Religion vs. Science Conflict Nothing New

The conflict between religion and science dates far back before the writings of Darwin or even Copernicus and Galileo. It goes back at least a far as the Ionian philosophers of ancient Greece who tried to explain the existence not only of the cosmos but even life itself solely in terms of fundamental elements (earth, air, fire, and water) or even more fundamentally, as did Democritus, in terms of tiny atoms uniting and reuniting in an eternal dance. In their eyes, the "gods" had nothing to do with it.

Opposed to these were philosophers like Socrates and Plato, who held that the human spirit, immaterial and immortal, is trapped, as it were, in the material universe, with Plato going so far as to claim that the material world itself was just an illusion, a projection of the human mind which has forgotten its purely spiritual nature and ultimate identity with the divine. The irony is that in the case of the execution of Socrates, this highly spiritual account of the universe was deemed to be "atheism" because it clashed with the childish myths that then passed for "religion" in the popular mind.

Not that efforts were not quickly made to reconcile these opposing points of view. Aristotle, even though he was a pupil of Plato, decided that we must take the physical world seriously, and did his best to integrate the science of his day with a carefully reasoned belief in the spiritual nature of the human soul and of the ultimate origins of the natural world. In this, he inspired future generations of religious thinkers, especially the Muslim scholars Averroes and Avicenna, the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimomides, and the medieval Christian philosopher-theologians Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great. And again, in their footsteps was Bonaventure, a disciple of the great lover of both God and nature, Francis of Assisi, who reminded his students that to know God we must read God's two great books of revelation together -- the Holy Scriptures (The Holy Bible) and the great "Book of Nature".

Yet today such a balancing act seems to be more difficult than ever before. One reason may be sheer pride. Science has continued to advance, giving the impression there is no problem that it cannot one day solve. So why then look for any other answers? On the other hand we have fear, not just that of simple believers who worry about their faith being destroyed, but even among academics who fear that they will make fools out of themselves by expanding their interests beyond their own narrow field of specialization. In other words, the cause of the present gap between science and religion may be due more to an unwillingness to try to communicate than anything else.

Whatever the cause, this situation can only be seen as a tragedy of the first order, one that is producing a world of intellectual schizophrenia, where people try to live in two worlds at once, one of practical materialism, the other of ethical and moral concern, despairing that these two worlds can ever meet. It is a situation that we can not afford to allow to continue for long.

R.W.Kropf 1/14/03 CONFLICT.doc 03-01-14.html