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Chesterton House

A Center for Christian Studies at Cornell

Christianity and Science: From Conflict to Complementarity

Dr. Edward "Ted" Davis, Professor of the History of Science, Messiah College
Saturday, April 9, 2011 - 9:30am
226 Weill Hall, Cornell University

Ever since Cornell University co-founder and first president Andrew Dickson White published hisHistory of Warfare Between Science and Theology in Christendom, "warfare" has been employed as a metapher to describe the relationship of science and religion. In recent years, however, historians among others have questioned whether the warfare metaphor was ever really an accurate descriptor.

In three lectures focusing on Galileo, Boyle, and religious responses to Darwin, historian of science Ted Davis will survey the influence this model has had on the modern dialogue between science and religion, while also suggesting alternative ways of framing the dialogue: 

1.) Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church: A Clash of Personalities

No story in the history of science is more famous than that of Galileo, who was tried by the Roman Inquisition in 1633 after he had written a book advocating the new astronomy of Copernicus. But the real facts of his story are much less well known—and it is very important to understand them. The whole affair is full of personalities and politics, without which there probably would have been no trial at all. This is not a good example of the “warfare” between Christianity and science.

2.) Science as Christian Vocation: The Case of Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle is an outstanding example of a Christian scientist whose faith interacted fundamentally with his science. His remarkable piety was the driving force behind his interest in science, and his Christian character shaped the ways in which he conducted his scientific life. A deep love for scripture, coupled ironically with a lifelong struggle with religious doubt, led him to write several important books relating scientific and religious knowledge. Ultimately, he was attracted to the mechanical philosophy because he thought it was theologically superior to traditional Aristotelian natural philosophy: by denying the existence of a quasi-divine “Nature” that functioned as an intermediary between God and the world, it more clearly preserved God’s sovereignty and more powerfully motivated people to worship their creator.

3.) Darwin and Religion: Rumors of Warfare in a Post-Darwinian Age

What does Darwin mean for religion? Are Christianity and evolution inevitable foes? Is the famous “warfare” thesis of Andrew Dickson White the best description of what has taken place and what must happen in the future? This paper looks closely at what White actually said and relates this to historical and contemporary examples of what evolution has actually been said to mean for Christian beliefs. Four main patterns emerge: conflict resulting in the rejection of evolution as valid science; conflict resulting in the outright rejection of most types of theism as contradictory to science; conflict resulting in the rejection of divine transcendence and the wholesale reformulation of traditional theological beliefs; and complementarity in which traditional theological beliefs are affirmed alongside scientific conclusions, in what looks more like genuine dialogue than any of the other patterns.