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Conflict thesis

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Not to be confused with the Marxist concept of conflict theory.

The conflict thesis refers to the idea that science and religion are incompatible. It may be considered as either a philosophical or historical issue.

Philosophical issues[edit]

Problems of definition[edit]

The question of whether science and religion are in conflict largely hinges on how one defines "science" and "religion." The problem of defining science is known as the problem of demarcation in philosophy of science. Two broad, differing methods of defining science have often been taken by philosophers: Ideal, or prescriptive, definitions such as Karl Popper's concept of falsification and descriptive definitions such as Thomas Kuhn's concept of paradigm shifts. Some have taken a third approach by combining the former two, such as Imre Lakatos' concept of research programs.

One of the biggest problems with the definition of religion vis-a-vis science is whether religion necessarily includes supernatural elements. Certain sects of Buddhism, for example, are fully compatible with both theism and atheism. What qualifies as "supernatural" also presents a problem in religions that worship natural phenomena as deities themselves, such as pantheism where the entire universe is conceived of as god or sun worship, which has appeared in various forms throughout history.

A taxonomy of philosophies[edit]

If philosophical positions and arguments regarding the conflict thesis can be put on a sliding scale from "no conflict" to "full conflict," it might look something roughly like this:

NOMA: No conflict and no overlap[edit]

Science and religion are totally separate, so no conflict is possible. The general strategy used by those who defend this position is to argue that positing a conflict between science and religion is a category mistake. This argument, for example, is used explicitly by Terry Eagleton.[1] This logic also underpins Stephen Jay Gould's concept of non-overlapping magisteria, in which religion's purpose is to answer only moral questions and the purpose of science is purely to gather empirical data about the natural world. That is to say, science and religion seek to answer different and unrelated questions.

Semi-overlapping magisteria[edit]

A number of positions fall under the umbrella of what might be called "semi-overlapping magisteria" in which science and religion may or may not conflict to varying degrees.

  • Forms of "scientific theology" in which science and religion answer different questions, but science is claimed to support theism or science and religion are said to inform each other. Proponents of this view include Alister McGrath, who plainly labels his position "scientific theology",[2] and Alvin Plantinga, who argues that science actually undermines naturalism.[3][4]
  • Science is ultimately agnostic about the existence of God, but science conflicts with any form of religion that makes empirical claims about the natural world, i.e., scientific claims. This argument makes a distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism, making it compatible with both theism and atheism. Adherents to this view include Eugenie Scott and Massimo Pigliucci.[5]

Total warfare[edit]

Science and religion are totally irreconcilable. A number of arguments may be given for this position. A common one is that science and the scientific method operate on principles (e.g., reason, empirical evidence) that are in opposition to the principles religion operates on (e.g., faith, revelation). Thus, even though professional scientists may be theists, this does not demonstrate the compatibility of science and religion, but simply that a person may hold contradictory beliefs. Another common argument is that God is a testable scientific hypothesis that can be falsified.[6] Richard Dawkins, and the "new atheism" in general, is associated with this position.[7]

The conflict thesis in the history of science[edit]

The conflict thesis as a historical concept has been rejected by historians of science as a Whiggish narrative in which the inevitable progress of science is always and everywhere opposed by the dark forces of religion. It is largely based on a number of pseudohistorical claims fabricated or recycled by the 19th century intellectuals John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White.[8] A great deal of history contradicts this simplistic narrative. A claim commonly associated with the conflict thesis is that Medieval Christians believed the earth to be flat until Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, which is patently false.[9] The "Dark Ages" are commonly referred to as the "Early Middle Ages" by historians, in part because of the Carolingian RenaissanceWikipedia's W.svg of the 8th-9th centuries CE.[10] Many of the early scientists, such as Isaac Newton, believed that the laws of the physical universe were dictated and enforced by God, thus scientific discovery was also seen as a revelation of God's creation.[11][12]

External links[edit]


  1. The Complete Review's review of Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution.
  2. Review Article: Alister E. McGrath's A Scientific Theology, Andrews University Seminary Studies
  3. Science and Religion: Where the Conflict Really Lies, Alvin Plantinga
  4. Michael Ruse, however, argues that while Plantinga's position is consistent in principle, it is anti-scientific in practice due to his use of Intelligent Design advocate Michael Behe's arguments in certain places. See Alvin Plantinga and Intelligent Design.
  5. Is Richard Dawkins Really That Naive? Massimo Pigliucci, Rationally Speaking
  6. Victor J. Stenger announces this right in the title of his book God: The Failed Hypothesis
  7. Although it should be noted that even Dawkins does not believe all formulations of God are scientifically testable, such as a deist god. See this excerpt from "Has Science Buried God?"
  8. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers. [ Beyond War and Peace: A Reappraisal of the Encounter between Christianity and Science.] Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 39.3:140-149
  9. Stephen Jay Gould. The Late Birth of a Flat Earth. In Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History
  10. Charlemagne and the Carolingian Renaissance, The History Guide: Lectures on Ancient and Medieval European History
  11. God, Physics, and Darwin: Why Scientists Aren't Sceptical, Richard Webster
  12. The Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century and the Political Revolutions of the 18th Century, George Mason University