Science and Religion

views updated May 23 2018


SCIENCE AND RELIGION . During the final third of the twentieth century an interdisciplinary field arose that claims the name science and religion. By science it refers to natural sciences such as physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology, genetics, and the neurosciences; and it includes supporting disciplines such as history of science and philosophy of science. Although on occasion scholars in this field will dip into one or another social science, for the most part the field limits itself to the natural sciences. By religion it refers to two regions of religious thought. The first is generically spiritual, wherein research scientists are asked to explore ways in which their understandings of nature emit evidence or lack of evidence of transcendence. The second is doctrinally conceptual, wherein Christian systematic theology, as well as the philosophical or conceptual components to traditions such as Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Chinese traditions, are placed in dialogue with the sciences to reconceive God's relation to the world in creation, providence, moral guidance, and related interactions. Science and religion is a field of academic study that invites contributions from a variety of sciences and a variety of religious commitments; it is not itself a religious tradition or homogeneous school of thought.

The science that is relevant here is primarily modern science. Contemporary heirs to ancient religious traditions face upsetting challenges from the revolutionary spirit of the modern world, and science marches as the vanguard of modernity. Its ruthless dedication to empirically derived truth renders science brutal in its disregard for previous beliefs, even sacred beliefs. No appeal to traditional religious authority can stand in the face of repudiation by modern scientific theory or its companion, technology. Awareness of this threat occasionally precipitates defensive religious reactions. Such reactions are frequently temporary, however, and eventually most religious leaders find ways to make peace with the new apprehension of reality heralded by science.

Ancient Asia

Science as the world knows it today was born in western Europe in the sixteenth century and has migrated around the globe challenging traditional societies with a materialistic and humanistic view of reality. However, ancestral examples of quizzing nature to learn its secrets and of ingenious technological innovation can be found in many parts of ancient Asia. For example, the decimal system, including place notation using zero, first appeared in ancient India. As knowledge traveled to central Asia, algebra developed, advancing to second degree equations.

The Chinese were gifted with social organization and, like other ancients, developed sophisticated weapons for war. Other Chinese craft achievements included the compass, gunpowder, ceramics, block printing, and the stirrup. Renaissance Europe imported East Asian porcelain, and even today westerners calls their dishes "china." Yet what the moderns know as the method of scientific discovery and technological innovation seems inimical to the mystical and occult practices of Daoism and Buddhism and to the hierarchical social philosophy of Confucianism. Thus, from the beginning of the twentieth century through the Communist revolution to century's end, many Chinese intellectuals embraced a Chinese form of scientism. Science, it was thought, could do what the previous philosophical and religious traditions had failed to do, namely, restore China to its proper place on the world stage and provide liberation from poverty and backwardness.

Buddhism retains its ancient roots and is showing buds that could flower in contemporary discussions with science. Buddhism is open to three types of relationship with science. First, a supportive relationship is possible where existing science and technology can be employed to support Buddhist projects, such as employment of engineering to construct shrines and statues. Second, a more integral relationship can be found in the five fields of monastic knowledge: linguistics, logic, speculative philosophy, medicine, and creative arts. One of the central philosophical issues has been causality, already raised in Buddhism's four noble truths, where unsatisfied craving is the cause of suffering. This opens Buddhism to integration with physical causality as science investigates it. Third, a consequential relationship obtains when Buddhists, who believe in reincarnation, find themselves fascinated with such sciences as embryology. If an extensive dialogue with science develops among Buddhists, it can be expected to look different from the dialogue between science and Western theists (Richard Payne, "Buddhism and the Sciences," in Peters and Bennett, 2002, pp. 153172).

Ancient Greece and Ancient Israel

It is widely assumed that for science as a method of discovery to arise three things must be affirmed. First, the natural world must be structured rationally if not mathematically. Second, the rational structure of the human mind must correspond to the structure of nature itself. That is, human beings need the capacity to understand the world of nature. Third, the natural world must be contingent, not eternal or divine or capricious. It must be the case that the world as it is known is not necessaryit could have been different than it is. Hence, the pursuit of knowledge of this world must follow a specific course of research based upon observation of specific phenomena in order to discern specific causal connections.

The correspondence between the rational structure of the world and that of the human mind was discerned in ancient Greece. From the Greek logos we derive our concepts of logic and terms ending in logy, meaning "study of." Euclid gave us geometry. Pythagoras saw the physical world organized according to number. Hipparchos discovered the precession of equinoxes. Archimedes analyzed the lever. Aristarchos of Samos proposed a heliocentric picture of the universe, while Ptolemy's universe, with the earth at the center, won the day temporarily and dominated Western thought until Nicolaus Copernicus in the sixteenth century. Aristotle set the stage for biology, physics, and metaphysics, all celebrating human rational capacity.

What ancient Israel contributed was reflection on its experience with contingency. The world created by its covenanting God could have been different, but this world exists because the God of Israel freely decided to make it this way. Contingency could be combined with Greek reason. God has "arranged all things by measure and number and weight" (Wis. 11:20). The God of eternity and power can be "understood and seen through the things he has made," says Saint Paul (Rom. 1:20). Many scholars believe that the fertilization of reason by contingency provided the embryonic beginning of what would eventually gestate into modern Western science.

Stanley L. Jaki theorizes that the role of the incarnation in Christian theology was decisive. Because the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is a one-time-only event, the created world in general is rendered nondivine. As a result, understanding the world requires direct physical examination rather than indirect idealist speculation. "A created universe had to be rational and consistent, but also contingent, that is, only one of an infinite number of possibilities available to an infinite creator who cannot but be infinitely powerful and rational" (Jaki, 1987, vol. 13, p. 129). This leads to a posteriori rather than a priori reasoning and, hence, the experimental method of research.

Islam and Medieval Europe

Islam's history is long, covering a broad sweep of civilizational development; therefore, one should expect considerable diversity of approaches to the relationship of science to faith. The root question throughout Islamic history is the relationship between science internal to Islamthat is, within the purview of the Qur˒ān or ˓ulūm al- ˓Arab (science of the Arabs)and science that is externalthat is, deriving from either the natural human capacity to reason or from pre-Muslim traditions. The early Abbasid rulers in the late eight and early ninth centuries vigorously promoted the rational and pre-Islamic sciences. They funded the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-ikmah) to retrieve ancient wisdom and enhance it through translations into Arabic of works in Greek, Syriac, Pahlavi, and Sanskrit. Included in these translation projects were the works of Aristotle and, of course, Ptolemy's Almagest. In addition to reading Ptolemy, Muslim scientists engaged in solar and stellar observations and created astronomical tables. Abū Ya˒qūb al-Kindi (800870) articulated the philosophy of the era by affirming an appreciation of the truth wherever it comes from, even if it comes from races distant and nations different from the Arabs.

Without a unifying orthodoxy, a variety of Islamic approaches developed to deal with ˓ilm, or systematized knowledge, that included not only the natural sciences but also philology, lexicography, philosophy, jurisprudence, and theology. The study of nature was pursued on an intellectual soccer field with religious law (sharī ˓ah ) at one end and philosophical theology (kalām ) at the other. Abū āmid al-Ghazālī (10581111) distinguished sharī ˓ah (sciences derived from divine law and coming from the Qur˒ān and the prophets) from the ghayr sharī ˓ah (sciences not having to do with divine law, such as arithmetic, which comes from reason, and medicine, which is produced by experiment). Some proponents of religious law insisted that it should govern all spheres of life, including personal and public conduct; they also argued that religious law should set the parameters for what science can and cannot do.

A significant intellectual development at the kalām, or philosophical, end of the field is indirectly relevant for any future dialogue Muslims might take up with modern science. Kalām theologians concerned themselves with understanding God (Allāh) as the creator and sustainer of all that is in the material world. The school of Abū al-asan al-Ash˓arī (874935) contended that God is the only and direct cause of all events in the material world, even human actions. Causal agency is restricted to God. This doctrine, sometimes called occasionalism, has the consequence of eliminating reliance upon efficient causation in the physical realm. Without assuming the world to be consistent due to unbreakable causal efficacy or to reliable consistency in divine action, science has nothing to investigate.

Turning to medieval Europe, long before the advent of Islam, Christian theologians had been wrestling with Greek knowledge in the form of natural philosophy. Although Tertullian (160220) had exclaimed rhetorically, "what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?!" indicating the independence of theology from pagan thought, Augustine of Hippo (354430), in contrast, absorbed as much Greek learning as possible, declaring science and philosophy to be a welcome handmaid to theology. This affirming attitude prevailed through the Middle Ages with the development of the Two Books doctrine, according to which the book of nature reveals God as creator and the book of Scripture reveals God as redeemer. Medieval Christians read both books, for the scientists and the theologians were typically the same people.

One of the central theological tasks of the early Middle Ages was to reconcile Platonic philosophy, especially the Timaeus, with biblical pictures of creation. This task changed sharply in the eleventh and twelfth centuries when, with Islam as the conduit, new translations appeared of the entire corpus of ancient Greek learning. Now, instead of Plato, it became Aristotle who interviewed for the job of theology's handmaid. Islamic scholars such as Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna, 9801037) and Ibn Rushd (Averroës, 11261198) provided texts and commentaries for Latin Christians to examine, reflect on, question, and integrate.

Both Muslim and Christian theologians found problematic Aristotle's assumption that the elements of creation were eternal, thereby challenging biblical notions of creation from nothing (creatio ex nihilo ), as well as divinely promised eschatological transformation. Aristotle's notion of the soul as the form of the body, which denied the soul's independent existence, seemed incompatible with previously Platonized Muslim and Christian anthropologies. Methodologically, Aristotle's rationalized universe seemed to threaten reliance upon specially revealed knowledge. The exhaustive scope of the causal nexus and sense of determinism seemed to preclude miracles (Peters, Iqbal, and Haq, 2002, pp. 1827; Ferngren, 2000, p. 263). Initial attempts to exclude Aristotelian philosophy eventually gave way to embrace and intellectual celebration, however, culminating in the synthetic achievements of Albert the Great (11931280) and Thomas Aquinas (12251274).

Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica Christianized Aristotle and Aristotlianized Christianity. On the one hand, this synthesis also scientized Christianity, insofar as Aristotle's view of nature amounted to the reigning science of the day. The historian David C. Lindberg reports that "the late-medieval scholar rarely experienced the coercive power of the church and would have regarded himself as free (particularly in the natural sciences) to follow reason and observation wherever they led. There was no warfare between science and the church" (Ferngren, 2000, p. 266). On the other hand, permanent reliance upon this synthesis rendered Christian thought vulnerable to the challenges of what would later become modern science, which replaced much of the Aristotelian cosmology with empirically derived knowledge.

The Copernican Revolution and the Protestant Reformation

The Copernican revolution and the Protestant Reformation were siblings, sharing the same century and exhibiting together a momentary youthful rebellion within the Western Latin church. Nicolaus Copernicus (14731543), who was a cathedral canon in Cracow, Poland, surmised that the worldview he had inherited, namely the Ptolemaic worldview of ancient Greece, needed revision. The Ptolemaic or geocentric understanding held that the earth is immovable and that the sun and the other planets orbit the earth. Copernicus, relying upon his own observations (without a telescope), plus his own mathematical calculations, wrote De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the revolutions of the heavenly bodies) in 1543, advancing the hypothesis that the sun, not the earth, stood at the center of the universe. The Copernican heliocentric view held that the earthlike the other planetsrevolves around the sun. The evidence Copernicus raised was not decisive, yet it did provide a hypothetical scheme for calculating what could be observed in the night sky with the unaided human eye.

Copernicus was a devout Roman Catholic; his sixteenth-century counterpart was Protestantism. For the most part, Martin Luther (14831546) and John Calvin (15091564) paid little attention to the incipient revolution begun in natural science. Luther heard tales of Copernicus's new thought but apparently had no serious engagement. One offhand remark appears in 1539four years prior to the astronomer's major bookin Table Talk, where Luther ponders a rumor that Copernicus believes the earth moves rather than the sun and the sky. Luther is said to have quipped that this would be comparable to somebody riding on a cart or in a ship and imagining that he was standing still while the earth and the trees were moving. Luther added that it was the sun that was commanded to stand still, not the earth, in the biblical description of Joshua fighting at Jericho (Jos. 10:1214). Such remarks did not come from Luther's own authored writings but from students who took notes. Spoken in jest, such items ought not be interpreted as indicating any general opposition to science.

While Luther was attending to the interpretation of scripture and reforming the church, his own Wittenberg Reformation colleagues, a mathematician named Georg Joachim Rheticus and a pastor named Andreas Osiander, in 1543 executed an agreement with Copernicus to publish the first edition his major work, De revolutionibus. Twelve hundred copies appeared from a Nuremburg printing press. The anonymous preface, written by Osiander, includes the controversial line: "It is not necessary that these hypotheses should be true, or even probable; but it is enough if they provide a calculus which fits the observations." Significant here are two items: first, the acceptance of hypothesis as a component to developing new ideas; and, second, that this work has scientific value even if not true. What may have motivated such a prefatory statement in anonymous form was most likely a desire to make it easier for Roman Catholics to adopt Copernicus's ideas by softening the conceptual threat and by deleting any references to Lutheranism. Copernicus saw his book and the preface only on his deathbed in 1543 (Owen Gingerich, "The Copernican Revolution," in Ferngren, 2000, pp. 334339).

Both Luther and Calvin distinguished between astrology and astronomy, and both rejected astrology as idolatry while celebrating astronomy as science. Philip Melanchthon (14971560) wrote on astrology, and this annoyed Luther, who trusted the more scientific and less superstitious approach to the stars. For Calvin as well as Luther, sciences such as astronomy and medicine provide valuable knowledge of this world, while human minds are asked to rise beyond this world to appreciate the glory of the God who made it. The historical bridge figure between Copernicus and Galileo, the Lutheran astronomer Johannes Kepler (15711630), advanced heliocentrism and suggested that scripture is written for common-sense understanding and should not be taken as a textbook in science.

It is frequently assumed in contemporary discussion that the so-called Copernican revolution consisted of decentering the earth and changing the place of human beings in the hierarchy of the cosmos. Historical evidence does not confirm such an interpretation. That Copernicus's theory led to a significant change in scientific cosmology is indisputable. That his heliocentric view upset a prevailing religious view that allegedly relied upon earth centrism and human centrism is disputable. For the most part, the new cosmology elicited relatively little theological attention and certainly no discernable religious excitement. Some Jesuit scholars in England were working in the 1570s to relocate heaven among the stars in light of Copernicus's new cosmology, but this only testifies to the absence of any initial dismay or disorientation on the part of the church's theologians.

Galileo's Condemnation

A modern myth perpetuated by those wishing to see warfare between science and religion is to list martyrs for scientific truth who were allegedly persecuted by an atavistic and dogma-bound ecclesiastical authority (White, 1896, chap. 3). Although this interpretation is exaggerated, a kernel of truth in the condemnations of Galileo Galilei (15641642) fuels the fire of scientific-martyr remembrance.

The central issues had to do with interpretations of biblical passages such as Psalms 104:4 and Joshua 10:1214, which picture a world with a stable earth and movements by the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies. Both the authority of the Bible and the authority of the papacy to interpret the Bible seemed to be at stake, not loyalty to Ptolemy per se.

Galileo defended Copernicus against Ptolemy in his Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mundo (Dialogue concerning the two chief world systems) of 1632, buttressing the earlier argument for heliocentrism with telescopic observations as evidence. During nearly two decades of controversy, Galileo argued that biblical allusions to a stationary earth and a moveable sun should be seen as the cosmological frame rather than the theological focus of the Bible's message. Such a principle of interpretation would permit changes in scientific worldview while holding to biblical authority in matters of faith. During the controversies, Cardinal Cesare Baronius (15381607) bequeathed to history the famous aphorism, "The Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go."

Such a hermeneutic of Scripture failed to win the day, however, and papal condemnations in both 1616 and 1632 defended a stable earth and a moveable sun on the grounds that the Bible presumes this; that is, heliocentrism would amount to a violation of scriptural authority. Copernicus's De revolutionibus was placed on the Index Expurgatorius in 1616, and Galileo's Dialogo was added in 1632, meaning that Catholics were forbidden to read these works. Curiously, Jesuits in China, who had already begun to teach the Copernican cosmology, had to reverse themselves and begin teaching earth centrism, a pedagogical change that created confusion among their Asian students.

The Newtonian and Einsteinian Worlds

As the story of astronomy winds through Western intellectual history, the advance in Copernicanism was accompanied by a retreat of Aristotelianism, especially a retreat from the sacredness or divinity ascribed to natural objects or forces. Once divine capriciousness was removed from the nexus of natural causation, scientists were ready to plot with confidence the mechanics of the world machine. Thus, the mechanistic modelthe model of the natural world as a clockcould establish itself. This is what Newton provided and what became the Western worldview until Einstein.

Sir Isaac Newton (16421727) authored influential scientific works such as Philosophia naturalis principia mathematica (1687), Opticks (1704), and Arithmetica universalis (1707). He is remembered and applauded for unifying the heavens with the earth in a single mathematical concept of nature united by the laws of mechanics and the law of gravity. By invoking the idea that all bodies everywhere operate with mutual gravitation, he ascertained that the forces that keep the planets in their orbits must be reciprocally the squares of their distances from their centers. Newton applied what was known about terrestrial mechanics to the heavenly bodies and thereby erased any previously presumed gulf of difference. Arrival at such knowledge is through experiment with mathematical calculations. Scientific knowledge became mundane and objective, liberated from subjective projections of transcendental value or moral bias.

Following fellow English scientist Robert Boyle (16271691) in likening the natural world to a well-designed clock, Newton emphasized that the world needs God as the clockmakerthat is, it needs a divine first cause. In addition, the world clock also needs God for frequent adjustment and repair. Newton was a theist with Unitarian rather than Trinitarian leanings, believing in an active God whose concursus with nature performed necessary tasks, such as determining the actual paths of planets in their orbits. Historians of science view this as a mistake on Newton's part, as later research would provide a scientific explanation for actions he had thought to be divine. When asked by Napoleon (in an alleged conversation) about God's intervention into planetary orbits, Pierre-Simon, the Marquis de Laplace, answered, "I have no need of that hypothesis." What subsequent scientific history would carry beyond Newton is the image of nature as a universal and mathematizable mechanism, dependable and discernible, with no need for divine intervention (Dillenberger, 1960, p. 125).

Sparked by the publication of five extraordinary scientific papers by Albert Einstein (18791955) in 1905, people in the twentieth century began to think of the natural world as much more mysterious than the Newtonian clock model might allow. Einstein's special theory of relativity made both duration and length relative to motion, undercutting the assumption that the universe is framed by a stable or absolute container of time and space. Incorporating gravity into this theory in 1915 to produce his general theory of relativity, Einstein showed that space and matter act on one another so as to deform space itself: space tells matter how to move, and matter tells space how to curve. In Einstein's non-Euclidian world of diverging and intersecting parallel lines, the shortest path from one point to another in the presence of a gravitational field can become a curved line. Thus gravity is said to "bend" light.

Perhaps the most pervasive sense of mystery was introduced with what became known as quantum theory in physics, according to which nature's smallest particles, such as electrons, do not behave mechanistically. Rather, their behavior seems indeterminate and unpredictable; only over the long run, or statistically, do lawlike or mechanical patterns emerge. Still further, the act of observing subatomic behavior influences such behavior, thereby compromising the Newtonian sense of objectivity or nonparticipatory observation in scientific method. Subjectivity seems constitutive of the reality being observed (Ravindra, 1987, 5.72).

One of the implications of Einstein's early work was the concept of an expanding universe, a concept that by the time of its definitive confirmation in 1965 became broadly accepted as Big Bang cosmologythe notion that all of physical reality could be traced back to a singularity 13.7 billion years ago, when time and space begansent intellectual shock waves through the religious imagination. With the Big Bang, the physical world appears to have an edge, something beyond time and space; with this edge, questions of transcendence arose within physical cosmology. Even Saint Augustine's forbidden questionwhat was God doing before there was time?could be re-asked, now by physicists. The mysteries of the quantum world along with the Big Bang led physicists such as Paul Davies to suggest that now "science offers a surer path to God than religion" (Davies, 1983, p. ix).

The Field of Science and Religion

What is known today as the field of science and religion gained its present definition during the 1960s. The American Scientific Affiliation, founded in 1941 by evangelical scientists, set a precedent. Yet the 1960s marked a significant transition in intellectual culture.

Three factors in the intellectual environment of evolutionary adaptation led to the emergence of the new field. First, from within the new science, as reported above, questions of transcendence arose. The confirmation of Big Bang cosmology in 1965 was perhaps the most decisive. Continuing debates over quantum indeterminacy and complementarity began to place physics on the theological agenda. Although the double-helix structure of DNA had been discovered earlier (in 1953) the development of molecular biology in the 1960s, accompanied by startling new prospects in genetic engineering, raised questions of human nature for philosophers and questions of ethics for religious leaders. Science seemed to be asking for religious involvement and interpretation.

The second intellectual factor was the turn taken in the field of philosophy of science. The strict empiricism, positivism, and reductionism that had held sway for the first two thirds of the twentieth century was challenged by a new awareness of historical relativity and the sociology of knowledge. Philosophers such as Michael Polanyi, Norwood Hanson, Thomas Kuhn, Stephen Toulmin, and Imre Lakatos placed scientific knowing into historically conditioned communities of knowing. This challenged alleged scientific objectivity. The result was a new picture of scientific knowledge that began to look like humanistic knowledge, and even like theological knowledge.

The third intellectual factor was a ripening for dialogue within theology. The reign was coming to an end for the giants of neo-orthodox and existentialist Protestant theologyKarl Barth, Emil Brunner, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, H. Richard Niebuhr, Anders Nygren, Gustaf Aulen, and others. This school of thought had immunized theology from science by embracing the Two Language model, according to which science and faith each speak a different language. Science speaks of facts, whereas religion speaks of meaning. Because the languages are untranslatable, so it was assumed, science could have no relevance for matters of faith. Science and faith are allegedly separate realms. One disciple of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, Langdon Gilkey, flooded theological discussion in the 1960s with published works calling attention to the cultural impact of science, making science a theological issue because it is a cultural issue. Science was knocking at the theological door, even if it was not being invited in.

In Roman Catholic theology, the Second Vatican Council (19621965) had taken aggiornamento as its themethat is, opening the windows of the church so the winds of the modern world could blow through. The mood of the mid-1960s was one of exuberant openness, and this openness soon included openness to science.

It was in this intellectual environment that a new vision for the interaction of science and religion evolved. For convenience, this emergence is marked with the 1966 publication of Issues in Science and Religion by Ian G. Barbour (b. 1923). Barbour grew up in China with a scientist father and theologian mother, and he was present the day in 1929 when Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin arrived with the skull of what would later be called Beijing Man. Educated in both physics and theology, Barbour's first book defined the nascent field for four decades to follow. Barbour's publications, including his Gifford Lectures (19891991), have continued to shape it.

Barbour inspired a youthful colleague, Robert John Russell (b. 1946), a United Church of Christ pastor with a Ph.D. in physics, to establish in 1981 the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS) at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. CTNS has sought the creative mutual interaction between science and faith. The center also publishes the journal Theology and Science. Pope John Paul II exonerated Galileo early in his pontificate, and from 1987 to 2003 the pope sponsored a sustained research program dealing with "scientific perspectives on divine action," conducted cooperatively by the Vatican Observatory and CTNS.

Beginning in the 1970s, centers and societies for the study of science and religion sprang up around the world. At Oxford University the biologist-theologian Arthur Peacocke organized the Society of Ordained Scientists and, followed by historian John Hedley Brooke, nurtured the Ian Ramsey Centre for research in this field. German-language discussions were prompted by the Karl Heim Gesellschaft, founded in 1974, which publishes an annual summary of research. At the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, the Zygon Center for Science and Religion, founded by Ralph Wendel Burhoe and supported by the Center for Advanced Study in Religion and Science and the Institute for Religion in an Age of Science, was directed (as of 2004) by Antje Jackelen, with Philip Hefner serving as editor of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. The European Society for the Study of Science and Theology meets biennially on the European continent. The Association of Science, Society, and Religion in India, the Australian Theological Forum, and the Center for Islam and Science in Islamabad and Edmonton, are examples of centers that draw scientists and religious leaders into academic conversation and generate publications that expand the field.

In the 1990s the John Templeton Foundation of Radnor, Pennsylvania, whose leaders believe interaction with science will facilitate "progress in religion" began funding numerous individuals and organizations. The Templeton Foundation was financial midwife at the 2002 birth of the multi-religious International Society for Science and Religion centered at Cambridge University, with the physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne as its first president. The annual Templeton Prize for contributions to religion are frequently given to scholars in the field of science and religion; recipients have included the physicists Freeman Dyson, Paul Davies, and John Polkinghorne; the philosophers Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Homes Rolston III; as well as Barbour and Peacocke.

Warfare and Nonwarfare Models of Interaction between Science and Religion

The idea that natural science and Christian faith are locked into perpetual warfare derives from the late-nineteenth-century controversy over Darwinian evolution (Draper, 1874; White, 1896). This reinterpretation of previous history served the agenda of some scientists in England and North America who at that time were seeking to dislodge disciplines such as theology from university accreditation. However, the "warfare thesis," sometimes called the "conflict" model, is but one way to think of the relation of science to religion. The agenda of the field of science and religion is to find a nonwarfare or cooperative pattern of interaction (Peters, 1998, pp. 1322; Barbour, 1990, pp. 330). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, eight patterns of interaction are discernable, four fitting the warfare interpretation and four that embrace peaceful cooperation, if not integration.


In the contemporary West, the term scientism refers to naturalism, reductionism, or secular humanismthat is, the belief that there exists only one reality, namely, the material world, and that science provides the only trustworthy method for gaining knowledge about this material reality. Science has an exhaustive monopoly on knowledge, rendering all claims by religion about knowledge of supernatural realities as fictions or pseudo-knowledge. All explanations are reducible to secularized material explanations. Religion is defeated in the war by ignoring it.

Here, scientism does not mean exactly what it did a century ago in China. Science then appeared as a potential savior, an antireligious and anti-traditional force of revolution that would liberate modern people from their oppressive past. In contemporary intellectual debate, scientism still connotes liberation from oppressive religion, but it is restricted to methodology rather than politics and economics.

Scientific imperialism

This is scientism that does not ignore religion; rather, it uses materialist reductionism to explain religious experience and reassess theological claims. Scientific imperialists grant value to religion and religious values, and may even grant the existence of God, yet they claim that science provides a method for discerning religious truth that is superior to that of traditional theology. In contemporary discussion this approach is taken by some physical cosmologists when explaining creation or eschatology, and by sociobiologists or evolutionary psychologists proffering a biological explanation for cultural evolution including religion and ethics. Here religion is defeated in the war by conquering and colonizing it.

Ecclesiastical authoritarianism

According to this model, which defends the reverse of the previous two models, modern science clashes with religious dogma that is authoritatively supported by ecclesiastical fiat, the Bible, or in Islam by the Qur˒ān. The 1864 Syllabus of Errors, promulgated by the Vatican, asserts that scientific claims must be subject to the authority of divine revelation as the church has discerned it. The Second Vatican Council affirmed academic freedom for natural science and other secular disciplines, removing the Vatican from warfare and placing it in the Two Language model.

The battle over Darwinian evolution

A war is currently being fought between the Darwinian theory of evolution, especially the concept of natural selection, on the one side, and scientific creationists, Intelligent Design advocates, and some factions within Turkish Islam, on the other side. The scientific creationists are heirs to fundamentalist Protestantism; they argue that a fair assessment of the science will show the inadequacy of natural selection to explain what appears to be evolution from one species to another, and this failure to provide a satisfactory scientific explanation indirectly supports the biblical description of creation. Intelligent Design advocates similarly criticize the explanatory adequacy of natural selection, arguing that evolution from one species to another constitutes a leap in complexity, and that advances in complexity require intervention by a transcendent intelligent designerin other words, materialist explanations are inadequate. Some Muslims in Turkey are showing interest in these two Christian groups because of their desire to combat the secular orientation toward education in a traditionally religious society. That a war is being fought is clear. However, because the actual points at issue deal specifically with the explanatory adequacy of natural selection, it would be misleading to simply dub this a war between science and religion. The evolution battlefield is primarily North America, Australia, and Turkey, with little or no notice in Europe or in other discussions of science and religion.

The Two Languages

The notion that science speaks one language, the language of facts, and religion speaks a different language, the language of values, is the dominant nonwarfare model. The Two Language modelsometimes referred to as the "independence" modelis the prevailing view of both scientists and theologians in Western intellectual life. Science attends to objective knowledge about objects in the penultimate realm, whereas religion attends to subjective knowledge about transcendent dimensions of ultimate concern. Modern persons need both, according to Einstein, who claimed the following: "Science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind" (Nature 146 [1940]: 605607). This Two Language model should not be confused with the classic model of the Two Books, according to which the book of Scripture and the book of nature each provide an avenue of revelation for God. The difference is that the Two Books model sees science as revealing truth about God, whereas the Two Language model sees science as revealing truth solely about the created world.

Hypothetical consonance

Going beyond the Two Language view by assuming an overlap between the subject matter of science and the subject matter of faith, consonance directs inquiry toward areas of correspondence between what can be said scientifically about the natural world and what can be said theologically about God's creation. Even though consonance seems to arise in some areas, such as the apparent correspondence of Big Bang cosmology with the doctrine of creation out of nothing, consonance has not been fully confirmed in all relevant shared areas. Hence, the adjective hypothetical applies to theology as well as science. The central hypothesis of this model is that there can be only one shared domain of truth regarding the created world, and science at its best and faith at its best both humble themselves before truth; one can therefore trust that consonance will eventually emerge. Hypothetical consonance provides the warrant for what some call "dialogue between science and theology," and others the "creative mutual interaction of science and theology."

Ethical overlap

Building on the Two Language model, wherein mutual respect between scientists and religious leaders is affirmed, some exhibit a strong desire for cooperation on public-policy issues deriving from science and technology. The ecological crisis and human values questions deriving from advances in biotechnology both enlist creative cooperation.

New Age spirituality

Having left the conflict or warfare model behind, synthetic spiritualities, such as those found in the New Age movement, seek to construct a worldview that integrates and harmonizes science with religion. Evolution becomes an overarching concept that incorporates the sense of deep time and imbues the development of a global spiritual consciousness as an evolutionary advance for the cosmos. Many here are prompted by the visionary theology of Teilhard de Chardin (18811955), although this Jesuit forerunner could not himself be categorized as New Age. Others in the New Age movement seek to integrate the experience of mystery with advanced discoveries in physics, such as indeterminacy and quantum theory.

Whereas these final four models take us beyond conflict or warfare, the Two Language view presumes independence, while hypothetical consonance, ethical overlap, and New Age spirituality seek a fuller integration. When it comes to research, publication, and conferencing within the field of science and religion, most frequently the assumptions of hypothetical consonance prevail with dialogue pressing toward creative mutual interaction.

The Problem of "Playing God"

The two models of hypothetical consonance and ethical overlap provide the framework for assessing one particular pattern of interaction of science with the larger culture, namely, public-policy controversies that invoke abhorrence to "playing God." The phrase "playing God" refers to the power that science confers upon the human race to understand and control the natural world.

When the phrase "playing God" is used, it may connote one of three overlapping meanings. The first meaning is associated with basic scientific research, wherein one may "learn God's awesome secrets." Some research elicits a sense of awe and wonder over the complexity and majesty of the natural world that the human mind is apprehending. Science is like a light shining down into the hitherto dark and secretive caverns of natural mystery, revealing what previously was hidden. It is the revelatory power of science that leads us to think we are gaining godlike powers. Few would ask us to cease our investigation, because "learning for learning's sake" remains the morality of scientific knowledge.

The second meaning of "playing God" belongs to the field of medicine, where doctors seem to have gained power over life and death. In a medical emergency, the patient feels helpless, totally dependent upon the scientific training and personal skill of the physician attending. The surgeon, and the scientific training he or she has been exposed to in medical school, stands between the patient and death. Similarly, large-scale research programs dedicated to finding a cure for cancer or AIDS provide the larger society with hope in the face of helplessness. Here, "playing God" takes on a redemptive or salvific connotation. The genre of jokes about doctors who think of themselves as gods reflects the wider anxiety people have about their helplessness, as well as their dependence upon doctors and their skills.

This medical meaning of "playing God" makes two assumptions. First, that decisions regarding life and death belong to God's prerogative. The second follows from the first: a human being with the power of life and death is thought of in a godlike role. This elicits additional anxietynamely, worry that the person in the godlike role will succumb to the temptation of pride, of hubris. The concept of hubris articulates the more inchoate fear that we will presume too much, overreach ourselves, violate some divinely appointed limit, and reap destruction. Anxiety over hubris marks the overlapping transition from the second to the third use of the phrase "playing God."

The third use of "playing God" connotes the human ability to alter life and influence human evolution. Here, science and technology team up so that understanding leads to control. Genetic engineering, wherein we alter the DNA and perhaps alter our own essence, is the primary area of science that provokes fears of playing God. Yet such fears also arise in nuclear physics and ecology. The scientific community becomes a microcosm of the entire human community, expressing excessive pride over human powers at the expense of God. Humans substitute their own judgment and powers to determine what nature will be, placing themselves where only God belongs.

The God of "playing God" is not necessarily the God of the Bible. Rather, it is divinized nature. In Western culture, nature has absorbed the qualities of sacredness, and science and technology risk profaning the sacred.

Today's fear of "playing God" is reminiscent of the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus. When the world was being created, according to the myth, the sky god Zeus was in a cranky mood. The Olympian decided to withhold fire from earth's inhabitants, leaving the nascent human race to relentless cold and darkness. The Titan Prometheus, whose name means "to think ahead," could foresee the value of fire for warming homes and providing lamplight for reading late at night. He could anticipate how fire could separate humanity from the beasts, making it possible to forge tools. So Prometheus craftily snuck up into the heavens where the gods dwell and where the sun is kept. He lit his torch from the fires of the sun, and then he carried this heavenly gift back to earth.

On Mount Olympus the gods were outraged that the stronghold of the immortals had been penetrated and robbed. Zeus was particularly angry over Prometheus's impertinence, so he exacted merciless punishment on the rebel. Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock where an eagle could feast all day long on the Titan's liver. The head of the pantheon cursed the future-oriented Prometheus: "Forever shall the intolerable present grind you down." The moral of the story, which is remembered to the present day, is this: human pride or hubris that leads us to overestimate ourselves and enter the realm of the sacred will precipitate vengeful destruction. The Bible provides a variant: "Pride goes before destruction" (Prv. 16:18).

For modern people who think scientifically, no longer does Zeus play the role of the sacred. Nature does. It is nature who will strike back in the Frankenstein legend or its more contemporary geneticized version, Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park (1990) and the subsequent movies. The theme has become a common one: the mad scientist exploits a new discovery, crosses the line between life and death, and then nature strikes back with chaos and destruction.

Some religious leaders have spoken out in theological language to plead for caution in the face of human pride. A 1980 taskforce report, Human Life and the New Genetics, includes a warning by the U.S. National Council of Churches: "Human beings have an ability to do Godlike things: to exercise creativity, to direct and redirect processes of nature. But the warnings also imply that these powers may be used rashly, that it may be better for people to remember that they are creatures and not gods." A United Methodist Church Genetic Science Task Force report to the 1992 General Conference stated similarly: "The image of God, in which humanity is created, confers both power and responsibility to use power as God does: neither by coercion nor tyranny, but by love. Failure to accept limits by rejecting or ignoring accountability to God and interdependency with the whole of creation is the essence of sin." In sum, humans can sin through science by failing to recognize their limits and, thereby, violate the sacred.

Genetics is the field of research that elicits the most anxiety regarding the threat that scientists will play God. This is because DNA has garnered cultural reverence. The human genome has become tacitly identified with the essence of what is human. A person's individuality, identity, and dignity have become connected to his or her DNA. Therefore, if people have the hubris to intervene in the human genome, they risk violating something sacred. This tacit belief is called by some the "gene myth," by others "the strong genetic principle" or "genetic essentialism." This myth is an interpretive framework that includes both the assumed sacrality of the human genome plus the fear of Promethean pride.

Systematic theologians find themselves questioning the gene myth, doubting the equation of DNA with human essence or human personhood. A person is more than his or her genetic code. The National Council of Churches of Singapore put it this way in A Christian Response to the Life Sciences (2002): "It is a fallacy of genetic determinism to equate the genetic makeup of a person with the person" (p. 81). Such a theological anthropology combats the gene myth and opens the door for ethical approval of cautious genetic engineering.

Cautious employment of genetic technology to alter human DNA leads to considerations regarding the distinction between therapy and enhancement. At first glance, therapy seems ethically justifiable, whereas enhancement seems Promethean and dangerous. The term gene therapy refers to directed genetic change of human somatic cells to treat a genetic disease or defect in a living person. With four to six thousand human diseases traceable to genetic predispositionsincluding cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and many cancersthe prospects of gene-based therapies are raising hopes for dramatic new medical advances. Few if anyone find ethical grounds to prohibit somatic cell therapy via gene manipulation.

The term human genetic enhancement refers to the use of genetic knowledge and technology to bring about improvements in the capacities of living persons, in embryos, or in future generations. Enhancement might be accomplished in one of two ways: either through genetic selection during screening or through directed genetic change. Genetic selection may take place at the gamete stage, or more commonly as embryo selection during preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) following in vitro fertilization (IVF). Genetic changes could be introduced into early embryos, thereby influencing a living individual, or by altering the germ line, influencing future generations.

Some forms of enhancement are becoming possible. For example, introduction of the gene for IGF-1 into muscle cells results in increased muscle strength and health. Such a procedure would be valuable as a therapy, to be sure, yet it lends itself to availability for enhancement as well. For those who daydream of so-called designer babies, the list of traits to be enhanced would likely include increased height or intelligence, as well as preferred eye or hair color. Concerns raised by both secular and religious ethicists focus on economic justicethat is, wealthy families are more likely to take advantage of genetic enhancement services, leading to a gap between the "genrich" and the "genpoor."

The most ethical heat to date has been generated over the possibility of germ line intervention, and this applies to both therapy and enhancement. The term germ line intervention refers to gene selection or gene change in the gametes, which in turn would influence the genomes of future generations. Because the mutant form of the gene that predisposes for cystic fibrosis has been located on chromosome four, a plan to select out this gene and spare future generations of the suffering caused by this debilitating disease is easily imaginable. This would constitute germ line alteration for therapeutic motives. Similarly, in principle, one could select or even engineer genetic predispositions to favorable traits in the same manor. This would constitute germ line alteration for enhancement motives.

Both of these are risky for the same reason. Too much remains unknown about gene function. It is more than likely that gene expression works in delicate systems, so that it is rare that a single gene is responsible for a single phenotypical expression. If one removes or engineers one or two genes, it might unknowingly upset an entire system of gene interaction that could lead to unfortunate consequences. The prohibition against "playing God" serves here as a warning to avoid rushing in prematurely with what appears to be an improvement but could turn out to be a disaster. Ethicists frequently appeal to the precautionary principlethat is, to refrain from germ line modification until the scope of our knowledge is adequate to cover all possible contingencies.

It is important to note that the precautionary principle does not rely upon the tacit belief in DNA as sacred. Rather, it relies upon a principle of prudence that respects the complexity of the natural world and the finite limits of human knowledge.

The limits of scientific knowledge include two extrascientific yet relevant areas, namely, values and transcendence. The problem of playing God deals primarily with values, ethics, and public policy. Questions of transcendence also appear on the agenda of the growing field of science and religion.

Research Questions in the Dialogue between Science and Religion

Because science raises some questions that only religion can answer, dialogue largely consists of shared exploration of issues emerging from science and treated by both disciplines. Questions regarding the grounding of values, and especially questions of transcendence, set the dialogue agenda.


In the field of physics, quantum theory affirms contingency and perhaps even indeterminism at the subatomic level, giving rise to questions regarding rationality in the universe and the possibility of noninterventionist divine action in the physical realm. Newtonian physics led to a mechanistic picture of nature wherein the universe appeared like a clockwork, as a closed nexus of cause and effect. The rational structure of a clock provided the model for the rational structure of nature. If the universe is causally closed, then divine action within the world seems forbidden. Divine action would require God to intervene as an outside cause, perhaps in the form of a miracle, and this would upset the nexus. With the advent of quantum theory, natural events are now viewed as contingent. The world no longer looks like a clockwork but more like a history of natural events. For scientists such as Albert Einstein, beyond physical contingency God provides the universe with its rational structure, making it understandable to the human mind. For theologians of science such as Robert John Russell, quantum theory designates a fundamental realm of physical activity where God can act creatively and providentially in an objective yet noninterventionist way (Russell et al., 2001, pp. 293328). In sum, physics raises philosophical and theological questions that transcend what science alone can address.

Indian Buddhists are finding that their own questions of causality provide a point of contact with both Newtonian and post-Newtonian physics. The classic scholastic system of speculative philosophy and psychology, abhidharma, dealt with multiple theories of causality. Discussions of physics among such Buddhists begin with religious questions and move toward possible integration with science.

Scientific cosmology

This field also raises questions that place physics and theological doctrines of creation and providence into dialogue. Two areas are worth special mention: Big Bang cosmology and the anthropic principle.

The standard Big Bang model of the beginning of our universe posits an original singularity and an apparent original moment for the onset of time, t = 0 (time equals zero). Physical time seems to have its own beginning. Although debates continue regarding just how old the universe actually is, estimates based upon observations by the Hubble Space Telescope cluster around 13.7 billion years. Before the moment of the Big Bang, before time and space existed, what was the nature of reality? No known physical experiment can test for this, nor can any theory regarding contemporary physical reality be extrapolated backward more than 13.7 billion years. Time and space seem to have an edge, and philosophers and theologians rightly ask what lies beyond the edge. Might we have here scientific confirmation for the classic Jewish and Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo ? (Russell et al., 1987, pp. 273296; Peters and Bennett, 2002, pp. 5556).

Since the Big Bang, the universe has been steadily expanding. A key scientific question is this: is the universe open or closed? If it is openthat is, if the amount of mass is insufficient to stop the process, then it will continue to expand until the principle of entropy overtakes it. All the original heat will dissipate, and any remaining matter will fall into a state of equilibriumin short, it will freeze out of existence. However, if the universe is closedthat is, if the amount of mass is above the relevant threshold, then at some point expansion will stop. Gravity will cause its motion to reverse, and all matter will reconverge on a central point, heating up on the way toward its doom in an unfathomably hot fireballin short, it will fry. Whether freeze or fry, the future of the cosmos is finite. Might this be scientific disconfirmation of the biblical promise of an eschatological new creation?

The anthropic principle was formulated within physics, not theology. Because of the appearance of complex life forms on planet earth, physicists have been asking the following: what must have been the initial conditions at the moment of the Big Bang to eventually make life possible, or even inevitable? Such factors as the amount of mass, energy, rate of expansion, and so on could not have been different in fractions such as one to a million, or life would have been impossible. The universe seems to be fine-tuned for the appearance of life. Fine-tuning raises questions of intelligent design. The weak anthropic principle asks: Was the universe designed to make life possible? The strong anthropic principle asks: Was the universe designed to make life inevitable? (Peters and Bennett, 2001, p. 57).

Evolutionary biology

In evolutionary biology, scholars in the field of science and religion curiously avoid the public controversy with creationism and Intelligent Design, at least for the most part. Rather, assuming the validity of Darwinian theory, what drives the dialogue are questions regarding discernable purpose or direction within biological processes. The field of sociobiology has prompted widespread discussion regarding the influence of genetic determinism on human culture and religion. Special attention is given to the possible biological origins of human evil and suffering from evil, with a concomitant study of reciprocal altruism in both the animal and human realms.

Even if the evolution controversy is marginal to scholars in the field of science and religion, the controversy looms large in the public debate. Five positions are discernable, making it much more complicated than the image of a simple war between science and religion might connote. The first position would be that of evolutionary biology strictly as science without any attached ideological commitments. The reigning theory is neo-Darwinian, combining Charles Darwin's original nineteenth-century concept of natural selection with the twentieth-century concept of genetic mutation to explain the development of new species over 3.8 billion years. Defenders of quality science education in the public schools most frequently embrace this "science alone" approach.

The second position combines neo-Darwinism with materialist ideology, including repudiation of any divine influence on the course of evolutionary development. Spokespersons for sociobiology, such as E. O. Wilson or Richard Dawkins, are aggressive and vociferous. Evolution here provides apparent scientific justification for scientism, scientific imperialism, and in some cases atheism.

The third position is scientific creationism. During the fundamentalist era of the 1920s, biblical creationists appealed to the authority of the Bible to combat the rise in influence of Darwinism. Since the 1960s, creationists have based their arguments not on biblical authority but rather on countersciencehence their label, scientific creationists. They argue, for example, that the fossil record will contradict standard appeals to natural selection over long periods of time. Those known as "young earth creationists," such as the leaders of the Institute for Creation Research near San Diego, California, hold that the planet earth is less than ten thousand years old and that all species of plants and animals were originally created by God in their present form. They deny macroevolutionthat is, they deny that one species has evolved from prior species; although they affirm microevolutionthat is, evolution within a species. Key here is that creationists justify their arguments on scientific grounds.

The fourth position is Intelligent Design. Advocates of Intelligent Design sharply attack neo-Darwinian theory for overstating the role of natural selection in species formation. They argue that slow incremental changes due to mutations are insufficient to explain the emergence of new and more complex biological systems. Many of the life forms that have evolved are irreducibly complex, and this counts as evidence that they have been intelligently designed. Intelligent Design scholars such as Michael Behe, Philip Johnson, and William Dembski posit that appeal to a transcendent designer is necessary for the theory of evolution to successfully explain the development of life forms. Here, scientific questions lead to theological answers.

The fifth position is theistic evolution, according to which God has employed evolutionary processes over deep time to bring about the human race and perhaps even carry the natural world to a redemptive future. Theistic evolution first appeared in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, even in the work of conservative Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield, for whom God's concursus with nature brought about the human race, just as God's concursus wrote the Scripture with human minds and hands. Teilhard de Chardin is perhaps best known for his evolutionary cosmology directed by God toward a future "Point Omega." Among contemporary scholars at work in the field of science and religion, the roster of theistic evolutionists includes Arthur Peacocke, Philip Hefner, Robert John Russell, Nancey Murphy, Kenneth Miller, John Haught, Martinez Hewlett, and Howard van Til. This school of thought is not occupied with defending evolution against attacks by advocates of scientific creationism or Intelligent Design; rather, it seeks to work through questions raised by randomness and chance in natural selection in light of divine purposes and ends.


In genetics, especially molecular biology, new discoveries regarding the life of the early embryo, as well as proposed medical technologies employing cloning (somatic-cell nuclear transfer) and embryonic stem cells, have given rise to intense public-policy debates. Behind these public debates are religious anthropologies. Questions arise regarding the rightness or wrongness of using genetic technology to alter inherited human nature; the question "should we play God?" is asked when contemplating the power of the present generation to influence the future of human evolution. Ethical questions also arise over the use of early embryos for medical research. In sum, genetic science gives rise to questions regarding human nature and the grounding of human dignity.

Public-policy controversies over what is permissible in genetic research have appeared superficially to be warfare between science and religion, although a closer look will find both scientists and theologians lining up on both sides of each debate. The gene patenting controversy of 1995, the cloning controversy of 1997, and the stem-cell controversy at the turn of the twenty-first century led to widespread public-policy debates that incorporated multiple religious considerations. Two specific issues are worth mentioning. One involved the question of playing God. Should scientists receive intellectual property rights (patents) on information gained about the human genome, something nature placed within human beings? Should scientists enter the human genome and alter it, thereby altering essential human nature? Would technological intervention into something so essentially human as DNA be such a mark of Promethean hubris or pride that it might backfirethat is, would nature take out revenge upon us Frankenstein style? Would such scientific activity mark a trespassing of something sacred? Should DNA be treated as sacred?

A second and related issue became the moral status of the human embryo. In both the cloning and the stem-cell controversies, the early embryo would be subject to genetic engineering and, in some experimental situations, destroyed. Does the engineering of the embryo constitute playing God? Does the destruction of an engineered embryo constitute abortion?

The most articulate theological voice and the most forceful ethical voice in the public debate has been that of the Vatican. The way the ethical question gets formulated everywhere on the world scene has been influenced by the formulation of Rome. In its "Declaration on the Production and the Scientific and Therapeutic Use of Human Embryonic Stem Cells" (2000), the Vatican states the issue this way: "Is it morally licit to produce and/or use human embryos for the preparation of ES [embryonic stem] cells? The answer is negative." Further, "the ablation of the inner cell mass of the blastocyst, which critically and irremediably damages the human embryo, curtailing its development, is a gravely immoral act and consequently is gravely illicit." The U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops has argued that any intentional destruction of innocent human life at any stage is inherently evil, and that no good consequence can mitigate that evil.

Roman Catholic bioethicists appeal authoritatively to two precedents, Donum Vitae (1987) and Evangelium Vitae (1995). The central tenet is that morally protectable human personhood becomes applied to the zygote, the egg fertilized by the sperm. These two documents contend that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence, must be guaranteed the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his or her totality and unity in body and spirit: the human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; therefore, from that same moment his or her rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life.

The ethics is supported by metaphysics. Morally protectable dignity is derived from the presence of the immortal soul within the mortal body. In a 1996 elocution on evolution, Pope John Paul II affirmed that it is by virtue of the spiritual soul that the whole person possesses such dignity, even in his or her body. Not reducible to biological evolution, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God. This makes John Paul II an adherent to creationism, an ancient view that God creates a new soul for the birth of each new child (not to be confused with scientific creationism described above). What is significant for the controversy is this: the biological sciences cannot on their own discern the presence or absence of an immaterial and immortal soul, only theologically informed philosophy can. Furthermore, belief in the presence of the soul justifies morally protectable human dignity. The ethical implication of this view is that early embryos may not be destroyed for purposes of stem cell research, nor may they be produced through cloning or other artificial means.

Bioethicists do not uniformly agree with the Vatican. Most Jewish ethicists have made their peace with the abortion controversy by dating morally protectable human dignity at birth, relieving them of the pressure to protect the preimplantation embryo in research. Because they argue that God has commissioned the human race to engage in healing, and hence in the practice of medicine, they endorse medical science, including human embryonic stem-cell research.

Some Protestants have drawn upon the distinction between nonmalificence and beneficence. The Vatican proscription depends upon nonmalificence, that is, doing no harm to the embryo. Those countering the Vatican make their appeal to beneficence, that is, the biblical mandate to pursue the goodloving one's neighborcreatively. Our ethical mandate is to improve human health and well-being, and supporting the advance of medical science, including stem-cell research, treats existing and future suffering people with care as well as dignity.


The neurosciences raise questions of biological determinism and reductionism. Speculative hypotheses are being asked about the prospect of explaining complex human behavior, including religious experience, in terms of genetic determinism and neural firings in the human brain. As with evolution and genetics, questions are raised: Is religion a form of adaptive behavior that developed when the human brain was expanding in capacity? Is there a "God spot" or region of brain activity in which the potential for religious experience is physically prepared? If so, is it reducible to biological determinism, or does it mark an opening to transcendence? (Herzfeld, 2002; Peterson, 2003; Russell et al., 1999).This is a new field within the sciences, and to date its relevance for religion is the least cultivated.

For the theological or philosophical dimensions of each of the world's religious traditions, the question of truth is a driving force. The theological motivation to engage in dialogue with natural science is an inherent impetus rising out of religious consciousness, out of what Mircea Eliade called "ontological thirst," or thirst for reality. The scientific motivation to engage in dialogue with religion rises out of the realization that questions of transcendence cannot be avoided in physics and cosmology, nor can questions of value and meaning be avoided in genetics and evolutionary biology. The emerging field of science and religion plays host to this dialogue.


The pioneer of the field now known as science and religion is Ian G. Barbour, whose breakthrough book Issues in Science and Religion (New York, 1966) provided a reliable history of the interaction between science and faith in the West. This work, along with John Hedley Brooke's Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge, U.K., 1991), replaced the vitriolic late nineteenth-century accounts by John W. Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (New York, 1874) and A. D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (New York, 1896). See also the predecessor article to this one, Stanley L. Jaki, "Science and Religion," in The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade (New York, 1987), vol. 13, pp. 121133. For an excellent treatment of the Protestant Reformation see John Dillenberger, Protestant Thought and Natural Science: A Historical Interpretation (Garden City, N.Y., 1960).

Recommended contemporary anthologies that cover the spectrum of the field within Christianity include Science and Theology: The New Consonance, edited by Ted Peters (Boulder, Colo., 1998). Christian and selected non-Christian religious entries are included in Bridging Science and Religion, edited by Ted Peters and Gaymon Bennett (London, 2002). Two encyclopedias cover the field: J. Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen, ed., Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, 2 vols. (New York, 2003) and Gary B. Ferngren, ed., The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia (New York, 2000).

The contemporary discussion of science within Islam is taken up by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Religion and the Order of Nature (Oxford and New York, 1996); Muzaffar Iqbal, Islam and Science (Aldershot, U.K., and Burlington, Vt., 2003); and God, Life, and the Cosmos: Christian and Islamic Perspectives, edited by Ted Peters, Muzaffar Iqbal, and Seyd Nomanul Haq (Aldershot, U.K., and Burlington, Vt., 2002).

Broad integrations of the various natural sciences with Christian systematic theology are best exemplified by Arthur Peacocke's Theology for a Scientific Age: Being and BecomingNatural, Divine, and Human (Minneapolis, 1993), plus two sets of Gifford Lectures, John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist (Princeton, 1994), and Ian G. Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science (San Francisco, 1990), as well as Barbour's Ethics in an Age of Technology (San Francisco, 1993).

On epistemological and methodological connections between science and theology, see Nancey Murphy and George F. R. Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics (Minneapolis, 1996); Wolfhart Pannenberg, Toward a Theology of Nature: Essays on Science and Faith (Louisville, Ky., 1993); and Niels Henrik Gregersen and J. Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen, eds., Rethinking Theology and Science: Six Models for the Current Dialogue (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1998). On divine action within the physical world, see Paul Davies, God and the New Physics (New York, 1983); Philip Clayton, God and Contemporary Science (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1997); Robert John Russell, William R. Stoeger, and George V. Coyne, eds., Physics, Philosophy, and Theology (Vatican City State and Notre Dame, Ind., 1987); Robert John Russell, Philip Clayton, Kirk Wegter-McNelly, and John Polkinghorne, eds., Quantum Mechanics: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (Vatican City State and Berkeley, 2001); Hans Schwarz, Creation (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2002); and Antje Jackelen, Zeit und Ewigkeit (Neukirchen, Germany, 2002). See also Ravi Ravindra, "Einstein, Albert," in Encyclopedia of Religion (New York, 1987) vol 5, 7172.

On genetics, ethics, and social policy, see the National Council of Churches of Singapore, A Christian Response to the Life Sciences (Singapore, 2002); Vatican document, "Declaration on the Production and the Scientific and Therapeutic Use of Human Embryonic Stem Cells" (Vatican City State, August 2000; available from; Holmes Rolston III, Genes, Genesis, and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History (Cambridge, U.K., 1999); Celia E. Deane-Drummond, Biology and Theology Today: Exploring The Boundaries (London, 2001); and Ted Peters, Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom (New York, 2002).

On anthropology, see Philip Hefner, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion (Minneapolis, 1993); Noreen L. Herzfeld, In Our Image: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Spirit (Minneapolis, 2002); Niels Henrik Gregersen, Willem B. Drees, and Ulf Gorman, eds., The Human Person in Science and Theology (Edinburgh, 2000); and Warren S. Brown, Nancey Murphy, and H. Newton Malony, eds., Whatever Happened to the Soul?: Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (Minneapolis, 1998). On the evolution controversy, see Ted Peters and Martinez Hewlett, Evolution from Creation to New Creation (Nashville, 2003), and Robert John Russell, William R. Stoeger, and Francisco J. Ayala, eds., Evolutionary and Molecular Biology: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (Vatican City State and Berkeley, 1998). On the relevance of brain research to theology, see Robert John Russell, Nancey Murphy, Theo C. Meyering, and Michael A. Arbib, eds., Neuroscience and the Person: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (Vatican City State and Berkeley, 1999), and Gregory R. Peterson, Minding God: Theology and the Cognitive Sciences (Minneapolis, 2003).

Leading journals include Islam and Science: Journal of Islamic Perspectives on Science (Center for Islam and Science, Canada); Omega: Indian Journal of Science and Religion (Kerala, India); Theology and Science (U.K.); Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science (U.K.), Australian Theological Forum (Adelaide, Australia); and Glaube und Denken: Jahrbuch der Karl Heim Gesellschaft (Tübingen, Germany).

Ted Peters (2005)

Science and Religion

views updated May 21 2018

Science and Religion

The immediate historical roots of the academic field of "science and religion" lie in the 1960s when major developments in the philosophy of science and the philosophy of religion, new theories and discoveries in the natural sciences, as well as complex shifts in the theological landscape, made possible constructive interaction between often separate or even hostile intellectual communities. Most of the discussion has focused on interaction among the sciences and the diversity of Christian theologies, but this is changing as more and more voices from other religions enter the conversation.

Methods for relating science and religion

Scholars first set out in the 1960s to develop more constructive ways of relating the two areas. Scientist-turned-theologian Ian Barbour provided the initial "bridge" between science and religion in his Issues in Science and Religion (1971), drawing on the work of Thomas Kuhn, Michael Polanyi, Stephen Toulmin, Mary Hesse, Frederick Ferré, Norwood Hanson, and others in both the philosophy of science and the philosophy of religion. Barbour's crucial insight was to recognize the similarity between the methodological, linguistic, and epistemological structures of science and theology: Both make cognitive claims about the world expressed through metaphors and models, and both employ a hypothetico-deductive method within a revisionist, contextualist, and historicist framework. This approach, which Barbour called "critical realism," was later pursued in Europe by such scholars as Arthur Peacocke and John Polkinghorne. Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg introduced to the discussion Karl Popper's understanding of theories as revisable hypotheses in his Theology and the Philosophy of Science (1976). Philosopher of religion Nancey Murphy developed a related approach in her Theology in an Age of Scientific Reasoning (1990), deploying Imre Lakatos's notion of a "scientific research program," which includes a central commitment or "hard core," a surrounding protective belt of auxiliary hypotheses, and criteria for choosing between competing programs. Additional important contributions came from scholars such as Philip Clayton, Niels Gregersen, Thomas Torrance, and Wentzel van Huyssteen.

The chief concern of these scholars was to create a framework for dialogue that allows for methodological reductionism (studying wholes in terms of their parts and applying successful strategies in one area to others) as a legitimate scheme for scientific research but respects the irreducibility of processes and properties referred to by theology and other higher-level disciplines to those of lower levels (epistemic antireductionism or holism). Some antirealists and postmodernists criticize this broad approach by pointing to difficulties that confront realist interpretations of scientific theories and theological concepts (e.g., quantum mechanics and the idea of "God") and by questioning the "metanarrative" role of science. On balance, though, this methodological bridge remains an enduringly important contribution to the field, both for its crucial historical role and as a point of departure for current research.

Key areas of engagement

In numerous and subtle ways, the contemporary sciences challenge and reshape the God-nature problematic for theological perspectives as diverse as panentheism, process theology, feminist theology, trinitarian theology, neo-Thomism, and evangelical theology. This section briefly reviews several key topics of discussion.

In physics, Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity challenges our ordinary sense of time's flow and the assumption of a universal present moment, problematizing the idea that God experiences and acts in the world in the flowing "now." Equally challenging is the relation between divine action and natural causality. Because Newtonian mechanism depicted nature as a closed causal system, special divine action was subsequently either understood in terms of interventionism or reduced to human subjectivity. Developments in the philosophical interpretation of quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and cosmology (and the neurosciences as well) may provide the basis for a new theory of noninterventionist, objective, special providence. With regard to cosmology, scholars such as Willem B. Drees, George Ellis, Ted Peters, Robert John Russell, William Stoeger, Mark Worthing, and Joseph Zycinski discuss the consonance and dissonance between the theological notion of the universe as "creation" and features of the standard Big Bang scenario including the apparent beginning of the universe (t = 0) and the curious fact that physical constants have precisely the values needed for life's emergence (the Anthropic Principle).

In response to biological evolution, theologians such as Barbour and Peacocke champion "theistic evolution," the view that what science describes in terms of evolutionary biology can be seen, from a religious perspective, as God's action in the world. However, billions of years of natural disaster, suffering, death, and extinction of species, not to mention the lack of overall directedness to evolutionary change, present this view with serious challenges. Barbour and Peacocke, along with Holmes Rolston and Thomas Tracy, provide careful assessments of suffering and evil in light of evolutionary theory, and Rolston offers a helpful analysis of the complex role of "values" in nature. Evolutionary and ecological thought also play an important role in Sallie McFague's model of the world as God's body and Rosemary Radford Ruether's discussion of Gaia and God.

How will genetics, sociobiology, the neurosciences, and the computer sciences affect the way we understand the human person? Can we relate knowledge gained from these disciplines to the biblical view of the person as a "psychosomatic unity"? Fruitful insights into these issues come from such scholars as Francisco Ayala, Lindon Eaves, Denis Edwards, Anne Foerst, Philip Hefner, Noreen Herzfeld, and Murphy. Ted Peters and Ronald Cole-Turner also draw together scientific and religious perspectives on important social issues such as genetic discrimination, gene patenting and cloning, stem cell research, genetic determinism and human freedom, and somatic versus germline intervention.

Several of the sciences challenge the theological notion of redemption, which in Christianity draws together the doctrines of incarnation, christology, resurrection, and eschatology. The vast size and complexity of the cosmos force us, whether scientists, persons of faith, or both at once, to look beyond our concern for humanity, or even the Earth, to the destiny of the universe as a whole. Can religious belief countenance the prediction that the universe's far future will be "freeze or fry," either endless universal expansion or violent recollapse? This scientific forecast presents one of the most serious challenges to any belief in human salvation, the meaning and future of life in the universe, or the eschatological consummation of the cosmos as new creation.

Methodological frontiers

Several important concerns are emerging at the frontier of the science and religion discussion. Science itself is increasingly recognized as a thoroughly human endeavor open to the critical insights of, for example, gender analysis. The work of Evelyn Fox Keller and Helen Longino on this topic provides a helpful starting point for gender analysis of the science and religion field itself. Additional voices from the world's religious and indigenous cultures need to be brought into the science and religion discussion to shed new light on the complex relations among science, religion, and culture in an interreligious context. Other important areas include the history of science and religion, the theological critique of scientism, the relation of science to nature and spirituality, the creative roles of philosophy and theology in scientific research, and the possibility of these diverse fields entering into a mutually constructive dialogue where each partner receives something of intellectual value from the other.

See also 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; Science and Religion, Research in


Ayala, Francisco, ed. Studies in the Philosophy of Biology: Reduction and Related Problems. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

Barbour, Ian G. Issues in Science and Religion (1966). New York: Harper, 1971.

Barbour, Ian G. Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues. San Francisco: Harper, 1997.

Cajete, Gregory. Native Science: Natural Laws of Independence. Santa Fe, N.M.: Clear Light, 2000.

Clayton, Philip. Explanation from Physics to Theology: An Essay in Rationality and Religion. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Cole-Turner, Ronald. The New Genesis: Theology and the Genetic Revolution. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993.

Drees, Willem B. Beyond the Big Bang: Quantum Cosmologies and God. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1990.

Eaves, Lindon J. Genes, Culture, and Personality: An Empirical Approach. San Diego, Calif.: Academic Press, 1989.

Edwards, Denis. The God of Evolution: A Trinitarian Theology. New York: Paulist Press, 1999.

Ellis, George F. R. Before the Beginning: Cosmology Explained. New York: Boyars and Bowerdean, 1993.

Foerst, Anne. "Cog, a Humanoid Robot, and the Question of the Image of God." Zygon 33 (1998): 91111.

Gregersen, Niels H. "A Contextual Coherence Theory for the Science-Theology Dialogue." In Rethinking Theology and Science: Six Models for the Current Dialogue, ed. Niels H. Gregersen and J. Wentzel Van Huyssteen. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998.

Hefner, Philip J. The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1993.

Herzfeld, Noreen. In Our Image: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Spirit. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2002.

Keller, Evelyn Fox, and Longino, Helen E., eds. Feminism and Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

McFague, Sallie. The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1993.

Murphy, Nancey C. Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Murphy, Nancey C., and Ellis, George F. R. On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1996.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Theology and the Philosophy of Science, trans. Francis McDonagh. Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1976.

Peacocke, Arthur. Theology for a Scientific Age: Being and BecomingNatural, Divine and Human, enlarged edition. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1993.

Peters, Ted, ed. Cosmos as Creation: Theology and Science in Consonance. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1989.

Peters, Ted. Playing God?: Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Polkinghorne, John C. Faith, Science, and Understanding. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.

Rolston, Holmes, III. Genes, Genesis and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. San Francisco: Harper, 1992.

Stoeger, William. "Contemporary Physics and the Ontological Status of the Laws of Nature." In Quantum Cosmology and the Laws of Nature: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, ed. Robert J. Russell, Nancey C. Murphy, and Chris J. Isham, 2nd edition. Vatican City: Vatican Observatory; Berkeley, Calif.: Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, 1996.

Torrance, Thomas. Theological Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Tracy, Thomas F., ed. The God Who Acts: Philosophical and Theological Explorations. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.

van Huyssteen, J. Wentzel. Theology and the Justification of Faith: Constructing Theories in Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989.

Worthing, Mark W. God, Creation, and Contemporary Physics. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1996.

Zycinski, Joseph M. "Metaphysics and Epistemology in Stephen Hawking's Theory of the Creation of the Universe." Zygon 31, no. 2 (1996): 269284.

robert john russell
kirk wegter-mcnelly

Science and Religion in Public Communication

views updated May 08 2018

Science and Religion in Public Communication

After World War II, the United States faced a considerable challenge: How would communications continue in the aftermath of a nuclear war? The solution proposed was a network of computers that had no central authority and were capable of almost infinite message rerouting. This system, known as ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), debuted in 1969. Telenet, the first commercial version of the ARPANET, appeared in 1974. In 1979 the first network-wide discussions groups were up and running as USENET. But before cyberspace could become readily navigable, hypertext, the World Wide Web, and search engines had to be developed. The first point-and-click way of navigating Internet files, known as gopher, was released in 1991, and the same year the first computer code of the World Wide Web debuted in the relatively innocuous newsgroup alt.hypertext. Thus, the rich global communications medium called the Internet was born.

By the mid-1990s several science and religion organizations had a basic presence on the World Wide Web. Typically this consisted of information about the organization and its upcoming events and programs. One of the first sites of this kind was a web site for the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science ( Online discussion on science and religion topics was initially confined to private email distribution lists and various USENET newsgroups such as The Talk.Origins Archive (, which covers the creation/evolution controversy.

The need to handle an ever increasing number of discussion participants led to the employment of listservs (managed email discussion lists), such as the Meta-lists, now Metanexus, which began operating in 1997. An "edited, moderated, and public listserv dedicated to promoting the constructive engagement of science and religion and to sharing information and perspectives among the diverse organizations and individuals involved in this interdisciplinary field," by 2002, Metanexus had over six thousand subscribers in approximately sixty countries.

By their second generation, many web sites had incorporated some basic science and religion content in addition to the organizational information. Initially the content was preexisting text made available in plain electronic form, but there has been a constant evolution in the sophistication with which the web has been used to present science and religion content.

In 1998, the Counterbalance Foundation based in Seattle, Washington, in conjunction with the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS) in Berkeley, California, developed a suite of interactive topics specifically for the web. Initially available at the web site for the PBS/New River Media documentary television program Faith and Reason, ( the content was also accessible from and This suite was tailored to the web in three ways: It included extensive use of hypertext linking, a writing style that allowed the reader to visit topics in any particular order, and use of streaming audio. These features allowed readers from diverse backgrounds to approach the same content and follow different paths through it. The availability of streaming audio opened up the appeal of science and religion topics to a still broader audience.

In 2000, Counterbalance combined the CTNS content with new material, including the textbook God, Humanity, and the Cosmos (1999) edited by Christopher Southgate, to create the Meta-Library. The Meta-Library is a single shared location that provides content to several science and religion sites, most notably As of 2002, the Meta-Library had over one hundred hours of interactive video material and thirty thousand links in the text material.

By mid-2002, the web was home to a variety of sites on science and religion that were diverse both in terms of approach and services offered; the Yahoo! directory contained links to dozens of web sites on evolution and creation alone. Some science and religion sites were still primarily informational, such as those of the American Scientific Affiliation (, the American Association for the Advancement of Science site for DoSER (Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion;, and the National Academy of Science's site on science and creationism ( Others web sites offered both information and discussion. Exemplars are the Access Research Network (, which discusses Intelligent Design theory, and Metanexus. Furthermore, such undertakings as Project Gutenberg ( and the Internet Public Library ( guaranteed that the classic texts of luminaries such as Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, and Alfred Russel Wallace were available to the global public. In summary, persons all over the planet had access a vast repertoire of information on science and religion.

The future holds several possibilities. The web will continue to be an effective medium through which science and religion organizations can reach out to both the academic and broader community. Increase in fast "broadband" access to the web will allow sites to become progressively richer and more interactive, and will provide more video, including interviews and conference presentations (available both live and archived for later access), real-time chat rooms, tutorials, and so on. The content will no doubt broaden in scope, reaching beyond the core sciences and core religions, and become available in languages other than English. The conversation will also become more "world-wide" as the cost of computer equipment and web access allows smaller institutions and local societies to make use of the medium. In addition, an increasing number of distance education courses in science and religion will likely become available. However, the socalled digital divide must also be considered. While the dialogue between science and religion is certain to have a bright future on the Internet, participation in this part of the conversation will remain restricted to that small fraction of the global community with access to the necessary technology. This is likely to remain a real issue into the far future.

See also Information Technology; Science and Religion, Periodical Literature


l-soft (listserv software). available from

pbs. "life on the internet: net timeline." available from

sterling, bruce. "short history of the internet." available from

vrx. "some history [of usenet]." available from

stacey ake
adrian m. wyard

Science and religion

views updated May 11 2018

Science and religion. The relationship between science and religion has been described in various ways, falling between two extremes. At one extreme, the relationship is seen as one of warfare. At the other extreme, the relationship is seen as one of convergence and confirmation, in which the insights of religion (albeit expressed in pre-scientific languages) are seen to point to the same truths as those claimed in contemporary sciences. Between the extremes are many different ways of evaluating the possible relationship between science and religion. Ian Barbour (Religion in an Age of Science, 1990) classified them in four groups: conflict, independence (as enterprises they are so different that there is no connection between them), dialogue, and integration. All these can be exemplified in any religion.

In the field of science and religion, a weakness of much work is its assumption that there is some ‘thing’ called science and some ‘thing’ called religion whose relationship can be discussed. Science changes, both in content and in methodologies, and religions have changed greatly through the course of time (for the consequent problem of defining religion, see Introduction). Religions are systems for the protection and transmission of human achievements and discoveries. For the most part, they arise from goals, methods, and objectives which are very different from those of the sciences, hence the impossibility of reducing the one to the other. But this means that religions can hardly be in competition with the sciences as comparable systems, even though the sciences will frequently challenge the content and methodologies of religious exploration, and religions will challenge the dehumanizing applications of science where they occur. For that reason particular issues will constantly arise, as notoriously in the case of Galileo and Darwin. But there neither was, nor is, only one way in which religions respond to such challenges. There are, and have been in the past, many different ways in which achievements in the sciences have been evaluated, ranging from denial to appropriation. Different (and strictly speaking incompatible) strategies have been adopted in order to maintain authority and control. Thus while there will always be propositional and conceptual issues between science and religion, and while they are often both interesting and important, they are second-order issues. Of primary concern are the issues of power, authority and control.

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