FORT WORTH, Texas (SWBTS) – Scholars debunked myths concerning the relationship between science and faith during an inaugural conference sponsored by the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, Oct. 23-24. The conference, titled “Science and Faith: Friends or Foes?” was held on the campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
Aided by certain myths, many people perceive an historical conflict between faith and science, said conference speaker Michael Keas, professor of the history and philosophy of science in the College at Southwestern and a senior fellow with the Center for Science and Culture. In reality, faith played an essential role in the development of the modern sciences.
“It’s like there are huge erasers that have erased our cultural memory of all of the incredible, rich Christian theological roots for science,” Keas said. “And we come into a modern science classroom today, and it is like none of this happened. … We have got to remember the past. … Secular scientists today are living off of capital they borrowed from Christianity, and they haven’t given us credit for it. And I think that needs to stop today.”
Two of the most common myths about the historical relationship between faith and science remain in school textbooks to this day, Keas said. According to the first myth, medieval Christians thought the world was flat until Christopher Columbus proved otherwise in his 1492 discovery of the Americas. On the contrary, people knew that the earth was a sphere even in ancient Greece, and this belief was passed onto the thinkers of the middle ages. Any debate in Columbus’ time lay in the size of the earth rather than its shape.
Second, Keas said, it is popularly believed that Copernicus dethroned man from his privileged place in the universe when he discovered that the earth revolved around the sun. To the contrary, medieval men believed that the earth’s central position in the universe implied that it was unprivileged and merely the dregs of the cosmos. For medieval men, Copernicus’ discovery placed the earth in a more privileged position, where it was able to “participate in the dance of the stars.”
According to Keas, the Christian faith has actually upheld modern scientific pursuits. In fact, Christianity developed the philosophical foundations upon which science depends. The concepts supported by Christian doctrine include the comprehensibility of the world, the unity of the cosmos, the relative autonomy of nature and the existence of mechanical laws of nature. Also, God’s absolute power and freedom in creating the universe allowed scientists to consider counterfactual examples; that is, scientists realized the universe could have been made in other ways. Because of this belief, they recognized that armchair logic could not in itself reveal how the universe worked. They needed to observe the universe firsthand to see how it actually runs.
In another session of the conference, Jay Richards, a senior fellow with the Center for Science and Culture and co-author of The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery, corrected a common misunderstanding about the relationship between Intelligent Design (I.D.), natural theology and the theology of nature. According to Richards, many opponents of the I.D. movement claim that it is merely religion in disguise as science. This conclusion, however, is incorrect.
According to Richards, many opponents of I.D. critique it based on inaccurate definitions. He said I.D. proponents make two basic assertions: First, “the activities of intelligent agency are sometimes detectable.” Commonly accepted fields of science are based on the assumption that scientists can observe the effects that intelligent beings have upon nature. Archaeologists, for example, put this into practice when they examine artifacts they believe to be manmade, and forensic scientists apply this principle when they attempt to trace the proof for intelligent causes in homicide cases.
Second, Richards said, I.D. proponents suggest that “nature exhibits the evidence of intelligent agency.” He added that this aspect of I.D. is “theologically minimal.” Although I.D. proponents may observe signs of intelligent activity in nature, they cannot prove scientifically that the intelligent designer is the god of a certain religion, or that the designer is even supernatural. Describing the nature of this designer belongs in the realm of philosophical and theological discussion.
“So notice how lightly it travels,” Richards said. “Notice, there is not a doctrine of creation here. There is not a doctrine of God here. There is not a developed theology. There is not even really a developed philosophy at this point. There is just basically these two claims. …
“Think of Intelligent Design generally as a research program that seeks to ask questions like this, ‘Does nature display objective evidence of design or purpose?’ It uses publically available evidence from the natural world. It also includes, usually, some type of theory of design detection so that we can determine whether something is designed or not.”
According to Richards, natural theology—unlike I.D.—claims that certain truths can be learned about God by observing the natural world. He argued that the concept of natural theology and “general revelation” is supported by historical, orthodox Christianity and by biblical passages like Psalm 19 and Romans 1:20.
Although general revelation teaches certain lessons about God’s “power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20), these lessons of natural theology are limited. Certain aspects of God’s nature, like his Trinitarian nature and the incarnation of the Son of God, can only be learned from Scripture, which is called “special revelation.” The theology of nature differs from natural theology because it may draw from special revelation as well as general revelation.
To learn more about the “Science and Faith: Friends or Foes?” conference sponsored by the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, visit the conference Web site at