Is 'Science vs God' Fake News?
'It is not possible to be intellectually honest and believe in gods.
And it is not possible to believe in gods and be a true scientist.
These are the words of distinguished Oxford chemist Peter Atkins, author of multiple authoritative books on modern science. He is hardly alone in thinking this – another Oxford professor, Richard Dawkins, has essentially made his living by repeating this claim in one form or another. Even the majority of UK teenagers now believe ‘the scientific view is that God does not exist.’
In fact, it now seems to be common knowledge that you have to pick a side – God or science. Superstition or fact. Stone-age nonsense or scientific method. It’s always been this way, hasn’t it? After all, look at what happened to Galileo – these two forces, one backward and one rational, have been locked in battle for centuries, maybe even millennia. Right?
Well, it’s a great story, yes – but it does have one significant problem. It isn’t true.
The birth of a myth
As it turns out, there are two books which anyone interested in the relationship between science and Christianity should be aware of. They are A History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) by John William Draper and A History of the Warfare of Science with Religion in Christendom (1896) by Andrew Dickson White.
It’s a great story – but it has one significant problem. It isn’t true
Draper was a world-famous scientist (he took the first proper photograph of the moon and discovered spectral lines) and White was a highly respected historian and politician (he founded Cornell University). They were both big-picture thinkers and had a great deal of influence in Victorian intellectual circles on both sides of the Atlantic. What they had to say would matter – because people were going to listen.
Listen they did. Both men used their considerable wits, experience, and skill to prove in their mammoth works that dogmatic theology – particularly that of the Christian Church – had constantly fought against scientific thinking, bringing about the ‘Dark Ages’ and seeking to keep us trapped there forever. Example after example from centuries past were brought dramatically to life on their pages, rhythmically hammering home the key point: religion opposes science.
In the process, Draper and White introduced some big ideas which have stayed with us ever since. These include:
- The Church taught that the Earth was flat and was only proved wrong by Columbus
- The Church persecuted countless scientists through the ages
- The Church banned dissection, inoculation, and even anaesthetic to women in labour
- The Church opposed heliocentrism against all the evidence
- The Church killed off Greek and Roman Science and plunged us into a backward world
Conflict and Warfare were incredibly popular, going through multiple printings and translations. As such, they set the tone for future generations’ thinking on the relationship between science and religion. The two men had popularised – and as far as the public was concerned, had created – the ‘God vs science’ meme; or what has become known in academic circles as the ‘conflict thesis’.
The truth behind the 'fake news'
This conflict thesis is alive and well today, 150 years later, in the works of people like Dawkins and the novelist Dan Brown (of The Da Vinci Code fame) – as well as in our schools.
Draper and White were either mistaken or dishonest...their books spread fake news
However, over the last forty years, historians of science have revisited the conflict thesis and discovered that it is, broadly, a load of nonsense. The list of assertions above is now known to be horribly wrong. Draper and White were either mistaken or dishonest (let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for now) but what their two books actually did was spread fake news. Without the sceptical and corrective social and mass media of the form we now have, their ideas carried extra weight. Soon, they became considered mainstream knowledge; they have remained so for much of the public for more than a century.
So what, then, is the truth? Briefly, (there is not the space in an article like this for any in-depth study, but see the notes) we can address the list in turn:
- The idea that the world is a globe is a very old one, written about by Christians and others for more than a millennium before Columbus. The medieval Church did not teach a flat earth.
- An official Church has never – not once – killed a scientist for their science, even in the eras of horrific and inexcusable executions of heretics. Persecution of scientists of any kind by the Church is very rare indeed. During the so-called ‘scientific revolution’ in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, most of the scientists were committed Christians.
- The Church never banned dissection, inoculation, or anaesthetic to anyone.
- The Church was initially indifferent to heliocentrism; it then rejected heliocentrism on valid scientific grounds; it finally changed its position when later evidence became persuasive
- The ‘Dark Ages’ were not at all dark, with much science going on. The Church embraced much Greek and Roman work, translating it and teaching it at their universities.
The simple fact is this: the conflict thesis – only invented in the last 150 years – is wrong. Instead, the evidence points broadly towards the Church having had a positive effect on science during its history. The true message we get when we look back through the centuries at Christianity and scientific thought is that they are not opposed at all – and no one thought they were. In fact, those committed Christians at the forefront of Enlightenment science often said that they were studying nature to get to know its creator better and for his glory.
Draper and White were incorrect, as are all those since who have taken their material and repeated it without checking it properly first. The conflict thesis is – as far as the experts are concerned – dead. The story from history is not science or God. It is science for God.
 “Professor Says Science Rules Out Belief in God.” Electronic Telegraph. September 11, 1996
 “To what extent do pupils perceive science to be inconsistent with religious faith? An exploratory survey of 13-14 year-old English pupils”, Taber et al, Science Education International Vol.22, No.2, June 2011, 99-118
 Both are now available in the public domain if you are interested!
 The interested reader should look at work by Ronald Numbers, David Lindberg, Peter Harrison, James Hannam, Allan Chapman, and David Bentley Hart.