Why loving science doesn't have to turn you into an atheist

A cloud of material ejected from an exploding star. The image was captured by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory.NASA/JPL-Caltech/McGill

It's a well-known fact: religion and science don't mix. Science has established that the universe is nearly 14 billion years old; Christians think it was created in 4004 BC. Scientists believe in experiments and reason; Christians think all you need is a book. Scientists are reasonable people; Christians, and religious people generally, are just fanatics. Science has disproved religion. Faith is a fantasy.

Everyone knows that, and comedians can get a good laugh by playing to the stereotypes.

Only none of it is true.

The idea that there's a perpetual conflict between science and religion is based on a wildly inaccurate misreading of history. In fact, some of the greatest scientists ever have been people of profound Christian faith. The Church has never been anti-science. And it's possible to have a theology of science that both reflects its contribution to understanding the physical world and improving the lives of human beings, and sets it in the context of God's redemptive work.

These were some of the points made forcefully this week at a conference at St John's College, Durham, run by the Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science project.

According to Durham University physics professor and project co-director Tom McLeish, it's possible to think theologically about science – and throughout history, many scientists have done so.

As well as pioneers like Johannes Kepler, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, he instanced Joseph Taylor, who received the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the first known binary pulsar, and for his work which supported the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe. Taylor said: "A scientific discovery is also a religious discovery. There is no conflict between science and religion. Our knowledge of God is made larger with every discovery we make about the world."

McLeish also cited the pioneers of quantum mechanics. According to Max Planck: "Both religion and science require a belief in God. For believers, God is in the beginning, and for physicists He is at the end of all considerations... To the former He is the foundation, to the latter, the crown of the edifice of every generalised world view."

Max Born said: "Those who say that the study of science makes a man an atheist must be rather silly." While according to Werner Heisenberg: "The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you."

So why do so many people believe science and religion are in conflict?

According to McLeish, it goes back only as far as the late 19th century and the work of two American authors, John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White. Draper – born and educated in England – wrote a fiercely anti-Catholic book The History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion. It included the sentence: "The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other." Draper's book purported to show how religion had always sought to suppress and denigrate science and was wildly popular, going through 50 printings in the US alone. It was translated into 10 languages.

White's book A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom was published in 1896 and claims to document the attempts by science to free itself from the shackles of religious dogma. It didn't sell as well as Draper's, but was better documented and its influence lasted longer.

However, historians have accepted for years that the whole 'conflict thesis' is flawed, and based on ideology rather than evidence. McLeish cites former Oxford University Professor of Science and Religion Peter Harrison, who said: "Those who have magnified more recent controversies about the relations of science and religion, and who have projected them back into historical time, simply perpetuate a historical myth. The myth of a perennial conflict between science and religion is one to which no historian of science would subscribe."

So why is the conflict thesis so embedded in our culture today, and why do people like 'new atheists' Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett get so much traction? Several ideas surfaced at the conference.

One was that Christians sometimes gave credibility to the accusations they were anti-science by unwisely venturing onto scientists' territory without being able to back up their claims. Examples include claims that the earth is only about 6,000 years old.

Another is that the conflict thesis actually works quite well for some parts of the Church. It creates a sense among Christians that they're an embattled minority. This might not always be a comfortable experience, but it does tend to enhance the solidarity of a group.

Another is the power of the mass media, who haven't really caught up with what's happened in the history of science. It's easier to parrot clichés than to question people's assumptions, especially when it's the clichés that get the laughs. And the idea that science and religion are in conflict feeds in to a wider perception that religion is somehow discredited in the modern age.

So how should we think theologically about science?

McLeish invites us to consider the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, particularly Job 38-40, where God questions the doubters about their knowledge of the creation ("Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea? Where is the way to the abode of light?"). The New Testament speaks of a "new creation" from God, who "gave us the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5:17). So McLeish offers this definition of science: it is "the participative, relational and co-creative work of healing the fallen relationship of humans with nature".

Science may challenge theology, but that's not a bad thing. But it doesn't threaten it, and it ought to be honoured as a discipline that reveals more of the wonders of the created world.

As Copernicus said: "To know the mighty works of God, to comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power; to appreciate, in degree, the wonderful workings of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High."

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods