When science rejected God
When Christopher Columbus set out sailing west in 1492, he hoped to eventually reach the shores of India in the East. His plan was based on his conviction that the earth was a sphere, and so a ship sailing west should surely eventually find itself on the eastern side of the globe. At a meeting in Salamanca, Spain, the church leaders argued against his ideas, warning that the earth was flat and if he set out west, he would not reach the west but rather fall off the edge of a flat earth. Columbus sailed off west anyway, but instead of landing in India, he landed on the eastern shores of the Americas – a serendipitous discovery that opened doors to the New World.
Parts of this story are fabricated. It is true that Columbus believed that the earth was a sphere and that if one sails west from Europe on open seas, a spherical earth should eventually take one to the eastern part of the globe. However, the great fallacy of the legend lies in the often-repeated story that the church leaders of that time asserted that the earth was flat and that they tried to prevent Columbus from undertaking a voyage that was headed to a disastrous plunge at the ultimate edge of the earth.
The belief that during the Middle Ages, church leaders advocated a flat earth theory is a myth.1 Several writers were culprits in crafting the fallacy and attributing it to the church. In the early nineteenth century, the popular American writer Washington Irving freely combined history with fiction. He described how the church fathers assailed Columbus at the famed meeting at Salamanca. Irving argued that church leaders provided Columbus with a long list of authorities who validated the flatness of the earth. However, this account should not be taken seriously; it has been evaluated as fictitious. History notes that at the Salamanca meeting, concerns were expressed about Columbus having to travel too far, but nothing was said about the flatness of the earth.
The person most responsible for the spread of the flat-earth fallacy is likely John Draper, a research scientist and physician who became president of the medical school at the University of the City of New York. His father was a Methodist minister, but he himself was strongly antireligious. When his sister’s son died at the age of eight, and she placed his prayer book on Draper’s breakfast plate, Draper was so upset that he ordered her out of the house. She remained alienated from her family, joining the Catholic Church that her brother despised.2 In 1873, Draper published an enormously successful book titled History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science.3 In the United States alone it had 50 printings in 50 years and was translated worldwide. At that time, the controversy between science and the Bible was fulminating. Darwin had recently published The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, which strongly endorsed evolution. Against this background, Draper’s book used the flat-earth fallacy to advocate the superiority of science over religion. While Draper recognized that some scholars in the Middle Ages believed the earth was spherical, he falsely depicted church theologians as attacking Columbus at Salamanca for his belief in a spherical earth.
Subsequently, Andrew Dickson White, president of Cornell University, published A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. In this work, White referred to the flat-earth theory as a “terror among sailors [and] was one of the main obstacles in the great voyage of Columbus.”4 In referring to this, the historian Jeffrey Burton Russell points out: “The curious result is that White and his colleagues ended by doing what they accused the [church] fathers of, namely, creating a body of false knowledge by consulting one another instead of the evidence.”5
Many other authors have also contributed to the spread of the false notion that Christianity introduced the flat-earth concept during and prior to the Middle Ages. Such false assumptions spread widely to textbooks and encyclopedias. Fortunately, there are indications of rectification as knowledge of the flat-earth fallacy became better known. The cliché “flat earth” still prevails and has become synonymous with ignorance, a deprecate past, and erroneous religion. The legend serves to assure skeptics that they are right and that religion is not to be trusted. Such false accusations against the church also became a convenient and powerful weapon to adulate science, demonstrating its superiority over religious beliefs. While the church has made many errors, the flat-earth concept was not one of them. This fallacy was generated at the time science was liberating itself from religious authority.
Religion and the pioneers of modern science
Almost all leading founders of modern science (Kepler, Galileo, Boyle, Newton, Pascal, and Linnaeus, to name a few) fervently believed in God and the Bible. In their scientific publications, they often spoke about God and His activity in nature. They saw no conflict between God and their study of nature because they believed that God had created the laws of nature that made science possible.
Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), one of the greatest scientists of all time, did more than any other to emancipate science from speculation and the low standard of authentication that prevailed before his time. His seminal treatise Principia was lauded by the French scholar Laplace as being superior to all other productions of the human intellect. There Newton comments: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”6 Newton was also deeply committed to the study of the Bible, writing extensively about the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. Newton’s life clearly illustrates how well science and a strong belief in God can work together.
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who worked in Prague, developed three principles known as Kepler’s laws that have survived almost intact to this day. Like the famous Italian astronomer Galileo (1564-1642), he saw a rigorous relationship between God and the mathematics of nature, and like Newton he also wrote about the life of Christ. His reverence for God can be seen as he writes in a prayerful context: “If I have been allured into brashness by the wonderful beauty of thy works, or if I have loved my own glory among men, while advancing in work destined for thy glory, gently and mercifully pardon me: and finally, deign graciously to cause that these demonstrations may lead to thy glory and to the salvation of souls, and nowhere be an obstacle to that. Amen.”7
Science’s rejection of God
In contrast to Kepler and Newton, science today finds itself in a very different intellectual matrix when it comes to God. The new ethos is strongly materialistic (also called naturalistic or mechanistic) and has no room for God in its explanatory menu. To include Him is considered to be unscientific. Plainly stated: science has redefined itself and expelled God. Famed Harvard University biologist Richard Lewontin candidly comments: “It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”8 For God, science has now posted a “Do Not Enter” sign. Kansas State University biologist Scott Todd comments in the prestigious journal Nature: “Even if all data point to an intelligent designer, such an hypothesis is excluded from science because it is not naturalistic.”9 At present, there is an almost absolute exclusion of God from scientific textbooks and journals. Unfortunately, such a closed attitude prevents science from following the data of nature wherever it may lead. Science cannot evaluate evidence for God as long as He is excluded from consideration.
When did science reject God?
The change was gradual. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as modern science developed in the Western world, firm belief in God and the Bible was very dominant among scientists. This belief began to wane as materialism and the mistrust of religion grew. Philosophers and skeptics such as Hume, Voltaire and Kant profoundly influenced humanity’s outlook during the so-called “Enlightenment” period. Subsequently, when the nineteenth century came along, a few scientists started making suggestions about evolution and long geologic ages, and these were in stark opposition to the Genesis account of a recent creation and the Flood, as well as the Ten Commandments, where God directly states that He completed creation in six days. Darwin’s Origin of Species added to the prevailing unrest by providing a suggestive mechanism for evolution where God was not involved. The book was at first viewed with considerable skepticism, but it was not long before both theologians and scientists endorsed it.
During the last half of the nineteenth century, scientists continued to eliminate God from scientific interpretations. The general mood was away from spirituality, and stories like the flat-earth fallacy contributed to the deprecation of religion. Science became more powerful and prestigious as all kinds of marvelous discoveries were reported, and it was not long before scientists started viewing their discipline as superior to anything else. Materialist explanations were provided for nearly everything, and there was no longer any need for God. In fact, the church had been so wrong in the past that its influence and its God should be avoided. This view strongly prevails to the present. Even the suggestion that there might be some kind of intelligent designer for the extreme complexities of nature that science is discovering, as advocated by the prevalent Intelligent Design movement, is vigorously rejected by the leaders of the scientific community. Science has trapped itself into a secular prison that restricts its ability to find all truth – an erroneous position to take in case God exists!
Rejecting God: Problems for science
If science had come up with some plausible explanations for the deep questions about origins that we have, one might more seriously consider its rejection of God. However, when we look at nature, major features seem to require a very perceptive Designer. Examples include:10 (1) How did matter ever get organized into extremely complicated and versatile atoms all by itself? These atoms can form all kinds of things from our brains to galaxies, and they can make light so we can see. (2) How did the four forces of physics happen to have the extreme values, precision, and specific realm of action exactly necessary in order for the universe to exist? (3) How did even the simplest form of independent life, that is extremely complex, ever get organized all by itself on a barren earth? (4) How did features with interdependent parts, such as the intricate auto-focus and auto-exposure systems of the eye, ever get organized by random mutations? Mutations are almost always detrimental or insignificant and cannot plan ahead so as to design complex organs. (5) The billions of years postulated for the slow evolution of life forms on earth are way too short for the improbabilities involved when evaluated both at the molecular level and with the slow rates of reproduction of advanced organisms. (6) The fossil record reveals the sudden appearance of major groups and not a long, gradual evolutionary process. A few evolutionary intermediates that are similar to other organisms are sometimes suggested, but the problem is with the origin of the major groups. (7) Science has not found plausible explanations in matter for the phenomena of the mind such as our consciousness, understanding, morality, appreciation of beauty, and the meaning of our existence.
Unfortunately for science’s secular stance, it turns out that the complexities and precision of a host of scientific discoveries have made the godless mechanistic explanations much less tenable now than when science eliminated God over a century ago. The rejection of God by the scientific community is probably its greatest philosophical error.
The extreme complexity of the psychology and sociology of the scientific community precludes definitive answers; however, there are pertinent suggestions as to why science now rejects God. One can logically argue that the scientist’s specialty is the study of nature; there the scientist feels more comfortable than in studying a less scrutable God. However, that argument loses its validity when one considers how freely the scientific community indulges in really wild speculations, such as all kinds of universes beyond the one we can observe, or organisms postulated to have lived many hundreds of millions of years before scientists can find any of their fossils in the geologic layers. The fact that science is so willing to speculate about all kinds of imaginary things, but will not allow the suggestion of God in scientific interpretations, implies a strong bias against God.
One likely reason why science rejects God is the personal or communal pride of the scientist in a successful and autonomous scientific enterprise. Another reason may be the personal freedom that a meaningless universe provides, where one is not responsible to God. In addition, there are sociological reasons. At present scientists are under tremendous pressure to exclude God from science, especially because of the anti-God attitude of the leaders of the scientific community. Current practice indicates that if scientists include any suggestion of God in their interpretations, the scientific and academic community is likely to reject them. Many scientists believe in God11 but do not dare to publish about Him.
One must keep in perspective that the scientific enterprise has done much good, and that most scientists are honest persons providing us with fascinating new information and very useful innovations. At the same time, we should not forget that there is good science and there is bad science, and we should seriously seek to distinguish between the two.
There is a strong secular bias in science. However, the Bible believer must ever keep in mind that we all make mistakes and that a lot of mischief has been promoted under the banner of Christianity and God. In the great struggle between science and God, the Christian must always strive, as God would, toward a forgiving and redemptive perspective.
Science has redefined itself. As presently practiced, science is the odd combination of the study of nature and a secular philosophy that excludes God! This is not an open search for truth, following the data of nature wherever it may lead. Academic freedom is compromised. Excluding God has led to pervasive errors such as the general theory of evolution. Hopefully, science will pay more credence to the recently discovered extreme complexity and precision of nature that indicates a necessity for God. Science should return to the openness it had when the pioneers of modern science allowed God into scientific interpretations.
Ariel A. Roth (Ph.D., University of Michigan) is the former director of the Geoscience Research Institute and editor of the journal Origins. He has published more than 150 articles in scientific and general journals. Now retired, he continues to research, lecture, and write. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- For instance: S. J. Gould, “The Persistently Flat Earth,” Natural History 103(1994):12-19; J. B. Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (New York: Praeger, 1991).
- As reported in Russell, p. 37.
- J. W. Draper, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, 5th ed. (New York: D. Appleton, 1875).
- A. D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1896, 1960), vol. 1, p. 97.
- Russell, p. 44.
- I. Newton, 1686, 1934. “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy and His System of the World.” Translated into English by Andrew Motte in 1729, revised translation by Florian Cajori. (Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press) p. 544.
- Quoted in O. Gingerich, “Dare a Scientist Believe in Design?” Bulletin of the Boston Theological Institute 3 (2004)2:4-5.
- R. Lewontin, “Billions and Billions of Demons,” New York Review of Books 44 (1997)1:28-32. Italics supplied.
- S. C. Todd, “A View from Kansas on that evolution debate. Nature 401 (1999):423.
- For further discussion, see the recent book by the author: A. A. Roth, Science Discovers God: Seven Convincing Lines of Evidence for His Existence (Hagerstown, MD: Autumn House Publishing, 2008).
- E. J. Larson and L. Witham, “Scientists Are Still Keeping the Faith,” Nature 386 (1997):435-436.