Over at NPR's Cosmos & Culture blog, Marcelo Gleiser has a brief article titled, "What the 'God of the Gaps' Teaches Us About Science." In it, he uses Newton as a historical example of why we shouldn't make God a placeholder for gaps in our scientific knowledge (Newton once said that the Solar System couldn't have arisen naturally and must have been designed). Gleiser points out that those gaps often get filled in with new scientific discoveries, pushing God further and further out of the picture. Thus, Gleiser argues, we shouldn't use this "old-fashioned and doomed theological approach." I agree with him, but for very different reasons.
Gleiser ends his article with this little admonishment:
One thing should be clear to all who share a scientist's urge to learn about the world: To put God in our current knowledge gaps certainly would not further our understanding of the universe. For that we need science and its stubbornly secular modern approach.
Like many people today, Glesier assumes a dichotomy between the perceived (wrong) approach of religion and that of the supposed "secular" (right) approach of modern science. But this assumption, as ubiquitous as it is, misses an enormous and fascinating fact: science is not really secular, it is theological. It can never, therefore, be fully at odds with religion.
What do I mean by saying science is theological? This: several of the key presuppositions that modern science operates on actually came from Christian theology. Here are just three examples:
1. The universe is intelligible. As I've written about before in a previous article, science assumes the world is comprehensible to human minds. The idea of the comprehensibility of the world is a direct expression of the biblical doctrines that nature is ordered by a divine Logos, and that human rationality is a reflection of that Logos. If the universe is the product of a rational Mind, this makes it an object that is intelligible to other rational minds. Christopher Kaiser (an astrophysicist and historian of theology and science) has argued convincingly that this doctrine influenced the development of modern science, leading its practitioners to expect the universe to be intelligible. Keep in mind, the intelligibility of the world is not something science discovered, it is a working assumption that has helped modern science flourish -- and it came from Christian theology.
2. The universe is "governed" by laws. In an attempt to explain (or describe) the regularity of nature, physicists from Newton to Hawking have postulated the existence of abstract transcendent laws that govern the universe. But, as agnostic physicist Paul Davies complained in the New York Times:
...the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.
I've written more about how the laws mirror the attributes of God in my "16 Reasons..." blog article on the regularity of the universe. Again, keep in mind that science has never discovered (in the empirically detectable sense) a law of nature. Rather, scientists have postulated the existence of laws to explain and describe the regularities they see -- it's a postulation (i.e. a presupposition) that has brought great success in science, and that also came from Christian theology.
3. The laws of nature cannot be violated. A recent article in Aeon Magazine called "How Science Made an Honest Man of God," tells the fascinating story of how theological debate over God's (in)ability to deceive, led many scientists to assume that the laws of nature cannot be violated. I don't necessarily agree with the author's characterization of certain biblical passages and doctrines, but his article is right on in describing how theology has influenced even some of the more "secular" assumptions of scientists. Here's a small excerpt:
Most of the great 17th century scientists (or natural philosophers, as they would have preferred to call themselves) – Kepler and Galileo, Descartes, Boyle and Newton – wrote about God and incorporated God into their theories, not as a mere concession to authorities, but as central to their conceptions of the universe.
The Aeon article goes on to explain how, surprisingly, even the "secular" idea that miracles don't occur ultimately has theological roots.
There are several more ways that Christian theology has influenced modern science, but I needn't go on. This is enough to lead us to a final question:
If the presuppositions that science operates on actually arose from theological reflection and debate, then can we ever really say that science and religion are incompatible or in conflict?
It seems to me that the relationship between science and theology is way more messy, entangled, and overlapping than most people realize. History shows that; and honest philosophical reflection shows it as well.
In other words, at its metaphysical core, science is really too theological to ever disprove religion.