Over the last weeks I have posted draft material of two chapters of my new book now tentatively titled, Parallel Universes: Searching for a Wormhole in the Creation-Evolution Dialogue. These chapters discussed the nature of science (Ch. 2) and religion/theology (Ch. 3).

I have just completed a draft of Ch. 4 Weddings and Wars: Interactions of Science and Religion which I will be splitting into five posts over the next 2-3 weeks. Today’s post is the longest, so brace yourself. As always, I greatly appreciate the feedback either via comments here or suggestions in person or by email. Thanks for reading!



“The enlightenment is under threat. So is reason. So is truth. So is science, especially in the schools of America. I am one of those scientists who feels that it is no longer enough just to get on and do science. We have to devote a significant proportion of our time and resources to defending it from deliberate attack from organised ignorance [religion].” [1] Richard Dawkins

“The remarkable insights that science affords us into the intelligible workings of the world cry out for an explanation more profound than that which itself can provide. Religion, if it is to take seriously its claim that the world is the creation of god, must be humble enough to learn from science what that world is actually like. The dialogue between them can only be mutually enriching. The scientists will find in theology a unifying principle more fundamental than the grandest unified field theory. The theologian will encounter in science’s account of the pattern and structure of the physical world a reality which calls form admiration and wonder.”[2] John Polkinghorne

“So it seems reasonable to ask what cosmology, now that it is a science, can tell us about God. Sadly, but in all earnestness, I must report that the answer as I see it is: Nothing. Cosmology presents us neither the face of God nor the handwriting of God, nor such thoughts as may occupy the mind of God. This does not mean that God does not exist, or that he did not create the universe, or universes. It means that cosmology offers no resolution to such questions.”[3] Timothy Ferris

“Experience shows that traditional Christology can accept an evolutionary world-structure; but, what is even more, and what contradicts all predictions, it is within this new organic and unitary ambience, and by reason of this particular curve of linked Space-Time, that it can develop most freely and fully. It is there that Christology takes on its true form.”[4] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin


Moving from science, religion to science AND religion

We’ve spent the last two chapters discussing the nature of science and religion separately. We’ve learned about all of the ‘isms that make science, “science,” and the interplay between data, hypothesis, and theory, best described by philosopher of science, Imre Lakatos. We’ve also looked at multiple models of religion, noting how differences between them affect theology, the importance of the Bible, and most relevant to this book, how one views the interaction of science and religion. Now it’s time to puree it all together and see how science and religion relate to each other in general and specifically in the evolution and creation discussion.

What is an “interaction” of science and religion? Is it simply an academic and otherwise irrelevant combination of separate disciplines to sound, to use an academic buzzword, interdisciplinary? Could we do the same and create fields like science and ceramics, religion and athletic training, theology and Spanish, or science and business?[5] Are we using the words science and religion so we can get away with talking about creation and evolution without actually using those annoyingly overused and potentially offensive words?[6]

To model the interactions of science and religion means to look at how people relate the two disciplines, be it their cognitive statements, the methods they use to generate new knowledge, or philosophical connections between them.[7] Say both science and religion speak to the same question of interest, but science says X is true while religion says Y. What do we do? Is it a Math test where only one answer is correct and we must choose between X and Y? Is it an English paper where both X and Y can be correct because there are no wrong answers?[8] Is the best answer the one that sees truth in the combination or integration of both X and Y (X + Y or X * Y)? The one that accepts both X and Y as correct because they come from separate domains with different methods that have nothing to do with each other?

There is a big asterisk to all the X and Y discussion and that is there must be some relevant context to the comparison. Something like 90-95% of what science studies is, in fact, irrelevant to religion (and ditto). That my favorite protein in the world, Alsin,[9] interacts with Rab5a to regulate movement of stuff in your cells doesn’t have anything to do with religion even to an academic like me who loves connecting ideas. However, that we can study Alsin’s homologue or “distant cousin” protein Vps9p in budding yeast because evolution has conserved similar machinery for movement of stuff in yeast cells and all kinds of other cells including neurons may have something to do with religion. Similarly, that Jesus had four brothers is not relevant to science but that Jesus is lord of all creation probably is. So when we discuss and compare science and religion we are in some sense assuming that they can speak to the same or at least similar questions. Context is king.

To highlight the importance of context and begin to see what types of interactions are possible between science and religion, let’s consider a recent article describing the work of a Chinese research team on non-viable human embryos. They used gene therapy to edit the DNA and make the human embryo resistant to HIV.[10] Does this article impact your theological beliefs? Your faith? Are you upset the work is being done? Do you think these researchers are “playing God?” Do you think the study worth merit and encourage further research on the topic?

Let’s look at a different article. In this one, a multinational collaboration identified an evolutionary molecular mechanism that enabled butterflies to expand their color vision.[11] What’s your response to this article? What if I told you the scientists used the same gene therapy technique as in the human embryo paper? Has your reaction changed? How would you respond to an article that describes a protocol for extending the lifetime of a quantum bit?[12] Surely your reaction is not the same in all cases.

The way we view science and religion clearly varies based upon the content and context of the discussion. Those people that say science and religion are “at war” don’t agree that this applies to all science or all religious beliefs. Some choose to say they “don’t believe in science” but they can’t actually mean this because they don’t deny the law of gravity, their disbelief enabling them to escape our atmosphere when convenient. And they don’t stop purchasing iPhones out of a newfound denial of quantum mechanics. No, they’re saying they “don’t believe in evolution.”[13] So even though I will be describing ways in which science and religion interact “broadly” we must appreciate that one may see the interaction of biology and religion in one way, the interaction of physics and religion in a different way, and the interaction of psychology and religion in yet another way.[14] Though the interaction may be different based upon the particular scientific discipline considered the interaction types described in this chapter are the options available to all science and religion discussions.

Modeling the interactions of science and religion

Several models have been proposed to account for the potential ways in which science and religion interact. These models range from fairly complicated to very much so complicated.[15] The predominant method for relating science and religion is the categorization created by the late Ian Barbour (1923-2013), former physics and religion professor at Carleton College, one of the founders of the academic field of science and religion, role model to many, and all around stud. He put forth that there are four different ways in which science and religion can interact: conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration.[16] Some scholars have suggested alternative strategies though most expand upon Barbour’s work by sub-dividing his categories resulting in classifications with six, eight, and nine potential interactions (see very complicated).

The most interesting competitor model was ironically proposed by Barbour earlier in his life and appropriated Richard Niebuhr’s 5-fold description of the way Christians interact with culture (Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, Christ transforming culture) with religion = Christ and science = culture.[17] Because Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is so well read it is tempting to apply his ideas to the science and religion discussion and indeed, nearly 25 years later after Barbour, philosopher and theologian Nancey Murphy also used Niebuhr’s framework but with some modifications.[18] However, like Murphy, I believe a 1:1 for swap of religion (or for her, “theology”) for Christ and science for culture doesn’t work and I find the adaptations required are significant enough that they outweigh the benefits of his model. Barbour must have felt the same way since he developed his own classification later and stuck with it the remainder of his life.

To keep it as simple as possible, and provide respect where it’s due, we’ll stick with Barbour’s model of conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. In what follows I will describe the interaction types and briefly note the strengths and weaknesses of each to the science and religion discussion. To see the interactions “in action,” we will directly apply them to the topic most important to this book, evolution and creation. I will also place the groups involved in the evolution-creation discussion (e.g., young-earth creationists, old-earth creationists, evolutionary creationists, etc.) into the appropriate science and religion interaction model though I note the difficulties in doing so since individuals within groups can vary.

[to be continued on Monday]

[1] Richard Dawkins, Dawkins campaigns to keep God out of classroom, The Guardian (November 27, 2006).

[2] John Polkinghorne, Science and Creation: The Search for Understanding (New Science Library, 1988), pp. 97-98.

[3] Timothy Ferris, The Whole Shebang: A State of the Universe Report (Simon & Schuster, 1998), pp. 303-4. I was made aware of this quote by reading Kenneth Miller, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution (Cliff Street Books, 1999).

[4] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Science and Christ (Harper & Row, 1968), p. 189.

[5] No. Yes (see yoga). No. Yes (see biotechnology).

[6] Seinfeld was pretty good at talking about things without, you know, actually mentioning them.

[7] I will continue to use the world religion, but I could just as soon replace religion with “theology.” Though there are ways in which other attributes of religion (e.g., sociocultural expectations, ethics, religious practices, etc.) interact with science they will not be addressed in this chapter.

[8] I apologize now to my wonderful faculty colleagues from the English department who do fantastic work.

[9] It should be your favorite protein too. All my students agree.

[10] Kang et al. Introducing precise genetic modifications into human 3PN embryos by CRISPR/Cas-mediated genome editing (2016). Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics 33: 581-588.

[11] Perry et al. Molecular logic behind the three-way stochastic choices that expand butterfly colour vision (2016). Nature 535: 280-284.

[12] Ofek et al. Extending the lifetime of a quantum bit with error correction in superconducting circuits (2016). Nature in press.

[13] Obviously this doesn’t make sense either because how does one choose not to “believe” something scientists have demonstrated by evidence when they “believe” all of the other things scientists have told them? I can choose to not believe in the philosophical message of Sharknado 4 (that being a Shepard means you can’t die from being eaten by a shark 72 times) but I can’t deny that the horrible movie does, in fact, exist.

[14] And in reality it’s probably much worse than that.

[15] For an accessible and short summary of notable models, see: http://www.counterbalance.org/rjr/atypo-body.html

[16] All of Barbour’s books are worth reading but the two most relevant to this particular discussion are Religion and Science (Gifford Lectures Series) (HarperOne, 1997) and When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? (HarperOne, 2000).

[17] Tenneson et al. A New Survey Instrument and Its Findings for Relating Science and Theology (2015). Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 67: 200-222.

[18] Ibid.