Science versus Religion: A False Dichotomy?

By Levinson, Martin H. | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Science versus Religion: A False Dichotomy?


Levinson, Martin H., ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


THE ASSUMPTION that science and religion are in conflict seems to underlie much of today's discussion about such matters, but is it a valid one? Does such an oversimplified "war" metaphor encourage us to ignore important details?

Using historical examples from Western science and Western Christianity (the predominant religion in the Western world), this article will investigate the issue of "science versus religion" through the general semantics technique of dating. This technique involves attaching dates to our evaluations of people, objects, and situations as a reminder that change occurs over time--e.g., John Doe (2006) is not John Doe (2005). Its use can help us to remember that if we want to better understand people, objects, and situations in the present, it makes sense to look back at their past.

To begin our investigation let us examine some ideas from probably the most influential and important Christian theologian of all time, St. Augustine. (1)

Science versus Religion (fourth and fifth century) -- Faith and Reason

St. Augustine (354-430) was born in North Africa to a Christian mother and a pagan father. He abandoned Christianity because its teachings seemed uncertain or illogical and the Bible seemed full of contradictions and nonsense. After studying Classical philosophers and traveling to Italy, Augustine found an intellectual approach to Christianity (through Neo-Platonism) and biblical exegesis that pleased him, and he eventually was baptized.

St. Augustine argued for four points that not only became fundamental to Christian theology but are key to the science-religion interaction. They are:

A. The doctrine of the unity of truth -- one and the same truth applies to both theology and natural or philosophical knowledge. Contradictions between the two must be resolved intellectually by the use of reason.

B. The doctrine of the two books -- the Book of Scripture (the Bible) and the Book of Nature (the created world). These are two complementary ways that God reveals himself to humans.

C. The doctrine of exegesis -- both books require careful interpretation. For example, biblical passages have layered meanings: a literal, an allegorical, an anagogical, and a moral meaning. Because biblical interpretation is very difficult, our explanations of some passages should be held only provisionally.

D. In terms of the pursuit of religion versus the pursuit of science or philosophy, religion has primacy, but scientific knowledge is an important handmaiden that assists true religion.

Science versus Religion (seventeenth century) -- the "Galileo Affair"

The "Galileo affair" is an often-cited incident in the history of science-religion interactions. Far from being a simple case of science versus religion, it is highly complex and brings up many important philosophical, scientific, and other issues that can best be understood in context.

A key antecedent to the Galileo affair was the publication by Copernicus, in 1543, of his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, which argued that, contrary to the prevailing Ptolemaic-Aristotelian system, the Sun was at the center of the universe (heliocentrism) and the Earth revolved around it (geokineticism). For a variety of reasons, his theory found little acceptance.

In 1613, Galileo wrote a letter defending geokineticism and arguing that Scripture had to be interpreted in light of scientific knowledge. He further stated that the biblical story of Joshua's stopping the sun to lengthen the day could be explained thanks to Galileo's discovery of the Sun's rotation, which he suggested, powered the planets. In offering to interpret the Scriptures, Galileo was exceeding his scientific expertise.

In 1615, a Neapolitan priest named Paolo Antonio Forcarini published a book reinterpreting the Bible to be compatible with Copernicanism (this shows that there were clergy on both sides of the issue). …

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