Douglas Hayhoe, Ph.D., Instructional
Leader in Secondary Science, Toronto District School Board (email@example.com).
The heavens declare the
glory of God. Thus begins Psalm 19 in the Bible, written by King David as he
reflected on his adolescent years, watching the moon and stars moving across the dark sky
night after night while he guarded his sheep. Van Leeuwenhoek clapped his hand to his
mouth in awe when he first observed through his new microscope a tiny animal,
never before seen by human eye. And after formulating his ground-breaking equations for
general relativity and gravitation, Einstein made the often-quoted remark that The
most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.
Scientists and theologians alike experience the same awe and mystery about nature, or
creation as I like to call it, even though the scientists study it with different methods
and for different purposes. But does this rule out any meaningful relationship between
science and religion? The ways in which people relate science and religion to each other
are both varied and complex. The physicist and theologian, Ian Barbour, recently received
the prestigious Templeton Prize for ground-breaking work he has done in this area. In
chapter 4 of his book, Religion and Science:
Historical and Contemporary Issues (1997), Barbour elaborates on four broad categories
or models he had previously defined for relating science and religion: conflict,
independence, dialogue, and integration.
Galileos clash with the Church
concerning his view of the solar system is probably the most well-known example of the
conflict model between science and religion. Although this particular issue was resolved
years ago, the public debate in America today focuses on the age of the universe and the
origin of species. Creationists who maintain that the universe is only thousands of years
old, when there is overwhelming evidence of its great antiquity, give credence to the idea
that science and religion are invariably opposed. On the other side, well-known scientists
who assert that science leaves no room for religion also support this model. For example,
Carl Sagan started his famous film series, Cosmos,
with the statement, The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. And
Richard Dawkins, author of The Blind Watchmaker,
says that a case can be made that faith is one of the worlds great evils,
comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate (The Humanist 57, January/February 1997).
Many if not most scientists today,
however, still have strong religious beliefs. A survey of American scientists conducted in
1997 found that 40% believed in a personal God who reveals Himself and answers prayer, the
same number as was found in similar surveys conducted in 1914 and 1933 (Scientists
and Religion in America, Scientific American,
September 1999). It is probably not necessary to remind the readers that most of the
scientists who laid the basis for the scientific age, including Boyle, Copernicus,
Faraday, Galileo, Kepler, Maxwell, and Newton, believed in a personal God who revealed
Himself in the Scriptures and answered prayer. For many people, therefore, there must be
other plausible ways of relating science and religion.
Following the conflict surrounding Darwin, many scientists and theologians developed an independence model for thinking about science and religion. This model assumes that each is an independent, autonomous field of study or sphere of reality, with its own unique rules and language. Science has very little to say about religious beliefs, and religion has very little to say about scientific study. The National Academy of Science, for example, in its controversial 1981 policy statement, espoused this model when it said that Religion and science are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstanding of both scientific theory and religious belief.
This independence model appeals to
many scientists and theologians because it gives them freedom to believe and think what
they like in their respective fields, without having to relate one to the other. However,
this strength of the model can also be considered its main weakness, for it
compartmentalizes reality. Barbour writes, We do not experience life as neatly
divided into separate compartments; we experience it in wholeness and interconnectedness
before we develop particular disciplines to study different aspects of it. In
other words, as appealing as the independence model is, it doesnt do justice to the
complex reality we live in.
The dialogue model looks for
methodological parallels between science and religion. It finds support from scholars who
realize that scientific study is not as objective as once thought. John Polkinghorne, a
theoretical physicist who became an Anglican priest, puts it this way: both science and
religion involve personal judgment, as both deal with data that is theory
laden. We can also say that both science and religion involve a set of beliefs.
Barbour himself favours this dialogue approach to science and religion, especially in its
multi-level approach to reality. However, he then takes it one step further by applying
scientific methods and standards to religious beliefs and practices. This leads him in the
direction of process theology, where the problem of the existence of evil is solved by
limiting the power of God. The Oxford scientist and theologian, Alister McGrath, on the
other hand, offers a more balanced exposition of this model, in The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion
(1999). McGrath understands the difficulties
many people have with religion, when they try to grasp how an all-powerful and good God
can allow evil and suffering in the world. He offers no simplistic answer, but points out
that the wave-particle duality of light, accepted by all scientists today, is surely as
difficult to understand as the duality between Gods sovereignty and mans free
Environmental concern is one practical
area where it is essential that science and religion dialogue with each other; for there
is abundance evidence that scientific knowledge alone is not enough to move people to deal
with the overwhelming environmental challenges that confront us. Thus it is interesting to
note that on one occasion the agnostic scientist, Carl Sagan, invited an important
religious leader to share the same platform with him, when dealing with a key
environmental issue. Another important area for practical dialogue includes issues with
moral implications such as cloning. Along this line, the Dialogue Group of Scientists and
Catholic Bishops recently remarked that, despite occasional tensions and
disagreements, there can be no irreconcilable conflict between religion and science
Science and religion can offer complementary insights on complex topics like the emerging
In another direction altogether,
Fritjof Capra finds parallels between modern physics and Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism in
The Tao of Physics.
The integration model of relating
science and theology is sometimes called the mutual support model. As
such it has a long history. From 1600 1800 most British scientists such as Boyle
and Newton espoused natural theology, the idea that the perfection and variety
in nature gives us evidence of Gods power and handiwork. This viewpoint was dealt a
severe blow by Darwins theory that variety in nature actually arises from random
mutation and natural selection. Many prominent scientists, however, continued to hold to a
theology of nature. They believed that through religion, or the Bible (in the
case of Christianity), scientists gain the proper perspective for engaging in science.
This integration model was extended in the 20th century by Catholic scholars
such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Islamic scholars such as Seyyed Hossein Nasr.
Recently, a group of American
scientists including William Dembski have resurrected natural theology in terms of
intelligent design. While accepting all the evidence in support of an ancient
universe and most of the evidence for the evolutionary history of life, they argue that
there may be an irreducible complexity to life that transcends the laws of
chance and physics. If its not illogical for SETI researchers to look for
intelligent design (i.e., extra-terrestrial beings) in the analysis of signals from outer
space, Dembski asks, why is it illogical to look for intelligent design (i.e. Gods
finger) at key points in the history of matter and life, such as the creation of the
universe, the origin of the first genetic code, and the formation of complex biological
structures? Others, however, such as the Calvinist astronomer Howard van Till and the
Catholic theologian-biochemist Arthur Peacocke, feel that this God of the gaps
theology leads only to disillusionment as the gaps are progressively filled in. The very
laws of science, they reply, were the methods God used to develop the great variety of
living things that exist.
The model or combination of models
that a person adopts for relating science and religion is likely to depend strongly on his
or her up-bringing, as well as on the fundamental presuppositions he or she brings to the
issue. When talking with students about science and religion issues, we should emphasize
that competent and successful scientists today can be found in all four categories. We
should also avoid giving simplistic answers to questions about science and religion.
Note: Web sites such as
amazon.com contain many reviews and comments on books written by the scientists and
authors mentioned above. I have mostly restricted this essay to science and Christianity.
However, web sites relating science to other religions are easily found.
 quoted by Barbour, Religion and Science, Chapter 4, Part II.
 McGrath argues that any methodological parallels between science and religion should not imply that we have to make either field of study subservient to the other, but that we should expect to find similar complexities of concepts and even paradoxes in both. As mentioned above, if we find it hard to reconcile the thesis of the existence of an all-powerful and good God with the observation of evil and suffering in the world (as Charles Darwin did), then it is instructive to know that it is also difficult to reconcile the particle model of light and matter with the incontrovertible evidence that photons and electrons also act as waves. Who can understand how a particle so tiny that it fits through a slit several atoms wide also acts as a wave so wide that it travels through two slits million of atoms apart resulting in double slit interference? (See Richard Feynmans fascinating discussion of this paradoxical wave-particle duality in The Character of Physical Law.)
 Barbour, Chapter 4, Part III.