Science and Religion, Why the Conflict?

Sometimes I wonder why things are the way they are.  I wonder what events happened in the past that continue to affect us today. I have always been perplexed at the often contentious relationship between science and religion, especially Protestant Christianity. This summer, I spent some time reading about the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance and the history of science. Certainly I didn’t read everything about each of those topics. And I should be clear; I am not a historian by any stretch of the imagination. (By the way, if you are a historian reading this, please comment with any corrections or additions you think are necessary.)

Here’s the interesting thing I learned; up until the 1500’s concepts about the structureof the cosmos were essentially unchanged and were closely linked with a philosophical/religious viewpoint. Science and religion were not separate disciplines in the way we think about them today.

Until the development of the telescope, what people knew about the solar system was what they saw with their eyes. The sun rose in the east, moved across the sky and set in the west. Everyone could see the sun move. The moon rose and set as well. The stars moved in a regular order. And everything appeared to circle around the earth. No one could demonstrate that the earth moved.

Aristotle reasoned that if the earth moved, object thrown into the air should land in a different location, and he couldn’t demonstrate that. He also reasoned that if the earth moved around the sun, the stars should shift position and to the unaided eye, the stars don’t move. ( The stars do shift position, it’s called stellar parallax, but it can’t be detected with the unaided eye.)

Aristotle also concluded that the objects that moved around the earth, moved in perfect circles. This was a philosophical assumption. Ptolemy developed a model that was more accurate and more complex in its predictions about the movements of the heavenly bodies. But his model was also geocentric, the earth was the center of the cosmos, and everything else revolved around it. Over time, as more accurate observations were made, people realize Ptolemy’s model had problems but no one developed a better model for some 1500 years.

This orderly view of the universe was accepted in Europe at the time of the Reformation. People believed that objects in the sky moved in perfect circles, in an unchangeable hierarchical arraignment. This structure represented God’s perfect will and design. Linear movement and change were signs of imperfection. Above the hierarchically arraigned stars was the home of God. Below the stars were the imperfect moon, and earth. Below earth was the most imperfect place of all, farthest from God, hell.

Because the cosmos was created by God, its order and structure reflected the will of God and this order and structure was also the model for people’s understanding of how human society should be. This worldview valued hierarchy, order and permanence as reflections of God’s will. Even human beings were ordered. People consisted of, in declining order, soul, reason, will, passions, and body. People believed in the ultimate unity of all things, that universal truths existed and could be known. They also believed the ideas and concepts from antiquity were better than “modern” thoughts. Most people believed that society had reached its peak in the ancient world and it had been downhill ever since. And so the end was not far off.

You can imagine this worldview, present for centuries, made acceptance of new ideas difficult. The 16th century for Europe was a time of great change, Europe was moving from feudalism to nations,new lands were being discovered, economies were changing,  and the Reformation challenged religious beliefs. What we might call modern science was beginning also.  All this change, that we might look on as exciting, was anxiety producing for Europeans. Life was unsettled at almost every level. People were unwilling and uneasy about considering ideas that reordered the cosmos. If the cosmos could be reordered, so could human society.

This is, of course, just the barest of sketches about science and religion in the 16th century. It is a complex and fascinating period of history. But even this brief discussion begins to point out a few of the causes of the science and religion “troubles”. Part of being able to resolve a conflict is realizing what started it in the first place.

It seems to me, that the close connection, made for centuries, between the perceived orderly structure of the universe and God’s will for human society set the stage for problems to develop. Science didn’t just challenge the scientific status quo, it challenged the religious and social structure as well. Do we still need to fight a 16thcentury battle with 16th century ideas?

I’d like to know, what do you think?


This is a list of some of the books that shaped this essay. If you have a favorite book on this topic, please share it with the rest of us.

A World Lit Only by Fire:The Medieval Mind and the Reniassance  William Manchester, 1992

The Waning of the Reniassance  1550-1640  William J. Bouwsma, 2000

Theories of Everything: An Illustrated History of Science from the Invention of Numbers to String Theory John Langone, Bruce Stutz, Andrea Gianopoulos, 2006

Interpreting John Calvin, Ford Lewis Battles, 1996.

John Calvin: A sixteenth century Portrait,  William J. Bouwsma, 1988


Speaking of how past events affect the present, on a completely different topic-this election year, America’s God by Mark Noll can’t be recommended highly enough. It’s a comprehensive and thoughtful history of the relationship between US politics, history and religion.

3 thoughts on “Science and Religion, Why the Conflict?

  1. I’d say the conflict dates more to the nineteenth century, that’s when you start seeing people within science talking about a conflict between science and religion. To a certain extent it’s part of the nineteenth century professionalization of science. In Britain (I know a bit more about th situation there than elsewhere), part of the professionalization of science meant excluding the tradition natural philosopher associated with the universities and the Church of England. Up until late 1820s early 1830s (roughly) all university professors had to be part of the Church of England, so there were strong links between science and religion in terms of many of the people doing science. As science became a profession and men (almost always) struggled to find a place in science (post WWII levels of science funding was not a even a dream) they tried to carve a place that tended to exclude people who were both scientists and also religious figures. To do science, they thought, you had to devote yourself to science exclusively. This also meant excluding the language of religion from scientific texts, which happened during the nineteenth century.
    I think another modern issue in relations between science and religion is one over a battle for cultural authority. Who gets to say what is true?
    I’ll stop now. As a good overall look at the historical relationship between science and religion, try John Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor’s Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement of Science and Religion

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