Since Charles Darwin’s publication of Origin of Species in 1859, debates between science and religion that assumed a conflict model turn out on closer inspection to be debates in which rival claims are made for the “correct” meaning to be attached to scientific theories and theological claims. The publication of John Draper’s History of the Conflict between Science and Religion in 1874 and Andrew Dickenson White’s two-volume A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom is the source of this idea. The “Draper-White Thesis,” as it is now known, originated in the view of 18th-century philosophers like David Hume and John Locke that the church was an institution whose ignorance and intolerance had hindered human progress, while science was a force of cultural and intellectual liberation. For the past century this has been the predominant view of the relation between science and religion among laypeople and scientists alike. It brings together a triumphalist view of science and a patronizing view of religion that does not square with the historical facts past and present. While it cannot be denied that in some cases real conflict existed, as in the cases of Galileo and Darwin, the notion of a state of “warfare” between science and religion is simplistic and mostly wrong. The relation between science and religion in the Middle Ages was neither suppression nor support, but a complex mixture of conflict, compromise, understanding, misunderstanding, accommodation, dialogue, alienation, and the going of separate ways. This same pattern continues today, even as the warfare model remains strong in popular understanding and the views of many scientists and conservative Christians.
There are several issues around which a real or imagined conflict revolves. The earliest issues were epistemological: can scientific knowledge be integrated into religion? From the Copernican displacement of the Earth from the center of the solar system to Darwin’s theory of evolution, which displaced human beings from the center of the universe, theology was forced into rethinking Christian tradition in light of what the sciences revealed about nature. Epistemological issues remain primary in the contemporary dialogue between science and religion. A second area of contention is methodological and involves the duality between science based on “physical facts” and theology derived from “faith,” or between a naturalistic and a religious worldview. Scientific naturalism since Darwin denies the church’s right to interfere in the progress of science by introducing theological considerations into scientific debates. Today, among liberal theologians and some evangelicals, any appeal to divine purpose as an explanation of physical processes is rejected as a “god of the gaps” explanation, the assertion of which creates real science-religion conflict that is often heated, as well as incoherent theology. A third area of contention is in the field of ethics. Most recently, the issues have focused on genetic engineering, nuclear power, and medical procedures like birth control and abortion. Past debates focused on such medical procedures as vaccination and anesthesia. In the 18th century, one of the more serious reasons for opposing Darwin was fear that the theory of evolution would lead to the abandonment of ethical constraints in society. With these issues, it is not so much science as its applications that are of major concern. Finally, much of the conflict between science and religion has arisen from issues involving social and political power. This is reflected in conflict between progressive science-based ideologies and conservative and ecclesiastical forces.
These issues are at the forefront of the contemporary academic field of “science and religion,” the historical roots of which lie in the 1960s, when scholars began developing constructive methodologies for relating science and religion. Scientist-theologian Ian Barbour is generally regarded as the “founder” of the field with the publication of his Issues in Science and Religion in 1971, which was revised in 1990 as Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues. Drawing on the work of Alfred North Whitehead, Thomas Kuhn, Michael Polanyi, Stephen Tomlin, Mary Hesse, Frederick Ferré, and Norwoon Hanson, Barbour’s insight was the recognition of the similarities between the methodologies and epistemological structures of science and theology: Both employ metaphors and models in their claims about the world, and both use hypothetical and deductive methods within a revisionist, contextualist, historicist framework. Barbour called this common epistemological framework “critical realism.”
Critical realism was pursued in England by physicist- theologian John Polkinghorne and biologisttheologian Arthur Peacocke, who died in 2006. In Germany, Wolfhart Pannenberg brought Karl Popper’s understanding of theories as revisable hypotheses into the discussion in his Theology and the Philosophy of Science (1976). Nancy Murphy, from the perspective of the philosophy of religion, employed Imre Lakatos’s notion of a “scientific research program,” which includes a central commitment to a theoretical “hard core,” a surrounding belt of ancillary hypotheses, and criteria for choosing between competing research programs. John B. Cobb, Jr., Philip Clayton, Niels Gregersen, Thomas Torrance, and Wentzel van Hyussteen made additional important contributions.
The chief concern of these scholars was to create a methodological framework for dialogue that allows for methodological reductionism (studying wholes in terms of their parts, referred to as “bottom-up causation”) as a legitimate method in scientific research while respecting the irreducibility of “top-down” causal processes and properties referred to by theology, philosophy, and other higher-level disciplines. While some postmodernists and anti-realists criticize this approach by pointing to the difficulties that confront realist interpretations of scientific and theological concepts and by questioning the “metanarrative” role of science, critical realism is the predominant view of most scholars participating in the science-religion dialogue.
In numerous ways, the contemporary natural sciences challenge as they reshape theological reflection on the God-nature relationship. In physics, Albert Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity challenge our ordinary sense of time’s flow and the assumption of a universal present moment. This makes problematic the idea that God experiences and acts in the world in the fl owing “now.” Just as challenging is the relation between divine action and natural causality. Since Newtonian mechanics pictured nature as a closed machine-like system, divine action was either understood in terms of interventionism or reduced to human subjectivity. But developments within the philosophical interpretation of quantum theory, cosmology, chaos theory, and the neurosciences may provide a foundation for new theories of noninterventionist, objective, special providence. In cosmology, scholars like Robert John Russell, William B. Drees, George Ellis, Ted Peters, Mark Worthing, and William Stoeger focus on the consonance between theological notions of the universe as a creation and features of standard Big Bang theory, including the apparent beginning of the universe at T = 0 and the “anthropic principle,” quantum indeterminacy, and the odd fact that the physical constants of nature have precisely the values they need for the emergence of life.
In dialogue with evolutionary theory, Arthur Peacocke and process theologians like John B. Cobb, Jr., Ian Barbour, David Griffin, and John Haught have in their distinctive ways written about “theistic evolution,” which is the view that what science describes in terms of evolutionary biology can be meaningfully affirmed as God’s action in the world. This is not another version of the intelligent design argument because billions of years of natural disaster, suffering, death, and extinction, plus the overall lack of directedness in evolutionary change raises serious challenges to any notion of divine action in nature. Barbour, Peacocke, Cobb, Haught, and Griffin, along with Holms Rolston and Thomas Tracy, center their discussions of theistic evolution on the complex “values” in nature. Evolutionary and ecological thought also plays a central role in Sallie McFague’s model of the world as the “body of God” and Rosemary Ruether’s discussion of the Gaia hypothesis and God.
Further areas of discussion are how genetics, sociobiology, the neurosciences, and computer science will affect the way we understand the human person. Fruitful theological insights into these issues come from scholars like biologist Francisco Ayala, Ted Peters, Denis Edwards, Anne Forest, Philip Hefner, and Nancy Murphy. Peters also draws together scientific and religious perspectives on ethical issues involving genetic discrimination, gene patenting, cloning, stem cell research, and human freedom. Several of the sciences challenge the notion of redemption, which in Christian tradition focuses on the doctrines of incarnation, Christology, resurrection, and eschatology. The very size and complexity of the universe force us as scientists, persons of faith, or both to look beyond concern for humanity and the Earth to the destiny of the universe as a whole.
Finally, important areas of research are now cutting- edge concerns in contemporary science-religion dialogue. Science itself is recognized as a thoroughly human endeavor open to the investigations of gender analysis. The work of Nancy Howell, Evelyn Fox Keller, and Helen Longino provides a good source for gender analysis of the science-religion dialogue itself. Additional voices from the world’s religious traditions are increasingly participating in the science-religion dialogue. These voices include Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist scholars. Muslims and Jews have always been engaged with the natural sciences, but the participation of Buddhists in this dialogue is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Dalai Lama, B. Alan Wallace, David Galan, and José Cabézon are among the important writers in this field. Generally, Buddhists assert that the natural sciences pose little threat to Buddhism’s non-theistic worldview and practice traditions. Indeed, Buddhist dialogue with the biological sciences focuses mainly on the neurosciences because Buddhists tend to claim this branch of the sciences supports Buddhist traditions of meditation. Paul O. Ingram has written about a Buddhist-Christian-Science “trilogue” as part of the focus of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies. Other important areas include the history of science, the theological critique of “scientism” and scientific materialism, the relation of science to spirituality, and the roles of philosophy and theology in scientific research programs.
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