Karl Giberson
 on February 19, 2011

The Relationship Between Science and Religion

Ian Barbour—arguably the first true scholar of science-and-religion—identified four ways that science and religion could relate.


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’sHistory 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).

About the author

Karl Giberson Headshot

Karl Giberson

Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.