The Relationship Between Religion and Science

How should science and religion relate to each other? Are they battling over the same territory, the right to define what is truth and how we know it? Or perhaps they are two completely separate spheres of life – one deals the with objective and one with the subjective. Or is there another way; one where constructive dialogue between religion and science is possible, each informing the other as both strive to understand the world? In his book, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, Templeton prize-winning scientist-theologian, Ian Barbour, presents four ways that science and religion have classically related to each other: Conflict, Independence, Dialogue, and Integration. Ultimately, he argues that Dialogue is the ideal category for science and religion, although Integration may occasionally be appropriate.

As you read these categories, consider the following:

  • How do those within your congregation view the relationship between science and religion?
  • What are your own beliefs about this relationship?
  • How do you talk about science in your sermons, Bible studies, and everyday conversations?
  • What are your theological assumptions about the role of the Bible? What about the role of science?

1. Conflict

This first position is epitomized by the Galileo controversy of the early 1600s. Galileo openly argued that the earth revolved around the sun, and the Church charged him with heresy and banned his books. In the Conflict view, adherents see either science (and the scientific method) or the Bible as the source of all truth. They make “rival literal statements about the same domain, the history of nature, so that one must choose between them” (p.78). Barbour lays out two ideological camps that hold to this view.

First, scientific materialists believe that (a) the scientific method is the only reliable way to gain knowledge and (b) “matter (or matter and energy) is the fundamental reality in the universe” (p.78). In other words, all of reality can be explained if we understand its material components and how they interact. Under this view, religion might be explained as an evolutionary adaptation that promoted group cohesion and, thus, survival. Barbour believes this view makes unreflective philosophical claims about the purpose of the universe even as it denies the universe has any purpose.

Second, biblical literalists believe that scripture is without error and therefore offers us scientific propositions. Under this camp, scientific creationism has risen to defend a literal six-day creation and a young earth. Barbour criticizes this view because of its threat to both scientific and religious freedom, and its lack of academic contributions to science.

2. Independence

The second position that Barbour describes is one that views science and religion as completely independent of each other. There are three basic ways that this is expressed. First, neo-orthodox theologians, such as Karl Barth, argue that the only way God can be known is through Christ. Natural theology, in this view, relies too much on human reason and therefore does not reveal God, at least not reliably. Barbour argues that neo-orthodoxy has an incomplete doctrine of revelation by failing to incorporate the many ways nature reveals who God is. Second, many existentialists (both theistic and atheistic) view the realm of personal selfhood as distinct from the realm of impersonal objects. The former is known through subjective involvement and is the realm of religion, while the latter is known from objective detachment and is the realm of science. Barbour contends that existentialists fail to account for the relationship between God, the self, and nature. Third, some linguistic analysts see two entirely different types of language used in science and religion, respectively, that are simply non relatable. Religious language expresses moral principles, a set of attitudes, and personal religious experience. Scientific language, on the other hand, expresses the objective and empirical. This view, Barbour asserts, fails to see the ways that religious language makes truth claims about the natural world and vice versa. Each of these options is a step in the right direction by acknowledging that science and religion do have somewhat distinct spheres, but none pulls science and religion together in the mutually constructive way that Barbour desires.

3. Dialogue

The third position for Barbour, and the one he sees as most effective, is Dialogue. Science and religion are separate fields that dialogue with each other about what is happening in their respective spheres. However, unlike the Independence position, they communicate with each other concerning questions their spheres are not able to answer on their own. For example, science tells us about the origins of the universe and religion tells us that the universe is entirely dependent on God. For many, science leads them into deeper dialogue with faith and vice versa. Viewing the incredible complexity of a single cell can lead someone to ask questions about the mystery of life, just as reading about the freedom we have in Christ can lead someone to ask what that means neurologically. This position also highlights the methodological parallels between science and religion: both are theory-laden and require conceptual models and analogies to understand processes we cannot directly observe, and both have paradigms that set the terms for interpreting data. There are different emphases, but places of methodological overlap can facilitate dialogue between the two spheres.

4. Integration

This final position integrates science and religion so that scientific findings actively alter religious doctrines. There are three basic versions of this viewpoint. First, natural theology uses science to find evidence of intelligent design. One common idea within natural theology is the Anthropic Principle: the belief that if the universe was even slightly different, it would no longer support life. Many Christian scientists take this as support for intelligent design. Second, a theology of nature believes that while our primary means of understanding God lies outside science, science may cause theologians to reformulate certain theological doctrines. Most commonly, this involves the doctrines of creation and human nature. Third, the systematic synthesis approach integrates science and religion into a “comprehensive metaphysics” (p.103). Process philosophy is the most notable example of this approach. All in all, Barbour believes integration is appropriate at times but can be dangerous if a metaphysical system is equated with the essence of Christianity.

As you can see, Barbour’s scientific research and personal theological convictions led him to conclude that religion and science best relate to each other through Dialogue, though occasionally they can also relate through Integration. Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, this framework allows us to examine how we bring together science and religion in our sermons and other learning communities.

Questions for Reflection:

  • Which viewpoint most resonants with your beliefs?
  • Does the way you use science in your ministry support or undermine your beliefs?
  • Does the way you use theology in your ministry support or undermine basic scientific beliefs?
  • Where in the Bible might we see these categories being played out?
  • Considering these categories, how can you use science in your ministry?

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About the Author:

Zach is currently a PhD student at Fuller Theological Seminary researching the role of leaders in congregational change. His calling in life is to train and equip pastors to faithfully lead local congregations. When not studying, he'll most likely be watching Sporting Kansas City score goals or hiking with his wife and two kids.

13 Comments

  1. Reed Metcalf February 1, 2017 at 11:22 pm

    Thanks for the summary of Barbour’s work, Zach. Addressing Barbour’s theses directly, I would suggest (and maybe Barbour does as well–I haven’t read the book) that integration is always happening on some level. Science is ultimately after an understanding of what things are and how things work. Every human being has an idea–whether informed or ignorant, refined or simplistic–of the way the world “works.” This understanding of the material world, including everything from gravity and bacteria to spirits and magic, informs and is informed by our theology–which is also informed or ignorant, refined or simplistic. The question is really “which” science are we using, and whether science or theology (or neither) comes out on top when the two disagree. I think one of the biggest issues facing those of us working at the intersection of science and faith is figuring out how to get people to recognize that they already have presuppositions about how the world is before they open their Bibles, and those presuppositions color their readings of the Bible in general and their understanding of modern science in particular.

    • AustinF May 19, 2017 at 5:54 pm

      Very true about presuppositions. We often impose our theology upon the Bible and therefore distort it’s meaning. Even more I would say is not only analyzing our presuppositions but trying to have biblical presuppositions.

  2. aidenkang May 17, 2017 at 8:20 pm

    I resonate with the positions of integration & dialogue, but I have to say it was a process to get to these positions given the fact of my pretty conservative background. Consequently, I still have sympathy for people who still hold onto the belief of a young earth creationism.

    • AustinF May 19, 2017 at 5:42 pm

      While I understand where you’re coming from, it is quite arrogant to say something like, “I still have sympathy for people who still hold onto the belief of a young earth creationism.” It’s amazing to see the history of how and why the inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of Scripture was systematically destroyed. If there should be sympathy, it should be for the ones who are so fearful of the opinions of men that they compromise on the plain truth as revealed by God in the Bible.

      • aidenkang June 1, 2017 at 2:48 pm

        Help me out on this one – What’s a better word than sympathy b/c I certainly don’t want to come across as “quite arrogant”? Also, I’m not fearful of the opinions of men – If I were, I certainly wouldn’t believe in the Virgin Birth, Incarnation, Resurrection, etc, but I do believe that when there’s overwhelming scientific evidence supporting that the earth is 4-5 billion years old, then we need to adjust the way we interpret Genesis 1.

        • Weabz June 8, 2017 at 5:11 pm

          I hear ya dude, I think the problem I have and many others have is that we simply “accept” the “evidence or facts” of science concerning evolution when there really isn’t much there. Sure we can go to this book or that this guy or that, but there are also the scientists (unbelieving) that oppose what the theory of evolution asserts now as fact. I think we are too quick to trust science as fact and worse as Christians dismiss the Bible as such. But sure plenty of debate has been and can be had on this. But really boils down to one simple question: what do you look to for your authority?

    • Weabz May 19, 2017 at 6:13 pm

      I agree with Austin. But, there is no need to have sympathy for young earthers. See here is the thing, when I stand before the Lord

      I am not worried about Him saying, “Adam I’m disappointed that you didn’t let the ‘wisdom of the world’ influence how you interpreted MY Word.”

      Actually i am quite certain that because I take God at His Word that I am safe in my interpretations, as it is the Holy Spirit that provides understanding.

  3. aidenkang May 17, 2017 at 8:22 pm

    I use science as one of the lens to help me interpret Scripture, especially the creation accounts in Genesis.

    • Weabz May 19, 2017 at 6:58 pm

      I understand what you’re saying brother, but the problem is when we do that we are elevating science over Scripture. We are saying (admittedly or not), Scripture must fit our mold (that is Science) as OPPOSED to what it should be, science is filtered through Scripture.

      Science says we evolved over billions of years. So what as Christians do we do with Adam? And then your answer will affect how you further interpret Romans 5 and even the genealogy of Luke 3. There is a problem. The authors wrote with a specific intent, they themselves interpreted the Scripture as literal, and Paul at least as seen in Rom 5 understood Adam as literal, as well as creation.

      So what do ya do? Curious.

      • aidenkang June 1, 2017 at 2:53 pm

        Appreciate your comment, and I’ve had long debates on this one. Instead of rehashing those debates, I’ll just recommend a book – “Evolution and The Fall” by James K.A. Smith & William T. Cavanaugh.

  4. JarrodCraw May 25, 2017 at 4:07 pm

    Interesting to see how ‘hot-topic’ this issue is. I think healthy dialogue is always needed when we engage anything with the Bible. I think that integration can take things too far since we have to recognize that we won’t always be right in our interpretations (of science or the Scriptures). I look forward to the day when we will all be in glory and maybe even have a wondrous understanding of the beginning of creation. Until then, I just hold on to the hope.

    • AustinF June 13, 2017 at 4:47 am

      I agree, it has been a hot topic issue for a few hundred years and will continue as long as people use science as their authority in interpreting Scripture or vice versa. Even Spurgeon was old earth in some manner — the pressure will always be there. And hey, absolutely cannot wait to spend an eternity learning these things! Thanks Jarrod.

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