On Science & Religion

I think science is great.  We have learned so much about ourselves and the universe through committed scientific inquiry.  If you ask me, continually striving to better understand our natural reality is a wonderful and worthwhile pursuit.  It is truly amazing how our knowledge of ourselves and our universe has changed and expanded since the dawn of the scientific revolution.  Technology has also advanced in utterly remarkable ways thanks to advancements made in the sciences.  So my point is, science has my support.

I’m finding it more and more necessary to voice my support for science these days.  Why?  Because, from experience, some will assume that I must be anti-science since I’m religious.  I mean, you can only be scientific or religious, but you can’t be both, right?  As you’re probably well aware, science and religion are frequently thought to be in conflict; they’re thought to be offering competing explanations about life and reality.  And in some instances they are.  But this controversy raises a lot of important questions.  Like, what is the relationship between scientific inquiry and religious inquiry?  Are science and religion enemies, strangers, partners, or friends?  Do they offer competing or complimentary explanations about life and reality?

Questions like these involve two pursuits that both have massive scopes—so let me be clear that I don’t intend to provide any exhaustive answers.  Rather, what I want to do is zoom out from the details and consider some of the possible paradigms for understanding the relationship between science and religion. To do this I will take many cues from Ian Barbour.  Through the course of his life, Barbour made significant contributions in the area of science and religion and his work helped to form what has become a new field of science-and-religion studies.  He proposed four possible paradigms for the relationship between the two forms of inquiry.

Probably the most widely familiar paradigm is that science and religion are in conflict.  According to this view, their relationship is that of enemies; their explanations of the origins of life and nature of reality are thoroughly incompatible and deeply opposed.  This position is held by both scientific proponents who are anti-religion and religious proponents who are anti-science.  It is the view that is embraced by renown scientists and vocal critics of religion, Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, for example.  Their recent documentary, The Unbelievers, is worth watching if you wish to get a flavour of the ‘conflict paradigm.’  It opens with the following scene in which they casually chat about explaining science and destroying religion over a coffee:

Their exchange, though brief, indicates their shared view that science and religion are necessarily in conflict.  When asked whether he’d prefer to explain science or destroy religion, Dawkins replies, ‘Well, I think that they go together.’  He essentially implies that it’s a false choice.  As far as he’s concerned, religion is destroyed as science is explained—they go hand in hand.  Later he broadly claims that religion offers ‘a competing scientific explanation,’ and goes on to suggest that evidence which supports evolutionary explanations of the development of life have rendered God’s existence useless.  Dawkins and Krauss are not alone in their opinion that science and religion are in conflict, either.  Many religious individuals would agree that the standard explanations of science contradict the views of their religion.  So, for a great number of people, science and religion are irreconcilable forms of inquiry that offer contradictory understandings of life and reality.

This view is only one of the four possible paradigms of the relationship between science and religion.  The second paradigm is that science and religion are independent.  According to this position, they are total strangers.  They have absolutely no contact, and thus, they are neither enemies or friends.  One of the most famous advocates of the ‘independence paradigm’ was scientist and author, Stephen Jay Gould.  He argued that science and religion each have their own ‘magisterium’, or realm of authority, and their respective realms are entirely independent.  In his book, Rocks of Ages, he elaborates that, ‘the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry…’

The third possible paradigm is that science and religion are in dialogue.  In other words, the two pursuits are partners in their quest for truth.  Though they each have some unique and separate interests, this position posits that science and religion do have some common concerns as well.  So an effective partnership may be formed to the extent their work overlaps.  In the event they encounter a conflict, both science and religion are involved in meaningful negotiations in an effort to settle their dispute and continue their partnership.  So, according to the ‘dialogue paradigm,’ science and religion are compatible forms of inquiry that offer complimentary explanations of life and reality.

The last of our four paradigms is that science and religion can be significantly integrated.  This paradigm imagines the two pursuits as friends.  And as friends, they are not merely complimentary but a deep concord exists between them.  This relationship is similar to one of partnership, but a step beyond.  Supporters of this view seek to integrate the explanations of science with the explanations of religion in ways that form an intimate, mutual bond between the two.  Both endeavours are considered to be worthwhile and valuable, and both are treated with high esteem.  This paradigm is perhaps the messiest of them all, because its proponents take the task of integrating the findings of science with the understandings of religion most serious.  For example, many will argue that evolutionary understandings of the development of life are not incompatible with the existence of a divine Creator and Sustainer; that evolutionary processes of change could very well be mechanisms designed by a higher power to create the diversity of life as we know it.  This sort of integrative work requires thoughtful and creative negotiations, of course, the kind of negotiations that may be paradigm-shifting in some cases.

Since both the ‘sciences’ and ‘religions’ are incredibly broad and sometimes diverse groupings, Barbour’s paradigms can definitely be detailed in various ways depending upon the particular scientific and religious views one holds.  Nonetheless, his framework provides a useful starting place which can open up thought and discussion on the matter, especially since science and religion are frequently assumed to be in conflict (with ‘no questions asked’).

Wading through the controversy is made difficult, partly because of the language that is typically used.  What I mean is, usually discussions or debates delve into the relationship between ‘science’ and ‘religion.’  But neither pursuit is uniform, and neither is founded upon a single methodology and a single philosophy that is unanimously agreed upon.  We’d do ourselves a collective favour if we moved beyond these sort of misleading generalizations.  We’d do ourselves a collective favour if we discussed the relationship between the sciences and religions with careful precision, because the philosophies of science and philosophies of religion are plural.

So what paradigm best represents your views about the relationship between the sciences and religions?  What specifically has persuaded you to embrace your position?  What specifically seems weak or wrong about the other views?  Let’s all strive to discuss these things more deeply with openness and respect.

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