It is Time to Throw Out the Conflict Thesis:
The problem with some forms of revisionist history is that it revises the truth instead of correcting error. The Conflict Thesis of Christianity and Science is one such example.
One of my favorite parts of Studying History is seeing how certain veins of thought developed and how the various narratives have developed over the decades and centuries. There is a useful area of History which can either help or hinder this task, Revisionist History is the practice of either correcting the historical narrative based on new facts that were previously unknown or rejected (this is when it is helpful) or rejecting historical realities in order to create its own narrative that supports whatever agenda the thinker has. This requires the thinker to come up with intentional misinformation to change the readers understanding of History.
One of the best examples of Revisionist History is the idea that Peter is the first Pope, it requires one to believe that the Roman System developed early, instead of 7-900 years after Jesus ascension. Another is the idea that there were no women in any leadership or high positions in the early Church, something scholarship and even the bible itself proves to be false. Modern Conspiracy Theories are another form of Revisionist History, these are particularly pernicious because they are often not rooted in any fact whatsoever and just make up a narrative claiming to be the truth. Something like the youtube documentary Plandemic which has been thoroughly proven false and thankfully been taken down. But one that has likely done the most damage, and the one which we will discuss today, is the Conflict Thesis of Science and Religion. It is from this 19th century invention that you get tales of Galileo being kicked out the church for proposing a heliocentric model of the solar system, all because he challenged the notion that the earth was the center of the universe. This is actually not true.
As Historian William R. Shea notes: “Galileo’s condemnation was the result of complex interplay of untoward political circumstances, political ambitions and wounded prides.” [i] Actually, as Dr. Jay Richards points out in his interview with Lee Strobel in “The Case for a Creator” of Galileo’s case: “His…can’t be reduced to a simple conflict between scientific truth and religious superstition. He insisted the church immediately endorse his views rather than allow them to gradually gain acceptance, he mocked the Pope and so forth. Yes, he was censured, but the church kept giving him his pension for the rest of his life.”[ii] Richards also explains that if Galileo did anything, he elevated the Earth from its long held place in the church as the “cosmic sump” where, as the Gnostics put it, we were trapped in flesh. It was not until the enlightenment that the idea that the Earth was at the center of the universe even makes an appearance. The enlightenment, which is the very thing which gives us the conflict thesis.
For 1800 years the church believed and encouraged the development of scientific discovery. It did not shy away from what was discovered about the world and the universe, it actually encouraged it and until the 19th century every single major discovery of science took place under the watchful and caring eye of the Church. Even the idea that the Earth was round predated the conflict thesis revisionist argument that the church told Columbus that the Earth was flat. As David Lindburg, a professor of history of science at the university of Wisconsin said:
“One obvious myth is that before Columbus, Europeans believed nearly unanimously believed in a flat earth – a belief allegedly drawn from certain biblical statements and enforced by the medieval church. This myth seems to have had an eighteenth century originated, elaborated and popularized by Washington Irving, who flagrantly fabricated evidence (revisionist history) for it in his four volume work on Columbus….The truth is that it’s almost impossible to find an educated person after Aristotle who doubts that the Earth is a sphere. In the Middle Ages, you couldn’t emerge from any kind of education, cathedral school or university, without being perfectly clear about the Earths’ Sphericity and even its approximate circumference.”[iii]
In fact, it is getting harder and harder to find scientists who agree with the conflict thesis to the point that the only place it still exists is in the popular imagination. Henry Schaefer, also of Berkley fame traces the history of scientific development and finds that the only time he finds sustained scientific advancement is where Christianity was a dominate influence. He quotes Johannes Kepler, who also has a fabricated myth surrounding his relationship with the church, when asked “Why do you love science?” would answer: “To obtain a sample test of the delight of the divine creator in his work and to partake in His joy.”[iv] The idea that Science and Christianity have always been in conflict is an easily disproved myth that persists, not in the scientific community, but in the popular mind, including the popular mind of the church.
Now, what I have listed here is not exhaustive, I would encourage my reading readers, or those with an audible subscription to get Lee Strobal’s book mentioned above and even look into Zondervan’s “Perspectives” series for their “Christianity and Science, four views.” To read a much fuller survey. Strobel is about as thorough as you are going to get while still being written for a less intellectual audience.
Since I have no grandiose ideas of godhood I am not going to suggest we excise the notion from the secular world. That would take an act of God, something He is already doing within the field of science and the clergy themselves. However, it is within my duties as a pastor and as a public theologian to suggest that the Church excise this disproved revisionism called “The conflict thesis” from its collective memory and language and start to once again cultivate scientific minds who, as Ron Baxter told our “Christianity and Science” class in college: “Play in the beautiful how of God’s creating work.”
Because here is the thing, the conflict thesis is, in part, why we are in the mess we are today as a Christian culture. Why we have not thought thoroughly enough about science and scientific research to understand what is happening in our world, both related to and unrelated to our present crisis. It is Christians inability to think and speak about science, our anti-intellectualism, that has led to us being susceptible to anti-vaxx untruths (even before coronavirus) and a multitude of other conspiracy theories and false or intentionally misleading information. It is this same anti-intellectualism that has fed to erroneous and flat out unsupportable biblical interpretations that either are disproven by biblical theology or by a basic survey of biblical orthodoxy. This is a feedback loop, one builds up and fuels the other. This then leads to clickbate headlines like: “Here is why the new Coronavirus Vaccine is the Mark of the Beast.” Followed by an article that is easily and quickly negated by both a basic understanding of the science of vaccines and just a surface level reading of Revelation 13-14. These headlines are also designed to spark and inspire your fear so that you share them, thus spreading the fear with the misinformation. Christians should not now or ever have been a people who spread fear or misinformation. That is neither loving God or loving to people. It is also exhausting and I am not sure why anyone would want to participate in it knowing the eternal joy that comes from knowing and having deep knowledge of Christ which is in stark contrast to the fear of everything that has been cultivated by our culture and indirectly by the conflict theory that has bred ignorance.
Science tells us about the world God has made for us and it is increasingly pointing to back to His existence and necessity to keep it all together. It also tells us how to care for that creation which He has given us so that we as human beings can flourish within the creation which we were given the task of caring for back in Genesis 2. We also have brothers and sisters at the forefront of many of these areas of science, including climate science, who are helping us learn to care for our world. We should be in prayer for them as they combat secular agendas and evil ideologies about the uses of science that inherently arise from living in a sinful world.
Maybe we can get back to what we once did, expand our knowledge of God’s creation and our ability to care for it, just as the church did for hundreds of years, and by the way, actually continues to do today. It is time to excise the “Conflict Thesis” from the popular imagination.
[i] William R. Shea, Galileo and the Church” in David C. Lindber and Ronald L. Numbers, editors, God and Nature, 2986, Berkley University of California Press 132,
[ii] Lee Strobal “The Case for a Creator” 2004, Zondervan, Grand Rapids MI. pg 162.
[iii] Natural Adversaries? “Christian History, Volume XXL. No. 4. 44.
[iv] Henry F. Schaefer, Christianity and Science, Conflict or Cohesion, 2008, The Apollo Trust, 16.
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.