Today we continue Ch. 4 and our discussion of models for the interaction of science and religion. Previous posts on this chapter provided an overview and a description of the conflict model. Today we look at the independence model.

Science and religion as INDEPENDENT from each other

Besides conflict, independence or as I call it the “Enlightened view” is the other popular model for the interaction of science and religion and is the one backed most predominantly by scientists or religious scholars that are united in their war against the warfare model of science and religion. Independence usually takes the form of saying something like, “science answers the ‘what’ questions while religion answers the ‘why’ questions.” In the area of evolution and creation, the independence model is a favorite of those who put forth evolutionary creation or theistic evolution who accept the science behind evolution. God is the Creator and is the ‘why’ behind nature and evolution is the ‘how’ or mechanism that God used to create. People of faith who see religious knowledge in Lindbeck’s experiential expressive model most certainly support this view.” You don’t have to believe in God to support independence either though as evolutionary biologist, historian of science, and noted agnostic Stephen J. Gould (1941-2002), also supported this view.[1]

In addition to the why vs. how interpretation in which science and religion answer different questions, independence may also refer to the use of contrasting methods. Proponents of independence argue, “science is based on human observation and reason, while theology is based on divine revelation.”[2] Independence can also refer to science and religion using different sets of language. The primary and secondary causality distinctions made by Thomas Aquinas where God is the Primary Cause and creaturely activity is a secondary cause is a good example of this. Another example comes from the story told by scientist-theologian John Polkinghorne of the boiling teapot. If a friend, hearing you teapot whistling asks, “Why is your teapot boiling?” how do you respond? You could say it’s because water molecules are being heated to the point that they become steam. You could also say that it’s because you want a cup of tea.[3] There are two different but both correct answers that reflect different layers of reality.

Whether they answer separate questions, use dissimilar methods, or employ alternative vocabularies, this model still holds fast to science and religion being independent from one another and is inherently dualist. In fact, it can even be taken further than that and some supporters say that science and religion cannot possibly be at war with each other because they only overlap when disciplinary boundaries are overstepped or scientists and theologians are arrogantly speaking in areas outside of their kin. So, as long as we leave evolution, technology, and medicine to science and leave morality, purpose, values, etc. to religion, everything is copacetic.

To see independence in relation to the creation and evolution discussion, consider the following quotes from three Christians who support evolutionary creation or something similar. First, biologist Darrel Falk:

“Believing in gradual creation is the equivalent of trusting the instruments of science that yesterday’s temperature was really fifty-nine degrees. It is hard for some of us to trust those instruments because it seems to us that there is so much at stake. Nevertheless, after careful consideration, we must trust them – they are legitimately measuring what they were made to measure. Accepting this, however, need not be the first step down a slippery slope. Taking the step of doubting the resurrection or other tenets of our faith has nothing to do with the instruments of science. Scientific tools are silent on the issue of whether the resurrection occurred, just as meteorology is silent on the issue of whether God’s Holy Spirit can penetrate our atmosphere.”[4]

Next, from geneticist and director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins:

“In looking closely at chapters 1 and 2 of the book of Genesis, we have previously concluded that many interpretations have been honorably put forward by sincere believers, and that this powerful document can best be understood as poetry and allegory rather than a literal scientific description of origins… Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religion faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts.””[5]

Last, from Old Testament scholar John Walton:

“Believing in the Bible does not require us to reject the findings of biological evolution, though neither does it give us reason to promote biological evolution. Biological evolution is not the enemy of the Bible and theology; it is superfluous to the Bible and theology. The same could be said for the big bang and for the fossil record.”[6]

As we saw earlier in the chapter, there are absolutely questions within science or religion to which the other doesn’t speak. For instance, my lab uses genotyping and molecular fingerprinting methods to identify and characterize tick-borne infectious agents. What, if anything, does religion have to do with that? Nothing. Now, the philosophy of science and framework for scientific study as a whole does have it’s grounding in theology and religious philosophy (although many would debate this), but the specific questions that we study in my lab do not.

Does it work the other way? Do questions of religion have anything to do with science? I would argue yes and therein lies the rub. We are natural beings in a natural world and science is the best method available for studying said world. A potential worry for religious believers about the independence model is that religion seems to be making concessions while science doesn’t have to. Put another way, why does it seem like science gets a first-row seat with all that legroom while religion is relegated to a seat in coach next to the crying baby? As science progresses, couldn’t it, won’t it, attempt to take over more and more from religion? A quote from good friend and fictional scientist, Bill Billson, highlights this. “Sure, science and religion are independent. What’s that? Evolution is true and it’s causing us to revisit traditional Christian beliefs? Genes play a large role in personality and behaviors generally associated with the soul and mind and brain are becoming increasing inseparable? Oh, just ignore that because science and religion are ‘independent’. Why doesn’t it work the other way such that religion causes us to revisit traditional scientific beliefs? I already told you, science and religion are separate from each other!” The pushback against the independence view from religious believers is warranted.

In addition to the potential for differing “lane sizes,” answers to the big questions are seemingly incomplete if both science and religion are not consulted. How does one adequately discuss human origins, ethics, solutions to climate change, or personalized medicine (to name a few) without inviting both science and religion to a seat at the conference table? From an academic perspective, it doesn’t seem that maintaining disciplinary boundaries is worth ignoring large and important questions or having to arbitrarily place a portion of the question in paper while the rest is in plastic.[7] Must we mimic the Bombardier beetle who holds two chemical compounds in distinct reservoirs in its abdomen lest it internally release the toxic spray meant for its enemies? Isn’t the effort worthwhile if it could bring us closer to truth or a better solution to a global problem?

That depends. If you’re looking to be anti-conflict and think the German university model of separate disciplines is Ausgezeichnet or das beste,[8] independence makes for an easy thesis. But what if you’re concerned about the limitations mentioned above and still are a pacifist? And what if, like the author, you’re a Christian who believes that Jesus Christ is the lord of all, including Creation? Carry on, my wayward son.[9]

[to be continued on Monday]

[1] “To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth million time (from college bull sessions to learned treatises): science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists. If some of our crowd have made untoward statements claiming that Darwinism disproves God, then I will find Mrs. McInerney [his third-grade teacher] and have their knuckles rapped for it (as long as she can equally treat those members of our crowd who have argued that Darwinism must be God’s method of action). Science can work only with naturalistic explanations; it can neither affirm nor deny other types of actors (like God) in other spheres (the moral realm, for example).” Stephen J. Gould, Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge, Scientific American (1992), Volume 267, pp. 118-121.

[2] When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? (HarperOne, 2000), p. 18.

[3] I would say it’s because I’m out of coffee but I’m not British or nearly as cool as John.

[4] Darrel Falk, Coming to Peace with Science: Bridging the Worlds Between Faith and Biology (IVP Academic, 2004), p. 216. Italics are my emphasis.

[5] Francis Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006), p. 206. Italics are my emphasis.

[6] John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (IVP Academic, 2009), p. 166. Italics are my emphasis.

[7] That’s a bad play on grocery store bags if you didn’t get it.

[8] See the idea of separate disciplines for research really took off in Germany and then was brought to the U.S. in the 19th century. And Google translate tells me Ausgezeichnet means excellent and das beste means the best so go Passat.

[9] The lyrics to the Kansas song are actually spot-on to this discussion. Surely heaven waits for you!