Science and Religion: Four Views

What is the relationship between science and religion? Do they conflict with each other? The quick and dirty answer is that it depends on the science and it also depends on the religion.

Various philosophers of science have observed that there are four basic models of the relationship between science and religion, or science and theology. Ian Barbour describes them as conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. Both scientific materialists and Christian fundamentalists illustrate the conflict model. Karl Barth is one of several thinkers mentioned who view science and religion as independent. Thomas F. Torrance is mentioned among a very diverse group that advocates some kind of dialogue model. Richard Swinburne is a noted Christian philosopher advocating integration of science and religion (or theology).1

Barbour’s four models clearly correspond to what Kenneth D. Boa and I have called the Reformed (conflict), fideist (independence), classical (dialogue), and evidentialist (integration) approaches to Christian apologetics.2

Reformed apologists view science and theology as conflicting in that modern science seeks to gain knowledge of the created world on the basis of assumptions or presuppositions that are inherently hostile to belief in God. These presuppositions include naturalism, the notion that nature is all that exists and that it is self-directing or self-explanatory. Cornelius Van Til, for example, complains, “It is fatal to try to prove the existence of God by the ‘scientific method’ and by the ‘appeal to facts’ if… the scientific method itself is based upon a presupposition which excludes God.”3 Reformed apologists are almost always young-earth creationists.

Fideists take the view that science and theology can neither conflict with each other nor agree with each other, because they do not address the same questions. They acknowledge that the Bible speaks in ways that are not scientifically accurate, but view such descriptions as irrelevant to the truth that the Bible is intended by God to convey. Donald Bloesch puts it this way: “The biblical culture is prescientific, but the truth that the Bible attests is suprascientific.”4 Based on such a view of science and theology, many if not most fideists accept some form of theistic evolution.

Classical apologists acknowledge that science and theology may have some overlapping subject matter, but urge caution in using science to “prove” the Bible. Norman Geisler, for example, suggests that “one must temper dogmatism about scientific arguments. Perhaps it is simply sufficient to say that the prevailing view in the scientific community presents evidence that strongly supports what Christians have always believed on biblical (and some even on philosophical) grounds….”5

Evidentialists characteristically base arguments on scientific theories with great confidence. While they agree that science changes, they see its changes as primarily advances in knowledge. Thus evidentialists are rarely young-earth creationists; most hold to some form of old-earth creationism. They appeal primarily to the facts of nature to refute evolutionism on the scientists’ own terms, rather than questioning the reliability of the scientific enterprise. Hugh Ross, for example, argues that the findings of secular scientists in the twentieth century “have given us some of the strongest evidences for our Creator, God, and Savior.”6

These four approaches to science and theology or religion have been noted in other studies by philosophers of science. John Haught rearranged Barbour’s last two categories somewhat and relabeled the four ways as conflict, contrast, contact, and confirmation,7 corresponding to what Boa and I call the Reformed, fideist, classical, and evidential approaches. In their book Reason and Religious Belief, Michael Peterson and three other philosophers discuss whether religion and science conflict, are independent, interact in dialogue, or can be integrated.8

In his article “Science and Religion: Towards a New Cartography,” David N. Livingstone argues that, broadly speaking, there are “four maps of the science-religion landscape, four ways of thinking about how the ‘encounter’ can best be plotted.”9 These four maps are conflict, competition, cooperation, and continuity. The competition map sees the conflict as one between scientists and theologians, not between science and theology (a position similar to classical apologetics). The cooperation map emphasizes the support theology has given to science historically (as in evidentialism). The conflict map sees the conflict as between secularized science and dogmatic theology (a view characteristic of Reformed apologetics). The continuity map sees the debate as really about the ground or basis of cultural values (as in fideism).

Unfortunately, an all-or-nothing assumption has characterized the debate over science and theology. Almost all the apparent conflicts between science and theology are really between what some scientists and some theologians say. That means, however, some scientific theories really do conflict with some Christian teachings. The fideist is right to suggest that some scientific theories deal with questions of a different type than in theology, but this way of handling apparent conflicts goes only so far. For example, the conflict between Genesis and modern science on the age of the universe may be only apparent, due perhaps to more being read into Genesis on the subject than is actually there. On the other hand, the theory that human beings evolved from nonhuman creatures is simply not reconcilable with Genesis.

Where there is real possibility of conflict, there is also real possibility of agreement and therefore of confirmation. The evidentialist is justified, then, in looking for support for the biblical teaching on creation from scientific evidence. But the classical apologist often is wise in exercising some caution in endorsing modern scientific theories as confirmation of Christianity. Indeed, in this respect we would suggest that while any of the four approaches can be broadened to incorporate the legitimate perspectives of the other approaches, the classical approach is in the strongest position from which to do so.


1 Ian G. Barbour, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1997), 77-105.
2 Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman, Jr., Faith Has Its Reasons: An Integrative Approach to Defending Christianity (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001).
3 Cornelius Van Til, Christian-Theistic Evidences, Defense of the Faith 6 (Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1976), 55-56.
4 Donald G. Bloesch, Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration and Interpretation (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1994), 114.
5 Norman Geisler, Knowing the Truth about Creation: How It Happened and What It Means for Us (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant, 1989), 96, 97.
6 Hugh Ross, Creation and Time: A Biblical and Scientific Perspective on the Creation-Date Controversy (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1994), 133.
7 John Haught, Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist, 1995); cf. Barbour, Religion and Science, 338 n. 1.
8 Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger, Reason and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, 2nd ed. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 237-258.
9 David N. Livingstone, “Science and Religion: Towards a New Cartography,” Christian Scholar’s Review 26 (1997): 270-292 (quote on 271).

This essay was taken in large part from Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman, Jr., Faith Has Its Reasons: An Integrative Approach to Defending Christianity (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001), especially pages 517-18. Faith Has Its Reasons, a winner of the Gold Medallion Award, is available from Apologetics.com.

This article appeared in the Winter 2002 edition of Logon.
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tracy@apologetics.com

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