Science and Religion, pt. 4: History III- The Conflict of Science and Religion.

February 23, 2018.

This is part four of the Science and Religion series. For the introductory post, click here. For the previous post, click here. For a PDF version, click here.

With a brief overview of our historical context and culture, I think we can move on to some examples of the apparent conflicts between science and religion and hopefully see where our own worldview comes into play in these supposed conflicts. We will start with an example from the time period of the Scientific revolution and then move on to a couple of conflicts that are still live today (both of which this series is specifically designed to address). We live in a culture that has a narrative that science and religion are always in conflict because they have inherent tension, and because of this, these famous conflicts between science and religion are often blown entirely out of proportion. As we look at these examples, try to think outside of your cultural context and view them for what they are. My goal is to present a historical case in which the great majority of Christians today are firmly on the “side” of science as opposed to the then traditional Christian interpretation, and use this information to re-evaluate why we take certain positions in the current debates. Before we look at the evidence that leads scientists to believe what they do, I think it important to evaluate our own reasoning for being so defensive in the first place. We will explore this further after looking at the evidences.

Copernicus and Galileo

As was mentioned in our previous post, the beginning of the Scientific Revolution is often marked by Nicolaus Copernicus and his heliocentric model of the universe.[1] This is probably the most famous conflict between science and religion, especially in case of the Galileo affair.[2] I think there are several lessons that we can learn from this event that will help us move forward in the discussion of science and religion. Before 1543 (and for many years thereafter), the great majority of the Western world believed that the sun and the stars rotated around Earth. This logic, though finding its deep roots in ancient cosmology, proceeded mainly from the Greek Philosopher Aristotle. Actually, the state of science before the Scientific Revolution rested in the words of Aristotle, and knowledge about the universe did not come from observation, but rather from study of Aristotle’s works. The view that the Sun, stars and heavenly bodies rotate around the earth is called the geocentric model of the universe. Dissatisfied with the geocentric model and its lack of ability to explain some aspects of the heavenly bodies (such as the retrograde motion of some of the planets), Nicolaus Copernicus put forth a new model, called the heliocentric model, in which the earth and the planets rotate around the sun. With this model, Copernicus found more satisfying answers to the motion of the heavenly bodies, which was his criterion for a better model/theory.

It is important to note here that Copernicus did not put forth any new evidence to support his model. He simply reinterpreted the evidence that was already known to learned people in the area. It is also important to note that Copernicus was allowed to explore his model as long as he kept it at the hypothetical level (not asserting that the heliocentric model actually described true reality), though his Magnus opus, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), was later put on the banned books list of the Catholic church for its heretical views. Copernicus’ views were not widely accepted in his own day because of the pervasive Aristotelian cosmology and because he did not actually put forth any new evidence to bolster his work (it is argued that the concept of “discovery” and “new evidence” to explain and update knowledge was a new concept that began with Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the new world[3]). Thus, Copernicus’ view was by and large ignored and regarded as a curiosity rather than taken seriously by the philosophers of the day. A few people were persuaded, or at least intrigued, but it was not until Galileo that the conflict really came to a head.

It is important to remember the time and culture in which the Galileo affair was born. One historian has said

If Copernicus’s book had been published either one hundred years earlier or one hundred years later, the Galileo affair would probably not have happened. But, in fact, it was published in 1543, when the Reformation was in full bloom and the Counter Reformation was just beginning. Hence it was that by 1616 all of the actors and cultural forces were in place for the drama of the Galileo affair to begin.[4]

What Galileo brought to the discussion was his new observations through the telescopes that he had been perfecting. Thus, he had new evidence that supported the heliocentric model, such as the regular series of phases of Venus and the moon, sunspots, and the moons of Jupiter. Though these observations didn’t completely prove that the heliocentric model was correct, it did lend good reason to reject the geocentric model for the heliocentric model, a view that Galileo unapologetically endorsed until he was later forced to recant his ideas. The conflict that ensued between Galileo and the Church is often blown out of proportion, with some accounts of Galileo even being tortured. This was certainly not the case. The details of the trial and private dealings with Galileo are a bit fuzzy, but the outcome of the trial was that Galileo was forced to recant and was placed under what we would call house arrest for most of the rest of his life. He was still allowed to continue his work and writing, as long as he stayed away from Copernican and the heliocentric model, and even published what would be his most influential book in physics, Discourse on the Two New Sciences.

So why was the heliocentric model so controversial? Today this is hardly something we would even question. Much less would we image one of our peers who would genuinely hold a geocentric view of the universe. Aside from the political and cultural turmoil and influences (which certainly played a large role in the Galileo affair, as they also do today), there was a biblical reason that the church rejected Copernicus’ ideas. Perhaps two of the most famous biblical proofs that the earth did not move (and that the sun and stars rather circled the earth) come from Joshua and the book of Psalms.

“At that time Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel,

“Sun, stand still at Gibeon,

    and moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.”

And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped,

    until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.

Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in the midst of heaven and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.”
(Joshua 10:12-13)

“In them he has set a tent for the sun,

    which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,

    and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.

Its rising is from the end of the heavens,

    and its circuit to the end of them,

    and there is nothing hidden from its heat.”
(Psalm 19:4b-6)

From these verses, it is clear that the geocentric model is in view. Joshua tells the sun to stand still, not the earth. The psalm clearly says that the sun circles the earth. Other passages that were often invoked to show the truth of geocentrism included Genesis 1 and Eccleasties 1:4-6. Psalm 104:5 makes a clear statement that God set the earth on its foundations and it will never be moved. Since Aristotelian logic (which was dominate at the time) and the bible were in agreement (and because the Catholic Church was on high alert of differential teachings due to the Reformation), any new model that was put forth was obviously heresy. With this, we are now ready to take some lessons from the Galileo affair.

  1. The biblical writers did share a different cosmology than we do today. What I think we have to admit if we are being honest is that these verses do seem to teach that the earth is the center of the universe, doesn’t move, and the sun rotates around the earth. Some people try to deny or harmonize these passages with our knowledge today by saying “oh, it was just poetry, they didn’t actually mean that”, however, there are two problems with this statement. First, there is no rule in poetry that says “if something is said in poetry, it must mean the poet doesn’t actually believe what is being said.” Actually, far from it. Poetry affirms what we believe. Yes, there is figurative language in poetry, and sometimes these figures are used to represent different ideas. But this is not always the case, and certainly isn’t the case in Ecc. 1:4-6, for that would work against the meaning of the entire poem. In fact, Ecc. 1:4-6 only makes sense if the writer actually believed the sun rotated around the earth.[5] Secondly, the passage with Joshua is not figurative language. Yes, his command to the sun is in a poetic form, but the prose that follows clearly states that the sun stood still.[6] The fact of the matter is that biblical writers, especially those in the Ancient Near East where the Old Testament was produced, held a different cosmology than we do, and this is not the only instance where that cosmology comes out.[7]
  2. This is an instance where a new idea in scientific thought did overturn traditional readings of the bible. Though it is uncomfortable and we might dismiss it due to our own understanding of the universe (see next point), the fact of the matter is that during this time the traditional (conservative) view of the universe was the geocentric model, and this model was based on a literal interpretation of several key biblical passages. Whether we agree with the interpretation of these passages today or not makes no difference- there was no disagreement before Copernicus. Yet, once the heliocentric model was affirmed and became the consensus view in science (this did take quite a long time, as change even in science is often very hard), these biblical passages were reinterpreted in different ways in light of the scientific evidence. The thought that the bible should trump scientific knowledge if they are in apparent disagreement was the going thought of the day (as it is in many places in America today). Yet this did not hold the test of time, and the new scientific information did eventually trump the traditional reading of the text.
  3. Our own cosmology comes from our culture. Like it or not, we are heavily influenced by the context we live in. The controversy over the geocentric/heliocentric model of the universe is probably quite foreign to us. It is very important to note that this is because we have been convinced that the heliocentric model (or a modification thereof) is the correct model of the universe. Because of this (which is made known to us in science), it is extremely easy for us to say “those passages in the bible are just figurative” or “they were writing from their own point of view from the earth”.[8] It is easy because we believe the heliocentric model. But ask yourself a question: Why do you believe the heliocentric model? Is it because you have actually observed the planets rotating around the sun yourself? Have you been to space and seen the earth from afar? Have you made detailed observations using a telescope that have convinced you that the model corresponds to reality? My guess is that for the majority of us, the answer to those questions are “No”. Then why do you believe the heliocentric model? Because that’s what you have been taught in your own context and culture. You’ve likely seen pictures from NASA, models of the solar system in print and in person, and trust the (overwhelming) consensus view of astronomers and physicists who study these things. Thus, it is easy for you to interpret the passages mentioned above in a figurative way in light of the scientific evidence.[9] Your cosmology has been shaped by the culture you live in- just like the Ancient Israelites’ cosmology was.
  4. Today we live out a narrative that says that science and religion are always in conflict. This is a point that I think it very important when we observe the overall topic of science and religion. As stated above, the Galileo affair has been grossly overstated in recent times. It is probably the first and foremost topic that comes up in the discussion between science and religion, and has gained many legendary components, such as the torture of Galileo by the church. In fact, it would seem that there was much less hostility (though it was certainly present), and even Galileo’s “arrest” was a house arrest, where he was allowed company and continued his work as he had done in the past. Even Copernicus’ ideas were not met with the amount of hostility that is often portrayed, rather were largely just ignored before Galileo. Why has this story been played up so much? I believe it is because we live in a time and culture that wants to live a narrative that Science and Religion are diametrically opposed and are in constant conflict. But this is simply not the case. Many of the greatest scientific discoveries and advances have been made by devout Christians.[10] Yet the narrative is espoused by Christians and non-Christians alike (ironically one of the few things the two sides can agree upon). I see this play out in many arenas, especially when I read about certain scientists who made huge discoveries and who were also Christians, where the historian tries to paint the scientist in the “I’m a Christian only because I have to be, not because I really like it/believe it all” light. Such is often the case with Gregor Mendel. You can take anyone’s words out of context and make them seem like the opposite of who they really were.[11] I contend that this is because it wouldn’t fit our narrative of the conflict between science and religion, so we take great strides to understand it in that light. It is my goal with this series to show that this narrative is false, and that science and Christianity need not be in conflict with one another.

Modern Geology and the Age of the Earth

With these lessons in mind, I think we are finally prepared to move on to the topics that this series is designed to address. I want to say a few words of background and introduction about these topics before we dive into the evidence in the next few posts for why scientists believe what they do about the universe. With the Copernicus’ ideas, the Scientific Revelation was set in motion. This did not only have an impact in astronomy, but many other scientific disciplines would be forever changed (or created) through it. One of the disciplines that was transformed in the Scientific Revolution was Geology/Paleontology. We will get into the discoveries and evidence that have changed and shaped the consensus views in this field in the next post, but here I just want to point out a few things that are often not taken into account when certain Christians talk about science.

Just as the accepted model of the day was geocentrism in physics, the accepted model in geology was the flood at the beginning of the Scientific Revolution. Most scientist/philosophers in the West were Christians and accepted the Genesis account as literal history, and at this time they had no reason to think otherwise. Thus, the idea that all scientists just want to go against the bible, or try to fit their “atheistic” views into the data they find is simply false. In fact the opposite was true- at the beginning of modern geology, scientists tried very hard to interpret the new evidence they found in studying rocks in light of a world-wide flood and a relatively young earth.[12] However, as more and more data poured in, it became increasingly hard to harmonize the data with these views. The consensus didn’t change overnight, of course, as some were more willing to accept that the data did not fit with the apparent presentation of biblical history than others. However, over time it became well accepted that the earth was relatively old and had not experienced a world-wide flood. Actually, this view became accepted by the majority of Christians even outside of science. It wasn’t until the 20th century that this debate caught flame again with a large number of American evangelicals, and this was due to several cultural and political factors that we won’t go into here.[13]

The Evolution Debate

Perhaps the biggest conflict between science and religion today is that of evolution. We will spend a number of posts on evolution, so I won’t go into detail here. I will just make a few comments and/or pleas to the reader. Again, the prevailing theory at the time before Charles Darwin presented the case for evolution by natural selection was special creation. Darwin himself was a student of theology and was very impressed by William Paley’s book Natural Theology. The paradigm shift in biology did not come because a group of atheistic biologists wanted to dismantle the bible. The shift (which was resisted by many scientists at first, as was the case with Copernicus and in modern geology) came with data that did not fit the prevailing paradigm.

As we go on to view the evidence that science has put forth, I only ask that you come with an open mind and not one that is ready to defend your already held beliefs. Remember the case of Galileo presented above, and the lessons that we can take from that event. The evolution debate is very much a product of American culture, especially certain areas of America, and does not have to be as violent as it too often is. I want to state for the record here that I am a Christian, and I am a scientist. I have done a great deal of study on these topics in time past and especially for preparing for this series. I want you to know that the evidence that I present has not made my faith void, nor have I become an atheist. There are other options, options that I was not made aware of when I was younger. That is part of the purpose of this series. It is high time that we bury the hatchet between science and religion, and find truth from the two books that the Creator has given us, Scripture and Nature.

With this, you have likely ascertained my general position in the debate. However, I ask you not to let that cloud your judgment of the evidence. True scientists do not appeal to their own authority to establish a concept. They show you the evidence for why they believe what they do, and make an argument from the evidence. There is a time to consider credentials[14], but that should never take the place of the presentation of the evidence. This will be my goal throughout the next few posts.

In Him,



[1] See Jacob, M. C. The Scientific Revolution: a brief history with documents. (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010).

[2] For much of the discussion on Copernicus and Galileo, see Ferngren, G. Science and religion: a historical introduction. (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). p. 95-116.

[3] See Wootton, D. Invention of science: a new history of the scientific revolution. (2015).

[4] Ferngren, G. Science and religion: a historical introduction. (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). p.108.

[5] This is even more ironic when the same apologists that say Ecc. 1:5 is just figurative language and doesn’t mean what it says, claim that verse 7 is grounded truth and proves that the bible teaches about the water cycle long before it was discovered.

[6] Which just goes to show that poetry can actually mean what it says.

[7] For further information on the cosmology of the ancient near east, see Walton, J. H. The lost world of Genesis one: Ancient cosmology and the origins debate. (InterVarsity Press, 2009), Peter Enn’s article:, Michael Heiser’s article:, and other resources here:

[8] This is actually close to what I believe the proper way of interpreting the bible is, for the record, I’m just making the point here. We will get to biblical interpretation in a later post.

[9] I would also like to point out here that the bible or your religion has not fallen apart because of this figurative interpretation of scripture, as is often claimed would be the case if other passages were interpreted in a non-traditional way.

[10] And by devout members of other religions as well. I single out Christianity here because that is the focus of this seires.

[11] I think this could be easily done with Martin Luther. You could take several quotes from him out of context and paint him as quite un-pious or even an atheist. But this is obviously not the case. Perhaps I’ll write a satire one day on this topic.

[12] Probably the most popular estimate (though there were many) of the age of the earth at this time came from Rev. James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh, who came up with a date of creation at 4004 B.C. based on chronological genealogies presented in the Old Testament.

[13] See Prothero, DR. Evolution: what the fossils say and why it matters. (2007), Young, D. & Stearley, R. The Bible, rocks and time: geological evidence for the Age of the Earth. (IVP Academic, 2008) p.132-134, and Ferngren (2002). p.192.

[14] Especially in the case when someone who has little or no true/current experience in the field claims to easily dismantle the scientific consensus.

One Comment Add yours

Leave a Reply, seasoned with salt.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s