Religion and Science

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Almost every culture in human history has had a religious framework. Almost every religion offers some form of cosmology, some account of the origin of the world and of humanity, and some sort of scientia, some wisdom about how to relate to the world.

The reason why the interaction of religion and science has been of such interest since the midnineteenth century is that modern Western sciences, as they have developed from the seventeenth century on, seem to have dispensed with the underlying religious basis out of which they grew (which was largely that of Christianity). So this article will concentrate on the interaction between modern Western sciences and theology, predominantly Christian theology, while acknowledging that there have been other very important interactionsfor example, between the medieval sciences and Islam and Judaism, and between Chinese medicine and Daoism.

Historical Review: Galileo and Darwin

The history of the science-religion debate is often told by means of two famous test cases: the Italian mathematician Galileo Galilei (15641642) and his interaction with the Roman Catholic Church, and the English naturalist Charles Darwin (18091882), whose ideas led to controversies with various (mainly Protestant) theologians. Two cases do not make a history, and John Brooke's work has shown how diverse and particular are the interactions of different sciences with different patterns of religious thought. However, the two cases are highly significant.

Galileo made advances in many areas of mathematics, science, and technology. He is most famous for his adoption of a sun-centered model of the solar system at a time when the church taught that the Earth was the center of the universe. His defense of the sun-centered model, first developed by Copernicus (14731543), led ultimately to Galileo being placed under house arrest by the Catholic Church. It is important to recognize, however, that the church was not separate from science but a great sponsor of scientific exploration, and that Galileo was himself a believer and cared passionately about the interpretation of Scripture as well as about the truths of physics. Political and personal tensions played a large part in his denunciation.

The "Galileo affair," then, was not a simple case of the church suppressing free enquiry by a devoted scientist. Galileo's significance is somewhat different. First, in retrospect religious authorities could see that prevailing theories of the cosmos might undergo gradual change and that this process was one they could not control. Second, Galileo's thought set the tone for the development of physical science from that point. He saw that science would be most effective if it concentrated on measurable quantities and reproducible effects; he also saw that observations of a ball sliding down a slopea testable, quantifiable systemcould be applied to more remote problems such as planetary orbits. Galileo's thought therefore anticipated the massively successful mechanics of Isaac Newton (16421727) and the impression Newton's work gave of a mechanical universe, resembling a giant clock. In such a picture of the cosmos, the role of a deity might be restricted (though Newton would not himself have accepted this) to that of the maker and initial winder of the clock.

The thought of Galileo therefore helped to shape not only the particular sciences he studied but the whole scientific method. Modern science has focused very effectively on the reproducible and measurable and on understanding complex systems through simple models. It has rigorously avoided explanations involving a creator with purposes for the creation. However, the sciences do rest on faith commitments. Particularly important is the belief that the universe is ordered and consistent, such that the same laws operate in complex systems remote in time or space from the experimenterin the center, for example, of a distant staras operate in model systems.

It has often been argued that the Christian thought-world was particularly propitious to the development of this faith commitment because that thought-world not only emphasized the cosmos as a rational place, created by God through rational commands, but also stressed the distinction between God and the world. A strong motivation among many of those who developed the natural sciences was the desire to investigate the world to see how the creator had designed it. This exploration of "natural theology" went hand in hand with the development of physics and chemistry, especially in England between 1650 and 1800. But the exploration was only made conceivable by the conviction that the world was not in itself sacred. The relationship between physical science and Christian theology (at least in England) in the second half of the seventeenth century has been described as "almost a rapturous love affair." However, the success and reach of the sciences grew in parallel with developments in Enlightenment thought that enabled thinkers to question the authority of traditional religious teaching. Moreover, previously unexplained phenomena that had been considered "acts of God" turned out to obey scientific laws. Where God's activity had been inserted to plug a "gap" in scientific accounts, gap after gap tended to close, and those studying the clock-worklike Newtonian universe found it easier and easier to dispense with talk of the clock maker. Those who resisted this mechanistic worldview, such as proponents of Naturphilosophie in Germany, tended to part company with mainstream scientific thought.

In a sense, the process by which theological explanations lost their authority and their partnership with scientific theories reached its climax in the disputes over the thought of Charles Darwin. Very careful observations of the natural world, coupled with consideration of artificial breeding methods and restrictions on population sizes, had led Darwin to his theory of evolution by natural selection: variations occurred at random in biological organisms, and environmental pressures and competition with other organisms "selected" the variants that survived to reproduce themselves. As in the case of Galileo, theologians and scientists alike were divided as to the correctness of these new proposals. Many theologians celebrated Darwin's theory of "descent with modification" as a sign of God making a world that could make itself. Others resisted Darwinism on the grounds that it eliminated the need for a divine role in the design of individual creatures, and by implication also abolished the distinctiveness of human beings. Evolutionary theory seems to dispense with the need for any sort of "watchmaker," any sort of rational designer to design the mechanisms of living things. These nineteenth-century Darwinian controversies shaped not only the course but also the nature of modern science because they aided the shift away from the "gentleman amateur" scientist (often a clergyman) to the professionalized model we know today.

Philosophical Considerations

Two branches of philosophy are central to the analysis of the relationship between religion and science. The first is ontology, the study of what reality is, and the second is epistemology, the study of how humans can know anything about reality. However, there is huge disagreement among religions as to the nature of ultimate reality; there is also much contention among philosophers of science as to the status of scientific explanations of the world. In one sense science and theology are both rational enterprises aimed at exploring the same world, based on motivated faith commitments; in another sense they are utterly different because they operate from such different assumptions. Science aims to make matter an object of study, whereas theology aims ultimately to learn from a self-communicating God.

Much of the epistemological debate in science and religion has centered around "critical realism." This account of explanation within science and theology has been framed (slightly differently) by Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke, and John Polkinghorne. It claims that both science and theology offer accounts of reality that, though they may be partial and corrigible and depend on the use of models and metaphors, nevertheless, by a process of inference to the best explanation, draw progressively closer to a description of things as they really are. This is definitely what most practicing scientists think is the case, and some claim that theology also follows such a method (though encounter with a personal God must always imply a slightly different sort of enquiry). The problem with critical realism is that it is so difficult ever to imagine how we would know we were closer to an explanation corresponding to reality. Postmodernism insists that all our formulations are culturally laden and must be treated with suspicion, and the development of science often involves the radical overturning of previous models (as with the Copernican revolution). Nancey Murphy, writing in Peters and Bennett, concludes that critical realism is not appropriate to a postmodern epistemology but that there still are methodological similarities between science and theology. Wentzel van Huyssteen makes a good case that the science-religion debate is postmodern thought at its most constructive and least corrosive, since it involves two rational communities in conversation about areas of genuine common concern.

Evolutionary Biology

Evolution remains a contentious subject among conservative Christians, particularly in the United States, and also among many Muslims. Belief in the literal truth of sacred texts, and in the surpassing sovereignty of the divine creator, has led many to reject the theory of evolution, an enormously powerful and generally coherent scientific explanation, in favor of some variety of "creationism." This polarization of argument about evolution has restricted a very important area of theological exploration, namely how we can understand the activity of a God who seems to have created a system that contains very widespread suffering among animals, and in which over 90 percent of all the species that have ever lived are extinct. Evolutionary theory also raises other issuesin particular to do with the nature and distinctiveness of humanity. The Book of Genesis describes human beings as being uniquely made "in the image and likeness of God" (1:26). If we can explain a great deal about human beings in terms of our evolutionary inheritance, what becomes of these theological claims about humans?

The key phrase here is "a great deal." Advances in evolutionary explanation have been greatly accelerated by the "modern synthesis" of evolutionary theory with classical genetics, and then by the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, enabling us to describe evolutionary patterns at the level of molecular genetics as well as anatomy. It is sometimes thought that understanding genes effectively allows us to account for every aspect of human behavior. This "sociobiological" account of humanity implies that higher-level descriptions of human beings as creatures who worship, who pray, who exhibit self-sacrificial love can all be dispensed with. This kind of dismissal is an example of "reductionism" taken too far. Understanding higher-level properties in terms of simpler systems is part of the power of scienceit goes back in a sense to the insights of Galileobut reductionism has often been used too sweepingly when science has interacted with other types of explanation, such as those given by theologians.


One of the most intensively studied elements of the science-religion relationship is the relation of psychology to the theology of personhood and of agency. Here the theological language of soul and spirit has had to be clarified in the light of scientific descriptions of mental functioning. There have been claims, again simplistic and reductionistic, that religious experience merely reflects enhanced activity in a particular area of the brain. This claim overestimates our current understanding of the functioning of the brain and of consciousness and ignores the possibility that brain function can reflect both a complex pattern of the firing of neurons and a human being relating to God. Key areas in this exploration are the question as to what happens to an individual's spiritual state in a case of profound damage to the brain, for example, through Alzheimer's disease, and the scientific evaluation of accounts of "near-death" experiences, in which individuals claim to have seen not only bright and gentle light but also things that could not be perceived by their ordinary senses.

Another contribution psychology has to make to theology is in our understanding of agency. The three great monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all speak of the divine in personal terms; God is a personal agent who interacts with the world. Much energy has been devoted to trying to understand how such interaction relates to the law-governed descriptions of the world that science offers. So psychology can contribute to the theology of providence through the increase in our understanding of agency (as long as it is understood that human, embodied agency is at best a weak analogy with the relation of God to the universe); theology can contribute to psychology through its long study of divine and human freedom.


Theologians are much concerned with the relationship between God, time, and human freedom. The development in the twentieth century of first quantum theory and then chaos theory has emphasized the inadequacy of a clockwork model of the universe. In the usual interpretation of quantum mechanics, chance is a genuine and inalienable element in the unfolding of physical systems. Chaos theory, moreover, stresses our inability ever to predict precisely how complex systems will unfold. Theological models have emerged of the universe unfolding according to the interplay of chance with God-given laws, in a way that cannot be predicted by humans and may even not be known precisely by God. There have been various efforts, none of them very successful, to identify these "unclosable gaps" in determinacy and knowledge as loci at which God might act providentially but undetectably on physical systems, so keeping alive both the model of a God who intervenes in the world to effect purposes of divine love and healing and also the model of a God who is faithful to the laws with which God endowed creation.

One of the scientific developments of the twentieth century that seemed most consonant with the Christian tradition was big bang cosmology, with its description of the universe as arising out of an explosion that was extremely violent and yet seems precisely "tuned"if any one of a number of key parameters had been even minutely different, no life could ever have arisen. There has been a great temptation to insert God into this causal gap at the beginning of time, to suggest that God must have been both fine-tuner and initiator of the big bang. Again this sort of theology has been shown to be inadequate, as cosmological physics has moved into a realm of speculation about the big bang as a random, uncaused frothing-up (perhaps one of many) of a preexisting quantum vacuum. The type of explanation Christian theology offers of the universe is an ontological oneGod as the answer to the question Whyistheresomethingandnot nothing?rather than an account of God as the first cause in a series of temporal causes.

Astrophysics currently predicts the end of this universe as being its eventual expansion out to a low-temperature, low-density continuum from which all life and structure have disappeared. Here there is evident dissonance from those theological formulations that picture God as gathering up the whole creation into a pattern of new order and goodness. Again, the effect of exploring the dialogue with science is to cause theologians to be more precise about the type of explanation they are giving. Just as the resurrection of Jesus is postulated by Christians to involve a new state of matter, having some continuity with our present bodily state but also being different, incompletely recognizable, so the final state of matter is presumed to involve divine transformation, not a mere unfolding of the present creation.

Ecology and Ethics

The science-religion conversation as it has been conducted over the last forty yearsvery much under the influence of Ian Barbour in the United States and the priest-theologians John Polkinghorne and Arthur Peacocke in Britainhas tended to focus on physics in particular, not only as the source of vital data about the beginning and end of all things but also as the paradigm of rationality. Theologians have tended to be in awe of physics, and physicists in turn have sometimes developed an almost religious awe of their subject.

However, environmental science has had a very different conversation with theology. Ecological thinkers have often blamed religious formulas (such as the verse of Genesis cited above) as licensing human abuse of nature; they have also been critical of science as determined to dissect nature and as providing the technology used to accelerate ecological abuse. This criticism ignores the vital point that it is science that provides the diagnosis of our environmental state. However, the de-divinizing of nature by Christian theology that we noted above was a catalyst for Western scientific development, and science in turn has reinforced a sense that we are free to use nature as we want. It has been hard for humans to keep a sense both of God's distinctness from the world and of God's immanent presence in every aspect of that world. Here theology may need new imagery for the God-world relation; for example, Jay McDaniel offers the image of God as "heart" but also draws on Buddhist principles such as nonharming in order to derive a more sustainable environmental ethic.

Importantly, then, the science-religion conversation is not just about fine metaphysical distinctions between types of explanation of the origin of the universe; ultimately it is about the wisdom to relate appropriately to our world, and (if such is our belief) to our creatorto know how best to address our ever-growing power to influence that world, through the sheer extent of our technological life, and specifically through such advances as the new genetics. Science must inform our wisdom but cannot be its sole source.

See also Creationism ; Evolution ; Monism ; Natural Theology ; Naturphilosophie ; Newtonianism ; Philosophy and Religion in Western Thought ; Physics ; Science, History of ; Scientific Revolution .


Barbour, Ian G. Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997. Useful general introduction and classification of science-religion relationships.

Brooke, John Hedley. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Very important account of the diverse relationships between sciences and theology.

Haught, John F. God after Darwin: A Theology of Evolution. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 2000. Good exploration of the issues evolution raises for theology.

Murphy, Nancey, and George F. R. Ellis. On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1996. Important coupling of this sort of theology with ethics.

Peacocke, Arthur. Paths from Science Towards God: The End of All Our Exploring. Oxford: Oneworld, 2001. Summary of Peacocke's long investigation of this field and its implications for Christian theology.

Peters, Ted, and Gaymon Bennett, eds. Bridging Science and Religion. London: SCM Press, 2002. Considers several key areas mentioned above and also Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

Polkinghorne, John. The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. Perhaps the clearest communicator on the relation of physical science to classical Christian faith.

Richardson, W. Mark, and Gordy Slack, eds. Faith in Science: Scientists Search for Truth. New York and London: Routledge, 2001. Fascinating account by scientists from a variety of faith positions.

Rolston, Holmes, III. Genes, Genesis, and God. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Important critique of sociobiological understandings of human being.

Russell, Robert J., William R. Stoeger, and George V. George, eds. Physics, Philosophy and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding. Vatican City State: Vatican Observatory, 1988.

Russell, Robert J., et al., eds. Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action. Vatican City State: Vatican Observatory and Berkeley, Ca.: Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, 1995. See also other titles in the Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action series, edited by Robert J. Russell et al. An outstanding set of resources at advanced level for understanding divine action debate.

Southgate, Christopher, ed. God, Humanity, and the Cosmos: A Textbook in Science and Religion. 2nd ed. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2003. See especially the foreword by van Huyssteen, chapter 7 on divine action, and chapter 9 on Islamic science.

Van Huyssteen, J. Wentzel, ed. Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 2003. Key resource across the field.

Christopher Southgate

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