Is Christianity at War with Science?

The claim that Christianity is at war with science is one of the most common claims I hear from young people today. In fact, the belief that Christianity is opposed to modern science is one of the top reasons young people cite for leaving the church.[1] That’s why in the updated Evidence that Demands a Verdict, my father and I respond to this charge before advancing the historical evidence for Christianity.

But where did this idea come from? Is it accurate? In 1896 Cornell University president Andrew Dickson White released a book entitled A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. White is largely credited with inventing and propagating the idea that science and Christianity are adversaries in the search for truth. White cast Christians as fanatics who clung to scriptural claims that the earth was flat. But is this account true? Sociologist Rodney Stark responds,

White’s book remains influential despite the fact that modern historians of science dismiss it as nothing but a polemic—White himself admitted that he wrote the book to get even with Christian critics of his plans for Cornell . . . many of White’s other accounts are as bogus as his report of the flat earth and Columbus.[2]

The Warfare Myth

Why has this warfare myth been so influential? The truth is that the supposed warfare between religion and science is a polemical device used in the secular attack on faith. In reality, theology was essential for the rise of modern science.

How so? In their book The Soul of Science, Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton demonstrate that Christian assumptions, such as the conviction that nature is lawful (since it was the creation of a rational God) and that science is meant to alleviate toil and suffering, provided the backdrop for the emergence of the scientific revolution in Europe.

Most scientific pioneers were theists as well, including prominent figures such as Copernicus (1473–1543), Boyle (1627–1691), Newton (1642–1727), Pascal (1623–1662), Kepler (1571–1630), Pasteur (1822–1895), Bacon (1561–1626), and Max Planck (1858–1947). Many of these pioneers intently pursued science because of their belief in the Christian God.

The Real Conflict

While the theistic worldview fosters the development of science, ironically, naturalistic evolution undermines it. Since according to naturalism we humans are the product of a blind, purposeless, and unguided evolutionary process, how can we trust our rational faculties to produce true beliefs?

In his book Where the Conflict Really Lies, Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga explains that what naturalistic evolution guarantees is

…(at most) that we behave in certain ways—in such ways as to promote survival, or more exactly reproductive success. The principal function or purpose, then, of our cognitive faculties is not that of producing true or verisimilitudinous (nearly true) beliefs, but instead that of contributing to survival by getting the body parts in the right place. What evolution underwrites is only (at most) that our behavior is reasonably adaptive to the circumstances in which our ancestors found themselves; hence it does not guarantee mostly true or verisimilitudinous beliefs. Our beliefs might be mostly true or verisimilitudinous; but there is no particular reason to think they would be: natural selection is interested, not in truth, but in appropriate behavior. (314–315)

Certainly, some Christians resist science. This is undeniable. And, as Plantinga observes, there are some beliefs individual Christians hold that are in tension with modern science. But this is only shallow conflict. No real conflict between theism and science exists. The real conflict—the deep conflict—is between science and naturalism.


[1] David Kinnaman, You Lost Me (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 135-136.

[2] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God (Princeton, NJ: Princeton, 2009), 123

Sean McDowell is a gifted communicator with a passion for equipping the church, and in particular young people, to make the case for the Christian faith. He connects with audiences in a tangible way through humor and stories while imparting hard evidence and logical support for viewing all areas of life through a biblical worldview. Sean is an associate professor in the Christian Apologetics program at Biola University. He is the Resident Scholar for Summit California. Sean still teaches one high school Bible class, which helps him have exceptional insight into the prevailing culture so he can impart his observations poignantly to fellow educators, pastors and parents alike. In 2008, he received the Educator of the Year award for San Juan Capistrano, Calif. The Association of Christian Schools International awarded Exemplary Status to his apologetics training. Sean is listed among the top 100 apologists. He graduated summa cum laude from Talbot School of Theology with a master’s degree in theology and another in philosophy. He earned a Ph.D. in Apologetics and Worldview Studies in 2014 from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Traveling throughout the U.S. and abroad, Sean speaks at camps, churches, schools, universities and conferences. He has spoken for organizations including Focus on the Family, the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Backyard Skeptics, Cru, Youth Specialties, Hume Lake Christian Camps, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Association of Christian Schools International. Sean has also appeared as a guest on radio shows such as Family Life Today, Point of View, Stand to Reason, Common Sense Atheism and the Hugh Hewitt Show. Sean has been quoted in many publications, including the New York Times. Sean is the author, co-author or editor of over 18 books including The Fate of the Apostles (Routledge, 2015); A New Kind of Apologist (Harvest House, 2016); The Beauty of Intolerance (Barbour, 2016); Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage, with John Stonestreet (Baker, 2014); Is God Just a Human Invention? with Jonathan Morrow; and Understanding Intelligent Design, with William A. Dembski. Sean has also written multiple books with his father, Josh McDowell, including The Unshakable Truth, More Than A Carpenter and an update for Evidence that Demands a Verdict (2017). Sean is the general editor for The Apologetics Study Bible for Students. He has also written for YouthWorker Journal, Decision Magazine and the Christian Research Journal. Follow the dialogue with Sean as he blogs regularly at seanmcdowell.org. In April 2000, Sean married his high school sweetheart, Stephanie. They have three children and live in San Juan Capistrano. Sean played college basketball at Biola and was captain his senior year on a team that went 30-7.

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