, for example, doesn’t mean that Jesus is still in a tomb somewhere. Second, 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.

But let’s suppose a young interpretation is in fact correct. I don’t think it is, but let’s grant it. Does that mean that Christianity is false? No. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that (i) the author of Genesis meant to teach a young Earth, and (ii) scientists are right and the Earth is actually billions of years old. Arguendo, what does this conflict amount to? Well, we can at least say that the human author got some facts wrong. But what follows from this? Does it follow that Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin, didn’t perform any miracles, wasn’t the Son of God, and didn’t rise from the dead? No, none of that follows. Does it follow that God made an error? No–God foreknew the human author would get it wrong and created the world that way anyway. In reality, (i) and (ii) pose no challenge to either the truth of Christianity or Biblical Inerrancy. [2] So, really, all we can say is that the human person that wrote Genesis erred with respect to the age of the Earth–nothing else follows.

We can even take it a step further. Hud Hudson has recently demonstrated that 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 reading of Genesis can be true. For more on this fascinating theory, see [3].

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 (N&E for short), 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 for survival. Many of us believe that frogs, for example, have no beliefs at all, yet they are fully capable of exhibiting adaptive behavior and surviving in harsh environments (note that whether or not you think frogs have beliefs is irrelevant for the illustration). But if that’s true, if, given N&E, the content of our beliefs is irrelevant, then it’s highly unlikely that most of our beliefs are true. Thus, the person that holds Naturalism & Evolution has reason to doubt that any of her beliefs are 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. Remember: what evolution needs is survival, not truth.

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] I argue here that biblical inspiration falls on the divine illocutionary level.

[3] 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.

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