Do science and religion contradict each other? On the face of it, I’d say no. Science is a way of finding out about how the world operates through observation and experimentation, and religion is a belief that the universe is governed by conscious forces and a prescription for what you should do to keep these forces in good working order and on your side. A person can certainly accept both. That said, it can depend on which religion you follow and how seriously and literally you take its tenets. I would posit that, while science and religion are generally not at odds, science and dogma frequently are.
An important thing to remember when discussing this topic is that modern science is, well, MODERN. It wasn’t something that the founders of ancient religions would have even considered. These people were, however, curious about how the world worked, and they usually concluded that magical beings were behind it all. Ancient Greek belief, for instance, had it that the Sun was a chariot driven across the sky by a god (either Helios or Apollo, depending on the myth you read), and thunderbolts were the weapons of Zeus.
We don’t have any specific evidence as to whether believers took these ideas literally, but if they did, who can blame them? They didn’t have any frame of reference as to what the Sun might be, so a dude in a chariot was as good a guess as any.
Later on, as people gained more knowledge as to how these natural forces actually operated, and religion had to adapt accordingly. We’ve seen the top of Mount Olympus, and there’s no grand palace of Zeus up there? No problem, the gods actually live in a heavenly realm ALSO called Olympus. This could be trickier with other aspects of mythology, but it could still work. Maybe the gods aren’t directly involved in all these natural processes, but instead set up ways they could operate on their own. Why micromanage everything, after all?
There’s still the possibility that Zeus could take a hand and zap someone he particularly hates with lightning, but that doesn’t mean every lightning bolt you see is hurled by the Lord of Heaven. On the other hand, if we can explain these phenomena without using gods, then what’s the point of worshipping deities? Even if they do exist, the Sun is going to rise tomorrow whether or not the priests perform a ritual. There’s also the issue of using nature to prove the existence of supernatural beings. Back before lightning had really been studied, someone could point to a thunderstorm and say, “See, that proves Zeus exists.” Once lightning is understood, this sort of proof goes out the storm window. Again, it doesn’t disprove religion, but it provides a basis for doubt. So how does religion adjust to this? One way is to use parts of the natural world that still haven’t been explained, like how the universe got here in the first place. We can make educated guesses as to how that happened without a god, but we still don’t know for sure. If your proof of a god has to constantly retreat into smaller gaps, however, doesn’t that kind of gradually decrease your god’s supposed power? Then there’s the idea that you can only know a god through personal experience and feeling, which has the benefit of being pretty much impossible for someone else to disprove. That leaves open the question as to why people who haven’t had these experiences should share your religious convictions, though.
Moving from religion in general to the Bible in particular, it’s interesting to note that the book contains little in the way of natural mythology when compared to some other ancient religious texts. Sure, it’s there, but it’s usually fragmentary and often internally contradictory. A literal reading of the Bible indicates that the Earth is flat, snow is kept in storehouses, water covered the entire world at some point in human history, some insects have four legs (and presumably not just because they lost the other two in an accident), bats are birds, faraway stars are “lesser lights” than our own Sun, and we were all descended from incestuous couples. Much of this is exactly what other Middle Eastern civilizations of the time believed, which puts somewhat of a damper on the fact that the Bible was any more divinely inspired than, say, the Babylonian Enuma Elish. In fairness, though, these factual errors are rarely if ever the POINT of the various Biblical stories. And most of the mythology that is present deals not with the natural world but with politics, specifically how the nation of Israel came to be and how it should operate. The New Testament is less concerned with politics, but very concerned with how Jesus said the faithful should live their lives, and not so much with how Jesus apparently claimed he once saw the entire world from the top of a mountain, suggesting a flat Earth (or that Jesus’ eyes don’t work like ours, or he was only counting the Roman world, or he was just hallucinating in the desert, or…I could go on).
So, if the Bible really isn’t about natural history and philosophy at all, why do so many Christians argue against prevailing scientific theories on the basis of the book? Yes, the Bible supports a geocentric universe, but it doesn’t make a big deal out of it. When the Catholic Church suppressed Galileo’s heliocentric model, they weren’t so much defending the teachings of Jesus, but rather of Aristotle and Claudius Ptolemy.
And while these philosophers may have claimed divine inspiration, they presumably never prescribed eternal damnation to anyone who challenged them, and likely expected someone to come up with a better model in the future. I would suggest that it was primarily about control of the ignorant masses, especially when you consider that church authorities figured Galileo was probably right. If the peasants found a weak spot in official church teachings, they might well have started to question other things. That Jesus died for their sins? Well, maybe, but I get the cynical impression that the authorities were more concerned they’d question the parts about being satisfied with their crappy lot in life while the church and the nobility profited from their labors. I see the same basic sort of thinking at work among fundamentalists today, even if it’s much more informal. We know quite well that Young-Earth Creationism, for instance, is hardly a necessary tenet of Christianity, yet there are still plenty of people who claim it is.
I have to suspect that the more powerful people behind this are concerned less with the age of the Earth and the origin of species than with retaining or gaining power for themselves. But hey, that’s just a theory.