Matt D’Antuono is a physics teacher in New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and seven children. He holds bachelor’s degrees in physics and philosophy, a master’s degree in special education, and is working on a master’s degree in philosophy at Holy Apostles in Cromwell, Connecticut. He returned to the Catholic Church in 2008. He is the author of A Fool’s Errand: A Brief, Informal Introduction to Philosophy for Young Catholics, The Wiseguy and the Fool and Philosophy Fridays. On YouTube you can find him at DonecRequiescat and his family at MisterD418.
“Mr. D, how can you be religious if you are a physics teacher? Can’t you not be religious and scientific at the same time?”
As a high school physics teacher, my students already know that I love physics, but they never fail to ask how it is possible that I can be both religious and love science at the same time when my religion comes up in conversation. The idea that science and religion stand in opposition to one another by their very nature is so deeply rooted in our society that the very word “science” is used in some contexts to mean “anti-religion.”
For example, it is not uncommon to run across the slogan, “I believe in science.” The Darwin fish and science rocket bumper stickers are clearly supposed to be the anti-Christian, scientific alternative to the Jesus fish. I had the gall the put the Jesus fish and the science rocket together with a heart between them on my bumper, but I wanted to make a clear statement: science and religion, Christianity in particular, are not at war.
While there are some members of the scientific community who are anti-religious and some religious people who rail against what they understand science to be, it is a fable that science and religion have always been in a state of warfare or that they must be. The “warfare model” is promoted most especially by militant atheists like Richard Dawkins, but there is no scholarly basis for it. In the introduction to the collection of essays God and Nature, David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers wrote, “Despite a developing consensus among scholars that Christianity and science had not been at war, the notion of conflict refused to die.”
Chemistry professor and historian of science Lawrence Principe, in his course Science and Religion, says, “No serious historians of science or of the science religion issue today maintain the warfare thesis.” He also says, “One of the best things about history, to my mind, is that it gives us a sense of perspective, a perspective that often reveals how strange and atypical our times are in relation to the past. So, given the widespread public acceptance of the conflict model, it comes as a surprise to many people to learn that no historians will support it. Let me be clear. The idea that scientific and religious camps have historically been separate and antagonistic is rejected by all modern historians of science.”
How did this idea get so ingrained in our culture? Thankfully, historians have the answer to that. Principe: “The origins of the warfare thesis lie in the late 19th century, specifically in the work of two men — John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White. These men had specific political purposes in mind when arguing their case, and the historical foundations of their work are unreliable.” These two books were written in an America that was possessed by a strong anti-Catholic sentiment, and they sold like wildfire. Nobody at the time double-checked the scholarship, even though it was so poor. These books are also the source of the everyone-thought-Columbus-would-sail-over-the-edge-of-the-flat-earth fable. (It was well known that the world was a sphere.) The worldview was passed from one generation to the next, and now it is very difficult to convince people that religion and science are not inherently at war and have not always been at war.
The problem, though, is that it is very difficult to convince people that science and religion are not at war. It is often an unquestioned assumption, and even when people have been shown that it is false, they still revert back to it.
This is where philosophy can help because philosophy aids in distinguishing between the various disciplines. When someone talks about the nature of science, he is not doing science, he is doing the philosophy of science. The same is true for religion. For someone who has investigated the nature of science and the nature of religion, it becomes immediately evident that the two study different things. Saying that science has disproven religion is like saying that mathematics has disproven Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon; it’s the wrong way of knowing. As Jacques Maritain has pointed out, you cannot do theology with science any more than you can paint with a piano or a flute.
But most people are not interested in philosophy. Perhaps the best strategy is simply to point out the many people who were religious scientists, such as the inventor of the Big Bang Theory, after whom an astronomical law was recently renamed: Fr. Georges Lemaître. Stephen Barr takes this approach in his book Modern Physics, Ancient Faith as he goes on for pages describing religious scientist after scientist. “Most scientific materialists would concede that to be personally religious is not to be personally hostile to science. Even if they do not always have a balanced view of history, they do know that many of the great founders of modern science, including Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Ampere, Maxwell, Kelvin, were deeply religious men.”
Let it be known that the rumor of war between science and religion is false. If there is a war, it is only between people who wield caricatures of science and religion.