Towards an appropriate context for the science-religion dialogue

Manuel David Morales, Mexico

Science without religion is lame,
religion without science is blind
– Albert Einstein

Integration as an explanatory model

To establish a dialogue between science and religion is a difficult task, due to the numerous ways in which we can conceive the nature of such interaction. John William Draper, for example, claims that throughout History there has been a constant conflictive relation between both spheres, which has originated essentially as a consequence of the ambition of power of institutionalized religions1. Another interesting case is Stephen Jay Gould’s view, whom through his well-known NOMA model (non-overlapping magisteria) has established a radical divorce between the two spheres.2 On the other hand, scientists-theologists such as Ian Barbour3, Arthur Peacocke4, or John Polkinghorne5, have established that science and religion complement each other to deliver us an integral knowledge of reality. While each of these models have their strengths and weaknesses, it is a fact that to resort to just one of them turns to be insufficient. No one can deny there has being conflicts between them, as well as moments of mutual integration; this is why it is necessary to study such relations within a broad perspective that can really place each episode in its proper historical and sociocultural context. Today, there is also a strong necessity to establish the clear boundaries that distinguish science from religion; but this can only be done within the methodological framework, for it would be of little satisfaction to not recognize the important human factor, which has a constant influence in the theory and practice of science, and is reflected in our spiritual and philosophical perceptions.

If we wish to establish an appropriate context for the dialogue between science and religion, I believe there are three fundamental criteria we should take into account. The first of which is research productivity, or, in other words, that our relational formulation can be fruitful in terms of the development of new theological, philosophical, and meta-scientific fields of research. The second one is the capacity to establish a normative framework that provides an appropriate guide to possible discussion topics in the future. Finally, to be able to explain satisfactorily the larger amount of data relating science and religion provided by the various academic disciplines: history, sociology, etc. Inside this outline, the conflict model ends up being problematic, because if one understands there is an inherent confrontation between science and religion, one is not capable of placing such conflict events into their proper contexts; therefore, the possibility of discussion is ruled out.6 Something similar happens with the NOMA model, which at the same time that it establishes an apparent dualism between the subjective and the objective, linking these concepts with religion and science respectively7, it ignores completely that our world’s complexity requires us to establish relational connections between the different levels of reality, which are related to the various disciplines of knowledge.

In consideration of the above, and without venturing into the extreme of superficial syncretisms, I believe that the integration model, also called model of complementarity, constitutes a reasonable alternative. Such model establishes very clear boundaries between both spheres of knowledge: science would be worried about describing and explaining the facts associated to the various mechanisms we observe today in the natural world; and religion and theology would be in charge of discerning the meaning, significance, and purpose of the world, beyond what is purely factual. Both domains do not compete with each other. Rather, they offer us complementary explanations of reality. On the other hand, and even if this model is not quite committed to explaining the various conflict events that took place between science and religion, it leaves us an open door for the addition of context, thus helping us to avoid inadequate generalizations. Finally, and which I believe is most important, this model allows us to build fruitful and creative bonds between science and religion, both of which, initially, help us to understand reality in its broad diversity of concepts. It is not about carrying out a simple exchange of unconnected ideas, but about understanding that to be able to have a worldwide vision about reality, it is necessary that science and religion –as essential constituents of our own human nature– be in a constant interaction process in both ways.

Questioning some ideological obstacles

A1. Science... only speculations?

To some Christians, one of their greatest fears is that modern science ends up discrediting all their most rooted orthodox beliefs, like a “black beast” devouring everything in its path. Therefore, and as counter-attack, they seek to discredit by all means the viability of scientific theories; whether by signaling them as doubtful, or even, sometimes, discarding them altogether. I believe this constitutes a serious mistake. Today, modern science is one of our most valuable systems from which to acquire knowledge, for not only does it provide us with really precise descriptions of how the natural world functions, but it also allows us to develop a large amount of technological applications, which are already part of our daily lives. It is this profound correlation between theory and experimental control, together with science’s huge technological success, which compels us strongly to have a realistic vision of science. Even if our scientific knowledge is critical, contextualized and limited, it gradually gets us near to the truth.8

Something that calls my attention a great deal is the fact that most of these objections are not driven by the interest of proposing some new and reasonable epistemological understandings of the natural sciences; but rather by a strong ideology. In the particular case of Christianism, the fundamental goal is to maintain intact certain biblical interpretations. This can be seen, for instance, when many creationists, at the same time they use the Big Bang as direct evidence of creation ex nihilo9; they refuse to accept Darwin’s evolutionism, due to the fact that it severely questions their literal interpretation of the Genesis. Personally, I think this is unacceptable. Biblical interpretation must be nourished by constant discussion and reconsideration of ideas; all the more when nature itself, held by Christians as divine creation, gives us reasonable clues that, indeed, Darwinism has been one of the key mechanisms for the development and diversification of life in our planet.10 In the same way some decades ago scientists had the intellectual honesty of replacing their ancient paradigm of an eternal universe, upheld many times upon pure ideology, for an universe which began with the Big Bang; many biblical interpreters should also be sufficiently serious as to rethink some of their literal interpretations that are clearly incompatible with the factual evidence that science offers us.

A2. Religion... sole foundation to our society?

Another aspect that makes the dialogue between science and religion very difficult is the idea that our society’s structure must necessarily be founded upon certain religious codes. Thus, when we are faced with subjective matters that touch both science and religion, like the practice of abortion or the nature of homosexuality, it is sought that the citizen’s decisions be based on arguments that are purely religious: “Do not do that, for it is contrary to the tenets and nature established by God.” This form of clericalism is a terrible way of promoting dialogical, critical and constructive thinking.Today, we live in pluralistic societies, in which the people who form them follow a wide range of religions, beliefs and philosophies. To desire that the decisions in our community be taken solely upon religious considerations constitutes, I believe, a dangerous attack against the freedom of choice and of consciousness of people. We shouldn’t fall into these types of selective and intolerant attitudes.

Now, it would be good to point out that my criticism is not directed towards denying the citizens’ legitimate right to express themselves over a certain topic, to associate themselves, and even to spread their opinion; because, in fact, I am convinced that to demand a complete “privatization” of religion is nothing more than a typical utopia of the old liberals. No opinion that we have concerning these controversial topics will fall outside our most intimate religious and philosophical beliefs. The point here is that the act of making a choice in our societies can and must be done on the basis of secular arguments, so that we can guarantee we are not excluding those people who do not share our particular worldviews. It is precisely in the realm of debates –where public and private speeches are often not distinguished clearly, nor free opinion is distinguished from direct influence in decision making–, where clericalism originates.

B1. Science... humanity’s fate?

In the other side of the road, and inside some circles formed by “scientific fundamentalists”, the idea that modern science and technology are humanity’s end has gained great popularity. It is argued that these two, together with “secularization”, -identified with an atheistic-activist society- would end up replacing every expression of religiousness.This philosophy is actually not new, for it already reached its peak in the “Age of Enlightment” through Auguste Comte’s positivism. This thinker offered us through his law of the three stages a social evolution in which humanity would move from a theological stage –identified with the traditional religiousness governed by anthropomorphisms– to a metaphysical stage –bearing some resemblance with the ancient desire of founding a natural religion based on reason–, to finally get to a positive stage, that would mean the triumph of the natural sciences against the humanities and religion. Therefore, it is not odd that the ones who persist today in keeping that romantic scientific utopia alive are some Anglo-Saxon scientistic thinkers11.

Before such an extremely optimistic vision, it would be good to ask ourselves: ¿why does religious thinking still persists in our societies? Because, for better or worse, after a little more than five centuries of scientific and technologic development religions keep being strongly attached to our cultures. The significant point here is that in most people, even in scientists, instead of excluding each other, these stages would seem to complement each other. To the scholar of religions Odon Vallet, even if the religious world experiences today several social transformations, people’s spiritual necessities keep being the same than those which people had in the past.12. This social evolution, suggested by old positivism and brought back to life by some modern scientistic thinkers, does not endure being put into practice. Science, due to its particular and limited nature, could hardly replace religion, because the latter constitutes one of the fundamental pillars of our cultures. In fact, it is interesting to see how Auguste Comte confirmed this notion when he transformed his positive philosophy in an institutionalized religious cult, his “Religion of Humanity”.

B2. Religion... just irrelevant superstitions?

A final aspect I would like to analyze is the idea that today religion lacks of relevance for our contemporary culture. Inside this outline, any form of religious or spiritual thinking is overrated, reducing it to a mere superstition that is lacking of any concrete value for the development of our societies. One of the “classic” strategies used with this purpose in mind is to distort what we understand by religion, assuming that it is a closed system of beliefs, based solely on faith and blind obedience to religious authority –be it a sacred book, a hierarchical structure or, ultimately, a “leader”. In this way, by comparing it to modern science, of which we know it is formed on the basis of critical thinking, it loses all credibility inside our world. Is this definition really effective? I think not, absolutely not. Even when it is possible today to find religious systems that match these characteristics, for example in certain fundamentalisms and sectarian movements, the employment of such an idea in most cases constitutes nothing more than a conceptual puppet. The basis of a properly called religion does not reside in blind obedience to a certain authority, but in extraordinary events which provide man with a true wholeness in respect to his purpose and meaning in the world. These events can actually be extensively broad, for they encompass from miraculous acts such as Christ’s Resurrection, or the Isra and Mi'raj (ascension into Heaven) of the prophet Mahoma, to more existential events such as the Nirvāṇa (Enlightment) of Gautama Buddha. In fact, it is interesting to note that there have even been cases in which orthodoxy within religions has been strongly questioned by their own theologists.13

One very important issue remains, and is that when we place ourselves before the big questions, such as why does something exists in the place of nothing? Are we, humans, really meaningful? What is good, bad, or beautiful? etc., science allows us to glimpse at its huge epistemological limitations. In scientific terms, the majestic sound of Sebastian Bach’s “The Passion According to St. Matthew” is nothing more than a juxtaposition of mechanical waves propagating through the air, Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” is a simple –and of little interest– mixture of solid particles, distributed over a physical surface of certain dimensions. Something similar happens in the field of Ethics, because science, for example, is incapable of determining the tremendous moral difference there exists between developing an H bomb that will exterminate thousands of people, and a solar panel network that will benefit economically vulnerable rural communities. Are scientific explanations the only important and necessary explanations for humanity’s development? Evidently, no. Some scientistic thinkers have simply opted for ignoring the big questions, however, I believe this is an intellectually dishonest alternative. Humanity, the natural world, and reality in its entirety are much more than laws of physics, quantifiable parameters or observable phenomena, due to the fact that they possess an identity, structure and richness that transcends what is purely empirical. This fact, materialized in humanity’s profound questions, demands explanations, and religion constitutes a legitimate means to provide them.

This article was translated by Nicolás Manfredi and reviewed by Alfredo Francis, under the grant “God's Evolution” awarded to the Science and Faith Centre (Spain) by the BioLogos Foundation (USA)

  1. DRAPER, John William. History of the Conflict between Science and Religion. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  2. GOULD, Stephen Jay. Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. New York, Ballantine Books, 2002.
  3. BARBOUR, Ian. When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? USA, HarperCollins Books, 2000.
  4. PEACOCKE, Arthur. Paths from Science towards God: The End of all our Exploring. Oxford, Oneworld Publications, 2001.
  5. POLKINGHORNE, John. One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology. Philadelphia / London, Templeton Foundation Press, 2007.
  6. A classic example is The Galileo Case, regarding which many non-accommodationist critics insist in portraying it as the unquestionable evidence that science and religion confront each other. Here, it is highly ignored that this episode of History was influenced not only by the revolutionary scientific experimental methodology which was coming to life, but also by an entire series of social, political and ideological factors associated to the notion that certain representatives of the Roman Catholicism had about God’s revelation, the medieval scholastic system and the interpretation of the Bible. Nevertheless, I believe that the most significant fact is that Galileo himself established through his life’s work that science leads us to divinity, because nature is God’s creation.
  7. This dualism between the objective and the subjective world ends up being problematic because of two reasons. First, the fact that disciplines such as quantum mechanics would seem to be heavily questioning the notion that there is no interaction between the observer and the observed. Second, that even if subjectivity is one of the most important factors in religious experience, nearly all religions are founded over the basis of one or more universal truths –not relative truths.
  8. It is important to bear in mind that if we question the cognitive capacity of the natural sciences, at a greater or lesser extent our ambition of acquiring divine knowledge will also be affected. In the end, all these ideological objections lead us to an extreme solipsism, in which a “matrix” reality would be as likely as the notion that our world as we know it, with all its natural mechanisms, is indeed real.
  9. MORALES, Manuel David. Big Bang: ¿teológicamente relevante? [online] RYPC magazine. November 17, 2010 [retrieved August 10, 2011]
  10. To discuss the validity of Darwin’s evolutionism as a theory and scientific fact is not one of the goals of this article. However, a good place in which one can find a lot of information about the large amount of creationist’s claims is the TalkOrigins Archive’s database.
  11. The English chemist Peter W. Atkins, relentless supporter of the “Dawkins ideology” is one of the most popular cases, for he has tried to argue in favor of an “omnipotent” science. See, for example: ATKINS, Peter W. El poder ilimitado de la ciencia. In: CORNWELL, John (Ed.). La Imaginación de la Naturaleza: Las Fronteras de la Visión Científica. Santiago de Chile, Editorial Universitaria, 1995.
  12. VALLET, Odon. Las Religiones en el Mundo. Buenos Aires, Siglo XXI Editores, 2003.
  13. An interesting case, for example, is that of Liberal Theology, an investigation movement developed within German Protestantism and which characterized itself for being very critical to the different dogmas upheld by the conservative schools of that period.

Manuel David Morales is M.Sc. in Theoretical Physics graduated from the IFM at the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo, México, and Ph.D. candidate working out in numerical relativity. Previously, he received a B.Sc. in Applied Physics in the Universidad de Santiago de Chile. Manuel currently researches about the interaction between science and religion in the cultural context of Latin America. He is the director and founder of RYPC.
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