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Science vs. Religion: The Conflict Thesis Revisited (2018)

Bart Klink

The greatest myth in the history of science and religion holds that they have been in a state of constant conflict.
—historian Ronald Numbers[1]

The 'insurmountable hostility' between science and religion is a caricature, a thought-cliché, perhaps useful as a satire on groupthink, but hardly representative of reality.
—sociologist Elaine Ecklund[2]

Today, this stereotype of the warfare of science and religion lingers on in the backwaters of Western culture. Yet it has largely lost its credibility.
—theologian Alister McGrath[3]

There is a superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.
—Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga[4]


The Historical Conflict
The Sociological Conflict
The Psychological Conflict
The Philosophical Conflict



It is commonly held that science and religion are in conflict. Most people are vaguely aware of the dispute between Galileo Galilei and the Catholic Church. More recent is the controversy about teaching evolution and creationism, especially in the United States. Even in a secular country like the Netherlands, the "year of Darwin" (2009) heated up a debate that many had thought to have already been settled. Prominent contemporary atheists have also argued that science and religion are in conflict, leaving religion with the short end of the stick.[5]

Other intellectuals have contested this conflict thesis (or warfare thesis), however, as the opening quotations demonstrate. More sophisticated believers and historians have objected that this conflict thesis (or model) has been supplanted, and that a lot of scientists—even top scientists—are religious. A prime example is Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and current director of the National Institutes of Health. Do these facts provide good grounds to discard the conflict thesis?

Several different questions should be distinguished in any discussion about the relationship between science and religion. Since different questions have different answers, nuances are often overlooked in discussions about the subject. There are issues concerning the history of the relationship between science and religion, but there are also sociological, psychological and philosophical issues. All of those subjects are complex and often oversimplified. This essay will deal with a number of different questions about the multifaceted relationship between science and religion. However, before we dive into all of that, we must first answer a different question: what do we mean by the notoriously difficult terms science and religion?

For the purpose of this essay, we can restrict religion to its doctrinal content, which mainly depends on the particular concept of god(s) and their supposed acts. The ritualistic and ethical aspects of religion hardly play a role in the present debate.[6] Most religious people think God interacts with our world through revelation, miracles, and answering prayers. Such a personal God is often considered to have human traits, such as the ability to love, be wrathful, and act accordingly. This is classical theism, the standard view of God in the three major monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Polytheistic religions have multiple gods that (can) interfere with our world, often each with his or her own personal traits.

Intervening and personal gods are central to all theistic religions (monotheistic or polytheistic). Theism should be distinguished from both deism and pantheism. On a deistic conception, God started the universe and let it run on its own ever since, without intervening. This view of God was popular among the intelligentsia during the Enlightenment, but has few adherents today. A deistic God would hardly be in conflict with science since he does not interfere with the natural order.[7] On pantheism, God is equated with nature; in the words of the philosopher Spinoza (1632-1677), he's "Deus sive Natura" ("God or Nature"). Equating God with nature makes pantheism hard to distinguish from atheism. Pantheism often just seems to be a way of speaking about nature metaphorically. For example, Albert Einstein once decried quantum mechanics with the famous phrase "God doesn't play dice with the universe," and atheistic cosmologist Stephen Hawking characterized our potential knowledge of a "theory of everything" as knowing "the mind of God."[8] Consequently, this essay will deal exclusively with the relationship between science and theism. Not only does the theistic view of God have the most adherents by far, but it is also the view that has the most to fear from science, as will be argued below.

For quite some time, philosophers of science have debated what is meant by the term science. For our purposes, two components of science need to be distinguished: its methodology, as well as the body of knowledge generated by employing this methodology. The "scientific method" simply refers to the systematic, empirical testing of hypotheses. This includes historical claims, which cannot repeatedly be tested under controlled conditions, but can be made plausible when multiple lines of (historical) evidence converge. The "body of knowledge" refers to the highly coherent picture that the conjoined sciences give us about reality, from the communication between neurons to the structure of space-time. The two components of science cannot be viewed completely separately, for the current body of knowledge leads to new hypotheses, and background knowledge plays an important role in testing claims.

This essay argues that science and (theistic) religion are in conflict with each other. This conflict manifests itself in four different domains/levels: historical, sociological, psychological, and philosophical. Historically, there is a conflict between the content of religious doctrines and the developing body of scientific knowledge. The sociological conflict consists of the fact that scientists are significantly less religious than nonscientists, and that people of faith reject scientific findings on religious grounds. The psychological conflict lies in the debunking effect of the cognitive science of religion. Finally, the philosophical conflict arises because the sciences have made the existence of God and other theistic claims improbable.

The Historical Conflict

The conflict thesis (or warfare thesis) has been around for quite some time. It maintains that science and religion are continually in conflict, and that science ultimately turns out to be the winner whenever there is a contest between them. According to this view, the scientist fights a heroic battle against the religious establishment, which is then forced to hold on to its doctrines. This classic version of the conflict thesis originated mainly from two books: History of the Conflict between Religion and Science by John William Draper, published in 1874, and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom by Andrew Dickson White, published in 1896.

Historical research in the past few decades, however, has showed that the conflict thesis, as put forth by Draper and White, has oversimplified matters.[9] There was no continuous conflict, and many scientists, including the classic example of Galileo, were themselves religious. They saw scientific inquiry as a way of studying God's creation. Should we therefore discard the conflict thesis entirely? According to many historians, (liberal) theologians, and religious scientists, we should (as the opening quotations exemplify). Christian philosopher Kelly James Clark also concludes that "the myth of continual and irreconcilable differences [between science and religion] needs to be put to its well-deserved final rest."[10]

In its classical form (i.e., the Draper-White variety), the conflict thesis should indeed be discarded. But from this we cannot conclude that religion has nothing to fear from science. On this issue, it is important to separate the views of scientists themselves on the one hand, and the implications of their work on the other. It is undeniable that many scientists have been religious (in the past centuries as well as today), and therefore saw no conflict between science and (their form of) religion themselves. This does not mean, however, that their scientific findings were free from conflict with the prevailing religious doctrines. The conflict is rather to be found in the content of religious doctrines, which became untenable in the light of scientific development. Let me illustrate this with some examples.[11]

Ancient Greek philosophers and physicians in the tradition of Hippocrates had already started to attribute phenomena like earthquakes, lightning, and many diseases to natural causes instead of gods. Similarly, the first-century AD Roman thinker Lucius Seneca thought that these kinds of phenomena were not produced by angry gods, but by natural causes. This contrasts sharply with many biblical stories, in which misfortune is often seen as a punishment from God.[12] Nevertheless, during the Middle Ages Christian thinkers were often looking for natural causes of phenomena (so called secondary causes) even though they believed that God could intervene directly (as a primary cause).

Serious inquiry into natural causes gained momentum in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The most famous example from this period is undoubtedly the Italian Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Though himself a Christian, Galileo clearly distinguished nature from Scripture, and insisted that one should be led by observation in discussions about nature. His intellectual predecessor, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), was reproached by the famous theological reformer Martin Luther for putting forth ideas that conflict with Scripture.[13] Copernicus and Galileo not only undermined the authority of the Bible, but also the prevailing worldview that the earth is the center of the universe. This geocentrism was an astronomical notion, but one with major philosophical implications. It is part of the traditional Judeo-Christian worldview in which humans take a central position (anthropocentrism).[14] The circular movements of the heavenly bodies in the firmament declare the perfection of God's handiwork. Geocentrism is also in line with the Bible, which states that the earth does not move (e.g., 1 Chronicles 16:30; Psalm 93:1) and that God caused the sun and the moon to stand still (Joshua 10:12-13), not the earth, as Luther reproached Copernicus. Even Hell, by Christians localized at the center of the earth—furthest away from Heaven—became problematic in light of the new heliocentrism.[15] When Copernicus and Galileo started to undermine the prevailing geocentrism, even these religious ideas were brought under dispute.

The trial of Galileo is historically complex[16], a point that is often used as an argument against the idea that there is a real conflict between science and religion. As noted earlier, Galileo was a religious man, and the empirical grounds for his view were not as strong early on as they would later become. Moreover, there were conflicts at a personal level, and Luther's Protestant Reformation made the Catholic Church more stringent doctrinally. Galileo's views also conflicted with the prevailing Aristotelianism of the time. The Inquisition judged Galileo's views to be "foolish and absurd in philosophy," but also "formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture, according to the literal meaning of the words and according to the common interpretation and understanding of the Holy Fathers and the doctors of theology."[17] The last part of this verdict is especially interesting, for it grounds the rejection of heliocentrism explicitly on the Bible and Christian theological tradition. Galileo was allowed to consider his ideas as merely hypothetical, but he did not conform to this restriction, which resulted in his famous trial. The verdict clearly stated Galileo's transgression: "having held and believed a doctrine that is false and contrary to the divine and Holy Scriptures."[18] Galileo was kept under house arrest until his death, and was compelled to renounce his heliocentric statements. He did not go to jail, but his intellectual imprisonment is abject and had to be terrible, especially for a scientist.

During this time, the idea that nature is governed by natural law (secondary causes) instead of direct divine intervention (primary causes) became more and more common in scientific circles. The scientific picture had become mechanistic.[19] The French Catholic philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) developed the idea that the entire universe consisted of eternal circular moving particles, and even speculated about how natural law could give rise to the solar system. The British physicist Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) provided another (similarly mechanistic) theory about the workings of the solar system. Newton was also religious, albeit unorthodox. To his mind, the natural workings of the solar system required a divine designer, and he needed God to intervene from time to time to maintain its stability. Later scientific developments by Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) and others showed that godly intervention was not necessary to account for the origin and stability of the solar system. This led to a famous attribution to Laplace in response to Napoleon Bonaparte's purported question about God's role in Laplace's system: "Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là" ("I have no need of that hypothesis").

In other fields of knowledge, appeals to supernatural explanations also started to decline throughout the seventeenth century. More and more, doctors provided natural accounts of medical disorders, though epidemics and madness were still ascribed to supernatural forces because their actual causes remained unknown. Epidemics and plagues, for example, were still regarded as punishments from God. In 1721 the governor of Massachusetts called for fasting and remorse because of an imminent epidemic, but a (Puritan) secretary saw more good in vaccination, which was then still in its infancy. Around that same time, lightning strikes were still seen by many people as divine punishments, but this belief gradually eroded away when lightning rods proved to be very effective in averting this supposed penalty from God.

The last two examples that I will mention concern developments in geology during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as well as Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.[20] The history of the earth and the biblical Flood were discussed in great deal during the seventeenth century. But new scientific developments not only showed that the earth was much older than was previously thought (on biblical grounds), but also that humans were not created separately from nonhuman animals. On the contrary, the evidence strongly suggested that slow, wasteful, and blind evolutionary mechanisms produced humankind, not direct creation by a perfectly good and all-powerful God. One could hardly deny that these developments had philosophical implications. Furthermore, they created doubts about theological matters like the historicity of Adam and Eve and the Fall. These implications were apparently strong enough to compel Pope Pius XII to state explicitly in his encyclical Humani Generis (On Human Origin, 1950) that all humans descended from Adam and Eve.[21] Again, religious doctrines were contested by scientific developments. The biblical stories of Creation and the Flood pretend to describe a historical reality, but these stories turned out to be false.[22] Even the great Church Father St. Augustine (354-430 AD), often considered an advocate of reading the Bible allegorically, confirms his belief that Genesis also contains history. He explicitly denies that Genesis should only be read allegorically, and discusses issues that still concern creationists to this day.[23] Even a religious concept as central as the idea of a soul has been made untenable by recent developments in psychology and neuroscience.[24]

The scientific developments outlined above clearly demonstrate at least three things. First, they contravene biblical authority: the Bible turned out to be wrong about our place in the universe, the age of the earth, the Flood, and the creation of mankind, forcing intellectuals to put their trust in observation and experiment over revelation, at least in matters concerning astronomy, geology, and biology. Second, they show that scientific developments clearly have philosophical and religious implications. Both Galileo's heliocentrism and Darwin's theory of evolution changed irreversibly the traditional Judeo-Christian view about humankind and its place in the universe. The view that science and religion are completely separate, exemplified in Stephen Jay Gould famously dubbing them non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA)[25], is therefore untenable. Finally, science has historically had a naturalizing tendency: naturalistic explanations provided by the developing sciences have debunked or made superfluous previously held supernatural explanations provided by religion. One could say that science 'desupernaturalizes' and provides a coherent naturalistic big picture of the universe.[26] In sum, scientific developments—even when they were brought to us primarily by religious scholars—have led to a doctrinal drawback of religion. The role for God as a designer and governor of the world has been increasingly reduced over time. While religious proponents often speak of the dialogue between science and religion, with respect to religious doctrines, there has only been a monologue—one in favor of science.

The Sociological Conflict

Other questions about the relationship between science and religion are sociological. What do people—and scientists in particular—think about religion? What do they think about how science and religion relate? If science and religion can coexist peacefully, we might expect scientists to be as religious (or nonreligious) as nonscientists. But sociological data clearly show otherwise: scientists are significantly less religious than the general population, especially when they are at the top of their fields. Edward Larson and Larry Witham[27] asked members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS)—the scientific elite—if they believed in a personal God (i.e., subscribed to theism). In 1998, only 7% of NAS members did, down from 28% in 1914. Of the nontheists, 21% were agnostics and 72% were atheists. Even less religious are the top evolutionary biologists. Greg Graffin and William Provine[28] showed that of only 4.7% of the evolutionary biologists in the NAS identified as theists, whereas 78% of them considered themselves to be naturalists—those who disbelieve in anything supernatural.

Wider and more detailed research has been done by Elaine Ecklund[29], who focused on scientists from major American universities—reputable scientists, but not all NAS members. Again, there was a considerable difference in the views of these scientists compared to nonscientists, albeit a smaller one compared to that of only NAS members. Of these reputable scientists, 64% were atheists or agnostics, compared to only 6% of nonscientists. Whereas 63% of nonscientists did not doubt God's existence, only 9% of reputable scientists had the same stance. Evangelical Christianity was particularly unpopular among the scientists: only 2% of them identified with it, compared to a sizeable 28% of the American population. Furthermore, the believing scientists had rather liberal religious beliefs. Another 15% of the scientists said that they had a religious identity even though they did not believe in God (with 75% of the Jewish scientists being atheistic).

It would be interesting to know why scientists as a whole are far less religious than the general population. Ecklund analyzes contributing factors on the basis of in-depth interviews. Apart from practicing science itself, she lists bad experience with religion, the problem of evil/suffering, lack of interest, and having had a secular upbringing. These factors are not unique to scientists, however, and thus could account for unbelief in anyone. Her list of factors, therefore, does not seem to provide a plausible explanation for the nonbelief of scientists per se, but Ecklund provides no further discussion. A plausible explanation is nevertheless easy to fathom: scientists typically have a more analytic thinking style, which tends to enhance religious skepticism and disbelief.[30]

Another sociological question concerns the extent to which science is rejected by the faithful, as well as why they reject it. If science and religion were really in harmony, one would not expect to see a large difference in the acceptance of science by believers when compared to nonbelievers. Again, the data show otherwise. Polls consistently show that about 45% of the American population hold creationist beliefs.[31] In 2010 David P. Wilson found that, worldwide, 59% of Christians were creationists, while only 7% accepted natural evolution.[32] Interestingly, the creationists stated that their main reason for rejecting evolution was not the (alleged) lack of evidence for it, but was religious (e.g., due to a literal reading of Genesis, or because evolution undermines the doctrine of being created in God's image). Wilson also looked at why atheists rejected the existence of gods. Their answers mainly cited the lack of evidence for gods, as well as the perception that Scripture conflicts with science. Wilson also found that the Christians were more certain about their beliefs than the atheists were, implying less skepticism on the part of the Christians in his survey.

The rejection of evolution is not only a Christian problem. Salman Hameed reports that only 8-20% of the Muslims he surveyed accept the theory of evolution.[33] Human evolution is particularly controversial among them. Hameed also reports that out of 18 Pakistani science teachers, a full 15 of them reject human evolution. They nonetheless believe that there is no conflict between science and Islam. The low acceptance of evolution is confirmed for Muslim students, too, and to a lesser extent, Muslim science teachers.[34] According to data from the World Value Survey, Muslims from countries like Pakistan, Egypt, Morocco, and Qatar strongly agree with the statement "Whenever science and religion conflict, religion is always right" (65-98%).[35]

These data on Christian and Muslim views about evolution not only show that evolution is widely rejected, but also that this rejection has religious roots. There is a clear correlation between the rejection of evolution and belief in God.[36] Leslie Rissler, Sarah Duncan, and Nicholas Caruso found that religiosity, rather than education, best explains students' views on evolution.[37] Moreover, nearly two-thirds of Americans said that they would continue to hold certain religious beliefs even if they were rejected by science.[38]

Of course, not all religious people are this reluctant to accept scientific findings. Religious scientists and liberal theologians often have no problem with, for example, evolution—or so it seems. The evangelical geneticist Francis Collins and Pope John Paul II are often paraded as thinkers who accept both evolution and their religion.[39] These sorts of religious intellectuals are sometimes put on display as evidence against the conflict thesis. However, neither Collins nor Pope John Paul II accept evolution without qualification, for they argue that our moral and mental faculties could not have evolved naturalistically.[40] Evolutionary biologists, by contrast, understand evolution to be a natural and undirected process that also created our moral and mental faculties, regardless of whether believers who accept evolution see it this way. Furthermore, they do not represent the believing population, as shown by the data above. Finally, these examples of (apparent) harmony only show that science and religion can both be accepted by the same person, not that science and religion are philosophically consistent (which will be discussed later). The fact that some modern doctors prescribe homeopathic remedies hardly suggests that homeopathy and modern medicine are consistent.

In sum, scientists are less religious than nonscientists, and more so if they are eminent. There is also a clear correlation between religiosity and the rejection of evolution. The evidence shows that religion impedes the acceptance of scientific facts. All of this suggests that there is a conflict between science and religion on a sociological level.

The Psychological Conflict

The flowering field of the cognitive science of religion (CSR) (which includes anthropologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists) aims to account for the psychological roots of religion in a scientific (naturalistic) way.[41] Though it is very young, the field has put forth several different hypotheses for understanding (certain aspects of) religion. In a strictly logical sense, explaining religion in a naturalistic way does not exclude a supernatural origin for any religion. Any argument that particular religious claims are false because they have psychological explanations commits the genetic fallacy. Nevertheless, one can make a legitimate probabilistic argument that naturalistic explanations not only render supernatural accounts superfluous, but improbable.[42] CSR can thus have a debunking effect on religious claims.

The core issue here is the causal mechanism used to explain religion. Traditionally, the mechanism is assumed to be divine—the inspiration of prophets or Holy Scripture, or direct communication with believers (through answered prayers, or hearing/seeing God or holy figures). Religious experiences and revelation are sometimes even used in formal arguments for the existence of God. If divine causes can be shown to be not only unnecessary, but less probable than purely naturalistic explanations, then this would undermine any claim to a religion's supernatural origin. If there is no causal connection with the divine, directly or indirectly, then religion is just as natural a phenomenon as painting or cooking, and so cannot credibly be used in an argument for the existence of God.

CSR research has shown that religious belief can be explained by natural cognitive mechanisms.[43] Such mechanisms include anthropomorphizing tendencies (projecting human-like characteristics on to nonhuman things), propensities toward mind-body dualism (the belief that minds/souls exist independently of bodies/brains), teleological thinking (projecting purpose on to nonpurposeful phenomena), and mentalizing (ascribing minds or supernatural agency to things in order to communicate with them). These natural mechanisms bias us to find the existence of supernatural entities (e.g., gods, angels, demons, and spirits) intuitively compelling even though belief in them is not rationally justifiable. It turns out that believers indeed have a more intuitive thinking style, whereas disbelievers have a more analytic (rational, questioning) thinking style.[44] Furthermore, spiritual experiences that were long seen as clearly supernatural, such as near-death and out-of-body experiences (NDEs and OBEs), can now (at least partially) be explained naturalistically as complex and profound hallucinations.[45]

These natural mechanisms not only make supernatural explanations superfluous, but also fit well with our background knowledge of how the universe works, which paints a picture in which supernatural interference simply plays no role.[46] Furthermore, these naturalistic accounts of religion have greater parsimony because one doesn't have to invoke special pleading to maintain that Christians affirm their doctrines because the one true God revealed those doctrines to them, whereas non-Christian believers affirm different doctrines due to the sorts of naturalistic mechanisms that CSR investigates. Naturalistic accounts of religion also have greater explanatory power because they don't require anyone to posit any ad hoc hypotheses, such as that of a sensus divinitatis or "sense of the divine." It is also important to note that naturalistic explanations could have utterly failed to explain religion, or that there could have been evidence for supernatural interference when a particular prophet spoke or a particular believer prayed. There could have also been evidence for the existence of brainless minds, or of souls leaving the deceased body, but of course there is none.[47] The debunking effect of naturalistic explanations of religion (especially as part of a larger naturalistic picture) on supernatural accounts can be seen as a conflict between science and religion in the psychological domain.

The Philosophical Conflict

The last conflict between science and religion is philosophical: science has made the existence of God improbable. According to a commonly held view, this is impossible because science cannot say anything about the existence of either God or the supernatural in general. The National Academy of Sciences, for example, maintains this position.[48] This view holds that science is intrinsically methodologically naturalistic, that is, that science can only work with natural causes and explanations.[49] As a supernatural being, God would thus be outside of the domain of science by definition. There are multiple problems with this view[50], but I will restrict my comments to the supposed interaction of God with the world. If divine action occurs, evidence of it could and should be there; the absence of such evidence thus renders the existence of God improbable.[51]

It is important to remember that on classical theism, God is not only able to interact with our natural world, but actually does so. Even if God himself transcends this world completely, his actions on this world have empirical consequences. According to Jewish and Christian Scripture, for example, God created the world, destroyed it in the Flood, sent plagues upon the Egyptian empire, led the Jewish people out of Egypt through the desert (the Exodus) to conquer Canaan, and so on. All this should have left massive amounts of evidence, yet there is none, despite decades of relevant intensive research.[52] According to the New Testament, Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water, turned water into wine, and was resurrected from the dead. The crucifixion is said to have been accompanied by hours of darkness during daytime, an earthquake, and the resurrection of saints (Matthew 27). Again, though, there is no extrabiblical evidence to corroborate any of these stories, while there easily could have been. All of these miracles had to break the natural order in a way that would have been noticed by many people, and thus should have been empirically detectable. This puts all such miracle claims in the domain of science, at least in principle. There could, and in some cases should, have been evidence of God's miraculous interference in history; yet in fact there is none.[53] Apparently, the legendary biblical days of unequivocal manifestations of the divine in this world are over.

The same point could be made about prayer. Millions of believers expect God to answer their prayers. They ask God to cure the sick, for example, a form of intercessory prayer. Millions of ill Christians still go on an annual pilgrimage to Lourdes (France) in the hope that by doing so, God will cure them. Anecdotes of miraculous healings abound, but if God really does cure people, one ought to be able to demonstrate a statistically significant effect from engaging in "distant" prayer. No such effect has ever been demonstrated, however, and not for want of trying. Research on the effect of intercessory prayer has even been published in renowned scientific journals.[54] Although such research has not shown that prayer produces any effect, had there been an effect, it would have been demonstrated scientifically. If such an effect could not be ascribed to methodological errors and was replicated by other researchers, the implications would be overwhelming. Not only would the believer have good evidence for the efficacy of prayer, but the data would be very hard to explain naturalistically. Presumably, doctors would even have to prescribe prayer since their recommendations would be evidence-based.

A final potential case could be made for creationism. If all of the astronomical, geological, and biological evidence had confirmed the biblical stories about creation and the Flood, we would have had very good evidence for God's interference, for the truth of the Bible, and against naturalism. But in fact these stories turned out to be historically inaccurate, and are precisely the kinds of stories one would expect from people without accurate knowledge about the universe and its history. The actual history of the universe does not betray any evidence of divine intervention, even though it could have done so.[55]

The examples mentioned above make one point very clear: there could and in some cases should have been evidence of God's interaction with our world, but there is none. Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke, and Johan Braeckman therefore righty conclude: "Supernatural claims do not fall beyond the reach of science; they have simply failed."[56] One could object that God moves in mysterious ways, or in ways that seem to be naturalistic, but are actually supernatural, or that God will not perform miracles to prove skeptics wrong.[57] But this is simply an immunizing strategy typically used by pseudoscientists and conspiracy theorists[58], not a reasonable defense. One could also object that God is not a scientific hypothesis to be tested.[59] Perhaps treating God as a hypothesis is indeed theologically or psychologically inappropriate or even absurd, but philosophically it is not, for religions make epistemological and factual claims that can be tested empirically. When these claims can be refuted, it is justified to (tentatively) conclude that there is no God interacting with our world. The sciences have given us a naturalistic account of the world: matter-energy is ordered in certain patterns (natural laws) in space-time. Purportedly supernatural events—once omnipresent in human explanations—turned out to be natural or nonexistent.

The rational believer now has two strategies for saving the theistic (interacting) God. The first is to look further for good evidence of divine intervention. Creationists, including "intelligent design" proponents, have been trying this for decades, but without producing any convincing results.[60] Experiments involving intercessory prayer also exemplify this strategy, though likewise without producing the hoped-for results. The consistent failure of this strategy is therefore discouraging. The other strategy is to argue that God does not directly intervene in the natural order, but is the one behind the natural order. On this view, God did not create the world in a direct supernatural way (as in the biblical narrative), but in an indirect natural way, via natural evolution, as is proposed by the theologian John Haught.[61] The problem with this strategy is that we have no good reason to think that God is behind the natural causes of events, as an extra entity overdetermining them. Such overdetermination is logically possible, of course, but so is the view that the Greek god Poseidon is causing earthquakes via plate tectonics. Both ideas posit explanatorily unnecessary entities that can be dismissed with Ockham's razor. Therefore, this strategy does not seem particularly promising, either.

Could the rational believer reside in 'other ways of knowing,' besides science? Traditionally, revelations handed down by prophets, the experiences of individual believers (in prayer or in visions of religious apparitions), and sacred Scripture have been used as substitutes for empirical knowledge. But they turn out to be an epistemological catastrophe.[62]

Believers in different religions make different and often contradictory claims based on their alleged revelations.[63] Polytheistic beliefs and "revelations" contradict those of monotheists. The notion of reincarnation based on karma contradicts the notion of an eternal afterlife based on God's judgment. According to the Bible, Jesus is the Son of God, but according to the Qur'an, he is not. Not only are religious sources contradictory, but there is no defensible procedure for deciding between them, making religious disputes unresolvable. In fact, science has often invalidated the Bible in those places where it can be tested, further undermining its reliability. Historical research has also shown that the Gospels are historically unreliable.[64] This contrasts sharply with science, which is able to validate its methods and sources, and has provided us with a great deal of reliable knowledge, as well as many practical applications.

While caught up in the minutiae of detailed theistic arguments and claims, the general trend is too easily overlooked: the supernatural (theistic or otherwise) has historically given way to the natural. Before the scientific revolution, the origin of the world was held to be supernatural, and according to the Bible, diseases and misfortune were the result of supernatural causes. The Bible was held to be a more or less infallible revelation from God, and the stories in it were generally taken to be historical. Divine intervention was widely accepted. All of this changed so radically in the past few centuries because of science. No scientific discipline appeals to supernatural explanations and causes anymore because all previous supernatural explanations have turned out to be false or unfruitful. Cosmology, astronomy, geology, biology, neuroscience, and psychology have shown that our origins are natural; the supernatural stories have been superseded. This is the most profound conflict between science and religion.


The simplistic and naïve version of the science-religion conflict thesis is historically false and has indeed been superseded, but that is untrue of the version presented here. I have shown that science and religion conflict in at least four different domains. In the historical domain, the doctrinal content of religion has become less and less tenable as science has progressed. In the sociological domain, scientists are much less religious than nonscientists, and religious believers often overtly reject science on religious grounds. In the psychological domain, advances in the cognitive science of religion have undermined the tenability of supernatural accounts of religion. Finally, the discoveries of science have made the existence of God and other religious claims improbable, while religious 'ways of knowing' are independently highly problematic on their own. Science paints a naturalistic big picture of the world at the expense of the supernatural, leaving religion with much to fear from scientific progress. The believer who wants to take science seriously has to dismiss religious claims about factual matters and concede that science has made classical theism untenable.


[1] Ronald L. Numbers (Ed.), Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 1.

[2] Elaine Howard Ecklund, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 5.

[3] Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World (London, UK: Rider, 2005), p. 89.

[4] Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. ix.

[5] See, for example: Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York, NY: Random House, 2009); Victor J. Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis—How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2008); Herman Philipse, God in the Age of Science? A Critique of Religious Reason (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008); Jerry A. Coyne, Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible (New York, NY: Viking, 2015).

[6] This is true despite the fact that ethical matters, such as those surrounding abortion and stem cell research, concern the following sorts of factual questions: Does a human embryo have a soul? Is it conscious? And rituals seem to be pointless without a factual basis, although one can enjoy them for other reasons.

[7] Arguments for a nonintervening God (such as cosmological, fine-tuning, or ontological arguments) will not be discussed here. For a critical evaluation of these arguments, see: Graham Oppy, Arguing About Gods (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006) and Philipse, God in the Age of Science?.

[8] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1988).

[9] See, for example: David C. Lindberg & Ronald L. Numbers (Eds.), Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986); David C. Lindberg & Ronald L. Numbers (Eds.), When Science and Christianity Meet (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Numbers, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion; and Thomas Dixon, Geoffrey Cantor, & Stephen Pumfrey (Eds.), Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[10] Kelly James Clark, Religion and the Sciences of Origins: Historical and Contemporary Discussions (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p. 25.

[11] These examples are discussed in Lindberg & Numbers' When Science and Christianity Meet.

[12] Bart D. Ehrman, God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—why We Suffer (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2008).

[13] Lindberg & Numbers, Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, especially pp. 82 and 105.

[14] A good discussion of the biblical worldview and its interpretation throughout the ages can be found in Kyle Greenwood, Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015).

[15] Lindberg & Numbers, Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, pp. 124-125.

[16] Lindberg & Numbers, When Science and Christianity Meet, pp. 33-60.

[17] Consultant's Report on Copernicanism (24 February 1616), available online at "Scriptural References and Assessment" on Douglas O. Linder's Trial of Galileo (2002) page at <>.

[18] Lindberg & Numbers, When Science and Christianity Meet, p. 55.

[19] Eduard Jan Dijksterhuis, The Mechanization of the World Picture: Pythagoras to Newton, trans. C. Dikshoorn (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1961).

[20] Peter J. Bowler, Evolution: The History of an Idea (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003).

[21] Pope Pius XII is particularly explicit about this in §37 of his Humani Generis.

[22] Because Genesis contains many symbolic and theological points, many have argued that it should not be read literally. However, the presence of allegory and theology does not preclude a historical reading. A historical reading is in fact the plain meaning of the text, and was the mainstream reading until the rise of science made it problematic. This point is not limited to the apologetics of young earth creationists, but has been made by reputable biblical scholars. (The historical inaccuracy of the text does not demean its literary value, of course.) For a further discussion, see John Day's From Creation to Babel: Studies in Genesis 1-11 (London, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014) and Ronald Hendel's The Book of Genesis: A Biography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).

[23] In De Civitate Dei (The City of God), St. Augustine considers how there can be day and night before the sun is created (Book XI, Chapter 6), that all people descended from one man (Book XII, Chapter 9), the young age of the earth (Book XII, Chapter 10), the Garden of Eden as an actual, historical place (Book XIII, Chapter 23), the high ages of humans before the Flood (Book XV, Chapters 9-11), that Adam's children married each other (Book XV, Chapter 16), if the waters of the Flood could rise high enough to envelope the landmass of the earth, if all the animals would fit on Noah's ark and problems with providing food on it (Book XV, Chapter 27), and so on. St. Augustine was a creationist before the term was created!

[24] See, for example: Julien Musolino, The Soul Fallacy: What Science Shows We Gain from Letting Go of Our Soul Beliefs (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2015); and Part I ("Empirical Arguments for Annihilation") of Michael Martin & Keith Augustine (Eds.), The Myth of an Afterlife: The Case against Life After Death (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

[25] Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1999).

[26] This is comprehensively argued by Sean Carroll in The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (New York, NY: Dutton, 2016).

[27] Edward J. Larson & Larry Witham, "Leading Scientists Still Reject God." Nature Vol. 394 (July 23, 1998): 313.

[28] Gregory W. Graffin & William B. Provine, "Evolution, Religion and Free Will." American Scientist Vol. 95, No. 4 (July-August 2007): 294-297.

[29] Ecklund, Science vs. Religion.

[30] Ara Norenzayan & Will M. Gervais, "The Origins of Religious Disbelief." Trends in Cognitive Sciences Vol. 17, No. 1 (January 2013): 20-25.

[31] Frank Newport, "In US, 42% Believe Creationist View of Human Origins" (June 2, 2014). Gallup News Service. <>.

[32] David P. Wilson, "European Christians are at the Forefront in Accepting Evolution: Results from an Internet-Based Survey." Evolution & Development Vol. 12, No. 6 (November/December 2010): 537-540.

[33] Salman Hameed, "Bracing for Islamic Creationism." Science Vol. 322, Issue 5908 (December 12, 2008): 1637-1638.

[34] See: Saouma BouJaoude, Anila Asghar, Jason R. Wiles, Lama Jaber, Diana Sarieddine, & Brian Alters. "Biology Professors' and Teachers' Positions Regarding Biological Evolution and Evolution Education in a Middle Eastern Society." International Journal of Science Education, Vol. 33, No. 7 (2011): 979-1000; Saouma BouJaoude, Jason R. Wiles, Anila Asghar, & Brian Alters, "Muslim Egyptian and Lebanese Students' Conceptions of Biological Evolution." Science & Education, Vol. 20, Number 9 (September 2011): 895-915; and Anila Asghar, "Canadian and Pakistani Muslim Teachers' Perceptions of Evolutionary Science and Evolution Education." Evolution: Education and Outreach, Vol. 6, No. 1 (December 2013): 1-12.

[35] World Value Survey data accessible at:

[36] Jerry A. Coyne, "Science, Religion, and Society: The Problem of Evolution in America." Evolution Vol. 66, No. 8 (August 2012): 2654-2663.

[37] Leslie J. Rissler, Sarah I. Duncan, & Nicholas M. Caruso, "The Relative Importance of Religion and Education on University Students' Views of Evolution in the Deep South and State Science Standards Across the United States." Evolution: Education and Outreach Vol. 7, No. 1 (December 2014): 24. See also: Jonathan P. Hill, "Rejecting Evolution: The Role of Religion, Education, and Social Networks." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion Vol. 53, No. 3 (September 2014): 575-594.

[38] David Masci, "How the Public Resolves Conflicts Between Faith and Science" (August 27, 2007). Pew Research Center. <>.

[39] Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2006); Pope John Paul II, "Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences." Quarterly Review of Biology Vol. 72, No. 4 (December 1997): 381-383.

[40] Bart Klink, "The Untenability of Theistic Evolution" (2009). The Secular Web. <>.

[41] Justin L. Barrett, "Cognitive Science of Religion" (pp. 409-412) in Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer, 2013), edited Anne Runehov & Luis Oviedo.

[42] Maarten Boudry, Fabio Paglieri, & Massimo Pigliucci, "The Fake, the Flimsy, and the Fallacious: Demarcating Arguments in Real Life." Argumentation Vol. 29, No. 4 (2015): 431-456.

[43] Aiyana K. Willard & Ara Norenzayan, "Cognitive Biases Explain Religious Belief, Paranormal Belief, and Belief in Life's Purpose." Cognition Vol. 129, No. 2 (November 2013): 379-391.

[44] See: Gordon Pennycook, James Allan Cheyne, Paul Seli, Derek J. Koehler, & Jonathan A. Fugelsang, "Analytic Cognitive Style Predicts Religious and Paranormal Belief." Cognition, Vol. 123, No. 3 (June 2012): 335-346; and Amitai Shenhav, David G. Rand, & Joshua D. Greene, "Divine Intuition: Cognitive Style Influences Belief in God." Journal of Experimental Psychology: General Vol. 141, No. 3 (2011): 423-428.

[45] For example, see: Dean Mobbs & Caroline Watt, "There is Nothing Paranormal About Near-Death Experiences: How Neuroscience can Explain Seeing Bright Lights, Meeting the Dead, or Being Convinced You are One of Them." Trends in Cognitive Sciences Vol. 15, No. 10 (October 2011): 20-25; and Olaf Blanke, Stéphanie Ortigue, Theodor Landis, & Margitta Seeck, "Neuropsychology: Stimulating Illusory Own-Body Perceptions." Nature Vol. 419, No. 6904 (September 19, 2002): 269-270. Recent research on this topic is thoroughly discussed in Susan Blackmore, Seeing Myself: The New Science of Out-of-Body Experiences (London, UK: Robinson, 2017).

[46] Carroll, The Big Picture.

[47] Martin & Augustine, The Myth of an Afterlife; Musolino, The Soul Fallacy.

[48] The National Academy of Sciences, "Compatibility of Science and Religion" (2008). <>.

[49] Eugenie C. Scott, Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2009).

[50] Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke, & Johan Braeckman, "How Not to Attack Intelligent Design Creationism: Philosophical Misconceptions About Methodological Naturalism." Foundations of Science Vol. 15, No. 3 (August 2010): 227-244.

[51] This is also argued by Stenger in God: The Failed Hypothesis.

[52] Paul Tobin, "The Bible and Modern Scholarship" (pp. 148-180) in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2010), edited John Loftus.

[53] One could argue that historical reality is not important to convey a religious point, but that puts the Bible on par with other mythical and legendary stories. This may not be relevant from a literary perspective, but it is from a philosophical one.

[54] Herbert Benson, Jeffery A. Dusek, Jane B. Sherwood, Peter Lam, Charles F. Bethea, William Carpenter, Sidney Levitsky, Peter C. Hill, Donald W. Clem Jr., Manoj K. Jain, David Drumel, Stephen L. Kopecky, Paul S. Mueller, Dean Marek, Sue Rollins, and Patricia L. Hibberd, "Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in Cardiac Bypass Patients: A Multicenter Randomized Trial of Uncertainty and Certainty of Receiving Intercessory Prayer." American Heart Journal Vol. 151, No. 4 (April 2006): 934-942.

[55] See the section titled "A Natural History of the Universe" in Keith Augustine, A Defense of Naturalism (College Park, MD: University of Maryland Master's thesis, 2001). <>.

[56] Boudry, Blancke, & Braeckman, "How Not to Attack Intelligent Design Creationism," p. 228.

[57] In the story of the prophet Elijah at Mount Carmel, God does prove 'skeptics' (prophets of another god) wrong, after which they are slaughtered by God's prophet (1 Kings 18:20-46).

[58] Maarten Boudry & Johan Braeckman, "Immunizing Strategies and Epistemic Defense Mechanisms." Philosophia Vol. 39, No. 1 (March 2011): 145-161.

[59] Clark, Religion and the Sciences of Origins.

[60] Matt Young & Taner Edis (Eds.), Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism (Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004).

[51] John Haught, Deeper Than Darwin: The Prospect for Religion in the Age of Evolution (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2003).

[62] Philipse, God in the Age of Science?

[63] Raymond D. Bradley, "The Rivalry Between Religions" (2007). The Secular Web. <>.

[64] See: Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2005; and Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them) (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2009).

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