Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism

Christianity Today has a brief interview with philosopher Alvin Plantinga regarding his recent book entitled Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. The main points of the interview are:

  • The alleged conflict between theistic religion and science is superficial.
  • There is a deep harmony between theistic religion and science.
  • Part of the reason there appears to be serious antagonism between theistic religion and science is because there are vocal advocates of warfare between the two. These people are wrong.
  • Those who add naturalism to scientific theories such as evolution are doing so for non-scientific reasons.
  • If we got here by unguided (i.e. no divine involvement) evolution, then there is no reason to trust that our minds can guide us to truth about evolution.

Regarding evolution, Plantinga states

In certain areas, the right word would be alleged conflict. For example, I argue that there’s no real conflict between evolutionary theory—that is, the scientific theory of evolution apart from any naturalistic spin—and what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.” There’s no real conflict, even though conflict has been alleged by people on the Right as well as on the Left. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and a host of others claim that there is outright conflict between evolutionary theory and belief in such a person as God, who has created and designed the living world. At the other end, there are Christian thinkers, too—like Phillip Johnson—who think there is irreconcilable conflict between the scientific theory of evolution and Christian belief.

But I don’t think there is. What current scientific evolutionary theory says is that the living world has come to be via a certain process of natural selection operating on some form of genetic variation. And it’s clear that God could have made the living world that way if he wanted to. What Christianity tells us, what theistic religion generally tells us, is that God has created the world and created human beings in his image. He could have done that through a variety of means. And that point goes all the way back to the 19th century. Some of the Princeton theologians—Charles Hodge, for example—said exactly that shortly after Darwin’s theory of evolution appeared. It’s not a new thought at all.

Despite what you hear from the loud voices on both sides—whether Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett for the atheists or Ken Ham, Hugh Ross, or Phillip Johnson for the Christian anti-evolutionists—the Bible does not say much, if anything, about biological evolution. The two main arguments—at least from the young-Earth side of Christianity—against evolution are that there could not have been any death before Adam’s fall into sin, and that animals were created to reproduce after their kinds. The Bible however does not teach that there was no animal death before the fall, and to take the statements about organisms reproducing after their kinds in Genesis 1 to mean that populations cannot vary over time is quite a hermeneutic stretch. On the other side, atheist extrapolations from “organisms have changed over time” to “there is no God” are downright silly.

The conclusion a clear thinking person ought to make—and most scientists like to think of themselves as clear thinkers—is that one cannot rule out Christianity because of biological evolution or because of any other scientific theory. Those who have rejected Christianity because of evolution—or some other branch of science—have done so because of non-scientific additions to science, and are not being as rational as they have been led to believe.

Grace and Peace

7 thoughts on “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism

  1. UsneakydevilU

    God is the science! A creator created the spark that set all this off, that creator is the beginning and the beginning is God.

    It’s funny, but some non-Christian believe in giving thanks to “Mother Earth” for giving us life and all things that sustain us, but for some reason can’t correlate that to “The Father” that gave earth it’s existance and the means to support us.


  2. WebMonk

    Maybe he has something in his book that expands on the last bullet point, but just based on what he said in the interview it sounds sloppy. I’ve read that exact argument from several different sources (including both Nietsche and Nagel), and I’ve heard it pretty conclusively shown to be a faulty argument. (and if Plantinga thinks Nagel thought it was a problematic issue, he needs to read Nagel’s writings again)

    Granted, Plantinga did preface that part of the interview with a disclaimer that trying to cover such a large topic in an interview was fraught with danger. However, I’ve read enough longer papers on the topic that I doubt he has a strong case for his position, even in the book.

    That argument devolves to the question “Do we live in a rational universe?” He is ascribing to the atheistic view that they couldn’t know whether or not the only thing to be investigated is the illusion which our senses have evolved over the eons. (and somehow that illusion is completely impervious to all tests and cannot be broken)

    In that point, he is ascribing an irrational universe to the atheistic view and then saying the atheistic view can’t have any confidence in what we see/sense/experiment. Well duh! That’s defining your conclusion to be true from the beginning! But, the atheistic view doesn’t assume nor require an irrational universe. So, Plantinga’s statement that senses couldn’t be relied upon in an atheistic universe is false.

    If Plantinga wants to argue over whether the universe is rational or not, he can’t just say it’s an atheistic-universe problem. The exact same “problem” crops up in theistic-universe considerations.

    In my opinion, arguments over whether or not the universe is rational or not (ie. whether we can actually trust that what we’re sensing is actually there) is a useless argument. The argument can be made no matter what other sort of view is held – theistic, atheistic, pantheistic, etc – it causes problems in them all. And yet, it ultimately makes no difference whatsoever because we have to behave as if the world is rational.


  3. Martin_Lack

    Thanks Kevin.

    Alvin Plantinga sound like a very sensible man and it sounds like a very good book. No doubt, he will have heard of Connor Cunningham at the UK’s University of Nottingham (who says much the same sort of stuff).

    I apologise if I have said this before but, my favourite verses from the Psalms are:
    “…for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (103:14); and
    “He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. But at your rebuke the waters fled, at the sound of your thunder they took to flight; they flowed over the mountains, they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them. You set a boundary they cannot cross; never again will they cover the earth” (104:5-9).

    I am quite possibly over-interpreting or wrongly interpreting both but, I like to think of them as reflecting facts of cosmological and geological history (although it would appear that humanity is in danger of challenging Psalm 104:9)…

    Just in case I don’t get another chance, Happy Christmas to you and all your readers.



  4. Klasie Kraalogies

    Webmonk – I have said the same thing, but I equally do not know if that is the point he is making, not having read the book. The only point worth making against the atheists really is that from a sense-observation pov, they are in no position to deny the existence of “the Trascendent”, as it were. In that sense they are in the same boat as the theists, and the only “superior” position is that of the agnostics. I still find it somewhat astonishing that for all their learning, these philosophers and debaters, on both sides, do not seem to grasp that point – or is it simply me that is the arrogant one? :)

    BTW, there is a FB message for you, when you have a moment….


  5. To a great extent, science depends on observation and religion relies on scripture. Science can now study only 5% of this Universe, since dark matter is 25% and dark energy about 70% of its critical density. Religion? According to which scriptures: the Torah, New Testament, Qur’an, Vedas, Buddhist sutras, …? Many quantum physicists contend that observation is dependent on the observer; many mystics say that relying on scripture is less significant than direct experience.

    In my free ebook on comparative mysticism, “the greatest achievement in life,” is a quote by Albert Einstein: “…most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty – which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling, is the center of all religion.”

    E=mc², Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, is probably the best known scientific equation. I revised it to help better understand the relationship between divine Essence (Love, Grace, Spirit), matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). Unlike the speed of light, which is a constant, there are no exact measurements for consciousness. In this hypothetical formula, basic consciousness may be of insects, to the second power of animals and to the third power the rational mind of humans. The fourth power is suprarational consciousness of mystics, when they intuit the divine essence in perceived matter. This was a convenient analogy, but there cannot be a divine formula.


  6. geochristian


    Thanks for your comment.

    It is better, in both religion and science, to look outside of oneself than inside. The laws of nature, such as those regarding gravity, electromagnetism, or relativity, are not written inside of us or in some sort of cosmic consciousness, but in nature itself. Likewise, we can learn little about the nature of the infinite God by looking inside our very finite souls.

    Looking inside is not a good place to go for learning about the outside world. The reason that the equation E=mc2 is useful is not because Einstein looked deep inside himself, but because he looked outside of himself and gained understanding of how the universe works. It turned out that E=mc2 corresponds very well to the realities of nature.

    Just as in science, looking inside oneself is not a very good place to go to learn about God. Not only are we finite, but human nature is corrupted as well; often at war with ourselves, our neighbors, and with God. Our only hope for true knowledge of God is if it is revealed to us. Christianity teaches that God has indeed revealed himself: through Scriptures, and even more completely in the person of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh.

    So Christianity is primarily about something external to ourselves: what God has done for us by becoming one of us, living a perfect life, dying as our substitute, and rising from the dead in glory. When a Christian meditates, it is on the solid external realities of Christ and Scripture, not the ephemeral results of our internal musings.

    With Respect,
    Kevin N


  7. Kevin, I was raised a Christian (Congregationalist) and can understand, and do respect, your response. Mysticism has both an inner and outer way. Two more quotations from my ebook:

    The Special Theory of Relativity might be called “the outer way,” examining this Universe as a whole to ascertain the relationships between energy and mass. An atom is a microcosm of the Universe. Conversely, nuclear physics could be described as the “inner way,” exploring the atom, or mass, to discover means to tap the power, or energy, potentially within it. Dual approaches to the same force.

    Most traditions of mysticism, and most mystics, recommended the inner way: exploring a person’s inner self, or soul, to discover the divine essence inherent in it. The speculative divine formula might be said to be the outer way, to examine all matter to ascertain the spiritual quintessence which eternally unifies all existence. This examination is not sensory nor subject to accurate measurement.

    Dualities of subject and object, which our isolated self does seem to encounter, are scattered reflections of the divine, diffusion of the One into the many, simply phased impressions of unity. “Darken” differences until they fade, the inner way, or “illuminate” them until sameness emerges, the outer way, each result in a vision of oneness. While in divine union, however, there are no distinctions between the lover and beloved, knower and known, or
    seeker and sought.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s