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October 1982 · Vol. 11 No. 4 · pp. 3–8 

Science vs. Religion: Handling Conflicts

Randall Basinger

By and large, Christians today enjoy a quite comfortable relationship with science. We cannot help but be amazed at and thankful for the seemingly endless string of scientific advances and breakthroughs. Science continues to be an important part of the education of our children whether it be in grade school, high school or college. Moreover, many of us seem to find little problem in simultaneously being Christians and professional scientists.

However, under this seemingly amicable relationship, the centuries-old tensions remain. The problem of integrating and reconciling the teachings of the sciences with religious truth continues to be an ongoing and challenging issue. The recent court battles over the teaching of evolution in public schools offer one clear and dramatic example of the continued tension.

How then are Christians to deal with the tension between scientific inquiry and religious commitment? What precisely is the Christian to do when a religious belief is challenged by an alleged insight from science? More specifically, what methods are open to the person interested in reconciling and integrating science with religion. While the main purpose of this article is to explore those general methodological questions, special application will be made to the current/evolutionist debate.


When a current, well-received teaching of science contradicts what is held to be a religious truth, something has to give. Unless one is willing (and psychologically able) to live with contradictory beliefs, at least one of the rival “truths” has to be denied.

When faced with such a dilemma, for many Christians the proper response seems patently obvious—the teachings of science must be denied. The rationale for this move is quite clear and persuasive. It is {4} argued that science is human reflection on nature and, like all human endeavours, subject to error. Similarly, the body of scientific knowledge is in a continual state of flux. Science is a growing and changing enterprise which offers no more than tentative and provisional conclusions. No matter how successful and reliable science might prove to be, it still falls short of offering conclusive, absolute truth.

In sharp contrast to this, it can be argued that Christian religious beliefs are grounded in scripture, and scripture, being nothing less than divine revelation, is the source of unchanging, absolute truth.

Thus if there should ever be a conflict between the teachings of scripture and the teachings of science, the teaching of scripture must be given preference. Divine revelation stands in judgement over all human inquiry. In a word, faith comes before reason.


At times this approach has led some Christians to take a rather negative stance toward science, but that need not be the case. Other Christians have argued that God’s natural revelation (as explored through science) and God’s special revelation (as recorded in scripture) ultimately cannot conflict. God cannot reveal contradictory truths. So there can be no real conflict between science and religion. In any apparent conflict between science and scripture, the problem lies not with science but with poor or inadequate science. Science, at its best, will not and in fact cannot conflict with the scripture. In short, all truth is God’s truth. 1

This attitude gives Christian scholars the freedom and incentive (obligation?) to move from a dogmatic dismissal of scientific teaching to a more positive and constructive response. The Christian scholar may try to demonstrate on scientific grounds the inadequacy of those scientific theories which conflict with scripture. Or he may attempt to work at developing theories which are at once both scientifically adequate and compatible with scripture. This is the method of creation-scientists who argue that evolutionary thought is wrong not only because it conflicts with scripture but also because it conflicts with good, legitimate science. They allege that proper scientific theorizing and inquiry are indeed supportive of scripture. And since creationism is a legitimate (in fact, the most adequate) scientific theory, it can and should be taught in the public school without illegitimately mixing church and state.

Thus far we have developed one possible response a Christian can make to any given conflict between science and religion. On the assumption that scripture is nothing less than divine revelation, the Christian can challenge any teaching from science that conflicts with Scripture. On the assumption that all truth is God’s truth, the Christian {5} scholar is free to attempt to show how proper scientific inquiry is reconcilable with scripture. We have also seen how this method works itself out in the context of the present creation/evolution debate. What then are we to make of this approach?

Those using this approach are on solid methodological ground. They take divine revelation seriously, placing it above human reason. Also, they recognize the fallibility of science. No scientific belief is beyond challenge and possible revision. Challenge, criticism and revision is the name of the game in science. When scientific beliefs turn into dogma, science has ceased to be science. When the creation-scientists try to challenge evolutionary theory, they are certainly within their epistemic rights. Though one might wish to disagree with their conclusions, it is hard to find fault with their methodology at this point. 3 But, is this the whole story? Must science always give way to religion? Must evolution of necessity give way to creationism?


Does the sun revolve around the earth or the earth around the sun? Such a question sounds quite bizarre to the twentieth century ear, yet it was Galileo’s teaching that the earth revolved around the sun that forced Galileo into his dramatic confrontation with the church leaders and theologians. 4 But why would the theological community label as heresy a scientific theory that placed the sun and not the earth at the center of the world? The answer is clear. The church leaders were convinced that the scriptures teach that the earth is the center of the universe. 5 When forced to choose between God’s revelation which teaches a geocentric view of the universe and Galileo’s heliocentric hypothesis, the choice was obvious. Divine revelation must be given priority.

Behind the church’s interpretation of scripture stood the time honored Aristotelian natural philosophy and the Ptolemaic model of the universe as well as good common sense (after all the sun does appear to move around the earth). Thus in the eyes of the church scholars, science and correct reasoning supported their understanding of scripture. For them, all truth was indeed God’s truth.

Though the religious authorities succeeded in suppressing Galileo and his “heretical” and “poor” science, our own beliefs concerning the earth and the sun clearly bear witness to the ultimate triumph of Galileo’s ideas over the beliefs of his theological opponents. But what went wrong? Were Galileo’s accusers not merely being faithful to the Scripture?

At times Christians are sincerely wrong about what scripture teaches. 6 The assumption that the Bible is divine revelation does not {6} automatically lead the believer to correct beliefs about what the scripture actually teaches. Humans are fallible and our interpretations of the Bible are in need of constant reexamination and possibly revision. We, like the accusers of Galileo, often forget that scripture has to be interpreted to be heard and with human interpretation comes the possibility of error. To automatically deny the teaching of science in any alleged conflict with scripture is faulty methodology. Galileo’s skirmish with the church is a solemn reminder of this.

Conflicts between science and religion are often constructed as conflicts between human understanding and divine revelation. If this is an accurate perception of such conflicts, then human understanding must always give way to divine revelation. However, the conflicts we actually encounter between science and religion are really between human interpretation of nature (science) and human understanding of the data of scripture (theology). When conflicts are perceived in this fashion, it becomes obvious that human interpretation is present in both areas of knowledge. 7 And with human interpretation comes the possibility of misinterpretation. Consequently, when science conflicts with our religious beliefs, we cannot simply assume that the scientists are on the wrong track.

Does this line of thought mean that God’s revelation changes or at times must take the back seat to science? The answer is clearly no. God’s truth does not change, but our perception of divine revelation can, has, and at times must change. Human fallibility does not only apply to our exploration of nature via the scientific method. It also applies to our exploration of and attempts to understand the data of special revelation. To reinterpret and hence change one’s understanding of revelation is not to question God’s authority. On the contrary, rightly understood it can come out of a deep longing to understand more properly and grow in one’s grasp of divine revelation. This approach recognizes that new scientific ideas can be the occasion which prompts a reexamination of what we take to be divine revelation. Any new interpretation must be justified on its own grounds and must not be a quick, automatic or unreflective accommodation to what current science teaches. “Agreement with science” must not be made the guiding principle of biblical interpretation; after all, science might be wrong. By the same token, however, biblical interpretation performed in a scientific vacuum has in the past and might in the future turn out to be faulty. 8

Hence, another methodological option has emerged for Christians faced with a conflict between science and religion. It may be our current interpretations of scripture and thus our religious beliefs that need modification.

The relevance of this to the evolutionist/creationist debate should be clear. While the creation-scientists might be on the right track, they {7} also might be wrong. It cannot be assumed that evolutionism as a science is wrong and that scientific creationism is right. The church once cast its lot with a synthesis of Aristotelian science and scripture and turned out to be wrong.

Those Christians who have made peace with evolutionism are on solid methodological ground when they seek a reexamination of our understanding of scripture in light of developments in science. One might disagree with the substantive conclusions of Christian evolutionists, but what they are attempting to do is not intrinsically illogical or heretical. It is not illogical because the theologian, like the scientist, must be self-critical, self-correcting, and exhibit a willingness to change if inquiry into nature and scripture so dictates. It is not heretical because it does not call into question the authority of scripture, but rather only our interpretation of scripture. 9

The lesson of the Galileo incident cuts both ways. While it can be seen as a humbling lesson for the creation scientist, it could also be a humbling lesson for the Christian evolutionist. Perhaps the “modern Galileos” are the creation-scientists who, like Galileo, are challenging the scientific establishment and a church which is overly and uncritically accommodating to the prevailing views of science, i.e., evolution. 10


If the above analysis is correct, it would appear that there are two basic methods open to the Christian when confronting a conflict between science and religion. One can alleviate the tension by either reinterpreting science or by reinterpreting religion. In certain situations one method might be called for while in different situations the other method might apply. There is no easy answer. There is no one approach the Christian is always safe in applying. To opt for current religious belief over scientific teaching might solidify a misinterpretation of scripture. To change one’s view of religious truth in the face of any new scientific teaching is just as problematic.

The only alternative seems to be for the believer to walk a dialectical tightrope between the claims of science and religion. Both must be handled with respect and with a healthy skepticism, for we have no assurance beforehand which will have to undergo revision. In the absence of a single easy, straightforward method for resolving these conflicts, all conflicts will have to be treated individually with sensitivity and humility. But this conclusion should not surprise us. After all we are human; “we see through a glass darkly.” {8}


  1. For a thorough discussion of this theme, see Arthur Holmes, All Truth is God’s Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977).
  2. See Norman Geisler, “Creationism: A Case for Equal Time,” Christianity Today 26 (March 19, 1982), pp. 26-29.
  3. The tentative, subjective nature of scientific inquiry and truth has been a major theme in recent philosophy of science. See for example P.K. Feyerabend, “How to be a good Empiricist—A Plea for Tolerance in Matters Epistemological,” pp. 319-342 and Thomas Kuhn, “The Function of Dogma in Scientific Research,” pp. 356-373 in Readings in the Philosophy of Science, edited by Baruch Brody (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1970).
  4. For an historical account and discussion of this confrontation see Jerome Langford, Galileo, Science and the Church (New York: Desclee Co., 1966) and Giorgio de Santillana, The Crime of Galileo (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1955).
  5. Some of the passages to which the church leaders appealed are the following: Psalms 93:1; 19:4-6; 104:5; Ecclesiastes 1:4-5; Joshua 10:12-14; and 2 Kings 20:8-11. For a discussion of the scriptural objections to Galileo, see Langford, pp. 50-78.
  6. See Nicholas Wolsterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), pp. 11-13 and Gerry Breshears and Robert Larzelere, “The Authority of Scripture and the Unity of Revelation: A Response to Crabb,” The Journal of Psychology and Theology 9 (Winter 1981): 313-314.
  7. For further argument along this line see J.D. Guy Jr., “The Search for Truth in the Task of Integration,” The Journal of Psychology and Theology 8 (1980), 27-32.
  8. Robert Jonston, “Facing the Scriptures Squarely,” Christianity Today 24 (April 18, 1980), p. 26; see also Wolsterstorff, 54-58.
  9. This approach has been recently criticized by Lawrence Crabb, “Biblical Authority and Christian Psychology,” The Journal of Psychology and Theology 9 (Winter 1981): 305-311. See responses to Crabb’s argument in the same journal.
  10. Geisler, pp. 28-29.
Randall Basinger is one of the editors of Direction and is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Biblical and Religious Studies at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.

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