Many participants in contemporary reflections on ‘religion and science’ are concerned about secularization, about religious institutions loosing significance and adherence to religious beliefs declining. They value science and have affinity with religion, and thus seek to understand how these both might be significant, meaningful, or even true, rather than be perceived as being in conflict.
To see the natural sciences as the main cause of secularization in the Western world is naïve; welfare and other social measures have contributed at least as much to the decline of religious institutions. Technology and medicine have moved the boundary between that which is given, whether by God or by fate, and that which is within our reach to do something about. What might have been hubris in previous times, has now become a human option, and hence a human responsibility.
To counter the idea that science refutes or replaces religion, one might argue that conflict and replacement do not necessarily follow from accepting science. One strategy might be to argue that at heart religion does something not touched upon by the sciences as it addresses values, meaning, or ultimate explanations. Religion, thus seen, is complementary to science. Galileo, in defence of his astronomical work, quoted in his Letter to Grand Duchess Christina (1615) cardinal Baronio who had said that the intention of the Holy Spirit is not to teach us how the heavens go, but how to go to heaven (Finocchiaro 1989, 96). Issues of morality and salvation are distinct from scientific knowledge.
To argue for the peaceful co-existence of religion and science, one might also seek to argue that science is mistaken or incomplete, and in need of religious corrections, replacements or supplements, whether an actively intervening God (‘intelligent design’) or a more ‘spiritual’ view of reality. Such a strategy deviates from main stream science, and thus is less effective in countering the idea of conflict, though the replacement is not a replacement of religion by science but of main stream science by something else, whether considered ‘alternative science’ or dismissed as ‘pseudoscience’.
Another strategy might be to argue that below the surface (or beyond the horizon of current science, or in its history and practice) science depends upon religious notions. If there are laws in nature, should we not also allow for a sovereign Lawgiver, a God who would not have to work against Gods own laws of nature, but has set these to bring about Gods intentions? Last but not least, an integration of religion and science might be intended, bringing the sciences into a meaningful vision of the way reality is, whether in terms of a theistic metaphysics or in a form of ‘religious naturalism’.
Ian Barbour, a major American author on ‘religion and science’, has proposed to describe the field with the help of four categories: conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration (Barbour 1997, 77-105). The preceding paragraphs indicate that one way of reading this scheme is as presenting one problem (conflict), with three possible responses to mitigate the forced choice suggested by the conflict position. Whether one opts for a friendly separation and division of labour, a modified science, or a more far reaching integration, the conditions of this development seem to have been set by secularization. Science seems to make religion mistaken or irrelevant. Thus, the interest is primarily in an approach which appeases a potential or real conflict.
For those who see this as the main agenda in ‘religion and science’, the partners are others with a positive interest in religion and with respect for science, as these are involved in opposing the same opponents. Hence, there is a broad ecumenicity in ‘religion and science’. The peer group tends to exclude as allies those who are perceived to be staunch opponents of religion such as Richard Dawkins, Peter Atkins, Edward O. Wilson, and Daniel Dennett. And the peer group tends to exclude opponents to science and odd ‘science’, whether as ‘scientific creationism’ or quantum mysticism, as relating to such alternatives would not provide genuine legitimacy for religion in an age of science.
I find this concentration on countering secularization unsatisfactory. The agenda is not positive, but negative, even though the negative purpose might be served by a positive case for the independence of religious convictions or by a constructive integration of religion and science in an encompassing vision of reality. Whatever the strategy the underling tone, if read thus, is defensive: we are judged to be on a slippery slope, where one has to make a stand against the secularizing impact of science. I think there is at least one other possible agenda for ‘religion and science’, one that is not driven by concern about secularization but by concern about the persistence of superstition.