Relationship between religion and science

The relationship between religion and science has been a focus of the demarcation problem. Somewhat related is the claim thatscience and religion may pursue knowledge using different methodologies. The scientific method relies on reason and empiricism, religion acknowledges revelation, faith and sacredness. Some scholars say science and religion are separate, as in John William Draper's conflict thesis and Stephen Jay Gould's non-overlapping magisteria, while others (John Lennox, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Ken Wilber, et al.) propose an interconnection.




Medieval artistic illustration of the spherical Earth in a 13th-century copy of L'Image du monde (ca. 1246).

The kinds of interactions that might arise between science and religion have been classified using the following typology:[1]

  1. Conflict, stating the disciplines contradict and are incompatible with each other.
  2. Independence treating each as quite separate realms of enquiry.
  3. Dialogue suggesting that each field has things to say to each other about phenomena in which their interests overlap.
  4. Integration aiming to unify both fields into a single discourse.

This typology is similar to ones found in Ian Barbour[3] and John Haught.[4] More typologies that categorize this relationship can be found among the works of other science and religion scholars such as Arthur Peacocke.[5]


A variety of historical, philosophical, and scientific arguments have been put forth in favor of the idea that science and religion are in conflict. Historical examples of religious individuals or institutions promoting claims that contradict both contemporary and modern scientific consensus includecreationism (see level of support for evolution), and more recently, Pope Benedict XVI's 2009 statements claiming that the use of condoms to combat the AIDS epidemic in Africa was ineffective and counterproductive.[6] In the Galileo affair, the acceptance, from 1616 to 1757, of the Greek geocentric model[7] (Ptolemaic system) by the Roman Catholic Church,[8] and its consequent opposition to heliocentrism, was first called into question by the Catholic cleric Copernicus, and subsequently disproved conclusively by Galileo, who was persecuted for his minority view.[9][10][11] Additionally, long held religious claims have been challenged by scientific studies such as STEP,[12] which examined the efficacy of prayer. A number of scientists including Jerry Coyne[13] have made an argument for a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. An argument for the conflict between religion and science that combines the historical and philosophical approaches has been presented by Neil Degrasse Tyson[14]—Tyson argues that religious scientists, such as Isaac Newton, could have achieved more had they not accepted religious answers to unresolved scientific issues.

[edit]Conflict thesis

The conflict thesis, which holds that religion and science have been in conflict continuously throughout history, was popularized in the 19th century by John William Draper andAndrew Dickson White. Most contemporary historians of science now reject the conflict thesis in its original form, arguing instead that it has been superseded by subsequent historical research indicating a more nuanced understanding:[15][16]

Although popular images of controversy continue to exemplify the supposed hostility of Christianity to new scientific theories, studies have shown that Christianity has often nurtured and encouraged scientific endeavour, while at other times the two have co-existed without either tension or attempts at harmonization. If Galileo and the Scopes trial come to mind as examples of conflict, they were the exceptions rather than the rule.

 Gary Ferngren, Science & Religion[17]

Today, much of the scholarship in which the conflict thesis was originally based is considered to be inaccurate. For instance, the claim that people of the Middle Ages widely believed that the Earth was flat was first propagated in the same period that originated the conflict thesis[18] and is still very common in popular culture. Modern scholars regard this claim as mistaken, as the contemporary historians of science David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers write: "there was scarcely a Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge [earth's] sphericity and even know its approximate circumference."[18][19]

Other misconceptions such as: "the Church prohibited autopsies and dissections during the Middle Ages," "the rise of Christianity killed off ancient science," and "the medieval Christian church suppressed the growth of the natural sciences," are all reported by Numbers as examples of widely popular myths that still pass as historical truth, even though they are not supported by current historical research. They help maintain the popular image of "the warfare of science and religion."[20]

While H. Floris Cohen states that most scholars reject crude articulations of the conflict thesis, such as Andrew D. White's, he also states that milder versions of this thesis still hold some sway. This is because "it remains an incontrovertible fact of history that, to say the least, the new science was accorded a less than enthusiastic acclaim by many religious authorities at the time." Cohen therefore considers it paradoxical "that the rise of early modern science was due at least in part to developments in Christian thought—in particular, to certain aspects of Protestantism" (a thesis first developed as what is now sometimes called the Merton thesis).[21] In recent years, Oxford historian Peter Harrison has further developed the idea that the Protestant Reformation had a significant and positive influence on the development of modern science.[22] A review of alternatives to the White/Draper conflict thesis has been composed by Ian G. Barbour.[23][24]

Richard H. Jones has recently proposed a "control" model that incorporates elements of both the conflict thesis and also the idea that religion can support science.[25] Under the control model, religion will provide tacit or explicit support for scientific theories and research as long as scientific findings support religious doctrines. Religion can support science by making suggestions for research and by offering a cultural "legitimation" for a theory or for science in general. But religious institutions will attempt to assert religious "control beliefs" over any scientific theories that appear to conflict with a core religious doctrine. The Galileo affair and the conflict over evolution are prime examples.


A modern view, described by Stephen Jay Gould as "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA), is that science and religion deal with fundamentally separate aspects of human experience and so, when each stays within its own domain, they co-exist peacefully.[26] While Gould spoke of independence from the perspective of science, W. T. Stace viewed independence from the perspective of the philosophy of religion. Stace felt that science and religion, when each is viewed in its own domain, are both consistent and complete.[27]

Both science and religion represent distinct ways of approaching experience and these differences are sources of debate.[28] Science is closely tied to mathematics—a very abstract experience, while religion is more closely tied to the ordinary experience of life.[28] As interpretations of experience, science is descriptive and religion is prescriptive.[28] For science and mathematics to concentrate on what the world ought to be like in the way that religion does can be inappropriate and may lead to improperly ascribing properties to the natural world as happened among the followers of Pythagoras in the sixth century B.C.[28] In contrast, proponents of a normative moral science take issue with the idea that science has no way of guiding "oughts".

The reverse situation, where religion attempts to be descriptive, can also lead to inappropriately assigning properties to the natural world. A notable example is the now defunct belief in the Ptolemy planetary model that held sway until changes in scientific and religious thinking were brought about by Galileo and proponents of his views.[28]

[edit]Parallels in method

Thomas S. Kuhn asserted that science is made up of paradigms that arise from cultural traditions, which is similar to the secular perspective on religion.[29]

Michael Polanyi asserted that it is merely a commitment to universality that protects against subjectivity and has nothing at all to do with personal detachment as found in many conceptions of the scientific method. Polanyi further asserted that all knowledge is personal and therefore the scientist must be performing a very personal if not necessarily subjective role when doing science.[29] Polanyi added that the scientist often merely follows intuitions of "intellectual beauty, symmetry, and 'empirical agreement'".[29] Polanyi held that science requires moral commitments similar to those found in religion.[29]

Two physicists, Charles A. Coulson and Harold K. Schilling, both claimed that "the methods of science and religion have much in common."[29] Schilling asserted that both fields—science and religion—have "a threefold structure—of experience, theoretical interpretation, and practical application."[29] Coulson asserted that science, like religion, "advances by creative imagination" and not by "mere collecting of facts," while stating that religion should and does "involve critical reflection on experience not unlike that which goes on in science."[29] Religious language and scientific language also show parallels (cf. Rhetoric of science).


Clerks studying astronomy and geometry.
France, early 15th century.

A degree of concord between science and religion can be seen in religious belief and empirical science. The belief that God created the world and therefore humans, can lead to the view that he arranged for humans to know the world. This is underwritten by the doctrine of imago dei. In the words of Thomas Aquinas, "Since human beings are said to be in the image of God in virtue of their having a nature that includes an intellect, such a nature is most in the image of God in virtue of being most able to imitate God".[30]

Many well-known historical figures who influenced Western science considered themselves Christian such as Copernicus, Galileo,Kepler, and Boyle. The Pew Forum has published data on attitudes about religion and science.[31]

[edit]Concerns over the nature of reality

Scientific and theological perspectives often coexist peacefully. Non-Christian faiths have historically integrated well with scientific ideas, as in the ancient Egyptian technological mastery applied to monotheistic ends, the flourishing of logic and mathematics underHinduism and Buddhism, and the scientific advances made by Muslim scholars during the Ottoman empire. Even many 19th century Christian communities welcomed scientists who claimed that science was not at all concerned with discovering the ultimate nature of reality.[28]



A fundamental principle of the Bahá'í Faith is the harmony of religion and science. Bahá'í scripture asserts that true science and true religion can never be in conflict. `Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of the founder of the religion, stated that religion without science is superstition and that science without religion is materialism. He also admonished that true religion must conform to the conclusions of science.[32][33][34]


Buddhism and science have increasingly been discussed as compatible.[35] Some philosophic and psychological teachings within Buddhism share commonalities with modern Western scientific and philosophic thought. For example, Buddhism encourages the impartial investigation of nature (an activity referred to as Dhamma-Vicaya in the Pali Canon)—the principal object of study being oneself. A reliance on causality. philosophical principles shared between Buddhism and science. However, Buddhism doesn't focus onmaterialism.[36]

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, spends a lot of time with scientists. In his book, "The Universe in a Single Atom" he wrote, "My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science, so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation." and "If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false," he says, "then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims."[37][38]


Science and Religion are portrayed to be in harmony in the Tiffany window Education (1890).

Earlier attempts at reconciliation of Christianity with Newtonian mechanics appear quite different from later attempts at reconciliation with the newer scientific ideas of evolution or relativity.[28] Many early interpretations of evolution polarized themselves around a struggle for existence. These ideas were significantly countered by later findings of universal patterns of biological cooperation. According to John Habgood, all man really knows here is that the universe seems to be a mix of good and evil, beauty and pain, and that suffering may somehow be part of the process of creation. Habgood holds that Christians should not be surprised that suffering may be used creatively by God, given their faith in the symbol of the Cross. Habgood states that Christians have for two millennia believed in the love of God because he revealed "Himself as Love in Jesus Christ," not because the physical universe does or does not point to the value of love.[28]

Robert John Russell has examined consonance and dissonance between modern physics, evolutionary biology, and Christian theology.[39][40]

[edit]Reconciliation in Britain in the early 20th century

In Reconciling Science and Religion: The Debate in Early-twentieth-century Britain, historian of biology Peter J. Bowler argues that in contrast to the conflicts between science and religion in the U.S. in the 1920s (most famously the Scopes Trial), during this period Great Britain experienced a concerted effort at reconciliation, championed by intellectually conservative scientists, supported by liberal theologians but opposed by younger scientists and secularists and conservative Christians. These attempts at reconciliation fell apart in the 1930s due to increased social tensions, moves towards neo-orthodox theology and the acceptance of the modern evolutionary synthesis.[41]

In the 20th century, several ecumenical organizations promoting a harmony between science and Christianity were founded, most notably the American Scientific Affiliation, The Biologos Foundation, Christians in Science, The Society of Ordained Scientists, and The Veritas Forum.[42]

[edit]Confucianism and traditional Chinese religion

The historical process of Confucianism has largely been antipathic towards scientific discovery. However the religio-philosophical system itself is more neutral on the subject than such an analysis might suggest. In his writings On Heaven, Xunzi espoused a proto-scientific world view.[43] However during the Han Synthesis the more anti-empirical Mencius was favored and combined with Daoist skepticism regarding the nature of reality. Likewise, during the Medieval period, Zhu Xi argued against technical investigation and specialization proposed by Chen Liang.[44] After contact with the West, scholars such as Wang Fuzhi would rely on Buddhist/Daoist skepticism to denounce all science as a subjective pursuit limited by humanity's fundamental ignorance of the true nature of the world.[45] After the May Fourth Movement, attempts to modernize Confucianism and reconcile it with scientific understanding were attempted by many scholars including Feng Youlan and Xiong Shili. Given the close relationship that Confucianism shares with Buddhism, many of the same arguments used to reconcile Buddhism with science also readily translate to Confucianism. However, modern scholars have also attempted to define the relationship between science and Confucianism on Confucianism's own terms and the results have usually led to the conclusion that Confucianism and science are fundamentally compatible.[46]


In Hinduism, the dividing line between objective sciences and spiritual knowledge (adhyatma vidya) is a linguistic paradox.[47] Hindu scholastic activities and ancient Indian scientific advancements were so interconnected that many Hindu scriptures are also ancient scientific manuals and vice-versa. Hindu sages maintained that logical argument and rational proof using Nyaya is the way to obtain correct knowledge.[47] From a Hindu perspective, modern science is a legitimate, but incomplete, step towards knowing and understanding reality. Hinduism views that science only offers a limited view of reality, but all it offers is right and correct.[48] Hinduism offers methods to correct and transform itself in course of time.

Hindu views on evolution include a range of viewpoints in regards to evolution, creationism, and the origin of life within the traditions of Hinduism.

Samkhya, the oldest school of Hindu philosophy prescribes a particular method to analyze knowledge. According to Samkhya, all knowledge is possible through three means of valid knowledge[49][50] 

  1. Pratyakṣa or Dṛṣṭam – direct sense perception,
  2. Anumāna  logical inference and
  3. Śabda or Āptavacana – verbal testimony.

Nyaya, the Hindu school of logic, accepts all these 3 means and in addition accepts one more - Upamāna (comparison).

The accounts of the emergence of life within the universe vary in description, but classically the deity called Brahma, from a Trimurti of three deities also including Vishnu and Shiva, is described as performing the act of 'creation', or more specifically of 'propagating life within the universe' with the other two deities being responsible for 'preservation' and 'destruction' (of the universe) respectively.[51] In this respect some Hindu schools do not treat the scriptural creation myth literally and often the creation stories themselves do not go into specific detail, thus leaving open the possibility of incorporating at least some theories in support of evolution. Some Hindus find support for, or foreshadowing of evolutionary ideas in scriptures, namely the Vedas.[52]

The incarnations of Vishnu (Dashavatara) is almost identical to the scientific explanation of the sequence of biological evolution of man and animals.[53][54][55][56] The sequence of avatars starts from an aquatic organism (Matsya), to an amphibian (Kurma), to a land-animal (Varaha), to a humanoid (Narasimha), to a dwarf human (Vamana), to 5 forms of well developed human beings (Parashurama, Rama, Balarama/Buddha, Krishna, Kalki) who showcase an increasing form of complexity (Axe-man, King, Plougher/Sage, wise Statesman, mighty Warrior).[53][56] In India, the home country of Hindus; educated Hindus widely accept the theory of biological evolution. In a survey, 77% of respondents in India agreed that enough scientific evidence exists to support Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution, and 85 per cent of God-believing people said they believe in evolution as well.[57][58]An exception to this acceptance is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), which includes several members who actively oppose "Darwinism" and themodern evolutionary synthesis (see Hindu Creationism).


From an Islamic standpoint, science, the study of nature, is considered to be linked to the concept of Tawhid (the Oneness of God), as are all other branches of knowledge.[59] InIslam, nature is not seen as a separate entity, but rather as an integral part of Islam's holistic outlook on God, humanity, and the world. Unlike the other Abrahamic monotheistic religions, Judaism and Christianity, the Islamic view of science and nature is continuous with that of religion and God. This link implies a sacred aspect to the pursuit of scientific knowledge by Muslims, as nature itself is viewed in the Qur'an as a compilation of signs pointing to the Divine.[60] It was with this understanding that science was studied and understood in Islamic civilizations, specifically during the eighth to sixteenth centuries, prior to the colonization of the Muslim world.[61]

According to most historians, the modern scientific method was first developed by Islamic scientists, pioneered by Ibn Al-Haytham, known to the west as "Alhazen".[62] Robert Briffault, in The Making of Humanity, asserts that the very existence of science, as it is understood in the modern sense, is rooted in the scientific thought and knowledge that emerged in Islamic civilizations during this time.[63]

However, the colonizing powers of the western world and their destruction of the Islamic scientific tradition forced the discourse of Islam and Science in to a new period. Institutions that had existed for centuries in the Muslim world were destroyed and replaced by new scientific institutions implemented by the colonizing powers and suiting their economic, political, and military agendas.[citation needed] This drastically changed the practice of science in the Muslim world, as Islamic scientists had to interact with the western approach to scientific learning, which was based on a philosophy of nature completely foreign to them.[59] From the time of this initial upheaval of the Islamic scientific tradition to the present day, Muslim scientists and scholars have developed a spectrum of viewpoints on the place of scientific learning within the context of Islam, none of which are universally accepted or practiced.[64] However, most maintain the view that the acquisition of knowledge and scientific pursuit in general is not in disaccord with Islamic thought and religious belief.[59][64]


Jainism does not support belief in a creator deity. According to Jain doctrine, the universe and its constituents - soul, matter, space, time, and principles of motion have always existed (a static universe similar to that of Epicureanism and steady state cosmological model). All the constituents and actions are governed by universal natural laws. It is not possible to create matter out of nothing and hence the sum total of matter in the universe remains the same (similar to law of conservation of mass). Similarly, the soul of each living being is unique and uncreated and has existed since beginningless time.