Science and Religion, Models and Relations

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Science and Religion, Models and Relations

A number of categories have been proposed for classifying diverse views of how science and religion can be related to each other. John Haught has suggested the categories of Conflict, Contrast, Contact, and Confirmation. A more detailed eightfold classification has been offered by Ted Peters. This article uses a fourfold typology proposed by Ian Barbour: Conflict, Independence, Dialogue, and Integration.


The trial of the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei in 1633 is often cited as the first prominent example of the conflict of religion with modern science. However, several factors in this trial were not typical of conflicts in subsequent centuries. Galileo challenged the respected authority of Aristotle who had held that the sun and planets revolve in orbits around the earth. Galileo also challenged the authority of the Catholic church at a time when it felt threatened by the Protestant Reformation. He did indeed challenge the literal interpretation of scripture, but this was not crucial in his day because metaphorical and allegorical interpretations of scriptural passages had been widely accepted since the writings of Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century.

Responses to Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) provide examples of Conflict, but also examples of alternative responses. A long, gradual process of evolution clearly conflicts with the seven days of creation in Genesis, which some theologians interpreted literally. Some religious conservatives accepted a long evolutionary history, but insisted on the special creation of the human soul, whereas liberals were soon speaking of evolution as God's way of creating. The evolutionary origins of humanity seemed a threat to human dignity, especially when "the survival of the fittest" was used by several social philosophers to justify ruthless economic competition and colonialism. After all, the idea of an impersonal process of variation and natural selection challenged the traditional idea of purposeful design. Darwin himself did not believe that every species had been specifically designed by God, but he did believe that God had designed the whole process through which differing species had evolved.

The Conflict thesis is represented today by two views at opposite ends of the theological spectrum: creation science and scientific materialism. Each gains a following partly by its opposition to the other. The popular image of "the warfare of science and religion" is perpetuated by the media, for whom controversies provide dramatic stories.

Creation Science. Fundamentalism, started as a movement in the United States since early in the twentieth century that took a strong stand defending biblical inerrancy. In the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, fundamentalists argued that the teaching of evolution in the schools should be forbidden because it is contrary to scripture. Beginning in the 1960s, proponents of creation science have claimed that there is scientific evidence against evolutionary theory and evidence for the sudden appearance of creatures in their present forms. Several state legislatures passed laws requiring that creationist theory be given equal time with evolutionary theory in public high school biology classes. But in 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that creation science does not constitute legitimate science and that it has been promoted in order to support a particular religious viewpoint, which is prohibited by the separation of church and state in the U.S. Constitution.

More sophisticated critiques of Darwinism have appeared in recent years, focusing on the rarity of transitional forms between species in the fossil record, and pointing to the sudden burst of new species in the early Cambrian period. According to the biochemist Michael Behe, the complex sequences of molecular reactions in organisms today could not have arisen gradually because if even one step were missing the sequence would not fulfill an adaptive function. Proponents of intelligent design, such as William Dembski, assert that such complexity could only be the product of purposeful intelligence. A number of biologists have replied that there are plausible Darwinian explanations for many of these phenomena, and that where such explanations are lacking one should seek more adequate testable hypotheses rather than positing supernatural intervention, which would inhibit rather than encourage further research.

Scientific materialism. Materialism is the assertion that matter is the fundamental reality in the universe. Materialism is a form of metaphysics (a claim concerning the most general characteristics and constituents of reality). Scientific materialism makes a second assertion: The scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge. This is a form of epistemology (a claim concerning inquiry and the acquisition of knowledge). The two assertions are linked; if the only real entities are those with which science deals, then science is the only valid path to knowledge.

In addition, many forms of materialism express reductionism. Epistemological reductionism claims that the laws and theories of all the sciences are in principle reducible to the laws of physics and chemistry. Metaphysical reductionism claims that the behavior of any system is determined by its component parts, which alone are causally effective.

Two well-known sociobiologists have explicitly defended scientific materialism. Richard Dawkins argues that evolution provides proof that there is no purpose in the universe. He holds that our actions are determined by our genes, which are the product of deterministic laws and chance events. He asserts that religion has always been harmful to human welfare. Edward O. Wilson believes that all human behavior can be explained by biological origins and genetic inheritance. He acknowledges that religious traditions served a useful function in the past by uniting groups around common loyalties, but he argues that this function can be better served today by loyalty to science. Critics suggest that scientific materialism is an interpretive philosophical position that conflicts only with other philosophical and religious positions, not a scientific theory that is part of science itself.


Conflicts between science and religion can be avoided if they are taken to be inquiries in separate domains. They employ differing languages fulfilling contrasting functions in human life. Science asks about lawful regularities among events in nature, whereas religion asks about ultimate meaning and purpose in a wider interpretive framework. If both science and religion are selective, neither can say that its account of reality is complete.

Separate domains. Starting in the nineteenth century, biblical scholars used historical methods to study the cultural context in which various parts of the Bible were written. They noted that the creation stories of the Bible made significant affirmations that the world is good, orderly, and dependent on a purposeful God. These convictions were conveyed through a symbolic and poetic story that assumed the prescientific cosmology of its day, which included a seven-day creation, an earth-centered astronomy, and a three-part universe with heaven above and hell below the world. But the central message of Genesis can be accepted today because it is not dependent on its ancient cosmology, and it is also quite independent of modern scientific cosmology. Its message is not actually about events in the past, but about the fundamental relation of God to the world and to persons in every moment, which is not a scientific question. Cultural anthropologist point out that creation stories around the world provide models for human behavior. Communities participate in such stories by enacting them in rituals. The role of creation stories is primarily to provide patterns for human life in the present rather than to provide explanatory accounts of events in the past.

The idea of separate domains has also been defended by some natural scientists. The biologist Stephen Jay Gould uses the Latin word magisterium to refer to a domain of teaching authority. "The magisterium of science covers the empirical realms, what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over question of ultimate meaning and moral value" (p. 6). Each domain has its own distinctive questions, rules, and criteria of judgment. Gould is critical of scientists who try to derive philosophical, theological, or ethical conclusions from science. He points out that Darwin's idea of natural selection has been misused to defend war, colonialism, ruthless economic competition, and eugenics.

Differing languages. Among philosophers in the 1950s, the logical positivists took scientific statements as the norm for all cognitive assertions and claimed that any statement not subject to empirical verification is either meaningless or purely emotive. In response, the analytic philosophers insisted that differing types of languages serve differing but equally legitimate functions in human life, and each has its distinctive rules. Science and religion do different jobs and neither should be judged by the standards of the order. Science asks strictly delimited questions in the interest of prediction and control. Religious language expresses a way of life through the rituals, stories, and practices of a religious community. The analytic philosophers have usually accepted an instrumentalist account of both science and religion. Both forms of language serve useful practical functions and neither of them need to make truth claims that might lead to conflict.

Critics reply that religious language presupposes distinctive religious beliefs. Classical realism had taken both scientific theories and religious beliefs to be descriptions of reality in itself. At the opposite extreme, instrumentalism took theories and beliefs to be useful fictions serving pragmatic human purposes. Critical realism has defended a middle ground in which conceptual models in both fields make tentative cognitive claims as imaginative representations of aspects of reality in its interaction with human observers.

Science and religion are sometimes said to offer complementary perspectives on the world that supplement rather than compete with each other. Some authors draw a more specific analogy to the Complementary Principle in physics. Physicist Niels Bohr noted that a subatomic entity such as an electron or a photon of light sometimes behaves like a wave and sometimes like a particle; it cannot be represented by a single model. Some authors have extended the principle to characterize the relation between science and religion. The idea of complementarity is a reminder that no set of concepts provides an exhaustive description of reality.


Dialogue portrays more constructive relationships between science and religion than does either the Conflict or the Independence view, but it does not offer the degree of conceptual unity claimed by advocates of Integration. Independence emphasizes differences between science and religion, whereas Dialogue emphasizes several kinds of similarity including the presuppositions and boundary questions of the scientific enterprise and methodological and conceptual parallels between the two fields.

Presuppositions and boundary questions. Historians have wondered why modern science arose in the Judeo-Christian West among all world cultures. Some suggest that the doctrine of creation helped to set the stage for scientific activity. Both Greek and biblical thought asserted that the world is orderly and intelligible. But the Greeks held that this order is necessary and therefore one can deduce its structure from first principles. Only biblical thought held that God created both form and matter, so the world did not have to be as it is, and the contingent details of its order can be discovered only by observation. Historians say that many factors contributed to the rise of modern science, including the humanistic interests of the Renaissance and the growth of commerce and trade, but they point out that the idea of creation gave religious legitimacy to scientific inquiry. Many of the founders of modern science believed that they were studying the handiwork of the Creator.

Boundary questions are raised but not answered by science. Why is the universe intelligible? Why is there a universe at all? The cosmologist Stephen Hawking writes: "What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe" (p. 174).

The cultural contexts of both science and religion have been explored by feminist authors. They have pointed to correlations among the polarities that have been pervasive in Western thought: mind/body, reason/emotion, objectivity/subjectivity, domination/submission, power/love. In each case, the first term of each pair (mind, reason, objectivity, domination, power) is identified in our culture as male, the second term (body, emotion, subjectivity, submission, love) as female. A historically patriarchal culture in which men have held most of the positions of power perpetuated a predominantly male image of God. Moreover the first term of each pair has been prominent in science, especially in its attempt to dominate and control nature. Feminist sensibilities, it is said, might lead to new topics for scientific research, more holistic theoretical concepts, and more ecological technologies. On the religious side, radical feminists turn to indigenous cultures for feminine symbols of the divine and for recovery of the sacred in nature. Reformist feminists, on the other hand, believe that the patriarchal features of historic Christianity can be rejected without rejecting the whole tradition, and they seek to relate this understanding to new possibilities in science.

Methodological and conceptual parallels. It has often been assumed that science is strictly objective. It is said that theories are validated by their agreement with indisputable theory-free data that are unaffected by individual preference or cultural influences. By contrast, religion seems to be highly subjective and strongly influenced by individual and cultural assumptions. But historians and philosophers have called into question this sharp contrast, arguing that science is not as objective nor religion as subjective as had been assumed. There are indeed differences of emphasis between the fields, but the distinctions are not absolute.

Philosophers of science have maintained that all data are theory-laden, not theory-free. Theoretical assumptions enter the selection, reporting, and interpretation of what are taken to be data. Moreover, theories do not arise from logical analysis of data but from acts of creative imagination in which metaphors and analogies often play a role. Models help one imagine what is not directly observable, especially in the realm of the very large (astronomy) and the very small (quantum physics). In the case of religion such data as religious experience, rituals, and scriptural texts are even more heavily laden with human interpretation. In religious language, metaphors and models are even more prominent.

The term paradigm was used by Thomas Kuhn to refer to a cluster of conceptual, metaphysical, and methodological presuppositions embodied in a tradition of scientific work. With a new paradigm the old data are reinterpreted and seen in new ways, and new kinds of data are sought. An established paradigm is resistant to falsification, since discrepancies between theory and data can be set aside as anomalies or reconciled by introducing ad hoc hypotheses. Religious traditions can also be regarded as communities that share a common paradigm. Their interpretation of data (such as religious experience and historical events) is even more paradigm-dependent and resistant to falsification, but it is not totally immune to challenge.

Many authors have also explored conceptual parallels between particular scientific and religious ideas. Recent discussion of human nature has drawn from both theology and science. The dualism of body and soul in classical Christianity has been questioned by theologians who find in the Bible itself a more integral view of the person as an embodied unity of thinking, feeling, and acting. Some scientists, on the other hand, have challenged reductionism and look on the person as a multileveled psychosomatic unity. Neuroscientists studying the brain have found that emotional as well as rational capacities are important in human life, as the biblical tradition has long maintained. The social character of selfhood is a theme common to biblical thought and research in cognitive psychology and anthropology.

Parallels between the holism of quantum physics and the holism of Eastern mysticism have often been noted. The quantum description of an atomic system must be given for the whole system, which cannot be analyzed as the sum of its separate parts. Nonlocal connections are evident in experiments in which two particles originating in a single event continue to be entangled with each other when they reach widely separated detectors. The physicist David Bohm and in a more popular vein, Fritof Capra, have seen a striking similarity between quantum holism and the experience of undifferentiated oneness encountered in the depth of meditation. In quantum physics the observer and the observed are inseparable; so, too, the mystic tradition speaks of the union of subject and object. Because these writings stress personal experience and the limitations of human knowledge, they can be considered as forms of Dialogue, but in their more systematic and metaphysical elaboration they might be considered as examples of Integration.


Advocates of Integration call for reformulations of traditional theological ideas that are more extensive and systematic than those envisaged by advocates of Dialogue. In natural theology it is claimed that the existence of God can be inferred from (or is supported by) the evidence of design in nature. In a theology of nature, the main sources of theology lie outside science, but scientific theories strongly affect the reformulation of certain doctrines. In a systematic synthesis, both science and religion contribute to the development of an inclusive metaphysics, such as that of process philosophy.

Natural theology. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas held that some of God's characteristics can be known only from revelation in scripture, but the existence of God can be known by reason alone. His teleological argument (from telos, Greek for purpose or goal) starts from orderliness and intelligibility as general characteristics of nature, but he goes on to cite specific evidence of design in nature. Scientists in the seventeenth century, including Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, saw God's hand in the details of natural systems from the structures of animals to the solar system. In the early nineteenth century, an Anglican priest, William Paley, said that if one finds a watch on a heath one is justified in concluding that it was designed by an intelligent being; if in the eye many complex parts function together to achieve a single end, it, too must have had a designer. Darwin dealt a serious blow to the traditional design argument, for he showed that adaptation can be explained by random variation and natural selection. But Darwin himself accepted a revised version of the argument; he said that God did not design the particular details of individual species, but designed the laws of evolutionary processes through which the species were formed, leaving the details to chance.

Traditionally, design referred to the execution of a detailed preexisting plan. But chance seems to have played a large role in evolutionary history. Mutations are random and the overwhelming majority are harmful. Some changes were the product of contingent circumstances, such as the comet that was probably responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs. Yet evolutionary history dos show an overall trend toward greater responsiveness and awareness. The capacity to gather, store, and process information has steadily increased. Design can now be identified with an open-ended direction of change rather than with an exactly specified end product.

The Anthropic Principle in writing by contemporary cosmologists can be interpreted as a new form of design argument. The fundamental parameters of the early universe seem to be fine-tuned for the conditions needed for the emergence of life and intelligence. If the expansion rate one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed before evolution could have occurred. If the expansion had been even a tiny fraction faster it would have dispersed too rapidly for galaxies and planets to have formed. The universe seems to be balanced on a knife-edge, too improbable to be a fortunate chance occurrence.

Most defenders of natural theology, such as Paul Davies, do not claim to offer proofs for the existence of God, but argue that a cosmic designer who does not intervene is a more plausible ultimate explanation than naturalistic alternatives. Some proponents of a modest natural theology combine it with adherence to a theistic religious tradition. But critics point out that in itself natural theology leads only to the God of deism who started the universe and was inactive thereafter, not to the God of theism who is actively involved in the world.

Theology of nature. A theology of nature does not start from science, as natural theology usually does. Instead, it starts from a religious tradition based on religious experience and historical revelation. But it holds that some traditional doctrines need to be reformulated in the light of current science. Here science and religion are considered to be relatively independent sources of ideas, but with some areas of overlap in their claims. An extensive literature has addressed the question: How could God act in the world described by the laws of science without intervening supernaturally and discontinuously?

Our understanding of the general characteristics of nature will affect our models of God's relation to nature. In contemporary views, nature is understood to be a dynamic evolutionary process with a long history of emergent novelty, characterized throughout by both law and chance. The natural order is ecological, interdependent, and multileveled. These characteristics will modify our representation of the relation of both God and humanity to nonhuman nature. This will, in turn, affect our attitudes toward nature and will have practical implications for environmental ethics. The problem of evil will also be viewed differently in an evolutionary rather than a static world.

For the biochemist and theologian Arthur Peacocke the starting point of theological reflection is past and present religious experience in an ongoing religious community. But Peacocke is willing to reformulate traditional beliefs in response to current science. He discusses at length how chance and law work together in cosmology, quantum physics, nonequilibrium thermodynamics, and biological evolution. He gives chance a positive role in the exploration of potentialities at all levels. Peacocke describes the emergence of distinctive forms of activity at higher levels of complexity in the multilayered hierarchy of organic life and mind. God creates through the whole process, not by intervening in gaps in the process. Peacocke defends the idea of top-down causality within organisms and goes on to speak of God as a top-down cause.

Another proposal starts from the indeterminacy of quantum theory. In contrast to the determinism of classical physics, quantum physics gives only a range of probabilities rather than exact values in predicting individual events in subatomic systems. Some physicists think this unpredictability is attributable to the limitations of current quantum theory. But most physicists hold that indeterminacy is a property of the atomic world itself. Physicist and theologian Robert John Russell has argued that if quantum events are not completely determined by the laws of physics, the final determination could be made by God. God would not have to intervene to alter a determinate state, but would actualize one of the multiple potentialities present, all of which have identical energy, so that no input of energy would be required. In many situations indeterminacies at the atomic level average out to give predictable behavior for larger groups of atoms. But in some cases very small differences can be greatly amplified. A genetic mutation could change the course of evolutionary history. Where science finds only chance, the theist can see providential guidance. Traditionalist critics of such views hold that by representing God's action as a subtle influence that is not scientifically detectable, rather than as a more dramatic supernatural intervention, these authors have accommodated too much to science.

Systematic synthesis. A more systematic integration can occur if both science and religion contribute to a coherent world view elaborated in a comprehensive metaphysics. Metaphysics is the province of the philosopher rather than of the scientist or the theologian, but it can serve as an arena of common reflection. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas articulated an impressive metaphysics that has remained influential in Catholic thought. His voluminous writings systematically integrated ideas from earlier Christian authors with the best philosophy and science of his day, derived largely from the works of Aristotle.

The process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and his followers is a promising candidate for a mediating role today. Whitehead was familiar with quantum physics and its portrayal of reality as a series of momentary events and interpenetrating fields rather than separate particles. For him, as for evolutionary thinkers, nature is a dynamic web of interconnected events, characterized by novelty as well as order. Process thought holds that the basic constituents of reality are not two kinds of enduring entity (mind/matter dualism) or one kind of enduring entity (materialism), but one kind of event with two aspects or phases. All integrated events have an inner and an outer reality, but these take very different forms at different levels. Viewed from within, interiority can be construed as a moment of experience, though conscious experience occurs only at high levels of organization.

According to process philosophy, God elicits the self-creation of individual entities, thereby allowing for freedom and novelty as well as order and structure. Process thinkers reject the idea of divine omnipotence; they portray a God of persuasion rather than coercion, and they have provided distinctive analyses of the place of chance, human freedom, evil, and suffering in the world. Christian process theologians such as John Haught point out that the power of love, as exemplified in the cross, is precisely its ability to evoke a response while respecting the integrity of other beings. The thought of Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin shows some similarities with process theology, including affirmation of an evolutionary cosmos and postulation of interiority in all beings, though his approach is less philosophical and more poeticand sometimes more mysticalthan that of authors indebted to Whitehead.

Process theology has been criticized for departing too far from classical Christianity. It does emphasize divine immanence (without excluding transcendence), whereas classical Christianity emphasized transcendence. More philosophers have abandoned the search for a unifying metaphysics, though there has been some revival of interest in questions once dismissed as metaphysical. The majority of authors who want to move beyond Conflict and Independence hold that we will have to be content with Dialogue or with less philosophical forms of Integration.

See also Christianity; Intelligent Design; Science and Religion, History of the Field


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ian barbour

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