An Armchair Guide to Exploring the Interface Between Science and Religion

Throughout its history, Christianity has always lived in dialogue with the arts and sciences of its time. As the life and fate of Galileo Galilei, the Italian mathematician and astronomer, attest, the dialogue between religion and science has sometimes broken out into open warfare. Galileo, a man of deep faith who wanted nothing more than to relate his discoveries to his Christian understanding, published a paper in 1632 espousing his pro-Copernican view that the sun and not the earth was the center of the universe. The paper initially met with the approval of ecclesiastical censors, but Galileo was interrogated by papal authorities in 1633, forced to abjure his views under pressure, and placed under house arrest until his death in 1642.

Charles Darwin’s disputes with certain Anglican clergymen in the mid-nineteenth century over his theories of natural selection and evolution were no less dramatic. Although there don’t appear to be many modern advocates of Aristotle’s view that the earth is the center of the universe, creationists do roam the land and continue to take faith-based potshots at Darwinian theory and its progeny.

How should science and theology be related to each other? How does our scientific knowledge fit or not fit with what we think we know about God and the sacred? These questions, and the inquiries that flow from them, are, in many ways, the springboards for the various approaches and attitudes that we modern folk take to the subject of religion and religious claims.

On the one hand, we have scientism and scientific imperialism, attitudes best captured by British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s statement to a BBC audience that “what science cannot tell us, mankind cannot know.” To Russell and like thinkers, religion is pseudo-knowledge that provides false impressions about supernatural fictions. At the other extreme, we have 1) the ecclesiastical authoritarianism typified by the attack on Galileo and Pope Pius IX’s 1864 Syllabus of Errors, condemning supposed errors in science and philosophy; and 2) fundamentalism and its more modern mutations: creationism and “creation science.”

More sensible modern approaches to the relationship between science and religion seem to fall into two basic camps. The first approach – the “two-language” or “nonoverlapping magisteria” approach advocated by Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould – argues that religion and science should occupy non-overlapping magisteria. This approach is rooted in a way of looking at the interface between scientific knowledge and religious knowledge that Albert Einstein captured quite succinctly: “Science can only ascertain what is, not what should be. Religion, on the other hand, deals only with evaluations of human thought and action.” Each kind of discourse and knowledge should be restricted to its distinct and separate realms.

The second approach – the “integrationist” approach advocated by scientist theologians like Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke, and Sir John Polkinghorne – seeks to overcome the demilitarized zone created by the nonoverlapping magisteria’s “peace by separation” approach by advocating dialogue between the two disciplines in an attempt to seek out hypothetical dissonances and consonances. Under this second approach, scientists can speak about matters traditionally thought to be “divine” and theologians can speak about the actual world they believe to be created by God. By engaging in this sort of dialogue, scientists and theologians can discuss their differences and explore common ground.

It’s been my experience that the scientific knowledge of many average people is woefully out of date. Most of us are also not entirely clear on how we should approach and seek to relate these two realms of knowledge – the scientific and the theological. This does not have to be, as there is a growing literature on the possible relationships between science and theology. What follows is an armchair guide to some of the best of that literature.

The best place to begin is with Christopher Southgate, et al., eds., God, Humanity, and the Cosmos: A Textbook in Science and Religion (Trinity, 1999). This masterful paperback textbook covers the history of the dialogue between science and religion and provides a masterful overview of the current work being done in this field. Another good overview is provided by Science and Theology: The New Consonance (Westview, 2000), a collection of essays by scientists and theologians, edited by Lutheran theologian Ted Peters, that explores the domain of inquiry shared by science and theology.

To get to the heart of the debate between the opposing viewpoints of the “nonoverlapping magisteria” and “integrationist” approaches, one should next stop to examine the works of the two leading advocates of these positions: Stephen Jay Gould for the “two language” camp and Ian Barbour for the “integrationsists.” Gould’s position is stated in his Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (Ballantine, 1999). Ian Barbour’s advocacy of integrating the discourses of science and religion is best put forward in his When Science Meets Religion (HarperCollins, 2000).

The works of several others who adopt some form of the “integrationist” point of view are also worth exploring. Arthur Peacocke, an Anglican priest and a scientist, has written several noteworthy books. Two of his best are Theology for A Scientific Age: Being and Becoming – Natural, Divine, and Human (Fortress, enlarged ed., 1993) and From DNA to Dean: Reflections and Explorations of a Priest-Scientist (Morehouse, 1997). Sir John Polkinghorne, a physicist and Anglican priest, has written a number of good books in which he argues that only the foolish will repudiate science, but that only the even more foolish will reject all knowledge and values not derived through the scientific method. The book of Polkinghorne’s that I would most recommend is his The Faith of a Physicist (Fortress, 1996). In this work, Polkinghorne explores the Nicene Creed from his unique perspective as both theologian and theoretical physicist.

There are a lot of other enjoyable and edifying books out there by other theologically-minded scientists and theologians engaging with science as well. What if a group of scientists (rumored to be Nobel laureates Seaborg, Glashow, and Ting) authored an overview of science and the universe in the style of the Bible with entries like The Book of Catastrophes and the Books of the Solar System? What if the book was as accessible and as fun as it was informative? The book would be The Bible According to Einstein: A Scientific Complement to the Holy Bible for the Third Millennium (Jupiter Scientific Publishing, 1997). In a somewhat similar vein is Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry’s The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era (HarperCollins, 1992) in which they set forth the findings of modern cosmology as an epic poem about creation.

In Cosmology and Creation: The Spiritual Significance of Contemporary Cosmology (Oxford, 1999), Paul Brockleman, a professor of religion, explores the religious and spiritual side of the new cosmology. In Vital Dust: Life as a Cosmic Imperative (HarperCollins, 1995), Belgian Nobel laureate Christian de Duve argues that the emergence of life on earth was the inevitable outcome of biochemical forces woven into the very fabric of the universe. In The Sacred Depths of Nature (Oxford, 1998), renowned biologist and former president of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, Ursula Goodenough, provides a series of wonderful meditations on the sacred aspects of nature. In a similar vein is The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature (Prometheus, 1998). This book, by David Suzuki, a renowned Canadian geneticist and host of PBS’s “The Nature of Things,” is the most complete and accessible work to date on an environmental approach to the sacred.

Want to give your favorite (or least favorite) creationist a wonderful birthday or Christmas gift? I would suggest Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution (HarperCollins, 1999). The author, a cell biologist and distinguished professor of Biology at Brown University, argues that evolution is one of the keys to understanding our relationship with God, its indeterminacy endowing us with our freedom to choose good from evil and to choose God’s love. He pillories those religionists who see evolution as the product of iterative Intelligent Design and those atheists who argue that evolution demonstrates a universe lacking in purpose. Ursula Goodenough hailed this book as, “An original…treatise, beautifully written, that offers new paths toward reconciling science with faith.” Charles Darwin would be proud!

Topics: Theology & Religious Education. Resource Types: Articles.

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