Is Religion a Science-Stopper?

According to evolutionary scientist Jerry Coyne, religion is so hopelessly inimical to science that any attempt to reconcile them is futile. As Coyne explains, “accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard [between rationality and irrationality].” And just so you’re clear on which conventional faith he has in mind, he adds, “…rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births.”

Jerry Coyne, like other peddlers of scientism, considers religion a “science-stopper” that conditions the faithful to approach the frontiers of science with “God did it!” contentment. The truth is another matter.

A scientist who approaches the world as a product of intelligence rather than of matter and motion is less likely to stop short of discovery. Instead of dismissing a feature that, consistent with the evolution narrative, appears inert or unnecessary, he is more inclined to push his investigation to unravel its function and purpose. The ever-shrinking lists of “vestigial” organs and “junk” DNA being two examples.

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Rather than obstructing science, Christianity, with its emphasis on a personal Creator, inspired an age of discovery that opened the way for science.

Igniting Discovery
The ancients generally viewed the world as an unpredictable place governed by the fates or by the whims of the gods. But once investigators understood the universe as the work of a rational God, embedded with rational principles, and to be apprehended by rational beings—they dared to imagine that discovery was possible. One of the first was an astronomer whose theories ignited the Scientific Revolution.

Speculations about a sun-centered universe had been around for some time; but challenges to the Aristotelian model refined by Ptolemy, didn’t gain serious attention until the “Copernican Turn” in the sixteenth century.

Nicolaus Copernicus was a Christian who understood the universe as an intelligible creation that operated according to mathematically coherent principles. His initial attraction to heliocentrism was not the result of new observational data, but of his notion that the sun—symbolic of God as Light and Lamp—seemed a fitful center of divine activity. He, along with other early researchers, believed that the elegant structure observed in creation should be describable in an elegant fashion. Thus, when heliocentrism proved more mathematically simple than the reigning earth-centered model, it gained a slow following.

Like Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, was a man of faith who believed that the mysteries of nature could be unlocked with the key of mathematics. Kepler put it this way, “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 and which he has revealed to us in the language of mathematics.”

Kepler’s belief in the mathematical precision of the universe led to his discovery of three fundamental laws of planetary motion; the foremost, that the planetary orbits are elliptical, rather than circular, as modeled by Copernicus.

While the discovery of mathematical elegance was the product of faith for these pioneers, it has been the source of faith for others. In his book, Truth Decay, Douglas Groothuis, shares the account of a Russian physicist: “I was in Siberia and met God there while working on my equations. I suddenly realized that the beauty of these equations had to have a purpose and design behind them, and I felt deep in my spirit that God was speaking to me through these equations.” In that moment, the young scientist stepped over the chasm from atheism to theism and, ultimately, Christianity.

Copernicus and Kepler published their paradigm-shifting theories without much controversy. It was a different story for Galileo, who drew the full ire of the Catholic Church.

The Galileo Affair
To hear the secular elites tell it, Galileo was a hero-martyr in the enduring struggle of free inquiry against the tyranny of Religion. But the truth is that the Roman Curia did not object to his heliocentrism on religious grounds, but on scientific ones.

Despite the ground-breaking work of Copernicus and Kepler, the Catholic Church, and the general populace remained thoroughly Aristotelian. Resistance to heliocentrism was due to three things: 1) it was contrary to the common sense perception of a static earth, 2) there was no accompanying physical mechanism to account for it, and 3) it lacked a sufficient body of evidence to overturn a model that had proven quite successful for centuries.

Compounding the problem, Galileo published his work in Italian, the language of common folk, rather than in the scholarly language of Latin. It was an attempt to mainstream his theory, by bringing the force of public acceptance to bear upon the scientific establishment. Galileo added to his troubles by writing scathing satires intended to embarrass his clerical critics.

For his offenses, Galileo was sentenced to a short prison stay followed by house arrest in his own villa until his death in 1642. While the Church’s punitive actions were overly harsh, its reluctance to accept novel theories in the absence of scientific vetting was reasonable.

Nevertheless, secular elites summon Galileo from the grave as star witness in the perennial case of Science v. Religion, a case that would have been summarily dismissed by the vanguard of science, including the father of the mechanical worldview, Isaac Newton.

A Clock Work Universe
Isaac Newton was a gifted polymath whose laws of gravity and motion were the crowning achievements of the Scientific Revolution. His law of universal gravitation gave Kepler’s planetary laws a physical explanation that validated heliocentrism. But most significantly, Newton’s discoveries led to the notion that the universe was a giant “clock-work”—a cosmic mechanism reducible to its constituent parts, operating autonomously according to inwrought universal laws.

It is a great irony that Newton’s theories became the foundation of scientific materialism—a worldview that excludes, a priori, any supranatural causation. Newton was a devoted Christian who was motivated, in part, by a desire to prove the existence of God through the design of creation.

Against those who were eager to embrace the machine model, Newton warned “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.” This was no “God-of-the-Gaps” argument from ignorance but, rather, a design inference from evidence. Although Newton has been co-opted by the scientific materialists, in truth, he was a forerunner of the Intelligent Design movement.

On the Shoulders of Giants
Christians remained in the vanguard of scientific discovery well into the nineteenth century. Groundbreaking advances in electro-magnetism, microbiology, medicine, genetics, chemistry, atomic theory and agriculture were the works of men like John Dalton, Andre Ampere, Georg Ohm, Michael Faraday, Louis Pasteur, William Kelvin, Gregor Mendel, and George Washington Carver; all believers whose achievements were the outworking of their Christian faith.

Scientists in the truest sense of the word; these were investigators who doggedly followed the evidence wherever it led, approaching the gaps of understanding not with “God did it!” resignation, but with “God created it” expectation.

Whether they realize it or not, every scientist, including Jerry Coyne, stands on the shoulders of these giants. As German physicist, Ernst Mach once acknowledged, “Every unbiased mind must admit that the age in which the chief development of the science of mechanics took place was an age of predominately theological cast.”


  • Regis Nicoll

    Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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