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The Relationship Between Science and Religion

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February 19, 2011 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now
The Relationship Between Science and Religion

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Science and religion have had a long and interesting relationship and many scholars have proposed various strategies for relating them to each other. When I was the editor of Science & Theology News I regularly received elaborate proposals from unknown scholars, often accompanied by diagrams, for the proper way to relate science and religion. None of them ever made it into print, either because they were nonsense or because they did not engage the conversation as it has developed over the past few decades.

All such conversations take the seminal work of Ian Barbour as the starting point. Barbour—arguably the first true scholar of science-and-religion—identified four ways that science and religion could relate. His analysis first appeared in 1988 and was expanded in 1990 with his influential Gifford lectures. A discussion for a wider audience appeared in 2000. His 4 interaction modes are:

  1. Conflict: Barbour pits the scientific materialism of, say, Richard Dawkins or Jerry Coyne against the biblical literalism of Ken Ham or Al Mohler.

  2. Independence: The emphasis here is on the non-overlapping and even contrasting methods of religion and science. The philosopher Ludwigs Wittegenstein’s concept of language games is relevant here, with science and religion said to have differing languages that serve different purposes that would prevent them ever coming in conflict.

  3. Dialogue: There are boundary questions at the edge of both disciplines that engage the others. Why is there something rather than nothing? Is Design detectable? What is the nature of randomness? What is time? Such questions bring religion and science into dialogue, but usually not in a way that threatens either by entailing adjustments of key ideas. There are also methodological parallels that can be compared. Is there such a thing as “testable religious hypotheses” in religion as there is in science? Scholars from the liberal protestant Phil Hefner (in The Human Factor) to the conservative apologist Hugh Ross (in More than a Theory) have argued that there can indeed be testable religious claims. Similarly, Nancey Murphy (in Theology in an Age of Scientific Reasoning, and elsewhere) has developed some provocative and, I think, deeply insightful models suggesting that science and theology share a common epistemology.

  4. Integration: The final model that Barbour outlines involves major conversation in which science and religion—particularly theology—interact in ways that demand metaphysical speculation about meaning. The most familiar is natural theology, defined as the search for evidence of God—his existence, attributes, and actions—in nature. The Intelligent Design Movement, which claims that the Designer’s handiwork can be seen in phenomena such as the flagellum of the bacteria, is the best known example of natural theology today. Closely related is theology of nature, which starts with God, rather than nature, and asks what interpretations we might put on nature, given that it was created by God. For example, from the fact that the universe is fine-tuned for all forms of life, from bugs to people, we might project that the fine-tuning is actually “for” human life, since that life-form has a special relationship to God.

The first and second models above are the ones that have engaged the secularists the most. In The Language of Science and Faith we note the interesting contrast between the Independence model of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA), which the late Stephen Jay Gould articulated first in Natural History magazine in 1997 and later in Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, and the Conflict model:

[Each] subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority—and these magisteria do not overlap (the principle that I would like to designate as NOMA, or “non-overlapping magisteria"). The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact), and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).

NOMA has been strongly criticized recently by Jerry Coyne but we argue that it is, nevertheless, very useful:

“NOMA maps much of the relevant terrain, as we have seen, and has to be the starting point for any discussion of science and religion. We must start by understanding that we are not obliged to seek out religious meaning in the esoteric nooks and crannies of contemporary science, as if every fact about the natural world is like a fortune cookie with a little religious message inside.”

We suggest that NOMA in fact is a useful balance to the conflict model.

NOMA confronts the enduring but discredited myth that science and religion have forever been in conflict. This view, known as the “warfare metaphor,” originated in a pair of influential and widely read books in the 19th century: Andrew Dickson White’s A History of Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom and William Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. Prior to the appearance of these books, science and religion, except for the occasional skirmish like the Galileo Affair, got along fine and were actually supportive of one another, as recent scholarship has clearly shown. And even the infamous Galileo Affair was nothing like its urban legend would have us believe. Galileo was not tortured and his so-called “imprisonment” was confinement to his house. There was indeed a tragic conflict, but not in the sense that polemicists like White and Draper portrayed.

Given the current highly publicized controversy over evolution, the warfare metaphor can seem all too obvious, if we forget about all the activity taking place off the media radar. In the big picture, warfare is but a minor facet of the interaction between science and religion. Unfortunately, this facet is the most interesting and, far and away, the one likely to appear in a newspaper. When creation and evolution clash in a courtroom, to take the most familiar example, the daily news fills up with stories reminding us of the supposed conflict between science and religion. There is a “Here comes the Galileo Affair” template being dusted off and trotted out to make sense of the issue.

The NOMA aspect, of course, does not make the news for, alas, it is not news. Who can imagine an evening news science report beginning with, “Scientists at Yale University today announced that they have discovered the origins of dark matter. Yale theologians report that this discovery has no relevance to religion.” On the other hand, we often hear stories like “Religious leaders in Kansas City have demanded a meeting with local school board officials to protest the teaching of evolution in local high schools.”

Just as the majority of scientists work on topics that do not come into contact with religion, so theologians and biblical scholars pursue topics in fields unrelated to science—topics like the origins and development of scriptures, philosophical solutions to the problem of evil and the promise of eternal life. These topics do not connect in any natural way to science. NOMA helps by highlighting the extended non-overlapping nature of science and religion.

NOMA, however, over-compartmentalizes by equating science simplistically with factual knowledge and religion with value or opinion. In that case, there would clearly be no overlap between the two pursuits, but only if we accept those overly narrow and restrictive definitions.

Science is not the only source of factual statements and there are important statements made by science that are not purely factual in any simple sense. Cosmologists, for example, speak in meaningful ways about the existence of other universes but these statements cannot be considered factual in the same sense as statements about other planets. In the same way, religion reaches beyond the realm of values and morals. If statements like “God exists” or “child abuse is wrong” are considered factual claims about reality then, according to NOMA, they could not be religious statements. On the other hand, few scientists would consider statements like these to be “scientific.” So what kind of statements are they? The inability of NOMA to handle claims like these about reality highlights its limitations as a universally applicable model.

Gould acknowledged that science was limited to making factual claims about the world’s physical behavior, and therefore provides only a limited picture of reality. Many, however, are seduced by the success of science into assuming that science is capable of discovering all possible facts about the world. The great astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington developed a winsome analogy for this assumption, describing a “man who set out to study deep-sea life using a net that had a mesh-size of three inches. After catching many wild and wonderful creatures from the depths, the man concluded that there are no deep-sea fish that are smaller than three inches in length!"

NOMA, while certainly helpful and broadly applicable, is too limiting. Its definition of science breaks down at those murky theoretical boundaries where observation becomes impossible, like the claims about other universes. Likewise, religion in almost all of its manifestations is more than just a collection of value judgments and moral directives. Religion often makes claims about “the way things are.”

The previous blog is adapted from The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions by Karl Giberson and Francis Collins. The book, which will appear in February 2011, is the first in a series of books that BioLogos will be producing in concert with InterVarsity Press. (Collins’s contributions to this volume ended when he became head of the NIH).

Dr. Karl Giberson is a physicist, scholar, and author specializing in the creation-evolution debate. He has published hundreds of articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. Dr. Giberson has written or co-written ten books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. He is currently a faculty member at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #51666

February 19th 2011

I trust that you will examine the other two models that Barbour proposes, Dialogue and Integration.

Nathan - #52091

February 21st 2011

Both science and religion are rooted in faith. Scientific theory is called theory because it isn’t proven. Scientists believe a theory to be true to some extent or another, based on how convincing they perceive the evidence to be. This is the very definition of faith. Religious convictions are also beliefs based on evidence.

The difference is scientists tend to discount religious evidence such as personal spiritual revelation as unconvincing, while the religious find it so convincing as to trump contradicting scientific evidence on the same given topic.

Who is right? You’d have to be omniscient to know for sure. The rest of us, scientists or not, always just go with our best guess.

Deacon Jim Stagg - #52158

February 21st 2011

Marvelous assessment!

Steve Ruble - #52159

February 21st 2011

Nathan, while it may sometimes be the case that religious believers find their personal spiritual revelation “so convincing as to trump contradicting scientific evidence on the same given topic”, I think it’s more interesting to contemplate the fact that believers almost always find their personal spiritual revelations so convincing as to trump contradicting personal spiritual revelations. Since no one can have anything more than their own authority when they claim the truth of their own revelations, how could you go about trying to find out which one is correct?

Who is right? You’d have to be omniscient to know for sure.

To be technical, even a being which believed itself to be omniscient couldn’t know for sure, because there would always be the chance that it was merely being tricked into thinking it was omniscient.  Even gods can’t tell whether they are dreaming.

John - #52163

February 21st 2011

“Scientific theory is called theory because it isn’t proven.”

Wrong. Here we go with the theory=guess canard.

“Scientists believe a theory to be true to some extent or another,…”


“... based on how convincing they perceive the evidence to be.”

Utterly wrong. It’s based on the theory’s track record in making empirical predictions. This idea that scientists debate some body of evidence instead of using hypotheses and theories to produce new evidence is simply insane.

“This is the very definition of faith.”

It’s the antithesis of faith. Every scientific conclusion is held tentatively.

“Religious convictions are also beliefs based on evidence.”

No. In fact, none of those who advocate against evolutionary science have sufficient conviction to test a single empirical prediction of their own hypotheses.

“The rest of us, scientists or not, always just go with our best guess.”

No, Nathan, theories aren’t merely guesses. Got any empirical predictions?

Gregory - #52185

February 22nd 2011

“In fact, none of those who advocate against evolutionary science have sufficient conviction to test a single empirical prediction of their own hypotheses.” - John

It is short enough, but sufficient until the next best thing comes along for people to point out some of the flaws &/or gaping holes in the so-called ‘evolutionary scienceS,’ which is quite easy to do when one enters a field-discourse, for example, with evolutionary psychology ‘just-so’ stories.

They think they are ‘doing science,’ just like you, John! Those evolutionary psychological ‘scientists.’

Giberson would do his best to treat them fairly & probably succeed, as he seems like a patient guy. But in the end calling ‘evolutionary psychological scientists’ as ‘friends’ is a tough pill to swallow. The taste is cleverly, intoxicatingly bitter company, most often nihilistic.

In the middle grounds, one must be most careful to watch where they are standing and moving.

Do you enjoy *unscientific* evolutionary ‘just-so’ stories as much as the next person, John?

If they’re not ‘science,’ following in the revered name of ‘evolutionary,’ at least they’re often imaginatively entertaining in the effort.

John - #52191

February 22nd 2011

Gregory doesn’t appreciate irony:
“It is short enough, but sufficient until the next best thing comes along for people to point out some of the flaws &/or gaping holes in the so-called ‘evolutionary scienceS,’”

Like what? 

“... which is quite easy to do when one enters a field-discourse, for example, with evolutionary psychology ‘just-so’ stories.”

Science is about making and testing empirical predictions, not “just-so stories.”

“They think they are ‘doing science,’ just like you, John! Those evolutionary psychological ‘scientists.’”

Which ones, Gregory? Be specific.

Again, people like Rich and Nathan are weak in faith. If there was any real faith in their claims about science, we’d see Christian colleges and universities funding real, empirical research that tests real ID or creationist hypotheses. That’ll never happen.

Those who brag the loudest about being Christians have millions of dollars to spend to bust unions or fool people into thinking that they have the best health care in the world, but they lack the faith to invest a dollar in a biotech firm that rejects the evolutionary approaches that are so effective in IDing bioactive compounds in favor of pure intelligent design.

Doulgas E - #52289

February 22nd 2011

John - thank you for calling a canard a canard.  I was contemplating how to do this in a single paragraph, but you have done so well, I no longer feel the need to address the ‘science is faith’ assertion.

JWF - #52370

February 23rd 2011

Amazon shipped my copy yesterday. Can’t wait to take a look.

Gregory - #52528

February 25th 2011

“to point out some of the flaws &/or gaping holes in the so-called ‘evolutionary scienceS,’” - Gregory

“Like what?” - John

Are you really so pigeon-holed in your views to *not know* there are gaping holes in evolutionary scienceS in various fields?

Do you think there are *no* holes in evolutionary theories?

I am quite sure you are weaker in faith than Rich. Nathan I don’t know and can’t comment.

So, have some ‘faith’ to tell us, John, there are *no gaping holes* in *ANY* ‘evolutionary scienceS’.

conrad - #52768

February 28th 2011

My experience with Biologos is that no one is permitted to discuss science here.

Ed Witten’s M-theory, Alan Guths inflation theory, George Smoot’s cosmic background radiation and Vera Rubin’s evidence for dark matter are all banned subjects here.

Believe me I have tried to discuss them.

It is the Galileo story all over again here.

Science is a forbidden subject at old Biologos.

And that will never lead to progress in understanding.
It is sad.

Jon Garvey - #52788

February 28th 2011

@conrad - #52768

But Conrad, I’ve never heard you try to discuss those things: what you generally do is read them into Genesis 1, which is not the same thing, and not what most would term “discussion of science”.

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