Science Works, Just like Theology Said It Would


University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne has an interesting post over at his blog “Why Evolution Is True,” which hits on something I care a lot about: science and religion.  Specifically whether they go together or not. Coyne mentions two posts from the New York Times blogs, one against naturalism and one in favor of it. Neither of them are very interesting in my opinion. But Coyne summarizes part of the second one (the one in defense of naturalism) thus:

Science wins because it works.  That’s a quote from Stephen Hawking, and Rosenberg, like me, agrees: we can ground a philosophical naturalism in the remarkable success of methodological naturalism in helping us understand nature, and the abject failure of any other methodology, especially religion, to find the truth…

This is called a false dichotomy. Pick two things, say they oppose each other, and that you must choose one or the other. (And Coyne informs you which one to choose, if you didn’t notice.)

Yes, science “wins” because it works. And if we remember that science is an offspring of a particular metaphysical view, then we come to see that the fact that science works is actually a very good thing for Christianity. It makes theists “win” too.

Science has a metaphysics under it. Yes, a set of assumptions that are not subject to experimental testing of any sort. Science relies on quite a few metaphysical premises in order to operate, such as beliefs that the world is good (therefore worthy of study), real (not an illusion), rational, orderly, homogeneous, not sacred (it is a creation, not the sacred creator itself), investigable by the human mind (which is imago Dei), not logically necessary but contingent (therefore requiring empirical investigation, not only pure logical thought), and that truth ought to be shared freely.[1]

These are all metaphysical premises drawn from the environment that created science: a religious environment that started separately with Aristotle and the ancient Hebrews, joined and moved through Christianity and Islam, and culminated in the medieval and Renaissance West.

The fact that “science works” (which has somehow become a taunt of the new atheists, see Coyne say it in another place here) is actually great for Christianity because it shows our metaphysical assumptions – and therefore our theology insofar as it informs those assumptions – produces a science that works! It’s really very good.

But Coyne doesn’t know that. So he says this:

Religion has an epistemology, too: dogma and personal revelation (seasoned with wish thinking) but in thousands of years it hasn’t vouchsafed us one bit of verifiable knowledge about reality.

This is a ridiculously ignorant caricature of religion. All about dogma and personal revelation (oh, and wish thinking), huh? Because actually religion has vouchsafed us at least one bit of “verifiable,” or perhaps “working,” knowledge.  It’s called the scientific method.

Coyne must not know about the dozens of Catholic priests (not to mention theists of other stripes) who were involved in the development of the scientific method.  The Oxford Calculators are a good place to start. St. Albert the Great is another. Robert Grosseteste. Roger Bacon.

And why did they get so interested in experimental and observational science?  Because they were interested in God’s creation. Their metaphysical assumptions made them curious and led them to figure a way to determine truths about that creation. For them, the goal of this scientific activity was to get better data for their theology. Read the creation to get at the creator, the work to get to the author.

So when contemporary science tells us something new and Coyne says “Aha! You are changing your theology because of science you ad hoc liars!” We say “Well, no. You just gave us the interesting data about creation that we developed science in order to get. Now we know more about God. This is exactly what we wanted. Thanks!”

Science helps theology better understand God by better understanding God’s creation. Theology developed the scientific method for precisely that reason. Any good science gives us good data on God. And for that we should be thankful. That Coyne does not understand this is very unfortunate, but understandable. Our educational system is terrible, even for professors.

On the other hand, that many Christians do not understand this (like creationists) is grotesquely embarrassing. They make a mockery of their own religion by making God’s creation and our minds into junk that interferes with knowing God, rather than gems that help us know God. This ignorance needs to be corrected.

So to end, whenever an anti-theist says “Science works!” thus implying that religion does not, inform them of the meaning of a false dichotomy (science is a branch of philosophy and theology, not an opponent of it), and explain how the fact that science works actually confirms your faith because it confirms your theological metaphysics, as the history of science abundantly proves.

There is no war between science and religion. Only a war between bad science and bad religion.


[1] Joshua Moritz, “Rendering unto Science and God: Is NOMA Enough?” Theology and Science 7 (2009) 370-1, citing John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 18-33, Edward B. Davis, “Christianity and Early Modern Science: The Foster Thesis Reconsidered,” in Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective, eds. David N. Livingstone, Darryl G. Hart, and Mark A. Noll (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 77, Peter E. Hodgsen, Theology and Modern Physics (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005) 16, Ian G. Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science (London: SCM Press, 1990), Mariano Artigas, The Mind of the Universe: Understanding Science and Religion (Philadelphia, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2000) 22, and Nicholas Rescher, Scientific Realism (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1987) 126.

About Author

Brian Green is a doctoral candidate in ethics at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He has previously worked in the field of molecular biology and has taught high school overseas with the Jesuit Volunteers International. He blogs at the MoralMindfield.

  • fishman

    Bravo ! nicely said. I’ve had this thought before but seldom articulated it so fully.

  • Great Post!

    Science v. Theology; Art v. Science; Theological v. Mystical; Mystical v. Scientific…only a heart dedicated to discovering the Truth of the Cross; and in love with Wisdom (Philosophy); and appreciative of the both/and as opposed to the either/or as the prime organizing principle of Catholic belief and practice can see reality as God intended humankind to see.

    We must continue to challenge all to go to the Catholic high ground and seek the Light of Truth.

    God bless your work at Catholic Lane. is one take on this battle.

  • Folkpunch

    You’re telling me that science was created by religion to serve the sacred needs of the faith. I have never heard anyone say that before. I beg to differ. It was the early Christians who destroyed the library at Alexandria, killing Hypatia in the process. She was the first notable woman mathematician. She had shown that the planets revolved around the sun, and that was a dangerous idea. The Christians destroyed all the knowledge in that library that went against faith. It was over a thousand years before the orbits were correctly understood again.

    And then Galileo. He was arrested by the Catholic Inquisition for daring to say, again, that the earth was not the center of the solar system. They put him under house arrest for the rest of his life.

    And now, science tell us that the best – the very best – way to prevent the spread of AIDS in the African countries where it is so prevalent is by the use of condoms. But the Catholic church, acting on the revealed wisdom of god, is doing everything it can to stop that from happening. A lot of people are dying unnecessarily because of Catholic interference in medical science.

    No, science developed in spite of, not because of, religion.

  • Yes, Folkpunch, I am saying that, and I know few people say it because most people just unthinkingly believe the current mythology that science and religion are opposed. Did you follow the links I provided above on the history of the scientific method or the priests involved in its development before writing your comment? Follow them.

    It sounds like you got your understanding of the history surrounding Hypatia from the movie “Agora.” That movie was fiction. You should not base your worldview on fiction.

    Wikipedia could set you straight on most of what you wrote. Check it out. Hypatia was killed in a civil war where both sides were Christians; as a pagan, she was being defended by Christians as well. Look up bishop Synesius, her student. Seeing as both sides were Christians there was little chance that if killed Christians would not have ended up the guilty party.

    She also did not propose (much less “show”) heliocentrism, that was Aristarchus of Samos, 600 years earlier, but he could not prove it because they did not have the instrumentation (advanced telescopes) to observe stellar parallax. Galileo could not show that either.

    The Library of Alexandria was also destroyed multiple times previously and it is unclear (though unlikely) there were any books in the Serapeum when it was torn down. This is not to defend what happened, but then again, what relevance is this to the development of the scientific method in the Middle Ages? This is a non-sequitur and a red herring.

    The Galileo affair is much more complex than you describe, partly due to the fact that he insulted the Pope and broke an oath he had sworn to the Inquisition previously. Again, that is not to defend what happened to him, but then history is not a chronicle of perfection. And once again it is irrelevant to the development of the scientific method centuries earlier.

    As for the AIDS comment I can only say that are just plain wrong. The best way to prevent the spread of AIDS is to not have sex. It’s an STD, the answer should be obvious. Seriously. No science is even needed for that one, it by definition.

    But if you must have science and not just common sense, don’t take my word for it, read this link. Harvard public health scientist Edward Green (no relation) explains exactly why the Pope is right and condom distribution is wrong. The science is on the Catholic side. Yours is the side without evidence.

    You can overcome the mythology you have been taught. But you first have to actually want to know the truth.

    • Corrections in paragraph 7: “that it is just plain wrong” and “it’s” not “it by definition.”

  • Folkpunch

    “You should not base your worldview on fiction.” Of course, and neither should you. Please provide evidence for the virgin birth.

    “The Galileo affair is much more complex than you describe, partly due to the fact that he insulted the Pope and broke an oath he had sworn to the Inquisition previously.” That hardly makes the church look any better. If I insult the President of the United States they don’t put me under house arrest for the rest of my life. I would have to go to some theocratic dictatorship for that.

    “The best way to prevent the spread of AIDS is to not have sex.” Of course, and the best way to avoid growing old is to die young. But people are going to have sex whether you like it or not, it is their right and a great joy of life. The only way to stop them is to create a kind of Purity Police to hand out punishments when people break The Law. Short of that you have to use condoms. If you want to save lives, that is. To do otherwise is obscene. “The science is on the Catholic side.” No its not. “Yours is the side without evidence.” Huh? You’re making this stuff up as you go along. Again, show me the evidence for the virgin birth.

    “You can overcome the mythology you have been taught. But you first have to actually want to know the truth.” You are talking to yourself.