In today’s third and final post for Ch. 3 (the hallmarks of religion and theology), we will identify parallels in science and religion. Parts 1 and 2 are linked if you haven’t read them or need a refresher. As always, feel free to leave a comment or suggestion!

Parallels in science and religion

One does not write a book such as this without believing that it is at least possible for science and religion to be on some sort of common ground. The five potential interactions of science and religion we will discuss in the next chapter range from sacred struggle to spirited synthesis, with many options in-between. That there is even the potential for positive interaction requires commonalities, a few of which will be presented here.

Both science and religion believe the claims that they make about the world and our interactions with it correspond to reality. However, neither scientist nor theologian is so confident to believe their words provide an exact replica of the natural world or God. Whether it be limits in human intellect, difficulty in subject matter (best illustrated in attempts to describe an infinite God with human language, especially one as ridiculous as English), instrument liabilities, problems or questions that are not amenable to empirical investigation, etc., all collectively enable at best an approximation of reality.

Limitations in language alone necessitate the need to construct models to convey the reality we investigate. Similarly, metaphors, analogies, and symbols are useful to both scientist and theologian, and not just those who want to sell more than 15 copies of their books. It is impossible to create an exact picture of what atomic particles look like since we cannot visualize them so models are constructed that take account of available data to infer atomic structure. It is perhaps not surprising then that models improve over time as more and more data is collected. Analogies and metaphors are also used in science, especially in the classroom as they enable students to connect the often-confusing and detailed findings of science with prior or commonsense knowledge. Personally, I use analogies frequently in my teaching, and because I don’t eat breakfast and am hungry during my lectures they often involve food.[1]

Analogies and metaphors are quite useful in theological discourse too. To refer to God the Father does not actually mean that God is our father, but to say that God possesses qualities like a father and to acknowledge Jesus’s referral to God as father. Similarly, to say God is love does not mean the God = love[2], but instead that love is one of God’s attributes. Symbols are important to science but even more so to theology. In his remarkable systematic theology, God: The World’s Future, Ted Peters says, ”Christian theology is the explication of the basic symbols found in scripture…”[3] Later in the same book, Peters writes, “To have faith in the God of the future is to reorient one’s life around the symbols associated with Jesus Christ.”[4] Amen, dude, amen.

Another foundational similarity (pun also intended) between science and religion is that both can’t help but be affected by the current philosophical context of postmodernism and its replacement of foundationalism with post- or non-foundationalism.[5] Foundationalism, intimately associated with modernism, models knowledge as a building where beliefs are constructed over an underlying foundation one idea or pillar at a time. The foundational principles can not themselves be proven but are required as a starting point, with all other ideas accepted due to their logical connection to these principles. Growth in knowledge occurs in one-direction, up from the foundations, the prototypical example of which is Descartes’ “I think, therefore, I am.” So, cracks in the foundation are irreparable and the legitimacy of the foundations demands expert defense. We already looked at two options available to Christians (well, Protestants, at least) as foundations (the Bible, experience) and noted the gulf created by having these as the only options.

While science became SCIENCE[6] during the modern period, it is not clear to me how a practicing scientist today could be a foundationalist. Post-foundationalism, alternatively called holism, replaces the model of knowledge as a building with that of a network or web. Growth in knowledge occurs due to traffic in two directions, between the most supported beliefs, which lie in the center, and the less supported beliefs, which lie at the exterior. Unlike in foundationalism, it is not enough to debate foundations, but instead competition occurs between networks of ideas. We’ve already seen examples of post-foundationalism in religion (e.g., Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic model, narrative theology) and certainly Lakatos’s research programs from chapter 1 are holistic as well. Furthermore, the other philosophers of science discussed in chapter 1 all promoted post-foundational principles too.[7]

Interpreting science and religion through the lens of post-foundationalism is not giving up the farm at this point and will not preclude me from accurately describing the variety of ways in which science and religion interact. It is a simple fact that we live in a postmodern world and all intellectual endeavors are affected by it. So setting the stage in this way is required for this book to be relevant to readers in 2015 instead of 1915. Acknowledging that postmodern threads run throughout both science and religion does not mean that science and religion a priori cannot be at war. That said a commitment to modernism is more likely to cause people to see science and religion as necessarily in conflict. Conversely, the framework for knowledge that postmodernism (and thus post-foundationalism) provides is an ally for those who desire a positive interaction between science and religion.

Looking ahead

“…preoccupation with method is like clearing your throat: it can go on for only so long before you lose your audience.”[8]

Throat cleared, hopefully audience not lost.

What does this rabbit trail on theological method and the philosophy of science have to do with a book on the creation and evolution debate? Nothing and everything. Nothing in that the discussion is not about the method behind theology and science, but instead their respective findings in relation to the particular of origins. Everything in that method, while under the surface, drives the conversation. If you view religious belief in Lindbeck’s experiential-expressive realm, than you are likely to say that science and religion a priori cannot be in conflict because they offer distinct vocabularies about different areas, make that, different levels of human experience. Religious belief and dialogue is about personal experiences of God while scientific knowledge describes the natural world. Different realms of languages = no possible overlapping surface for conflict unless you don’t really understand the importance of religion or are anti-science. Thus those who see creation and evolution at odds clearly don’t understand how science and religion work!

However, if you see religious belief in Lindbeck’s propositional-cognitive realm, then science and religion both occupy the same level and complete each other.[9] Or they do the exact opposite and directly compete with each other for authority and explanatory power. If science and religion are at war then creation or evolution can be true but not both. Mutual exclusion means if one is right the other is wrong so winning the “discussion” means you don’t have to deepen your ideas if you can just find the weak points to attack in your competitor’s ideas.

In just these two models of religious belief alone, we see the dawning of several different ways to relate science and religion, a few of which are mutually exclusive. And we haven’t even considered the potential interaction with science that the cultural-linguistic view of religious discourse brings forth.

It is not a stretch to say our beliefs that science and religion are competitors in the intellectual marketplace, must be kept separate to keep the peace, or can be harmonized arise primarily out of the way we view religion and theology and much less so our views of science.

Prolegomenon over.


[1] I am quite proud of my use of McDonald’s and Burger King as correlates for repressible and inducible operons, respectively. The Big Mac also makes a great model for a bacterial cell wall. Ask your local scientist to explain these quite amazing models.

[2] Or God ≡ love for the Math major.

[3] Ted Peters, God: The World’s Future, 2nd, ed. (Augsburg Fortress, 2000), p. 34. Italics are my emphasis.

[4] Ted Peters, God: The World’s Future, 2nd, ed. (Augsburg Fortress, 2000), p. 81.

[5] Yes we have to go there. Trust me, it’s worth it.

[6] Said in a loud, triumphant voice.

[7] The following quote from Karl Popper best highlights post-foundationalism in science: “The empirical basis of objective science has thus nothing ‘absolute’ about it. Science does not rest upon solid bedrock. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down to any natural or ‘given’ base; and if we stop driving the piles deeper, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that the piles are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being.” Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Harper, 1965). As quoted in Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 1996), p.50.

[8] Jeffrey Stout, Ethics after Babel: The Languages of Morals and Their Discontents (Princeton University Press, 2001), p. 163.

[9] Obligate Jerry Maguire reference.