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The conflict that never was – How science and Christianity can live together in harmony

May 29th, 2013 by Fr. Vasile

Creation_heavensTalk given at the North Texas Orthodox Missions 201 event called How to Talk with Your Children and Grandchildren About God.

You can also listen to the live recording of the talk on Ancient Faith Radio here. Note: The live version differs a bit from the written version.

In preparing for this talk I had some interesting conversations with a couple of friends regarding the possible conflict between science and for a lack of a better world religion or spirituality in general.  Comments varied from saying that religion has no right to interfere with scientific truth and religion is only a way to cope with yet unexplained things (I even had the famous third law of Arthur C. Clarke. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” thrown at me) all the way to saying that the more technology develops the less spiritual the world becomes because it fuels a kind of a God complex that will be  the doom of us.

This is pretty much the picture all around the advancements of science are forcing people to critically look not only at their core beliefs but also at the role that man plays in the universe. The pertinent question of the day ceased to be ‘does the Sun revolves around the Earth or not’ and evolved more into ‘does the world revolves around Man or not’. The exercise of answering this question inflicts a lot of pain in the society that tries ineffectively to balance between the discoveries of science and maintaining the legacy of its spiritual roots.

Good science – bad religion

One of the most popular arguments we hear today is that religion in general (this term is used to paint everything with a broad brush) is the enemy of science. The world religion is however too broad and somewhat improper for our discussion today therefore I will try to stick with what I know more of: Christianity. Moreover the way we understand Christianity is not as a religion among others but as the way things actually are as God created them. Christianity is the ultimate reality not just a version of it as our post-modern world tries to depict it.

Christians are tainted by the secular propaganda as ignorant fools that see an excellent coping mechanism in their faith and they would do anything to keep it alive. This is usually “proven” by bringing the famous examples of Copernicus Giordano Bruno Galileo Galilei going all the way to Darwin. The argument is that blinded by the dogmas the Church could not see the revolution that these theories brought and rejected them out of ignorance putting therefore a great brake on scientific discovery.

The assumed ignorance of the Church on scientific matters however is not entirely true. We can go back to the very early days of Christianity and we will see Holy Fathers like Basil the Great Gregory the Theologian John Chrysostom and many others who all studied in the secular Greek schools of pagan Athens. They were far from being ignorant in the natural sciences and used this knowledge to reject from it what was deceitful and retain what was useful to spiritual development according to their faith. “Now then altogether after the manner of bees must we use these writings for the bees do not visit all the flowers without discrimination nor indeed do they seek to carry away entire those upon which they light but rather having taken so much as is adapted to their needs they let the rest go.”[1]

During medieval period it was the Church in the West that was the main promoter of rational thought. The scholastics were the ones who rediscovered Aristotelian logic and used it to prove the truth of their faith. Their theology was actually called “the science of faith”. This is not to say  their methods were flawless or abuses did not exist it is not to say that what the Inquisition did to Copernicus Bruno or Galileo was right but it also does not mean that they were entirely wrong as popular knowledge tends to concede. Truth is that what Copernicus and his successors were bringing on the table was very much against of all the grain the knowledge of the day. It was a theory that could not be proven by them with enough rational arguments.

Pope Urban who tried Galileo for instance was not an ignorant full he held a doctorate in law and was a great protector of arts. Part of the problem was that he was not scientifically convinced by Galileo’s arguments about heliocentricity. Truth is that some of Galileo arguments used to prove his idea like the theory of the tides for instance  were later proved wrong. Of course the pope should have stopped at agreeing to disagree and let future discoveries to settle that matter but Galileo’s Italian temperament did not help his case either…

We shouldn’t forget however that there was also the opposite side of the coin where we see the Church suffering during the Illumination period leading to the French revolution and it’s more distant cousin the Bolshevik revolution. There probably was no other more difficult period for the Church than under the self declared scientific-materialists of the Communist kind.

Today we see contemporary vocal atheists like Richard Dawkins Sam Harris and the other so called “Four horsemen of New Atheism” vehemently using scientific arguments and misrepresented Church doctrines (according to some) to prove the entire religious phenomenon as a futile attempt to enslave mankind.

Mixing up science and religion

So there is bad behavior on both sides. We have to agree with that. Are therefore the pure and innocent pursuits of scientific truth and/or spiritual fulfillment the real culprits here or is there something else laying beneath that makes this whole craze harder than it should be?

Take the evolution vs. creationism debate. There is a certain faction of the scientific community that would use every argument in their books to prove Creation wrong. Moreover some also venture to enter into shallow theological territory to find arguments for their side of the story. There are as well plenty creationists that cross over into murky science when they exhaust their biblical arguments for a young earth creation.

The basis of all this apparent conflict is a misunderstanding of the role of Christianity vs. that of science. False assumptions confusion and a general lack of proper dialogue on both sides leads to a fake conflict a conflict that should not even exist. Pope John Paul the 2nd affirmed it when Galileo’s verdict was finally overruled:

“The error of the theologians of the time when they maintained the centrality of the Earth was to think that our understanding of the physical worlds structure was in some way imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture”[2].

Atheist scientists are guilty of the same thing. Here is a story I found in one of the sermons of. Father Calciu Dumitreasa a well known Romanian dissident which pictures very well the futility of trying to disprove religion with scientific arguments:

“I remember reading something in a Russian newspaper or book how at the beginning of the revolution in Russia the communists sent people of science people with higher education from village to village to speak to the peasants and show them with scientific arguments that Jesus could not have risen from the dead. Trotsky with a group of such devoted communist scientists came into a certain village on Pascha. The police obligated the people and the priest on the day of Pascha to come to a big hall to hear the scientific arguments that Jesus Christ could not have risen. They said a lot of things very intelligent and at the end they asked if there were any questions. Then the priest who in fact was a peasant said ‘I have a question.’ They said ‘Come here’ and he came up to the front and said ‘You are very intelligent people: the intelligentsia of Russia. I think what you said is true but I want to say something. People CHRIST IS RISEN!’ And he heard the answer [thundering back]: ‘IN TRUTH HE IS RISEN!”’

The disagreement is not between the scientists and believers but between scientists with a secular agenda and believers of an imprecise and sometimes even distorted Christianity.  Such unfair trials make religion appears as obscuring the scientific truth while science seems to become the enemy of religion. Dostoyevsky that lived on the brink of the great socialist revolution in Russia observed that and expressed it through one of his characters in the book “The Devils”:

Half science is that most terrible scourge of mankind worse than pestilence famine or war and quite unknown till our present century. Half-science is a despot such as has never been known before a despot that has its own priests and slaves a despot before whom everybody prostrates himself with love and superstitious dread such as has been inconceivable till now before whom science trembles and surrenders in a shameful way [3]

The false either/or argument

Another great fallacy of the interminable arguments between “science” and “religion” is the “either/or” logic. If we have scientific explanation we can’t have miracles if we have evolution we cannot have creation if we have doctors we cannot have prayer and so on. But actually we dont have to choose between electricity and the light of Resurrection we can have both.  One can be physically healed by a drug or a scalpel and in the same time spiritually healed by the Mystery of Holy Unction. Christianity brings both sides of humanity together: the physical body and the spiritual soul we don’t have to choose; we are made complete by the Great Healer of soul and body.

We are to understand this reality it in both ways through science and faith reaching a deeper understanding of our reality. Science gives us the mechanical version the pursuit of the understanding of the physical laws of Creation while the spiritual quest gives us the reason behind our existence and the goal that lies ahead. This again is nothing new the Greek Fathers have already asserted that scientific knowledge is incomplete in itself and must be supported by wider views of reality which are accessible through faith.[4]

It makes no sense to deny either science or religion their proper role but we should be embracing them as fitting to take us closer to discovering God: through quantum physics and as well through ascetic struggle. If someone wants to be a scientist let him be an ascetic scientist a teacher and ascetic teacher. We cant separate the existing reality of creation for its Creator. St. John of Kronstadt said it right

 If you are a scholar a student in any educational establishment or an official in some ministry an officer in any of the branches of the military service or a technologist a painter a sculptor a manufacturer a mechanic – remember that the first science for each one of you is to be a true Christian to believe sincerely in the Holy Trinity to converse daily with God in prayer to take part in the Divine service to observe the rules and regulations of the Church and to bear in your heart before your work during your work and after your work the name of Jesus for He is our light our strength our holiness and our help. [5]

Each individual can chose which way cherishes more but there can be no honest science without recognizing the limits of human knowledge and no honest faith denying the right to a rational exploration of the beauty of Gods creation.

 The battleground

At the end of the day the conflict is neither in the microcosmos where subatomic particles are moving in undetermined pathways nor in some distant galaxies far far away the battleground is at the level of man.

The secular man wants man to live well and unconstrained. His preoccupation is therefore to make his life long and pleasurable.  Man has turned toward himself is consumed by his own needs and existence. For the secular person man is a social animal that needs food reproduction and entertainment. This life is all that a scientist can measure with empirical methods beyond the grave he can only measure the rate of decay of the organic matter buried in the ground.

The faithful person looks at man as a special kind of animal as St. Basil the Great observed man is an animal called to deification (theosis) whose life barely begins at his death.  The Christian no matter how much loves this life lives it in the perspective of eternity trying to fulfill his purpose in God and by paradoxically renouncing everything for Christ’s sake he gains everything in Christ.



[1] http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/basil_litterature01.htm

[2] Pope John Paul II LOsservatore Romano N. 44(1264) – November 4 1992

[3] The Devils (Harrnondsworth: Penguin Books 1971) 257. In http://www.roca.org/OA/137/137g.htm#3.

[4] http://www.enotes.com/christianity-orthodox-issues-science-religion-reference/christianity-orthodox-issues-science-religion

[5] From St. John of Kronstadt My Life in Christ: Part II; Holy Trinity Monastery pg. 286

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