Science and religion: allies or adversaries?

Published November 1, 1999

SCIENCE CAN purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.” (Fides and Ratio, 1998). A group of hunters recently stumbled upon the remains of a Native man who died at least 500 years ago, before the arrival of Europeans, and was preserved naturally in glacial ice in British Columbia’s remote Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park near the Yukon border. Archeologists and the general public were immediately attracted to this unusual find. Chief Bob Charlie of the Champagne and Aisihik First Nations who lives in the area spoke wisely of his belief in the integration of the scientific and the religious aspects of the discovery.”This person will have much to tell us to help us understand our past and the history of our homeland,” the chief said. “We wish to see these human remains treated with dignity and respect and to see the most positive outcome to the long ago event. Scientific knowledge deals with the cold hard facts. With our cultural history we’d like to add the human story.”Science and religion ? the empirical world and the world of meaning, mysticism and morality; the cold hard facts and the human story ? belong together in Canada’s First Nations’ cultures and our Canadian nation as a whole. Some consider science and religion to be allies. Humanistic thinking since the Renaissance and Enlightenment thinking over the past two centuries have fabricated a split between these profound ways of engaging reality and many perceive science and religion as antagonists. This article will argue for the creative integration of science and religion by assessing eight recently released books. Exciting developments are occurring in current debates between science and religion. Because of the vast complexity of the subject it may prove helpful to suggest four distinct dynamics in this interactivity even though the books being considered do not fall neatly into all four categories. Mark Parent’s Spiritscapes: Mapping the Spiritual and Scientific Terrain at the Dawn of the New Millenium (Northstone, 1998) was reviewed in the Anglican Journal, April 1999. (Parent’s schema, found on page 81 of his book, has been slightly modified by the reviewer). The first dynamic follows the rubric that science must ultimately conquer religion ? the “classic” secular approach. Stephen Hawking proposes that a Grand Unified Theory or Theory of Everything will eventually be found by which humans can “know the mind of God.” Science will eventually explain everything and God will become redundant. The second dynamic is essentially the opposite of the first. Religion must ultimately conquer science. After a century of intimidation by science, intelligent design creationists (creation science) will prevail and define a subdued role for science based on the superiority of divine revelation as conveyed in the Genesis narrative. Another twist to this position is that new discoveries (for example, quantum theory in physics) could again place science at the service of religion. The third dynamic is that science and religion deal with separate realities. The principle of “respectful non-interference” in each other’s domain must be maintained. The magisterium of science lies in the empirical realm while the magisterium for religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two teaching authorities do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry. Thus far in the schema, science and religion constitute a dualism. In the spirit suggested by John Paul II, the fourth dynamic calls for a creative integration of the two. To realize this, both factions will require a dose of humility. Each contributes synergistically to the benefit of the other and to the whole. Science and religion can serve to purify the other, each drawing the other into a wider world where both can flourish. While elements of truth exist in all of these dynamics and each needs to be studied for its own merits and flaws, it is the holistic fourth dynamic that may well encompass and best express the desires of many Christians including those scientists who claim to be Christian. Science and Theology: An Introduction by John Polkinghorne is a good way to become introduced to the subject. He was a former professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge and is also an ordained priest of the Church of England. Science and Theology
An Introduction
by John Polkinghorn, paper, $28.50
144 pages
SPCK / Fortress Press
0-8006-3153-6″Theology has a due autonomy that science must respect,” he says, “(and) science’s deliberations are not open to theological control and interference.” Yet, knowledge is one and created reality is one, so there must be some interrelationship. Polkinghorne used the term “consonance” to describe the nature of the science/religion relationship. The opposites on the spectrum are absorption and independence. Science and theology must be conceptually autonomous but theology recognizes that there must be a consistent fit with science where there is some degree of overlapping concern. The eight chapters of his book introduce the reader to the nature of science and of theology; he portrays a scientific picture of the world; humanity; theism; divine action; Christian theology; the world faiths (science is a good meeting point for interfaith dialogue) and the search for knowledge and wisdom reflected by the two disciplines. Polkinghorne’s prose is crisp and concentrated. He knows his material and conveys a marvellous grasp of his subject. He believes that a strong faith has nothing to fear and much to gain from an intellectually honest appraisal of contemporary science. All told, this is a helpful entree and a handy reference when reading more widely in the field. Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life by Stephen Jay Gould, a well-known Harvard professor and prolific science writer, is one of the more readable books of the collection. Gould, a paleontologist by training, claims great respect for religion. He is concerned about the “fuzzying of boundaries when faith and skepticism invade each other’s territories.” Rocks of Ages
Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life
by Stephen Jay Gould
hardcover, $26.50
241 pages
0-345-43009-3Gould advocates the NOMA principle (non-overlapping magisteria) whereby equal status and independence is given the teaching authority of both science and religion. “Science gets the rocks,” he suggests, “and religion the rock of ages.” Science needs to focus on empirical realities, while religion’s realm is related to meaning, moral values and ultimacy. The 19th and 20th centuries saw science and religion battling over common turf. It is natural for the two subjects to overlap and a time of boundary redefinition has been in order. Secondary issues were often behind the clashes that occurred but true science and true religion were never at war. Psychological defences over humanity’s place in the universe cause some of the difficulties but happenings such as the 1925 trial of Scopes, the Tennessee teacher of evolution, produced more heat than light. “We should not give ethical authority to science, nor see natural law as the basis for morality,” he suggests. While Gould leaves the impression that he is giving each party its due, some readers may grow suspicious, by the end of the book, that what is due science exceeds that of religion. What makes for interesting reading is the common sense moderation of Gould’s approach. While readers will learn much here, they will not find a fully coherent theory linking science and theology because, in the end, the author is not truly versed in the matter and is himself not a believer. Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism by Robert T. Pennock, is an exhaustive philosophical unmasking of creationism; or as proponents current define it ? Intelligent Design Theory. In light of the recent Kansas Board of Education decision to remove evolution and even the Big Bang theory from the state’s science curriculum, this impressive study provides a field guide for science teachers and other educators to understand that creationism is very much alive, and to learn what classic fundamentalists in new garb are attacking, and why. Tower of Babel
The Evidence Against the New Creationism
by Robert T. Pennock
429 pages, hardcover, $55.00
MIT Press
0-262-16180-XPennock, a Quaker philosopher at the University of Texas bends over backwards to treat the subject fairly. “I do not mean to attack the sincerity or intentions of creationist believers… (or) religion in general… I believe strongly in the freedom of religious belief (or unbelief), and I hope that others who do as well will recognize that the broad creationist program actually poses a real threat to that freedom.” The author demonstrates how creationism is antithetical to science and does not belong in science classrooms. He predicts utter chaos in science programs generally if the spirit of what happened in Kansas should spread ? as it has every possibility of doing. This careful examination and logical refutation concludes that the creationist debate is a non-issue and that creationists argue against themselves by attempting to turn a profoundly biblical creation metaphor into a scientific theory which thereby undermines the Bible’s higher message. Politically and educationally, creationism is pernicious. Since the recovery of creationism in our time is not so much an intellectual as a psychological reaction to perceived sinister forces of secular humanism emanating from powerful bastions such as universities and corporations, it is unlikely that Pennock’s astute and careful investigation will change many fearful minds. Skeptics and True Believers – The Exhilarating Connection Between Science and Religion by Chet Rayno is an attempt, this time by a scientist and science journalist, to transcend spiritually the dualism between science and religion. The gap in his estimation is between the material world, which is in the realm of science and the world of ethics and mystery which is the purview of religion. Skeptics and True Believers
The Exhilarating Connection Between Science And Religion
by Chet Raymo
228 pages, hardcover, $29.95
Doubleday Canada
Raymo believes that science too is spiritual and could do with a healthy dose of doxology in the face of a universe which will always be open-ended. He quotes Of the four books, this is the most effective in moving the science and religion debate beyond traditional categories of thought and toward a new future. Summary Thoughts The four dynamics in the schema presented at the beginning of this essay ? science over religion; religion over science; science and religion functioning as separate but equal realities; and religion and science as creatively integrated ? provide a way for readers to help frame their reflections and tentative conclusions. The word “tentative” is significant, because the field of studies in science and religion is going through a period of stimulating but highly productive ferment. The reviewer has not attempted to suggest what books fit into what dynamics in the schema and those reading the books may wish to do so. Many of the traditional categories for thinking about mystery and empiricism; faith and reason; the human story and the cold, hard facts are currently in disarray and much of the inherited wisdom no longer seems to provide a dependable frame of reference. This reviewer, still a novice with the literature, presently believes that since ultimately all knowledge is one, an approach favouring a creatively integrated dynamic of religion and science has the best future potential. Perhaps, too, it may be helpful to stand aside from the heat of the argument and recall the simple but profound words of Bob Charlie. Speaking from his traditional culture which views all of life through the eye of his spirituality, Charlie struggles as many must struggle to accommodate both science and faith. Teilhard de Chardin (himself a scientist and mystical theologian) wrote: ?The heart of God is found at the heart of the world, and the living, natural world is shot through with the presence of the divine.?

Books also considered

Nature’s Destiny


How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe
by Michael J. Denton
The Free Press
454 pages, hardcover, $38.50
ISBN 0-684-84509-1

The universe was intelligently patterned for humans. Mankind is a central product of the purpose of creation and not a random accident fit to survive. Biological theories demonstrate that mankind is no accident. There is a purpose to the laws of the universe. Homo sapiens is the only possible highly intelligent life form the universe can produce. Natural process leads to our emergence; we are nature?s destiny.

Romancing the Universe

Theology, Science and Cosmology
by Jeffrey G. Sobosan
Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.
212 pages, paper, $24.00
ISBN 0-8028-4648-3

This book proposes that if religious belief is to remain intellectually persuasive it will need to form a mutually respectful partnership with the leading theories and findings of science. We need to wed the best from both disciplines into a coherent vision of the cosmos by allowing theology to incorporate science into its doctrines while refusing to diminish the contribution theology can make to science.

Evolution’s Hand

Searching for the Creator in Contemporary Science
by John Cafferky
East End Books/Venture Press
200 pages, paper, $19.95
ISBN 1-8906973-00-0

Cafferky argues for an intelligible universe founded by a supernatural intelligence. This intelligence is what we mean when we talk about God. The entire universe is intelligible and God stands outside this design. The Big Bang and evolution is ultimately located in a Creator, or ?Mind? of the universe. Rather than seeing evolution as an unguided series of mutation and permutation, a design is behind all that evolves.

God, Humanity and the Cosmos

A Textbook in Science and Religion
edited by Christopher Southgate
Trinity Press International
449 pages, paper, $54.95
ISBN 1-56338-288-1

This is an undergraduate level textbook, written in a way that makes it accessible for general readership. It outlines in a clear, comprehensive fashion conversations and controversies, past and present, between science and religion. It address all the current issues raised by the books surveyed in this review and moves the debate forward; helping readers discover the new frontiers of a most exciting topic of our time. Dr. Wayne A. Holst is a lecturer at the University of Calgary. He was a pastor, missionary and church executive for 25 years and his current work focuses on modern spiritualities and cross-cultural awareness.


  • Wayne Holst

    Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for twenty-five years; he taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and, for 15 years, he has coordinated adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

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