Debunking the Science v Religion Myth

Earlier this month, science historian Mike Keas published his latest book, Unbelievable: 7 Myths about the History and Future of Science and Religion. The book is aimed at correcting a cancerous narrative that has long prevailed in modern culture: the hostile conflict between science and religion.

Science historians have soundly rejected the "conflict thesis" for over half a century, but the false narrative’s hundred-year head start has proven hard to supplant. It remains particularly potent in modern education. I can still clearly recall my first-grade social studies classroom with a Sharp projector displaying images of Christopher Columbus holding up an orange as he tried to convince astonished Christians that the Earth was round. I was in college before I learned that nothing like that ever happened.

Keas’s book explores the mythological Science v Religion debate through the context of primary players like Columbus as well as Copernicus, Galileo, Bruno, and, of course, Christianity. By thoroughly examining primary sources and contrasting them against generations of science textbooks, Keas pinpoints the origins of science’s well-known myths and the motivation for them.

Despite its sober historical analysis and exceptional clarity, Unbelievable cannot quite slay the mythical beast it confronts. Keas cannot deliver a final blow because he inexplicably avoids perhaps the most popular myth in the recent history of science and religion: evolution. The concept of Darwinian evolution, though widely accepted today, is still very young and has not been able to fully answer even some purely scientific critiques. Several religious denominations, therefore, have been more than reluctant to embrace the concept.

The hesitations of more fundamentalist denominations, however, are not an argument against the compatibility of science and religion. In fact, many world religions have found evolution to be compatible with divine revelation. This means the conflict is not between science and religion, but between religion and religion. It stems from a disagreement over interpretation of divine revelation rather than a categorical refusal to accept new scientific discoveries.

Evolution exclusion notwithstanding, Keas never loses sight of the fundamental question at the heart of the debate: why have the conflict thesis myths persisted if they are clearly false? Keas provides the answer in his introduction: because every cause needs a narrative. Whether the authors of these myths were anti-Catholic, anti-theist, or simply pro-progress, they were always selling an ideology.

In many circles of the modern science community, theistic religion is portrayed as an anti-factual boogeyman intent on destroying human progress. Science itself becomes a religion with its own laws, clergymen, martyrs, infallible doctrine, and oral history. Any “human advancement” met with theistic skepticism or moral opposition becomes a crusade against scientific infidels whose concepts of supernatural law must be stamped out. This includes, of course, a revisionist account of the past to inspire the “heroic” progressives of today.

Inspirational story-telling—likely the most ancient of humanity’s creative arts—is crucial to the advancement of any cause, and if our current political atmosphere is any indicator, nothing sells like conflict and fear-mongering. Freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez perhaps put it best when she claimed that she was more concerned with being “morally correct” than “factually correct.” The divorce of science and religion fundamentally requires a separation between what is “moral” and what is “factual” to survive.

A happy marriage between science and religion, on the other hand, requires an embrace of both faith and reason. The wedding of these concepts throughout history is what has allowed science and religion to promote a deeper understanding of their common object: Truth. For just a few examples, the scientific method, the study of genetics, and the big bang theory were all formally proposed by clergymen.

Truths of faith and reason inherently cannot be opposed, else they could not be True. When facts do not seem to align, then we have the heavy—and even, at times, controversial—duty to weigh them justly and see where we have erred. All claims, scientific or religious, deserve to be treated with healthy skepticism until faith or reason can clearly demonstrate their necessity and accuracy.

Skepticism, however, is not the same as opposition. While it is important that we not blindly accept scientific ideas without sufficient evidence, we also should not fear the discernment of facts to ascertain Truth. Historically, this process can appear slow and have the illusion of opposition. It requires us to consider events in context and understand that true enlightenment requires the fullness of time, for Truth always prevails. Anyone claiming otherwise is, as Keas points out, trying to sell you an ideological narrative.