Myth and metaphor have played important roles in the history of science and the history of religion. While examples of the latter are generally well known, examples of the former are somewhat less familiar. Medieval European alchemical projects were eventually transmuted into physical science by many of the greatest scientific minds of the 17 th and 18 th century. Newton 's devoted study of alchemy over the course of three decades influenced various aspects of his scientific work and his philosophy of science. Though Newton 's commitment to alchemy never flagged, the history of science assumes that the ultimate rejection of the extravagant claims of alchemy paved the way for the more objective, realistic and methodical progress of physics, chemistry, and medicine. On closer examination it becomes apparent that only some aspects of the alchemical mythos (for example, its theology, cosmology and metaphysics) were rejected and replaced by the modern mythos of the machine. Alchemy's ultimate aims were passed on nearly intact. The mechanistic materialism of the modern age is more powerful, productive and efficient, but it is nevertheless equally mythical in scope and ambition. With the rise of 20 th century physics, chemistry and biology, many of the ideals of modern science were realized on a grand industrial scale, but these material victories brought the necessity of conceptual renunciation. Visions of glory that had guided unbridled scientific fantasies of intellectual conquest for three hundred years had to be revised. Quantum physics' new view of the atom placed fundamental epistemic limits on science: it is no longer meaningful to ask certain questions about nature. The Heisenberg equations indicate that ultimate certainty about the atom is impossible, and lost is the hope of piecing together multiple complementary models and experimental observations to get at the “atom-in-itself.”
The most significant negative impact of this renunciation was felt with respect to the epistemic status of the atom, and by extension, of physical science. When we examine the conditions and significance of this impact we find that it did not derive from political, philosophical or religious ideologies. Rather it arose from the relentless pursuit of inherent logical contradictions that arise from assuming the absolute literal truth of well-established concepts of mechanics and optics. With the success of quantum theory the atomic model could never again hope to bear the mantle of literal truth. Furthermore, the reasonableness of classical scientific expectations regarding the atom's causality and materiality lost basis. For some physicists this was a great loss—one that Einstein was never prepared to accept and opposed for a quarter century until the end of his life.
Nevertheless there was a net gain despite the apparent loss of ground. We will examine the significance of that gain within science and especially within the context of the place of science with respect to other ways of knowing and interacting with the world. For example, since the rise of the age of science and technology, theology has long felt the erosion of authority and challenges to the factuality, even the relevance of Scripture. It may well be that both science and religion share similar difficulties in the renunciation of classical epistemic expectations. Neither willingly gives up its status as the standard-bearer of ultimate truth, and this may partly explain why they are sometimes locked in unproductive mortal combat. Both must eventually face the possibility long recognized by poets and even some philosophers, that careful self-conscious metaphor will fare the ravages of time far better than steadfast literalism and authoritarianism. But can this recognition significantly improve the relationship between science and religion?