The Galileo affair, the Huxley-Wilberforce debate and the Scopes Trial. Many skeptics of the Christian faith often trot out these events to support their contention that religion (specifically Christianity) only serves to impede scientific progress.
Stated another way, the scientific enterprise and the Christian faith stand in perpetual opposition where scientific progress inevitably renders religion obsolete. Historians of science refer to this position as the conflict thesis , and it holds much sway in public opinion.
A recent study shows just how deeply this thesis penetrates the popular psyche. According to the article published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, a group of 129 volunteers were given summaries of the big bang theory and the primordial soup hypothesis to read. After reading, half the volunteers read a statement indicating these two theories were strong and supported by data. The other half read a statement explaining that the theories raised more questions than they answered. Then the volunteers were given tests to determine their subconscious attitudes toward science and God.
The results demonstrated that positive statements about the strength of scientific models correlated with more negative associations with God and vice versa. The authors argue that these results show that people have a dual belief system. According to the lead author, Jesse Preston,
We can only believe in one explanation at a time…So although people can report explicitly, ‘Look, I’ve been a Christian all my life, and yes, I also believe science and I am a practicing chemist,’ the question is, are these people really reconciling belief in God and science, or are they just believing in one thing at a time?
These results make perfect sense in light of the standard coverage of the interaction between science and religion in popular culture. The constant message that the two inherently conflict will cause most people who have not studied the issue closely to see the interaction as an “either–or” proposition
However, the popular portrayal of inherent discord does not stand up under more detailed scrutiny. In fact, historians of science reject the conflict thesis in favor of a more complex interaction. In the book Science and Religion, Gary Ferngren describes the situation this way:
Although popular images of controversy continue to exemplify the supposed hostility of Christianity to new scientific theories, studies have shown that Christianity has often nurtured and encouraged scientific endeavor, while at other times the two have co-existed without either tension or attempts at harmonization. If Galileo and the Scopes trial come to mind as examples of conflict, they were exceptions rather than the rule.
Despite experts’ rejection of the conflict thesis, it still dominates the thoughts of most in Western society, as affirmed by the results of this latest study. This plight highlights the need for Christians to soundly defend the historic alliance between Christianity and science in the quest for a proper understanding of the creation in which we live.