science

Are Science and Theology Incompatible? Responses to 4 Common Claims

Post Icon

In a recent post, we discovered that Christianity played a significant role in the rise of modern science and is hospitable to science and scientists.

Yet not everyone sees it that way. Some scientists argue that the claims of science and theology are incompatible — that science trumps theology, and that theology is no longer credible in the modern world.[1] Are they right?

Stephen Barr is a theoretical particle physicist at the Bartol Institute of the University of Delaware. Several years ago, he wrote an important article in which he showed how there is no real conflict between science and theology.[2] Instead of a conflict between science and theology, there is a conflict between materialism and theology. (Materialists believe that nothing exists except matter, and they almost always believe there is no God.[3])

Instead of a conflict between science and theology, there is a conflict between materialism and theology.

Barr argues that Christianity is rational, that it actually gave birth to modern science, and that the Bible’s storyline and teachings fit hand-in-glove with the best of science. In the main body of his paper, Barr shows how scientific materialists claim that science makes a Christian conception of the world unbelievable; then he proceeds to overturn each of the materialists’ claims.

In the next few paragraphs, I will summarize four of the materialists’ claims and Barr’s response to them.

1. Did Copernicus’ discoveries overturn Christian cosmology?

Materialists argue that Copernicus’ discovery that the Earth revolves around the sun refuted a Christian belief that the sun revolves around the Earth.

Barr responds that Copernicus did not overthrow any distinctively Christian belief. The Earth-centered view of the cosmos came from pagan thinkers (Ptolemy and Aristotle) rather than from Christian Scripture — so Copernicus refuted Ptolemey and Aristotle, not Christianity.

Barr goes on to make a very interesting point: Contemporary cosmology has recently moved in the direction of affirming Christian beliefs about the cosmos. While the scientific consensus 30 years ago was that the cosmos was eternal, the consensus now is that it must have had a beginning (which is what theologians have argued for thousands of years).

Contemporary cosmology has recently moved in the direction of affirming Christian beliefs about the cosmos.

2. Has “mechanism” triumphed over “teleology”?

Teleology is the view that the world has a design and a purpose, while mechanism is the view that it does not. Materialists argue that physicists have discovered certain “laws” of physics that hold the world together in such a way that there is no need to believe in a Designer who puts it together.

Barr argues that this mechanistic view is wrong. Barr is himself a physicist, and he argues that most physicists recognize that deep laws underlie the universe’s operation — laws so profound and elegant that they actually cause physicists to postulate some sort of cosmic design.

While materialists continue to assert that the universe could not have had a divine Designer, many physicists now suspect that it could or does.

3. Have biologists dethroned humanity from the high position given to it by Christian theology?

Materialists say that biology has led us to believe that humans are merely animals who make up just a tiny part of a huge and hostile universe. If this is true, it must disprove Christianity, which teaches that God created human beings in his image and likeness and set them apart from the animals.

Barr’s response is to argue the opposite point: As it turns out, the universe is amazingly (even gratuitously) hospitable to humans. Many features of our universe are fine-tuned in such a manner that minute alteration would leave the earth uninhabitable for humans. Such “anthropic coincidences” seem to be built into nature — and if they have been built in, there must have been a divine builder.

4. Are humans nothing more than biochemical machines, a “fact” which renders the God-postulate unnecessary?

Materialists argue that there is no proof whatsoever that humans have ‘souls’ or spiritual capacities of any type and that therefore we have no reason to believe in God either.

However, Barr explains that some physicists are now arguing that the quantum theory in physics is incompatible with a materialist view of the mind. He concludes that research in physics shows the laws of the universe to be grand and sublime in a way that implies design — and, because of that, this research also implies that the universe has a Designer.

Research in physics shows the laws of the universe to be grand and sublime in a way that implies design.

This post is a modified excerpt from Dr. Ashford’s new book, Every Square Inch. Details>>

[1] Richard Dawkins is a prominent scientist who argues that science and theology are incompatible. See Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).

[2] Stephen Barr, “Retelling the Story of Science,” First Things 131 (March 2003): 16-25.

[3] Barr would have been better served to say that naturalism (rather than materialism) is in conflict with theology. Although naturalism and materialism are nearly the same, materialists can be theists in some sense (e.g., Thomas Hobbes) or can be open to supernatural emphases, even if they define “supernatural” differently. Naturalism, however, asserts that all things are physical and that God does not exist. In short, naturalism entails materialism but goes beyond it to atheism.

Email Signup

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

  • science
  • theology
Bruce Ashford

Bruce Riley Ashford is a Professor of Theology & Culture at Southeastern Seminary. He is the author or co-author of six books, including The Gospel of Our King (Baker, 2019), Letters to an American Christian (B&H, 2018), One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics (B&H, 2015), and Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians (Lexham, 2015).

More to Explore

Never miss an episode, article, or study.

Sign up for the CFC newsletter now!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.