Volume 8 - Issue 1

Talking Points: Science versus religion

By Nigel M. de S. Cameron

The title and theme of A. D. White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom1 have unfortunately set the tone for much modern discussion of the relations of Christian religion and scientific endeavour. In fact, as is now widely acknowledged, White’s work was—like others of its day with a similar approach—selective and unbalanced in its treatment. Not that there has always been peace and harmony in the relations of scientists and theologians; but the issues on which they have differed have only rarely actually been those of ‘science versus religion’. For example, the controversy over evolution in the aftermath of which White was writing was not between scientists on the one hand and theologians on the other. In his recent definitive study of The Post-Darwinian Controversies, James Moore can conclude thus:

There was not a polarization of ‘science and religion’ as the idea of opposing armies implies, but a large number of learned men, some scientists, some theologians, some indistinguishable, and almost all of them very religious, who experienced various differences among themselves. There [were] deep divisions among men of science, the majority of whom were at first hostile to Darwin’s theory, and a corresponding and derivative division among Christians who were scientifically untrained, with a large proportion of leading theologians quite prepared to come to terms peacefully with Darwin … the military metaphor perverts historical understanding.2

In fact what makes the ‘science v. religion’ approach so mistaken as a reading of history is its failure to appreciate the religious ingredients in the development of scientific method itself. For example, R. Hooykaas in his Religion and the Rise of Modern Science ‘poses the question why modern science arose in a particular place, in Europe, and at a particular time, and not elsewhere or in a different age’.3 He concludes that ‘it was directed by … social and methodological conceptions, largely stemming from a biblical world view’.4 Once the method had taken off, ‘anyone with the necessary talent may help to build up science on solidly established foundations’—whether they come from ‘nations whose own culture did not give birth to anything like western science’ or are ‘western people who have lost all contact with the religion of their forebears’ who ‘continue in their scientific activities the tradition inherited from them’.5 The Reformers’ concept of nature and their repudiation of the Mediaeval world-picture which the church largely adopted from classical antiquity were essential ingredients in the founding of modern science.

The work of Moore, Hooykaas and others sets welcome correctives to the popular assumption that science and religion are natural enemies (and that therefore one cannot be both religious and true to the facts of science at the same time). Indeed, many people would be surprised to learn, for instance, that the early members of the Royal Society (the founding fathers of modern science in Britain), which was so important in the development of scientific thinking, were ‘preponderantly Puritan’.6 There can be no doubt that Christians, and Christian theology and ethics, contributed very substantially to the beginnings of ‘modern science’, and it is of course well known that individual scientists such as Newton and Boyle were profoundly religious men. It was only in the nineteenth century, with the rising importance of historical geology (and later biology), that the modern question of the compatibility of Christian religion and natural science became the subject of broad debate.

The degree to which developments during that century altered our conceptions is revealed by a brief consideration of the Bridgewater Treatises. In 1829, the Earl of Bridgewater (a clergyman who had, as one writer notes, ‘neglected his parish assiduously’7) left a will which required his executors (the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London and the President of the Royal Society) to commission eight scientists to write a series of volumes which would demonstrate

the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation; illustrating such work by all reasonable arguments, as for instance, the variety and formation of God’s creatures in the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms; the effect of digestion, and thereby of conversion; the construction of the hand of man, and an infinite variety of other arguments; as also by discoveries ancient and modern, in arts, sciences, and the whole extent of literature.8

The authors selected included Buckland, the leading geologist of the early decades of the century; Prout, ‘a really important chemist’;9 Sir Charles Bell, ‘a very prominent physician’, who wrote on design in the human hand;10 Whewell, one of the great thinkers of the day; and Chalmers, the Scottish churchman who was also ‘a serious student of natural history, astronomy, mathematics and political economy’.11 In fact they were all men of distinction in the world of science, and their participation in this massive effort at natural theology typified the concern of almost all their professional colleagues to hold together religion and science in a mutually supportive relation. But the storm-clouds were already gathering, and it was only the year after Bridgewater died (and three years before the first Treatises arrived on the scene) that volume one of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology appeared, signalling the beginning in earnest of the controversy that would finally divorce natural theology and natural science in the work of Darwin a generation later.

A number of specific issues arise in the modern debate about science and religion, and we may briefly touch upon some of them here.

  1. The realms of science and religion

The nineteenth-century controversy about evolution (whose modern continuation is discussed in another article in this series12) has broader ramifications than often appears. As we have seen, in its context it was inter-connected with discussions of natural theology and natural revelation (and particularly with the arguments for and from design13), and these issues are important today, however much evangelicals have tended to overlook them. Don Cupitt, to take one example, in his Worlds of Science and Religion, reports that Darwin ‘was well aware that his concept of Natural Selection … was strongly resistant to combination with belief in God’;14 and continues with a reference to Jacques Monod’s provocative Chance and Necessity which pursues that question, in the modern context.15 A thorough-going (neo-) Darwinist regards chance and natural selection as the agents of evolution. It is possible to regard God as the planner of what (within the system) appears as chance. It is also possible to regard God as the Creator of the system as a whole, no doubt foreknowing the end from the beginning, but with chance and necessity operating precisely as the atheist understands in bringing about the development of the higher forms of life. Is it legitimate to re-write the doctrine of creation in those terms? Or again, are Christians committed by that doctrine to seeing the universe as the product of an act by which it was originally made and set in motion, or may they concur with others in considering it to be eternal (in temporal terms, that is; without a beginning or an end)—with ‘creation’ understood as teaching the existential createdness of man (i.e. his dependence upon God)? Further, one factor which weighed with Darwin was the suffering and waste which are by-products of evolution. He conceived them to be problems for the theist. Others would so wish to divide the fields of interest of science and religion as to make any such inter-play impossible; that is to say, scientific and religious descriptions of reality are each complete in themselves, and therefore no scientific theory can have significance pro or con religious belief (or vice versa). This position is the complete converse of that held in Britain in the early part of the last century. We may well feel that both are somewhat extreme. On the one hand, while the evidence of design in nature is real it should not be pressed in quite the detail of the Bridgewater Treatises. On the other hand, the facts of the natural world have at least to be compatible with our beliefs about the God who made it, or else it is irrational of us to hold them. If there is, for example, evil in nature, we should seek a biblical way of understanding it (cf. Gn. 3; Rom. 8). A problem without a potential solution would be a major (and entirely proper) stumbling-block to belief.

The doctrine of creation itself is what roots Christianity in the real world and demands that we take that world seriously. The observations and deductions of science concern that same world which God made and has redeemed. While it would be folly to treat the Bible as a science text-book or the natural order as a systematic theology, to a limited but definite degree nature does reveal God (cf. Rom. 1; Ps. 19), and where Scripture touches upon matters that relate to the natural order it retains its authority. The ‘Book of Nature’ and the ‘Book of Scripture’ (in the terminology of the nineteenth century) have the same Author.

  1. Nature and supernature

Sceptics a generation ago were more likely than they are today to assert that ‘science has proved that miracles can’t happen’, because scientists are increasingly reflective about their task, and see more clearly its limitations. That is, they see the world less as a closed system of predetermined cause and effect (on the billiard ball analogy), and they also recognize that ‘science’, in the sense of the methods and goals which they adopt, was never designed (nor is it suitable) to observe that which is essentially abnormal or unique. All that the sceptic (scientist or otherwise) can claim is that, because he has never had any experience of the miraculous, he is forced to regard it as so unlikely as to be impossible. That in essence was David Hume’s famous argument against miracle, though he pressed it to the extent of making what was normal in our experience the test of what is possible; the normal became normative. That is a common fallacy. Clearly, if we believe the physical universe to be closed to intervention from outside, our personal non-experience of miracle may clinch our expectation that it cannot occur; and we shall accordingly dismiss accounts to the contrary (biblical and otherwise). But if we antecedently believe in the God of the Bible, the general regularity of nature (itself the consequence of his providential rule) leaves room for occasional interventions in the form of miracles. If for other reasons we believe the Bible to be the infallible Word of God, it is entirely reasonable for us to proceed to accept its testimony to the supernatural.

Disbelief in the miraculous is, therefore, nothing to do with ‘science’ at all, but the consequence of a particular philosophical position which refuses to accommodate the supernatural within its picture of reality. Moreover, it is important for Christians to see miracles within the context of their over-all picture of the world, since it has been the undue prominence given to them as isolated events (both in the evidential apologetic of a former generation, and in the ‘scientific’ scepticism which reacted against it) that has set the church in disarray on the matter. According to Scripture, while the regularity of nature is a witness to God’s providential ordering of the universe, any interruption of that regularity emphasises his Lordship over creation, and the ultimate unity of nature and supernature in their Creator. It is when supernature breaks into nature that we see what we call a ‘miracle’. But the whole ‘supernatural’ universe—of angels and demons, God and the devil, heaven and hell—exists alongside what we regard as the ‘natural’ order from the beginning. The Christian has an essentially supernatural view of reality, and within it his concept of what is normal must always have room for what is abnormal.16

  1. Scientific and theological method

Finally, we may advert to another area of controversy thrown up at the interface of science and religion, the question of method. Is theology a ‘science’ like other sciences, or is theological method at heart distinct from scientific? This is a broad and complex question which we can only touch upon here. In the sense that theology, like the natural sciences, is an objective discipline which seeks ever to be controlled in its methods and conclusions by its object of study, then clearly there is an essential parallel between theological and other ‘science’. This is one of the themes of the writings of T. F. Torrance, the distinguished Scottish theologian whose discussions of the relations of science and theology are highly respected in both circles. He writes in one place:

objective thinking lays itself open to the nature and reality of the object in order to take its shape from the structure of its own prescription.…

Objectivity in theological science, like objectivity in every true science, is achieved through rigorous correlation of thought with its proper object and the self-renunciation, repentance and change of mind that it involves.17

Thus defined, there is a clear parallel between theological and natural science. The question which arises is whether it is merely an analogy, or whether its scope is such that ‘science’ may be predicated of the theological task in the same sense in which it is of, say, the physicist’s or the chemist’s.

Torrance speaks much of the ‘revelatory’ character of scientific truth. When the botanist studies a flower, it ‘reveals’ itself to him. It is only as the objects of our study, under the pressure of our interrogation of them, do ‘reveal’ themselves that we gain any actual knowledge of them at all. Three problems arise with this way of speaking. It is, surely, only metaphorically that the flower ‘reveals’ itself to the botanist. In reality it is wholly passive, and while the analogy of interrogation is itself striking and luminous, it is and remains an analogy. That is not the case with our knowledge of God. He specifically and actively reveals himself, and does so—in part at least—in the form of speech. Indeed, except in so far as he does specifically reveal himself, we may not observe him. He is not part of the natural order, and we are therefore wholly dependent upon his self-revelation.

Secondly, the object of the theologian’s study is not, strange though it may seem, God himself; it is his ‘Word’, his self-revelation in Scripture and (in a different sense) in Christ. It is true that the closer and more adequately we study the Scripture, and the more we allow it to determine the form of our theology, the more nearly our thinking will conform to the truth about God himself. But, in order to study God, we look not at him (whom we cannot see, and may not), but at his image in Scripture. The paradox is that the more we revere and study the Book, the more we know its Author. This is other than the way in which we know the natural order. Thirdly, there is a moral and religious element in the qualification for theological study that is absent in natural science. The theologian who would successfully study God must be not only diligent and honest, he must be regenerate and justified. What to the non-believer would appear the essentially ‘objective’ quality of scientific knowledge—its availability to any and all who look—is absent in theology. Two responses might be made to this comment—that in natural science ‘objectivity’ is not as simple as it seems, since (e.g.) Newton and Einstein would look at one event and each see something different, because of their different frameworks of understanding; and, secondly, that anyone truly examining the data of theology, and being corrected and conformed in his method by what they reveal, would thereby become regenerate. Both these factors are valid, but they serve to illustrate something of the complexity of the parallel of scientific and religious method, and thereby its limitation.


Religion and science are not at war, nor have they ever been. For the Christian, theology is a department of study whose concern is God in his revelation of his nature, his purpose and his acts; whereas science is man’s systematic attempt to understand his creation. The methods of the two are distinct, in that one involves the reception of God’s self-revelation and the other active observation of the natural order. Science has no claim to speak on broader questions, such as the existence or non-existence of the supernatural universe, and the possibility or actuality of its breaking through into our own in the form of miracle. These are religious and philosophical questions, and when the scientist pronounces upon them he has stepped outside the area of his expertise and has no more authority than any other man to deliver himself of religious and philosophical judgments.

The two Books of Scripture and Nature have one God as their Author, and while we may have difficulties from time to time in holding the two together, we can seek their resolution in the confidence that, given patience and diligence, he who seeks will find.


I am grateful to the Rev. Dr John C. Sharp, Minister of the South Church, East Kilbride, Scotland, for the following bibliographical suggestions. In such a vast field they cannot claim to be comprehensive, but they will point those who are interested in the direction of further assistance. Dr Sharp, who entered the Church of Scotland ministry after work in industry and a degree in science, was awarded his PhD for a thesis on the philosophical, religious and theological foundations of the natural sciences. Asterisks mark the more important works.

The historical context

  1. Science and Belief from Copernicus to Darwin. An Open University course. Very fair and balanced. The visiting lecturers were Dr Alan Richardson and Prof. R. Hooykaas.

*2. Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science 1300–1800 (G. Bell, 1973). This is one of the classics in the field.

*3. D. C. Goodman, Science and Religious Belief 1600–1900. A Selection of Primary Sources (John Wright, in association with the Open University, 1973).

*4. J. Dillenberger, Protestant Thought and Natural Science (Collins, 1961).

  1. R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Scottish Academic Press, 1973).

*6. C. A. Russell (ed.), Science and Religious Belief: A Selection of Recent Historical Studies (University of London, 1973).

  1. Eugene M. Klaaren, Religious Origins of Modern Science (Eerdmans, 1977).

The secular background

It seems to me that much nonsense is talked because there is an insufficient awareness of the debates raging outside Christian circles. At least several of the following should be read if the Christian is to be properly orientated.

  1. J. T. Davies, The Scientific Approach (Academic Press, 1975): this is à la Popper!

*2. W. I. B. Beveridge, The Art of Scientific Investigation (Heinemann, 1961). A fascinating account of the different routes whereby theories have come about.

  1. A. Eddington, several works including The Nature of the Physical World (CUP, 1930) and The Philosophy of Physical Science (CUP, 1949). Normally labelled an idealist, Eddington does not in fact fit quite so neatly into that position once you start to read him.
  2. A. Einstein, e.g. The World as I See It (Bodley Head, 1935); *Ideas and Opinions (Souvenir Press, 1973).
  3. Rom Harré has written several books struggling against the acknowledged Christian basis of science as we have it. *An Introduction to the Logic of the Sciences (Macmillan, 1967). The Principle of Scientific Thinking(Macmillan, 1970). The Philosophies of Science (OUP, 1972).

*6. Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy (Allen and Unwin, 1971). Most interesting because his epistemological programme is quite explicit.

  1. T. S. Kuhn has written extensively. I recommend *The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1973); The Essential Tension (University of Chicago Press, 1977).

*8. Lakatos and Musgrave, Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (CUP, 1976). This gives the debate between Kuhn and Popper. Some of Lakatos’ own books are worth reading, in that he extends Popper’s arguments in a more sophisticated way.

  1. Karl Popper. Again, many works are relevant, especially The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Hutchinson, 1972); *Conjectures and Refutations: the Growth of Scientific Knowledge (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972); Objective Knowledge (OUP, 1975).
  2. J. R. Oppenheimer, Science and the Common Understanding (OUP, 1954). A small classic.

*11. M. Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973).

  1. S. E. Toulmin. Again, one who has written very extensively. The Philosophy of Science (Hutchinson, 1967); Foresight and Understanding (Hutchinson, 1961).

The liberal Christian viewpoint

*1. Ian G. Barbour, Science and Religion (SCM, 1968). Myths, Models and Paradigms: the Nature of Scientific and Religious Language (SCM, 1974).

  1. I. G. Barbour (ed.), Issues in Science and Religion (SCM, 1968).

*3. The magazine Anticipation has carried innumerable articles from WCC meetings dealing with the topic of science and religion. Also in this context, the two volumes Faith and Science in an Unjust World (WCC, Geneva, 1980).

  1. Langdon Gilkey. Again has written widely. Maker of Heaven and Earth (Doubleday, 1959). Religion and the Scientific Future: Reflections on Myth, Science and Theology (SCM, 1970).
  2. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and the Philosophy of Science (ET F. McDonagh, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1976).
  3. Alan Richardson, Open University course units and The Bible in the Age of Science (SCM, 1968).

The T. F. Torrance viewpoint

This is really quite unique. While I fundamentally disagree with T.F.T., his contribution seems to be one of the most balanced. So his Theological Science (OUP, 1969) is a must, but it is not easy to read.

Other mainly conservative works

  1. H. Cameron, ‘Prayer in a Closed Universe’, International Reformed Bulletin 67, (1976).

*2. G. H. Clark, The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God (Craig Press, 1973).

*3. R. B. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature (OUP, 1965).

  1. C. A. Coulson, Science and Christian Belief (Fontana, 1971).
  2. J. H. Diemer, Nature and Miracle (Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1977). An intriguing book by a Dutch biologist who died in 1948.
  3. D. L. Dye, Faith and the Physical World: A Comprehensive View (Paternoster, 1966). A typical evangelical work that often seems inadequate in its grasp of philosophical implications and therefore leaves holes in the argument.
  4. A. Holmes, Christian Philosophy in the 20th Century (Craig Press, 1969). A good survey.
  5. M. A. Jeeves, The Scientific Enterprise and Christian Faith (Tyndale Press, 1969).
  6. A. Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Eerdmans, 1931).

*10. D. M. McKay has written many times on our subject. I am basically unhappy with his idea of complementarity of science and religion, as I see religion playing a foundational role, but nevertheless McKay has produced some good works. One problem is that he tends to aim at a popular market. Christianity in a Mechanistic Universe (IVP, 1965). Freedom of Action in a Mechanistic Universe (CUP, 1967). The Clockwork Image: A Christian Perspective on Science(IVP, 1974).

*11. The works of Henry Morris, in particular The Genesis Flood (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1961). I remain unconvinced of his attempts to foist scientific statements onto obscure biblical passages.

*12. V. S. Poythress, Philosophy, Science and the Sovereignty of God (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976). This is an intriguing book. Poythress is unhappy with the jargon of Dooyeweerd but his own work seems to me to be even more heavily jargonized. Nevertheless, it is a serious attempt to work out a Christian approach to science from a covenantal perspective.

  1. B. Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Paternoster, 1971).
  2. R. J. Ream, A Christian Approach to Science and Science Teaching (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1972). A useful little book.

*15. E. Schuurman, Reflections on the Technological Society (Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1977). A small book but repays careful study.

*16. M. D. Staflau, Time and Again: a systematic analysis the foundations of physics (Wedge Publishing Foundation).

  1. H. van Riessen, ‘Science between Presuppositions and Decisions’, in The Idea of Christian Philosophy: Essays in Honour of D. H. T. Vollenhoven (Wedge, 1973).

1 London, 1896.

2 J. R. Moore, The Post-Darwinian Controversies (Cambridge, 1979), p. 99.

3 Edinburgh, 1972, p. xi. The Gunning Lectures for 1969.

4 Ibid., pp. 161–162. Emphasis ours.

5 Ibid., p. 161.

6 R. K. Merton, ‘Puritanism, Pietism and Science’, Sociological Review (old series) 28, part 1 (January 1936), reprinted in C. A. Russell (ed.), Science and Religious Belief. A Selection of Recent Historical Studies (London, 1973), p. 53. Emphasis original.

7 C. C. Gillispie, Genesis and Geology (Cambridge, Mass., 1951), p. 209.

8 Cited ibid., pp. 209, 210.

9 Ibid., p. 213.

10 Ibid., p. 211.

11 Ibid., p. 295.

12 Themelios, April 1982, pp. 28ff.

13 It was of course at a philosophical level that the design argument was first undermined. David Hume maintained that it was improper to demand for the world, as a whole, the kind of explanation which we normally expect for elements within it. There is an undoubted validity in this argument, but Hume himself appeared to feel the force of design argument nonetheless (in his Dialogues).

14 Don Cupitt, The Worlds of Science and Religion (London, 1976), pp. 11, 12.

15 A critique of Monod from a Christian perspective is found in A. E. Wilder-Smith, God: to be or not to be?(Stuttgart, 1975).

16 See C. S. Lewis, Miracles (London, 1947), for a very useful discussion of these issues. Bernard Ramm’s The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Exeter, 1955), looks at both the Christian view of nature and particular biblical narratives that give rise to ‘problems’.

17 T. F. Torrance, ‘Theological Rationality’ in Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicorum Lovaniensium, XXVII, p. 460. For a general (though demanding) exposition of Torrance’s position, see his Theological Science(London, 1969).

Nigel M. de S. Cameron

Deerfield, Illinois