Science and Religion, Research in

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Science and Religion, Research in

It is essential to begin by noting that research in science and religion covers a wide range of exploration. The frequent use of the terms "science-and-religion field" and "science-religion debate" tends to obscure not only the range of relationships between different sciences and different religions, but also different approaches to researching these relationships. There is a diverse matrix of relationships between the cognitive claims of different sciences and different religions. As argued by Willem B. Drees in Religion, Science, and Naturalism (1996), religions have different aspects, which have different relations to the science under consideration, and the phenomenon of religion is itself a proper object of scientific study. But the matrix is yet broader and more intricate than thatsciences do not consist only of propositional claims being tested by experiment, but of communities of individual scholars whose work is informed both by their individual spiritual attitudes and by the ethos of their community. That ethos is in turn informed by social, cultural, and political factors.

Some historical considerations

That the matrix of relationships mentioned above has been in constant shift throughout the last few hundred years has been an emphasis in the work of historians such as John Hedley Brooke. Brooke's determined insistence that, viewed historically, the unfolding of these relationships is often more surprising and paradoxical than might have been supposed has been a significant counter to the devising of overly simplistic grand narratives of the relationship between science and religion. In Brooke's book with Geoffrey Cantor, Reconstructing Nature (1998), he explores the range of approaches by which history can enrich and subvert trite preconceptions, and includes a fascinating chapter on chemistry, a subject too often omitted from historical surveys of the science-religion matrix.

A problem that will continue to beset historical research in science and religion is: What was it about European Renaissance Christendom that particularly predisposed it to give rise to modern Western science? Important markers in this debate have been Reijer Hooykaas's stress on the importance of Protestantism, Stanley Jaki's emphasis on the contribution of Catholic thinking, and Amos Funkenstein's important Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century (1986). The question can be put another way: How can we account for the "failure of early science," as Philip Luscombe puts it in Groundwork of Science and Religion (2000)? Neither Ancient Greek culture, nor the "Golden Age of Islam" in the tenth and eleventh centuries, nor indeed Chinese or Indian civilization, gave rise to any expansion of experimental enquiry and technological development that remotely parallels that of the modern West. This question will need particularly sensitive handling in the twenty-first century, when religious conviction and political and economic aspiration have become so evidently intertangled with the question of what is a truth to be lived by.

The character of the science-religion debate

The apparent unity of the science-religion debate in the Western world has had much to do with two particular dynamics. First, certain prominent scientists continue to make assertions about the reach of science, claiming that in some way it falsifies the truth-claims of religion. Names that come to mind include Stephen Hawking and Peter Atkins (in their different ways) in respect of physics, and Edward O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins (again in their different ways) in respect of biology. These assertions tap into a perception in the public mind that indeed religion is in headlong retreat before science. People therefore seek overviews of how this supposed battle is going, overviews which have been provided with consistent distinction over many years by the Minnesota-based philosopher and theologian Ian Barbour, whose typologies of possible relationships between the disciplinesin terms of conflict, independence, dialogue, and integrationhave done so much to put the "conflict" hypothesis in perspective.

The second ingredient tending to promote a sense of the unity of the field is the eloquent and sustained contribution made since the 1970s by four scholars in particular. Barbour has already been mentioned. His name is often linked with those of the British scientist-theologians Arthur Peacocke and John Polkinghorne, but the contribution of the American philosopher Holmes Rolston III has been of comparable stature. All emerged from a background in hard sciencesPeacocke in physical biochemistry, the other three in physics itself. All have surveyed the relationship between sciences and religions as being a unity; all have explicitly taken issue with the "falsifiers" mentioned above. Though they differ in the degree of their debt to process philosophy, and in their theological inclinations, all remain deeply committed to a critical-realist view of human enquiry. Science finds things out; over time, it tells us more and more about the world. Science is therefore an ally in enquiring more faithfully into the creativity of God. Theology too is a realist discipline; over time, it can expect to rid itself of formulations that are not coherent with other robust understandings of the world and of ourselves. For all four, in their different ways, Christian monotheism is at the cutting-edge of this exploration.

The relationship of ecological theology to science-religion research

For far too long ecological theology has lived in a separate ghetto from what is usually thought of as research into science-and-religion. It is interesting to consider why this might have been so. "Scientist-theologians" (as Barbour, Peacocke, and Polkinghorne were dubbed in Polkinghorne's comparative study Scientists as Theologians [1996]) all take an essentially positive view of science and seek to learn how theology in the Christian tradition might resemble it. Much ecological thinking, however, has reflected on how the discoveries of science have been used to develop technologies that oppress and destroy naturealso on how patriarchal monotheism has seemed to be an ally of that oppression, and in parallel also of the oppression of women. Ecological theology, then, has been the home not, typically, of the celebration of science but of suspicious readings of the texts of powerscientific as well as scriptural. It has also been a domain of remythologizations: for example, the universe as the body of God as in Sallie McFague's The Body of God (1993); the planet Earth (Gaia) as the sacred space on which human beings depend as in Anne Primavesi's Sacred Gaia (2000).

Barbour has written extensively on the ethics of technology, but it is Rolston who has been a key figure in this uneasy relationship, since he has made significant contributions both on science-and-religion and in environmental ethics. He has carefully analyzed how value is intrinsic to all living things and the systems within which they function, but he has also insisted that a practical approach to environmentalism must insist on an element of philosophical realism. Science is not only a vital diagnostic aid as to the extent of the environmental crisis because it does tell us things about the way the world is; it is also a source of potential solutions. There is much work to do to widen the bridge Rolston has begun to build.

The divine action debate

Central in the divine action debate has been the contribution made by six Vatican Conferences on science and theology held between 1987 and 2000, the first subtitled "A Common Quest for Understanding" and the last five "Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action." All the proceedings have been edited by Robert John Russell and colleagues (1988, 1993, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2001). The debate about God's providential activity and how it might be related to the story of the universe has been the biggest single engine driving research in science and theology in this period. At two poles of the debate have been (1) the Thomist understanding of "double agency," according to which God's primary agency lies behind each and every event, but God's providence operates through secondary causes, such as human activity, the stress being on the ultimate sovereignty of God; and (2) the process-theological view that divine persuasion is an ingredient of every event, luring entities toward harmony and creativity, but never determining outcomes. Here the stress is on God the fellow-suffering persuader. Neither of these positions in itself makes for easy conversation with the sciences.

Important markers in the effort to understand divine action within a scientifically described universe include (1) the proposal, going back to William Pollard in the 1950s, but further developed in particular by Russell and the South African physicist George F. R. Ellis, that quantum indeterminacy provides the "gap" in which God can act undetectably on the physical universe; (2) Polkinghorne's provocative assertion in his Science and Providence (1989) that we should look for the locus of God's action in the openness and indeterminacy of the universe at the macroscopic level, as illustrated by the equations of chaos theory; (3) Peacocke's insistence on the importance of "top-down causation," later "whole-part influence"; and (4) Nancey Murphy's masterly assessment of these views, which can be found in the Vatican Conference proceedings published as Chaos and Complexity (1995). The divine action conferences have covered physics and cosmology, chaos theory, evolutionary and molecular biology, and neuroscience. These subjects will be touched on further below. The current state of the argument on quantum indeterminacy is summarized in the Vatican Conference proceedings entitled Quantum Mechanics (2001).

The Vatican Conferences have been invaluable conversations among eminent thinkers, and essential resources for research students. However, the overall conclusion from the debate must be that efforts to press too closely the question of God's action, to allow the relevant science to frame too closely how that action might be formulated, have consistently failed. Polkinghorne, the most ambitious thinker in this area, retreated in books such as Belief in God in an Age of Science (1998) into much more theological and less physical formulations.

One of the key theological issues underlying the debate is that of God's relation to time. Again this sharply divides the classical Thomist approach, which places God beyond time, from process-influenced schemes. The relation of this debate to understanding of time in physics is much debated. Polkinghorne has insisted that an omnipresent God can be in time but equally present to every point in space. Drees has objected that relativistic understandings of space-time permit no such vantage point.

Another key issue is that of divine kenosisself-emptying. Two meetings of senior scholars on this topic in 1998 and 1999 led to an important series of essays, The Work of Love (2001 ), edited by Polkinghorne. Does God's creative activity involve an element of self-limitation, reaching a climax (for Christians) at the Incarnation and Passion of Christ? A particular importance of these meetings was that they not only brought together the four senior figures in the debateBarbour, Peacocke, Polkinghorne, and Rolstonbut also a major philosopher of religion, Keith Ward, and eminent figures from the rest of the theological world, including Jürgen Moltmann, Paul Fiddes, and Sarah Coakley. It is vital to the future of explorations in this interdisciplinary area that research does not remain confined within its own little interest group, but hears from and responds to other branches of theology.

The contribution of philosophy of science

Research in science and religion necessarily involves asking what sort of enterprise is the science in question? Reference to the philosophy of science, however, is complicated by the fact that most practicing scientists would not recognize the descriptions of their activity offered by most contemporary philosophy. Philosophers, working in the context of postmodern critiques of foundationalism, and with a profound awareness of the cultural embeddedness of all descriptions, tend to stress the practice of science as the activity of a particular community, a particular type of rational enterprise. Most scientists simply think of themselves as finding out more about the way things really are. This is no doubt why the thinkers who have done most to develop theological conversation with working scientists have tended to espouse a fairly strong form of critical realism. Significant support for critical realism, particularly with respect to science, has come from Ernan McMullin; an even more robust insistence on realism can be found in Roger Trigg's Rationality and Religion (1998).

Among the philosophers who have most engaged with the challenge of postmodernism, it is important to mention the work of Murphy and of J. Wentzel van Huyssteen. Murphy made a bold bridge from the methodology of science into theology in her Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning (1990), using the model of core and auxiliary hypotheses developed by Imre Lakatos. In the process, she rejected critical realism in theology on the grounds that it makes too great a claim as to our knowledge of elements of reality beyond our ordinary human ways of knowing. Since then, Murphy has worked with Ellis to develop a model in which cosmology might inform ethics, as in their On the Moral Nature of the Universe (1996).

In contrast to Murphy, van Huyssteen wants to defend "a weak form of critical realism," essentially as an inference from the evolved capacity of human beings to make sense of the cosmos. He has made a telling diagnosis of the predicament of contemporary theology as being, in a sense, between a rock and a soft place, between the strong progressivist truth-claims of science and postmodernity's relativizing suspicion of all grand narratives. Yet van Huyssteen asserts that this makes the conversation between science and theology a particularly important one. As he claims in The Shaping of Rationality (1999), if any rational communities are to be in conversation, it should be these two.

The conversation with the physicists

This conversation is best known through the works of the Australia-based British physicist Paul Davies, in particular God and the New Physics (1983) and The Mind of God (1992). Davies is a fascinating example of a physicist of no particular religious affiliation whose explorations of the lawfulness and fruitfulness of the cosmos draw him to God-language. It led him in his early days to postulate that there are senses in which science may teach us more about God than religion can; later he was disposed to remark not only on the astonishing intelligibility of the universe but also on the limits of human understandingthe laws of nature will not of themselves answer every question about existence. Interestingly, Davies has also explored the theologically intriguing question as to whether life on Earth may have extraterrestrial origins.

Two arguments at the boundary of physics and metaphysics currently generate a lot of energy and lead to a great deal of God-talk, if not always of the most informed or nuanced kind. The first concerns the so-called anthropic coincidences. If certain fundamental constants were even minutely different, or if the early history of the universe had unfolded even slightly differently, this universe could not be fruitful of life. So, did God fine-tune the cosmos? This is a discussion dogged by imprecision of terms and by the temptation to try and resolve a metaphysical issue by argument in physics (a mistake against which Polkinghorne has consistently argued). The main alternative to divine fine-tuning is the many-universes theory, and neither alternative is subject to physical test. However, it must be admitted that developments in theoretical physics, in particular those concerning the possibility of universes giving rise to other universes (see for example Lee Smolin's The Life of the Cosmos [1997], for a different approach see Hawking's The Universe in a Nutshell [2001]) could influence the balance of the argument, though they could not settle it. A change in the balance would be a change in the apparent consonance between the picture physical science offers and the notion of a God designing the universe. If the universe as described by science looks unique and precisely fine-tuned for life, the consonance is high. If this looks like one of many trillion universes constantly budding off from one another, the anthropic coincidences look less suggestive, and consonance is lower. Consonance is a felicitous term, first developed by McMullin and further explored by Ted Peters, for describing the way scientific and theological formulations seem sometimes to come into harmony. But apparent consonances come and go; mature interdisciplinary research in this area requires that they not be too much relied upon.

This is nowhere more important than in the other major area of debate between physics and philosophical theismthe question of the origin and cause of the universe. The enthusiasm of Pope Pius XII for the apparent consonance between early Big Bang cosmology and Genesis 1 has long been subverted by a series of alternative proposals in physics. The Big Bang model continues as a description of the development of the universe, including its apparent rapid early inflation. However, various models of the origin of the universe and its very early growth, in a context in which quantum effects may have dominated, now suggest that the arising of this fourteen-billion-year-old universe, containing a hundred billion galaxies, may have been some form of chance fluctuation in a preexisting state of zero net energy. This has been taken by some to challenge both the Christian doctrine of creation-out-of-nothing (creatio ex nihilo ) and the notion of "God's moment" before the laws of physics took effect. However, more rigorous thinking shows that the "nothing" of the quantum vacuum is a highly structured state, hardly nihil in theological terms. Robert John Russell's analysis, published in Religion and Science: History, Method, Dialogue (edited by W. Mark Richardson and Wesley J. Wildman, 1996), shows that a discrete temporal moment of becoming would be an interesting consonance with Genesis but is not necessary to a Christian theology of creation.

Russell has also remarked that accounts of the end of the universe will necessarily exhibit a dissonance between scientific prediction and Christian formulation. All the different scientific accounts suggest that this universe will have a finite lifespan, and even if new universes bud off from it or are born out of it, there seems little likelihood that structure or information, let alone living things, could survive such a transition. The Christian hope, however, anticipates a new creation and a continued bodily existence of persons. Perhaps because of this dissonance there has been surprisingly little work in this area of the science-religion debate. Some interesting new science continues to emerge (for a summary see Martin Rees' Our Cosmic Habitat [2002]), but few theologians have explored the territory, honorable exceptions being Polkinghorne and Welker's edited work The Ends of the World and the Ends of God (2000) and Arnold Benz's The Future of the Universe (2000).

Theology and biology

In 1996, Holmes Rolston contributed an interesting essay entitled "Science, Religion and the Future" to Richardson and Wildman's Religion and Science. In it he remarks that "Outspokenly monotheistic biologists are as rare as those who think physics is compatible with monotheisms are common" (p. 65). There is a contrast between the tone of mutual curiosity in much of the conversation between philosophical theism and physics and the often acrimonious conversation between theologians and certain biologists, particularly Dawkins, Wilson, and Lewis Wolpert. It may be argued that Dawkins has had his uses in stirring up the debate, as Jacques Monod did before him. Strongly reductionist denials of the significance of human existence and humans' search for God did much to provoke Peacocke's long engagement with theology's relation to evolutionary biology, as summarized in his Paths from Science towards God (2001). The British philosopher Mary Midgley has also been important for her rejection of trite reductionism, and her insistence that there can be many "maps" of the character of existence and that these maps are not mutually exclusive, that mortgages are in a sense as real as membranes or muons.

However, too much adversarial writing sometimes distracts theologians from their central task. The long battle, especially in the United States, over creationism has distracted attention from the fascinating questions that arise if a generally Darwinian picture is accepted. Two questions particularly come to mind.

First, when and how did evolving hominids develop the status Christian theology accords humans as being in the image and likeness of God? When did they develop the capacity for worship, and what view of the world did this early religious practice reflect? Beyond the oft-repeated statement, much insisted on by Peacocke, that theology must discard a picture of a historical fall from a preparadisal state, little progress has been made in this area. Perhaps theologians are right to be cautious, since the paleontological evidence changes continually and seems to push the development of artistic and symbolic skills further and further back in time.

Many of the details of the second question were already known to Charles Darwin by the mid-1800s. It concerns the theodicy problem raised by evolution through natural selection. How could a loving God use a process so replete in casualtiesindividual organisms that never grow to their potential or die in horrible pain, species that go extinctto realize other ends, such as the evolution of humans? Again, scientist-theologians need to learn from ecotheologians and move beyond the very anthropocentric ambit of theodicy as it has tended to be done. Some early evolutionary theodicies can be seen in Ruth Page's God and the Web of Creation (1996), John Haught's God After Darwin (2000), and Christopher Southgate's "God and Evolutionary Evil" (2002).

One of the most intense areas of ethical debate in the early twenty-first century is the area of genetic manipulation and cloning. This focuses questions as to the role and status of the human person. Are we "plain citizens of the biotic community" as Aldo Leopold stated, or the "created co-creators" (suggested by Philip Hefner in The Human Factor (1993)? Issues of genetic reductionism also stalk the debateto what extent do we understand an organism by understanding the location and function of its genes? Ted Peters has made an interesting move here, arguing in Playing God? (1997) that much of the opposition to genetic technologies is itself reductionist. Celia Deane-Drummond in her survey Biology and Theology Today (2001) insists that the missing ingredient in the debate is an appeal to wisdom, a promising route by which Christian theology might inform this branch of ethics.

A further question, still embryonic, is to what extent work on chaos and complexity theory, the self-organizing behavior of systems such as those that gave rise to and nurtured life on Earth, may alter our perspective on the evolutionary history of the biosphere. The Danish scholar Niels Gregersen has been at work on the significance of autopoiesis in ways which may bear rich fruit in addressing questions of the "designedness" of the biosphere and the theology of God's interaction with evolving life.

Theology and psychology

This conversation between theology and psychology promises to be a great growth area in the first half of the twenty-first century. As Philip Clayton has noted in his God and Contemporary Science (1997), human agency is the best analogy, however weak it may be, to the agency of a personal God. It is therefore of the first importance that theologians track research into the psychology of agency. Secondly, religious experience (a particular research interest of Fraser Watts, the Starbridge Lecturer at Cambridge) is properly the subject of both theological and scientific investigation. Thirdly, our view of the attributes of human personhood has historically been profoundly influenced by theological formulations. In Christian societies this has often been expressed in terms of "soul" language. Yet in contemporary Western society it is science that principally informs ethical and legal judgments as to when personhood begins and ends. Hence the special significance of the project involving Warren Brown, Nancey Murphy, and H. Newton Maloney, helped by (among others) a distinguished evolutionary biologist in Francisco Ayala and an eminent neuroscientist in Malcolm Jeeves. This led to the book Whatever Happened to the Soul? (1999), in which the authors explore a nonreductive physicalist model of the mind-brain relation. On this model, soul language becomes adjectival, not in any way an assertion that some sort of separate entity exists within each human which carries the spiritual life of the person. The ethical implications of such a model are still to be worked out, though John Habgood's gradualist model of the beginning and end of personhood in his Being a Person (1998) is a challenging starting point, particularly in relation to terminal illness, dementia, and persistent vegetative state.

Religions other than Christianity

There are good, if hotly debated, reasons why Christian theologians have led the debate on the relationship of theology to Western sciences. However, the science-religion debate must not consist solely of a retelling of some Christian story that Christendom fostered modern science, made a brief mistake with Galileo, survived the assaults of atheism and Darwinism, and now flourishes as a trendy partner to contemporary cosmology. It is self-evident that science's relationships with religions and theologies other than the Christian are not only important in themselves but may supply wholly new perspectives from which to understand interdisciplinary conversation of this type.

The Christian theologian must not seek to mold other traditions into the particular thought-patterns that happen to have informed the debate between sciences and textual, critically aware Christian theology. However, long established questions are bound to occur to that theologian such as (1) does the radical monotheism of Islam, with its great emphasis on the authority of the literal text of the Qur'han, provide a climate for conversation with the forms of knowledge offered by various sciences; and (2) can the apparently nonrealist attitude to matter in much Eastern thought be reconciled with a realist cosmology?

The answer to these questions needs much further exploration. Recent accounts by practicing Muslims who are scientists, such as Mehdi Golshani and Bruno Guiderdoni in Richardson and Slack's Faith in Science (2001), suggest that science can be regarded as worship, as responding to the Qur'hanic command to see Allah's signs in the universe, yet there is no question that for many Islamic thinkers a theory such as Darwinian evolution is profoundly unpalatable. As Michael Robert Negus relates in the textbook God, Humanity, and the Cosmos (1999, edited by Southgate), two of the approaches in K. A. Wood's classification of ways to account for the sciences as compatible with Islamcompartmentalism and a phenomenological approach to scriptural textswould seem to show promise in encouraging distinguished Muslim scientists and theologians in the integration of contemporary science with an Islamic metaphysics. The third approach, scientific exegesis, seeking to infer scientific truths from the scriptural texts themselves, seems fraught with problems.

As for Eastern thought, it does seem that its apparently nonrealist attitude toward matter can be, up to a point, reconciled with a realist cosmology. An article by Vaharaja V. Raman on Hinduism in When Worlds Converge (2002, edited by Matthews, Tucker, and Hefner) suggests that indeed the material world, and scientific conclusions about it, can be taken seriously in Hindu thought, provided there is no suggestion that the descriptions arrived at have objective reference or that they are of parallel importance to the discoveries of the spiritual masters. Points of contact can be noted here with the debate within Christian theology. Likewise an article on Buddhism by Pinit Ratanakul (in the same volume) indicates an openness to the findings of science, as long as the central moral insights of the faith remain preeminent. The Buddhist concepts of nonharming and interdependence remain important resources for developing ecological ethics.

Resources, sponsors, and key organizations

It is enormously challenging to engage with the complex matrix that is the science-religion debate, and books that can function as textbooks for the student remain few. Rolston's Science and Religion (1987) was an early example, and Barbour has produced a series of overviews, of which Religion and Science (1997) is perhaps the most useful. The first comprehensive, purpose-designed textbook to appear was God, Humanity, and the Cosmos (1999), edited by Southgate.

The extraordinary patronage of conversations between science and religion by Sir John Templeton, far and away the biggest single sponsor of this type of research, has done much to build a single community of enquirers. Extensive funding has been made available for the Templeton Foundation's Science and Religion Course Program, which has supported courses in several hundred colleges throughout the world, and other types of workshops and symposia on the classic issues discussed above. An important element in this has been the exploration of the spiritualities of practicing scientists and the effect faith, or lack of it, has on their work.

A couple of centers of excellence in the current debate also deserve mention. Long-term research into profoundly difficult problemscosmological, theological, and ethicalis conducted with rigor and passion at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, California, under the direction of Robert John Russell. Also important is the Zygon Center for Religion and Science in Chicago, from which Philip Hefner edits Zygon, the premier journal in the field. The two most prominent chairs in the field are the James I. McCord Chair in Theology and Science at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, occupied by J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, and the Andreas Idreos Chair at Oxford University, occupied by John Brooke. The novelist Susan Howatch has endowed another important post at Cambridge University, the Starbridge Lectureship. Europe has the most vigorous society: the European Society of the Study of Science and Theology (ESSSAT), whose biennial meetings are not only a major encouragement to scholars from poorly resourced institutions in Eastern Europe, but profoundly generative in themselves. Extensive information can be found at and, which have done much to make current research available online.

Concluding thoughts

The conversations between scientists and theologians that have been discussed above have had a wider impact than might be thought simply by noting the main developments. It is slowly coming to be recognized that it is respectable for those trained in the humanities to know about science. Novels and poems based on scientific ideas and images are now proliferating. Well-known theologians who have specialized in other areas in the past are being drawn into the debate, including, strikingly, the British evangelical scholar Alister McGrath, who published two books on science and religion in 1998. Likewise, eminent scientists are now entering the conversation not, as in the past, to dismiss theology, nor yet to defend it, but to remark on the relationship between disciplines, as in Stephen Jay Gould's model of "nonoverlapping magisteria" in his Rocks of Ages (1999). If van Huyssteen is indeed right that the science-theology debate is the paradigmatic case of the possibilities of conversation between two rational communities, these "cross-over" works are of particular significance for the unfolding of human rationality and creativity.

See also Science and Religion; Science and Religion, History of Field; Science and Religion in Public Communication; Science and Religion, Methodologies; Science and Religion, Models and Relations; Science and Religion, Periodical Literature


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christopher southgate

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