The Scientist’s Friend
By David Feddes
The Galileo trial and the “Scopes monkey trial” are two of the most famous courtroom dramas in history. In both cases, religious ignorance attacked scientific enlightenment. In both cases, a courageous hero taught new discoveries that the religious establishment didn’t want to hear: Galileo, that the earth goes around the sun; Scopes, that people evolved from apes. Both Galileo and Scopes were persecuted, tried, and convicted. In the end, though, the courageous men of science were proven correct and the religious bigots were discredited. At any rate, that’s how the story is often told, and it’s portrayed as typical of a constant conflict between science and Christianity.
But maybe it’s not that simple. Before we assume that faith in Christ hinders science, we first need face the fact that science flourished most in nations with a Christian heritage. Why is that? Is there something about faith in Christ that doesn’t hinder science but helps it? What if the common picture of the Galileo and Scopes trials is misleading? What if Jesus Christ is not the enemy of science but the scientist’s friend?
The truth about Galileo’s trial is that it was more a clash of philosophies and personalities than a battle of Scripture against science. The root of Galileo’s trouble was not that he disagreed with the Bible. Galileo’s problem was that he disagreed with the ancient Greek thinker Aristotle. Most of Galileo’s fellow scientists accepted Aristotle’s overall approach to things, including Aristotle’s view that the earth was the center of the universe. In fact, Galileo had more enemies among his fellow scientists than among the clergy. These scientists didn’t want some upstart (especially someone as ornery as Galileo) saying Aristotle was wrong. They couldn’t prove Galileo wrong using science, so they quoted a few Bible passages (which they misinterpreted to fit Aristotle) and called on Roman Catholic church authorities to get involved. Galileo was pressured to recant his views, though he never had to endure any physical suffering or jail time.
Does the persecution of Galileo show that Christianity is an enemy of science? No, it shows that Christians and church officials can sometimes be very wrong, but it doesn’t at all show that faith in Jesus hinders scientific discovery. Galileo counted himself a Christian and remained a church member his entire life. Galileo never saw himself in conflict with Scripture. He declared, “The Holy Bible can never speak untruth—whenever its true meaning is understood.” So before you see Galileo as proof that science and Christianity are at odds, take note of the fact that Galileo himself endorsed Scripture, and take note of the fact that Galileo and other pioneers of science appeared not just anywhere in the world but in places with a Christian heritage.
Pioneers of Science
The person who originally came up with a mathematical model for the earth orbiting the sun was Nicholas Copernicus. He, like Galileo after him, was a church member. Indeed, Copernicus served his parish in an administrative position for forty years. Copernicus said, “The universe has been wrought for us by a supremely good and orderly Creator.” Copernicus pursued science out of what he called a “loving duty to seek the truth in all things, in so far as God has granted that to human reason.”
Johannes Kepler embraced the sun-centered view of Copernicus and improved it by showing that the planets orbit in an ellipse, not a perfect circle. Did Christianity hinder Kepler? No, he declared, “The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order and harmony which has been imposed on it by God.” He said that his scientific studies aimed only to think God’s thoughts after him. Kepler believed God had called him to the work of science, and he prayed, “I give you thanks, Creator and God, that you have give me this joy in your creation, and I rejoice in the work of your hands.” When asked on his deathbed where he put his hope for eternity, Kepler replied, “Only and alone on the work of our redeemer Jesus Christ.”
After Copernicus and Kepler came Galileo. As we’ve seen, Galileo affirmed that the Bible, properly understood, is never wrong. Although he ran into trouble with certain church leaders, Galileo’s background in Christianity and his belief in the Bible certainly didn’t hinder him from making scientific advances.
Next on the list is Isaac Newton. Newton’s belief in the Creator made him confident that there must be some underlying order to everything. Newton developed the concept of gravity, came up with equations for it, invented calculus, and achieved other scientific breakthroughs, all the while seeing it as evidence of God’s power and wisdom. Newton wasn’t just a scientist. He also wrote more than a million words on biblical studies and said, “No sciences are better attested than the religion of the Bible.” Newton made theological mistakes, but there’s no doubt he took the Bible seriously and believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus. “Atheism is so senseless,” he said. The universe “did not happen by chance.”
Consider a few more of the great trailblazers of science. Robert Boyle was the genius whose equation for gas pressure is what chemistry students still today learn as Boyle’s law. Boyle was a devout Christian.
William Harvey discovered the circulation of blood. He saw this as one more proof that living things are designed by God. Harvey spoke of God as “the Divine Architect” who created everything “for a certain purpose, and to some good end,” and Harvey opposed those in his day who said living things are merely the product of material forces acting by chance.
Georges Cuvier was a pioneer of comparative anatomy and a fossil expert who established paleontology, the study of fossils, as a field of its own. Cuvier was a Calvinist Christian. He insisted that nature has an orderly structure not because it’s that way on its own but because it is subject to God’s laws.
Physicist Lord Kelvin was a pioneer in the field of thermodynamics and established the Kelvin scale, which measures temperatures from absolute zero. Kelvin said, “If you think strongly enough, you will be forced by science to believe in God.
George Washington Carver, a brilliant black American, developed over three hundred different products from peanuts and over one hundred products based on sweet potatoes. Carver was born of slave parents, yet he went on to accomplish amazing things as a scientist and inventor. Carver was a Bible-believing follower of Jesus and credited his ability and success to God.
Louis Pasteur saved countless lives by discovering bacteria and its role in spoiling food and causing disease. Pasteur developed the bacteria-destroying method of pasteurization, which is name after him. He disproved the old idea of spontaneous generation, which said that life could emerge from non-living material, and established the concept of biogenesis, that life comes only from other life. Pasteur believed strongly in God as Creator and in Christ as Savior, and he said that the more science he knew, the stronger his faith became.
Joseph Lister developed antiseptics to prevent germs from infecting wounds. He taught doctors to wash their hands and to sterilize surgical instruments before working on patients. Lister was a committed Christian.
The list could go on and on, but I trust it’s clear that Christians have made enormous contributions to science. Their faith was an aid to their research, not an obstacle. They saw the Lord revealed in the Bible to be the scientist’s friend.
A Friendly Framework
It’s all too common to overemphasize conflict between faith and science, but we’d be wiser to ask why belief in the biblical God has proven to be so helpful to scientific discovery. The Bible says of the Lord Jesus, “All things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17). Faith in a personal, rational Creator, along with confidence that reality is a unity held together by one Lord—this is the only solid foundation for rational investigation of the world.
It’s a fact of history that the greatest flourishing of scientific discovery occurred in a civilization deeply influenced by the Christian worldview. Why is that? Is it just a coincidence? Or are there things in the Bible that somehow support and encourage scientific investigation? The Bible sets a strong precedent for studying the world around us and reveals principles which provide a friendly framework for such study.
The first biblical precedent appears at the very beginning. After God created animals and man, says the Bible, he gave man authority over other creatures. Then the Lord brought the animals to Adam to see what he would name them (Genesis 2:19). That’s the work of science in a nutshell: exercising authority over other parts of creation, studying various things God has made, and coming up with the best words to describe them.
Another biblical precedent for scientific study is King Solomon, a man of unsurpassed genius. Solomon applied much of his brilliance to government, political strategy, and architecture. He also wrote poetry and music. As if all that weren’t enough, Solomon made time for scientific study of nature as well. The Bible says, “God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight … He described plant life [and] also taught about animals and birds, reptiles and fish” (1 Kings 4:29,33). The Bible speaks approvingly of Solomon’s biological research, so it clearly considers science a good thing.
The Bible provides a precedent, and even more important, it establishes a worldview. All things are created by God through his Son, Jesus Christ, and designed according to his master intelligence and held together in a unity by his power and plan. This provides a basis for expecting to find rational patterns in the world around us and establishes a basic framework for scientific research.
That’s not true of every worldview. Some worldviews have held that everything physical is evil or unreal. Why would you bother studying physical things if they’re just an illusion anyway? Others have seen nature as divine and have worshiped animals and trees and the sun, moon, and stars. How can you experiment on something you worship? How can you try to master other things if they contain the spirits of your ancestors or of various gods? Animist and pantheist worldviews don’t encourage science. Others have viewed all things as part of inevitable fate. You can’t change fate—you can only resign yourself to it—so what’s the use of trying to understand or change anything in the world around you? Others have thought that chance or chaos is the ruling principle and that all things happen randomly. Why look for any uniform patterns in the world if all is chance and chaos? It’s not surprising that worldviews like these have not produced many pioneers in the advance of science.
But the biblical worldview is different. According to the Bible, the physical world isn’t evil but good; God created it and pronounced it good (Genesis 1:31), so it’s very much worth investigating and developing. At the same time, the creation isn’t itself God; it’s created by God for his glory and our benefit, so it’s good to study God’s handiwork and make the most of it for human wellbeing. The world isn’t just a matter of fate that we can only endure but not change; the Creator has empowered people to subdue creation and authorized us to rule over it (Genesis 1:28), so that’s what we should try to do. Also, the world isn’t mere chaos; it’s designed by a wise Creator who is consistent in character and orderly in his creative activity, so it makes sense to look for patterns and structure.
The Bible shows that the God who made the universe also created the human mind and that this God even took on a human nature in the person of Jesus Christ. That gives us good reason to think that the human mind can grasp at least something about the physical world. At the same time, Scripture teaches that God freely decided to make the world and that he made it out of nothing (Hebrews 11:3). What God does in his freedom can’t simply be figured out in advance by our reasoning; we have to observe and discover what the world is actually like and be open to surprises that may not fit our preconceptions. Only when we’re confident enough to think our minds can grasp something of reality, and at the same time humble enough to change our minds as we keep experimenting and making new observations of the way God has actually designed something, can scientific progress be made. It’s no coincidence, then, that science made the greatest strides in cultures influenced by the Christian worldview.
A science writer who isn’t fond of Christianity admits, “It is the Christian world which finally gave birth in a clear, articulate fashion to the experimental method of science itself.” The history of science isn’t so much a case of Christianity against science as a case of Christianity providing the framework for science to flourish. Faith in Christ helps the scientific work of those who consider themselves Christians, and it even helps the science of many non-Christians. A number of scientists have rejected faith in the biblical God, but they still depend on principles of a structured universe and the power of human observation to discover those structures, and they also depend on other significant principles that are rooted in the Christian worldview—even if they don’t realize it.
Conflict and the Scopes Trial
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, conflict between some scientists and Christianity became sharper and more frequent. Is this because Christianity was anti-scientific? No, it would be more accurate to say that some leading scientists were increasingly anti-Christian. Some supporters of random evolution wanted their new anti-creation religion to be mandatory in public school classrooms. However, a lot of citizens and legislators didn’t want public school children indoctrinated in the anti-Christian religion of evolutionary humanism. In the 1920’s the Tennessee legislature passed an education funding bill which included a largely symbolic measure forbidding the teaching of evolutionism. That was the occasion for the Scopes trial.
The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) wanted a showdown and advertised for someone to create a court case. Some citizens of Dayton, Tennessee thought that national attention would attract business to their town, so they encouraged John Scopes to offer himself to the ACLU as a candidate for a court challenge. Scopes was actually a math teacher and athletic coach and had only briefly substituted as a biology teacher. He didn’t recall actually teaching evolution and didn’t understand it very well, but he had used a textbook which had a short section on the subject. His defenders never put him on the witness stand because of his lack of knowledge (not to mention his uncertainty as to whether he had even taught the subject) might prove embarrassing.
The trial was not a serious criminal prosecution but a staged media event. Scopes was never in danger of going to jail or being fired. When there was a break in the trial, he even went swimming with the assistant prosecutors. William Jennings Bryan, a renowned political figure, prosecuted the case, and Clarence Darrow, the most famous defense attorney in America, represented Scopes. Like many in the ACLU, Darrow was an anti-Christian agonistic and gave famous lectures opposing biblical faith. Darrow managed to make Bryan look awkward at times, but Darrow was also smart enough to quit while he was ahead. Since his client wasn’t facing serious consequences anyway, Darrow had Scopes plead guilty of breaking the law and pay a small fine, thus ending the trial before Bryan could give the prosecution’s closing statement. Darrow later admitted that he feared Bryan’s eloquence and didn’t want to give him the last word.
Those are the facts of the Scopes trail. However, news reporters, led by the anti-Christian H. L. Mencken, portrayed the whole episode as a case of Christian bigots viciously attacking an enlightened science teacher and made it sound as though Darrow had proven evolutionism and destroyed the Bible’s credibility. Opponents of Christianity still like to give their version of the well-worn tales of Galileo and Scopes, emphasizing that Christianity stifles free inquiry. Knowing the fuller truth about those two trials is important.
Even more important is recognizing our present-day situation. Who is being pressured and prosecuted today? The main persecution is directed against teachers who dare to mention the Creator in their classroom. The ACLU staged the Scopes trial in the name of intellectual freedom, but does the ACLU today defend the right of teachers to point out flaws in Darwinism and present scientific evidence for design by a Creator? No, the ACLU takes such teachers to court. The aim is not freedom of religion but freedom from religion. That way, students can be indoctrinated in the new religion of secular humanism and its faith in evolution without the God of the Bible.
The Scientist’s Friend
Having said all this, let’s recognize that the so-called conflict between science and Christianity has been exaggerated, while the fact that science flourished in the soil of a Christian heritage has often been ignored. Where conflict occurs today, it’s mostly a battle between worldviews, Christian versus anti-Christian, not biblical faith versus scientific discovery. Meanwhile, Jesus remains the friend of science, even though some in the scientific establishment reject him.
Does any of this really matter? If you already believe the Bible and trust in Jesus Christ, you have a personal relationship to God that doesn’t depend on developments in scientific thought. Why should it matter to a Christian if the Christian worldview did indeed help science to flourish?
Well, one reason is that some Christians feel shaken when they’re told that the physical world around them is best explained apart from faith in Christ. It’s encouraging to know that genuine science, far from being an enemy of biblical faith, owes an enormous debt to the biblical worldview. Another reason is that all truth is God’s truth. Christians shouldn’t shun new discoveries about creation, even if some of those discoveries are made by non-Christians. We can reject their false worldviews and anti-religious attacks without rejecting legitimate discoveries. After all, every new finding brings better knowledge of God’s creation and a fresh occasion to praise him. Science can add to our appreciation of our Creator and Savior.
But what if you’re not a Christian at all? Why should you care about the relationship between Christianity and the flowering of science. Well, if you’ve been under the impression that Christianity is at odds with scientific knowledge, you can now let go of that misconception. Once you realize that science and technology owe a huge debt to Christianity, you might be more inclined to take Christianity seriously. Science can be good, but it’s not enough. If you focus only on scientific studies, you miss out on the love of the personal Lord and Savior who designed all these things. And you become more likely to use science wrongly, producing the dehumanizing horrors of a brave new world.
Blaise Pascal was a genius in mathematics and science, but he understood that there’s more to life than math and science, and there’s more to God than just being the maker and designer of a rational world. “We only know God through Jesus Christ,” said Pascal. “The Christian’s God does not merely consist of a God who is the Author of mathematical truths and the order of the elements. That is the notion of the heathen… the God of the Christians is a God of love and consolation.”
Do you know this God of love and consolation? Have you even tried to find out about him? If not, then don’t accuse Christians of closing their minds to science; you’ve been closing your mind to Jesus. Shouldn’t you at least investigate? If the pioneers of science were operating within a Christian framework, and if even scientists who aren’t Christians still depend on many principles derived from the Christian worldview, shouldn’t you as a scientific person at least explore what the Bible says and find out about Jesus for yourself? You may find more than just a friendly framework for science; you may find the Creator of the universe as your personal friend.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.