One World: Science and Christianity in Respectful Dialogue, Part 1

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January 20, 2011 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now

Today's entry was written by Loren Wilkinson. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

One World: Science and Christianity in Respectful Dialogue, Part 1

A Response to Alexander, Coyne and MacDonald

The BioLogos Foundation, with its commitment to the “integration of science and Christian faith” is one of many signs that the 150-year-old idea of a “warfare” between science and religion is ending. That language of opposition is unhelpful for several reasons.

First, it obscures the recognition that science at its core, is a religious activity, in the deepest and most literal sense of “re-ligious”—that which links. Religion and science both come from the uniquely human passion to see the diverse pieces of our experience as one supple and coherent body of knowledge: thus its connection with a word like “ligament”, the tissue which holds the skeleton together. There is no science without scientists, and scientists are always and only humans, probing and coming to know an inexhaustibly mysterious cosmos by means of their own passions, beliefs, hunches and theories.

Second, and more specifically, the warfare language hides the fact that the modern tradition of empirical science has deep roots in the Jewish and Christian tradition. The point was first made clearly in Michael Foster’s meticulously reasoned series of articles, “The Christian Doctrine of Creation and the Origins of Modern Science”, published in the resolutely positivist philosophical journal Mind in 1934. It was only as late medieval Christian thinkers distanced themselves from the Platonic idea that creation was an imperfect manifestation of eternal and perfect ideas in the mind of a transcendent God that they began to be able to appreciate the contingency of creation, and thus the necessity of investigating it empirically, not in terms of what a rational Creator must do, but in terms of what a personal and loving God wills to do. It is no accident that, for better and for worse, science is a plant which grew primarily in Christian soil.

Third, The warfare language implies that there were two kinds of knowledge: “religious knowledge”, established only by emotion and authority, and scientific knowledge, established by experience, experiment and testing. If true this would be a disastrous situation, culturally and personally, since it would doom “religious” people to living in a pseudo-reality constructed from dogma and wishful thinking, and “scientific” people living in a meaningless world of emotion-free “facts” each of which they must establish for themselves. But of course neither the “religious” nor the “scientific” person lives in such a world. We live in one world, part of which we know on authority, part of which we know on experience. But its full meaning always eludes our grasp, and thus leads us into the uniquely human activities of art, science and worship.

These reflections on the relationship of science and religion cast some light both on Denis Alexander’s recently-posted BioLogos “white paper” on the theological problems raised by thinking scientifically about “Adam”, and some quite caustic responses to that paper by Jerry Coyne and Eric MacDonald on their own websites, writing on behalf of “science” against what they perceive to be the excesses of “religion”.

Alexander, an experienced research scientist with a long career in immunology, begins by pointing out the usefulness of “models” in science, drawing attention to the fact that in periods of ferment and discovery it is often the case that two or more models exist side by side, in some tension, to help explain sets of data. He then suggests two models for resolving the apparent tension between the Biblical story, which speaks of the religious importance of one couple, Adam and Eve, as the progenitor of all humanity, and the emerging scientific evidence that humanity arose as part of an evolutionary process in which we cannot clearly identify one couple as the ancestors of all humans. The first he calls the “retelling model”: in it the early chapters of Genesis are seen as the gathering, under divine guidance, the story of early humanity into one rich and subtle myth that includes all that we need to know about human persons and their relation to God, each other, and the earth. The other model, which he calls the Homo divinus model, is more complex and problematic: he suggests that out of a neolithic population of anatomically modern humans God chose two people to enter into personal communion and responsibility with their Creator; these were the historical Adam and Eve, the first human bearers of “the image of God,” and thus the beginning of the Biblical story of sin and redemption that culminates in Jesus, the second Adam.

Both models allow us, says Alexander to deal with two sets of data: the facts about the human condition expressed in Genesis 1-3, and the facts about the physical origins of man (about which Alexander gives some intriguing details) emerging from DNA analysis. However, though he argues that there is room for both models within the BioLogos commitment to “the integration of science and Christian faith”, he prefers the Homo divinus model.

Coyne and MacDonald are critical of Alexander’s article for several reasons, some of them, I believe, quite legitimate. But the scornful and dismissive tone of their critiques diminishes their value. Both write from within that familiar fog of confusion (typical of both a-theist and religious fundamentalisms) which arises whenever we assume that the only relationship between religion and science is one of warfare. Ignoring the deep unity between the two keeps these critics from seeing Alexander’s main purpose, which is to unite all that we are coming to know about humanity into one coherent body. Thus they take aim often at Alexander’s very tentatively proposed Homo divinus model, and both articles are scattered with words like “obsessed,” “ludicrous,” “crap,” “baseless,” laughable,” “simplistic”, “charade” and “embarrassing”. Such language doesn’t hold much promise for learning or dialogue on either side.

Their most valid point, it seems to me, is asking why, when Alexander outlines a better model-- “retelling” early human history as though it were the story of one couple-- he goes to such effort to defend a more difficult one. And there are real difficulties with the Homo divinus model which Alexander (very tentatively) defends. It seems very odd to have a human population of many individuals, only two of which bear God’s image; it is not clear how their relationship to God, whole or broken, would be then communicated to the rest of humanity; most seriously, it seems to me, the choice of those two alone, above all others, places at the very roots of human history the kind of arbitrary divine will which make some versions of “predestination” so hard to accept.

The main reason Alexander gives for preferring the Homo divinus model is that whereas it is abundantly clear from the anthropological and genetic evidence that the first humans appeared in Africa, the Biblical story seems to begin in the Middle East. Yet as MacDonald points out, the real narrative line of the Biblical story, in which particular places and people are important, doesn’t begin till the end of Genesis 11, with the calling of Abraham. The Biblical story is far more about the descendants of a historical Abraham and Sarah than it is about the descendants of a historical Adam and Eve, and Alexander (like many before him) gets himself into real difficulties by trying to carve out a historical place and time for early Genesis. All sorts of things about Genesis 1- 3 hint that it is quite a different type of literature than the narrative which begins with the story of Abraham—most obviously, the fact that Genesis 2 backs up and tells quite a different story about the origin of the human than does Genesis 1. But the most striking of these hints, as Alexander points out, is the name “Adam”—which is not only a generic name for humanity, but also a deeply significant pun on the Hebrew word for soil or dust: i.e. Adam from Adamah (“human from humus”) underlining at the beginning of the human story the human task of earthkeeping. Eve’s name also, “mother of all living” shouts that she is meant to be seen as a symbol.

One does not have to be a theological “liberal” (as both Coyne and MacDonald suggest) to recognize that Genesis 1-11 is not history in a normal sense of the word. For example, a recent book by John Walton, a scholar of Ancient Near East religion who teaches at Wheaton College (hardly a “liberal” institution) in a recently published book, The Lost World of Genesis One, argues persuasively that Genesis 1 is all about function (how does this cosmos work) in terms of the science available in the day. He writes:

The most respectful reading we can give to the text, the reading most faithful to the face value of the text—and the most “literal” understanding, if you will—is the one that comes from their world, not ours.

On the one hand such an understanding removes any possibility of tension between “science” and the Biblical text. It is not about science; or, to be more precise, those ancient writers used the science available to them to talk about things which they considered to be much more important: Is there a purpose to the cosmos? What is my purpose in it? How do I relate to the cosmos, its creator, my fellow human beings? The answers to these questions do provide an important “data set”; but for answers to questions like the age and physical origins of the earth, or of humanity, we use the data set from the best science available to us. It would be, as Alexander insists from the beginning, a mistake to regard the two sets of data as having nothing to do with each other. Thus the need for “models” to explore how they might be related.

Coyne and MacDonald find the Homo divinus model inadequate; so do I. Unlike them, however, I think Alexander’s task is a very important one. Why, if a better model is available, does he cautiously support this one? Coyne suggests the real reason: Alexander is speaking to a group of people who are learning slowly, cautiously, how to bring the worlds of science and faith together, how to get beyond the “warfare” metaphor for their relation which seems to still inform the thought of Coyne and MacDonald. This is a painful process. A colleague of mine, for example, a senior and highly respected Biblical scholar in the evangelical world, was just dismissed from a school where he was an adjunct professor for suggesting, mildly, the idea discussed above, that Genesis 1-11 is a very different sort of literature from the rest of the book, and therefore not to be judged as “historical” by the same standards. Change comes slowly in deeply held beliefs, and Denis Alexander is to be commended for his attempt, however flawed we might find it, to persuade a group of Christians that Christianity and science can indeed be integrated, that they help us describe and live in one world, not two.

That does not seem to be the case with Coyne and MacDonald; for whatever reason, they seem to believe that many essential parts of our humanity—passions, beliefs, commitments—are irrelevant to knowledge, which they seem to regard as a gradual, impersonal, accumulation of fact. Thus they are bound to see the task of BioLogos (and of many thoughtful humans) -- the attempt to live in one world, not two -- as futile. In the next post we will consider their thought, and the thought-world it comes from, in more detail.

Dr. Loren WIlkinson has for 30 years been professor of philosophy and interdisciplinary studies at Regent College, a graduate school of Christian Studies affiliated with the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. His academic background is in philosophy, literature and theology, with graduate degrees from Johns Hopkins, Trinity International University, and Syracuse University. He has published and taught widely on the Biblical foundations for the care of creation.

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Rich - #48715

January 22nd 2011

Ian MacDougall:

There is no doubt that many of the individual elements that would later be important in modern science can be found in earlier civilizations:  India, China, and the Greek world.  However, a sustained scientific civilization arose in only one place in the world:  in Christian Western Europe.  The history of this development is well attested, in sources better than Wikipedia.

The 19th-century claim that Christianity somehow held back science has been replaced by a less ideological history.  No doubt Christian authorities did occasionally oppose particular ideas, e.g., heliocentrism, but overall, Christianity, especially in its Protestant form, was very favorable to science from the 17th century onward.  Most of the great early modern scientists were devout Christians who believed that God had created an orderly universe accessible to scientific investigation.  Greek ideas were of course a part of modern science, but it was only in the Christian environment that their full power was revealed.

I stress that I am speaking mainly of early modern science, and I intend none of the above remarks to imply that Darwinian evolution sprang out of orthodox Christian doctrine or is even compatible with it.

Cal - #48716

January 22nd 2011

Ian MacDougall:

Primarily is used to denote in a majority (but not exclusively). While Greeks had methods that lead to the “Scientific Method”, it was a theory of philosophy that was debated up and down the halls of antiquities greatest halls. Also, its merits did not go unchecked in some golden age of pagan enlightenment until the dull edged Christians came riding into history. Greek learning was smashed to bits by Rome who had a distaste for anything foreign and eastern. Slowly Greece ‘conquered’ Rome because of her many aristocratic patrons, but unfettered philosophical discussion was checked by Roman pragmatism for most of the Republic/Empire.

It wasn’t until the middle ages that what we is popularly understood as “science” arose and it was in the clime and culture of Europe, of which the prevailing belief and philosophy was rooted in Christianity. This is not euro-centrism, but just how things happened. The plant may have started in pagan societies but it grew and blossomed in nations that were considered ‘Christian’.

Also the burning of the Great Library in Alexandria was done by the expanding Islamic Caliphate as it seized Egypt from the Copts (Arab name for native Egyptian).

Greg Myers - #48721

January 22nd 2011

Cal - #48716
As with many things, the history seems a bit more complicated, with the least likely perpetrator being a Muslim, no?

Mike Gene - #48723

January 22nd 2011

Hi Greg,

This is like saying that you are not doing religion unless you are undeniably currently experiencing the presence of the divine (or perhaps actively showing compassion to your neighbor!).

I never heard of anyone “doing religion,” so that analogy makes no sense to me.  But let’s not bother with analogies and deal with the actual issue.  So is it your position that science can dispense with good experiments, quantifiable results, impartiality, and objectivity?  That is, it would be nice if those were present, but an inquiry that is truly scientific does not require these, right? 

Scientific advance may require successive attempts at getting to the heart of the problem - and even then, we cannot know if some future discovery or insight will incorporate our current models into a larger, more encompassing model.

If science is allowed to throw out good experiments, quantifiable results, impartiality, and objectivity, and still remain science, then why choose the word “scientific” for your sentence when the word “philosophical” would do just as well?

Mike Gene - #48724

January 22nd 2011

This is not a watered down version of science, but science itself.

No, that’s merely your perception of “science.” 

There is no need to turn science into some ideal, perfect process.

Asking that an inquiry calling itself science conduct some good experiments to generate objective data is not trying to turn science into some ideal, perfect process.  It’s asking that science follow the scientific method.  The last time I checked, the scientific method is NOT, “Make observations, formulate a hypothesis and it would be desirable if you could do an experiment.” 

Science is a throughly human endeavor, although it is also one of the most powerful and fruitful tool sets humans have ever devised.

If we are talking about good experiments, quantifiable results, impartiality, and objectivity, sure.  Strip that out and what tools are you talking about?

Mike Gene - #48725

January 22nd 2011

Hi qbsmd,

most of the people I’ve read at least suggest which definition they like and stick to it pretty closely.

I’ve not seen this, but then again, I’m not the brightest bulb in the room.  Perhaps you can write out the names and their definitions and I can post this on my computer screen to see for myself if what you say is true. 

To use cooking as an example, obviously you could make it very scientific by using fMRIs to watch people’s reactions while tasting things, or analyze what chemicals are produced in cooking by different methods and how they interact with tongue receptors.

To make it “very” scientific presumes it can be scientific without any of this extra “desirable” fluff. 

If, on the other hand, you are just referring to someone cooking something and asking people if it tasted better than last time or not, I would call that closer to pseudo-science than watered down.

So when my wife makes chili or pot roast, she is practicing pseudoscience?  That’s silly.  I merely recognize we all can make observations, gather data, formulate theories, arrive at conclusions, etc. without doing science.

Mike Gene - #48726

January 22nd 2011

However, if someone where performing double-blind tests to determine which options people preferred, I would consider that science.

Very good.  So without the good experimental design in play, we have no science.  But hold on.  What if those tests are never reported in the scientific literature?  Are they still science? 

I should add following a cookbook as a form of obedience to authority for completeness.

Like following a lab procedure? 

Similarly, you can practice car mechanics as a science, with competing hypotheses for a problem and observations selecting between them or as cargo cult science by simply following a set of procedures without understanding why.

How deep must the understanding of “why” go to transition from cargo cult to the real thing?  Is there an objective cut-off point or is it more a gut feeling when the threshold has been reached?

Cal - #48727

January 22nd 2011

Greg Myers:

Thanks for the information, I didn’t know about the scuffle between the bishop and the prefect over the death of a monk. Also, I wouldn’t say that the least likely perpetrator is the invasion by the Caliphate (though it’s quite possible Gregory put more vitriol in the Caliph’s mouth than may have been there), but I revise my position to the conclusion of the article, “Probably everyone mentioned above had some hand in destroying some part of the Library’s holdings.” Always good to learn a new tidbit of historical perspective.

Mike Gene - #48728

January 22nd 2011

The main point I want to make is that science, in its broad definition, does have something useful to add to other fields. It still is something more powerful than you seem to give it credit for.

I recognize the power of science and the fact that its power is a function of it limitations and constraints.  That’s why I object to those trying to undermine science by watering it down such that things such as experiments and objectivity are unnecessary add-ons.

Greg Myers - #48745

January 22nd 2011

Mike Gene - #48724
Mike, the scientific method, with apologies to Pirates of the Caribbean, is more of a guideline.  It is an idealized abstract used to teach schoolchildren.  Actual science involves hunches, negative testing, lucky accidents, talking about the results over beer, peer review… No one is suggesting that controlled, repeatable experiments aren’t performed - you are just making it seemed much more antiseptic than it really is.

“If we are talking about good experiments, quantifiable results, impartiality, and objectivity, sure.  Strip that out and what tools are you talking about?”

I think the point is that sometimes we are unaware of our biases.  Sometimes our experiments are flawed, in spite of our best efforts.  Sometimes our results are not repeatable due to the stochastic nature of reality.  Sometimes as sample size increases, new patterns emerge, or apparent patterns disappear.  Sometimes new information puts a new light on the results.  But is is still science.  I’m not stripping anything out - I am just tossing some reality in.

Ian MacDougall - #48751

January 22nd 2011

Cal @# 48716:

“...Slowly Greece ‘conquered’ Rome because of her many aristocratic patrons, but unfettered philosophical discussion was checked by Roman pragmatism for most of the Republic/Empire…”

I question that. Ultimately, there is only one force that can fetter ‘unfettered philosophical discussion’, and that is the armed kind. But in any case, Greek science was not just philosophical discussion. Vide Archimedes. And the Ionians.

Rich @  #48715: You may have access to ‘sources better than Wikipedia’; I can visit three excellent libraries any time I want to. But Wikipedia I find to be an excellent point of entry on any unfamiliar topic, and some around here seem to me to be perhaps unfamiliar with the scope of Chinese science, as revealed to the West principally by Needham.

However you are right in the sense that Western science took the lead and has held it for several centuries. In my view this was due more to the great Reformation schism in Christianity rather than to any intrinsic characteristic of the religion itself. The religious and bureaucratic forces stultifying science elsewhere were more united.

Cal - #48756

January 22nd 2011

Ian MacDougall:

‘Greek science’ was under the category of ‘philosophy’ (it was considered such for a very long time; hence ‘science’ courses were referred to as “Natural philosophy”) and the underpinnings were dependent on a certain view of the world. There were many schools to the nature of the world: you had Platonists, Pythagoreans, Aristoteleans, Epicureans and Stoics that all had a certain view of the reality of things; this impacted how one would measure (surely taking a certain ‘naturalistic’ explanation would not seem to be the correct way to some Platonists who may posit certain events occur because of the movings in the realm of the Ideal).

And as for a ‘fetter’ on the philosophical discourse, how about mass slavery? Most Greeks who taught in Rome during the Republic (and even during the Empire) were slaves (usually highly prized by the enamored of the aristocracy). There was a limit Rome would tolerate before bringing the sword down. Even those friendly to the Greek study of ‘philosophy’ (yuck!) had to tread carefully around Traditionalists like Cato the Elder who would see the whole of Greece razed by a fire fueled by all of their scrolls.

qbsmd - #48761

January 23rd 2011

Cal - #48691
“Actually some of the Anglo-catholic persuasion said what you expected “We were wrong, we would like to rejoin you” and went back to the Roman church.”

So your answer to my line of “How many times has one of those branches said “turns out we were wrong and you all had it right, we’d like to rejoin you”? ” is once, almost? I don’t want to be accused of goalpost moving, but I meant that “objective knowledge… obtained in theology” should result in a pattern of convergence, not that isolated cases would be impossible (I don’t like the phrase ‘The exception that proves the rule’, but it seems appropriate). And I think this case argues that some people hold their political views more strongly than their religious ones, not that the Roman Catholics are more likely to be right than the Anglicans.

qbsmd - #48762

January 23rd 2011

Cal - #48691
“We get more denominations because we have more and more opinions on things of (usually) little worth. It would be that every time a group of scientists has a slightly different procedure for conducting “science” (choose your definition), instead of debate & unity, its turning around and walking out the door.”

That’s exactly the point: science has methods of debating things and coming to conclusions. Scientists don’t schism; a scientific conflict ends with one or both sides having their position(s) falsified.

qbsmd - #48770

January 23rd 2011

Mike Gene,
First, I’d like to note that all of your indicators don’t apply to all of science. Astronomy, for one, requires observations, but experimentation is impractical. Research into aspects of primate behavior might not be quantifiable. I also doubt that in practice most scientists are impartial; they probably hope to gather support for their own hypotheses. A purely impartial investigator may not be possible, but that doesn’t make science impossible. I’ve seen philosophical arguments about whether electrons actually exist; some claim that they’re a useful mathematical construct for predicting the results of experiments, but that nothing in objective reality necessarily corresponds to what we call electrons.

I used the phrase “empirical observations for hypothesis testing”, meaning that a hypothesis generates predictions for what observations should occur in given circumstances, and how well the observations made fit those predictions determines how well the hypothesis is accepted. Since the hypothesis continues to make the same predictions for the same circumstances, repeatability is implied.

qbsmd - #48772

January 23rd 2011

Mike Gene - #48725
” ‘most of the people I’ve read at least suggest which definition they like and stick to it pretty closely.’

Perhaps you can write out the names and their definitions and I can post this on my computer screen to see for myself if what you say is true.”

Jerry Coyne,
“Science operates by using evidence and reason. Doubt is prized, authority rejected. No finding is deemed “true” — a notion that’s always provisional — unless it’s repeated and verified by others. We scientists are always asking ourselves, “How can I find out whether I’m wrong?” I can think of dozens of potential observations, for instance — one is a billion-year-old ape fossil — that would convince me that evolution didn’t happen.”
“I’m not sure whether I agree with Russell that there are disciplines outside of science (and I use the term “science” broadly here as “rational and empirical investigation”) that can answer meaningful questions.”

Mike Gene - #48774

January 23rd 2011

Hi Greg,

Yes, over the years I have tried to get others to appreciate the human, and social, dimension to science.  I know what you speak of quite well.  But the activity you describe - hunches, negative testing, lucky accidents, talking about the results over beer, peer review – is all centered around the experiment.  That’s why the experiment is a necessary, and not merely a desirable, aspect to science.

All of this simply illustrates my point about the slippery nature of the concept of science.  Thus, when culture warriors, on both sides, claim that science is an ally in their cause, people need to be aware of all these different dimensions.  The culture warrior will portray “science” to the public as controlled experiments that generate objective data (“knowledge”), but when it comes to the “science” behind their cause, it often amounts to anecdotes, talking about some thought experiment with some peers over a beer, and armchair philosophy.  And any attempt to make good experiments, quantifiable results, impartiality, and objectivity superfluous to science enables those with a culture war agenda.

Greg Myers - #48776

January 23rd 2011

Mike Gene
“Thus, when culture warriors, on both sides, claim that science is an ally in their cause, people need to be aware of all these different dimensions.”  While this is true of creationism, ID, homeopathy, the anti-vaxers, the global warming deniers, etc, this is because they only have anecdotes and, occasionally, poorly executed studies.  Lack of evidence is not a characteristic of a culture warrior, but of pseudo-science.  Lack of evidence is not part of any scientists’ goals or objectives.

qbsmd - #48778

January 23rd 2011

Mike Gene - #48725
BTW, one of these got lost in moderation

Russell Blackford,
“I am talking about “science” in a sense that is narrower than “rational inquiry” (I’m prepared to assume that looking out the window is, or can be, an example of rational inquiry). As usual, I can’t give you a precise definition. I don’t think that phenomena such as science lend themselves to sharp definitions; they are inherently fuzzy, as are many of our concepts. However, it is possible to have a fairly rich conception of science that definitely covers some things and not others.”

I haven’t read Denis Alexander or Eric MacDonald and don’t intend to look for their definitions now.

Mike Gene - #48781

January 23rd 2011


While this is true of creationism, ID, homeopathy, the anti-vaxers, the global warming deniers, etc, this is because they only have anecdotes and, occasionally, poorly executed studies.

I would agree, but not being a culture warrior, I think we should strive to be even-handed and objective about this.  Thus, I wonder why it is that your list is so tilted and failed to include the Gnus and the animal righters (a couple of examples off the top of my head).

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