Religion and Science in Context: A Guide to the Debates

Excerpts from the introductory chapter of Religion and Science in Context: A Guide to the Debates by Willem B. Drees (Routledge, 2010)


Chapter 1. ‘Religion and science’ in multiple contexts (excerpt)

Calvin and Hobbes, a boy and his tiger, are walking through a forest. ‘Do you believe in evolution?’ Calvin asks. ‘No’, the tiger replies. ‘So you don’t believe humans descended from apes?’ the boy continues. Upon which the tiger responds: ‘I don’t see the difference,’ and beats a hasty retreat from the angry boy. The boy asks about the explanation of human origins; the tiger responds with an offence to human dignity. As in this comic strip by Bill Watterson, so too for debates about evolution in the real world: multiple issues are intertwined.

‘Religion and science’ speaks of that which we value, that which we hold to be true, and that which we hold to be possible. What is going on in the complex area of debates and non-debates on ‘religion and science’? What is to be taken serious, and what might be dismissed as nonsense? What would be possible venues? What are aims and ambitions of discussions on ‘religion and science’? This book is about the ways in which we approach two major dimensions of human existence, the scientific quest for reliable knowledge that surpasses cultural constraints and subjective preferences, and the religious quests for meaning and orientation in our lives, as a major dimension of culture and subjective existence. By considering sources of disagreement and confusion, this guide aspires to assist in developing a better understanding of science, of religion, and of the contexts in which these major human endeavours interact.

1966 can be considered the year the modern constructive ‘religion and science’ discussion started in the United States. The journal Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science was founded by Ralph Burhoe, for many years the executive officer of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, while the physicist and theologian Ian Barbour published his book Issues in Religion and Science. Around the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, a committee of the Dutch Reformed Church concluded that there wasn’t much to be discussed, except issues of ethics and ethos, as religion and science each had its own role in human life (Dippel en De Jong 1965). Why did the American ‘religion and science’ discussion take off at that time, while these Protestants on the European continent weren’t interested? Discussions in the United States and on the Europe continent regard the same science, and they both take place in the context of Western Christianity, broadly understood. Though standing in the same religious traditions, those American and Dutch authors did not have the same view of what religious belief is.

What has been achieved in the decades since 1966? There are books, conferences, and lectures on ‘religion and science’. Oxford University established an endowed chair in this area, and so have Princeton Theological Seminary, the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and Davidson College in the United States of America. Despite all the activity, consensus on issues of importance seems far away, the impact on theology and on religious communities is limited, and the academic credibility of ‘religion and science’ remains marginal.

I suspect that the lack of progress has to do with a lack of careful consideration of (a) contexts, (b) purposes, (c) criteria, and (d) views of what religion might be. These issues will be addressed in the first four chapters of this book. Thereafter, we will consider three major domains of ‘religion and science’: (e) mystery in a world made intelligible by the sciences, (e) morality in a world of facts, and (f) meaning and identity in a world of matter.

I will focus on science and religion as activities, rather than on scientists and believers as persons. Reflections on ‘religion and science’ take place in a cultural, social context. Courts have been involved in controversies over the teaching of evolution in American schools. Sponsors donate money for the advocacy of their preferred positions or for their beloved research projects. One never walks alone; contexts and company shape what is going on (Hefner 2008). At least two contexts can be discerned: secularization and the persistence of superstition. As I will argue that location and perspective are important to understand what is going on, I need to be honest on the perspective that informs my writing here. We will come to that later in this chapter.


Secularization as concern

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.


The persistence of superstition

One could also engage in ‘religion and science’ for another reason. Driving concern would not be the future of religion but the persistence of superstition and nonsense, even though we, humans, should know better. Such a context is well expressed in the title of one of the last books by Carl Sagan, astronomer and science popularizer: The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. If such darkness is the context and concern, the agenda and partnerships would be different.

Challenging nonsense such as astrology, alien abduction stories, and ineffective but expensive therapies is a most laudable goal, not only intellectually but also socially and morally. Nonsense often goes hand in hand with financial abuse and with raising immoral expectations, when someone sells nonsensical cures to patients who are fatally ill, or suggests to a bereaved mother the possibility of communication with the dead. If a disease could be healed by ‘positive thinking’, it is the patient who doesn’t become well who receives the additional burden of failing spiritually. Fighting socially consequential nonsense drives organizations of skeptics, as far as I understand their intentions. ‘Religion and science’ could have developed more along those lines, but that has not been its prime concern so far.

Challenging superstition would require us in ‘religion and science’ to address the nonsense in our own field, and thus might upset the ecumenicity that serves us nicely in arguing against secular threats. For those involved in ‘religion and science’ our primary purpose would then be to challenge nonsense and to pursue truth, rather than to find a place for religion in a world seen through the sciences. This intellectual responsibility would regard critically not only secular challenges, but also the challenges and solutions that we may raise ourselves. Intellectually and morally I consider this a most important aspect of ‘religion and science’.


This book

Putting Science in Its Place is the title of a book in which the historian and geographer David Livingstone considers the situated character of scientific research. He studies science as situated in laboratories, the outdoors, the museum, and hospitals, but also as shaped by particular local, contextual situations. Livingstone (2003, 94) demonstrates how the Galileo affair took place in a regional arrangement of patronage and authority. He describes the reception of Darwinism in Calvinist settings in Scotland, Ireland and the United States. In Belfast Protestants and Catholics used opposition to claims about science replacing religion to criticize each other. In Princeton, the leadership sought to read evolutionary natural history as divine design. In Charleston, in the southern United States, racial sensitivities led to opposition to a single human origin, while in New Zealand the settlers could use evolution to justify their struggle for life at the expense of the Maoris (2003, 112-123). Even a single issue like the reception of Darwinian ideas in Protestant circles, was very much context dependent.

Since reflection on religion in its relations to science is a situated business, it seems fair to give the readers information on the context of this book and its author, thus making it easier to note my own biases and disputable assumptions. This book is written by a European, a Dutchman, who has been exposed to American conversations.

Even though Europeans and Americans read the same literature, their situations differ. In many parts of Europe there is more indifference about religion, while science is more widely accepted. Thus, in Europe to think about ‘religion in an age of science’ is to think primarily about religion, with science as the background common to authors, readers and real or fictitious opponents.

In the United States science is distrusted by some as elitist. If there seems to be a conflict between religion and science, it need not be the science that is accepted. Some choose against science when it seems threatening to religious beliefs, and thus opt for ‘scientific creationism’ or ‘intelligent design’. Those who address ‘religion and science’ in such a context have to do two jobs at the same time, to defend science against religious distrust and to think through the way religion might need to be adapted in the light of the sciences. In such a context, philosophies of science which limit the pretensions of science may be extra welcome. A climate where science is distrusted might be served also by popularization of science with a pious gloss at the end, whereas this would hardly count as a contribution to ‘religion and science’ in a European setting as such a publication does not address the relationship between religious convictions and scientific knowledge.



The family I grew up was science loving and politically engaged; it was a secular, social-democratic and religiously liberal environment. A recollection, perhaps from the time I was about eleven years old. At the dinner table we discussed what the largest island is. England and Scotland? Madagascar? Greenland? Perhaps Greenland is overestimated because maps are distorted near the poles. Why would Australia not count as an island? And if one accepts Australia, why not the Euro-Asian landmass? Shouldn’t we add Africa or does the Suez Canal suffice to consider Africa as separate from Europe-Asia? Things were more complicated than we thought at first. The concept of an ‘island’ needed to be defined so that continents would be excluded. We had to be suspicious of impressions, as maps might be distorted. Once the question had become more precise, an encyclopaedia would be taken of the shelf, to find the relevant facts. Basic aspects of science have been part of my life from early childhood on: respect for facts, but also a critical consideration of questions, concepts, criteria, and first impressions.

My heritage is more than science; the main context is modernity. The modern predicament, as I see it, combines universal ambitions about knowledge, morality, and politics, with awareness of historicity, of the contingent character of social, cultural and biological reality, and with a critical attitude towards traditional sources of moral and epistemic authority. The natural sciences and the moral claims embedded in universal human rights have been successful in their global appeal. The dream of a universal language such as Esperanto, that would not be the language of a particular culture, failed, and so have socialist internationalism as well as visions of a world religion and a world government. Perhaps rightly so; some ambitions were too minimalist to live by, while other projects were more Eurocentric than matched the modern ambition.

A plurality of particulars might be the contemporary (‘postmodern’) preference, and there is something to be said in favour of its honesty. There are multiple perspectives, arguments, and even criteria, across cultures and subcultures. However, postmodernism might bring with it a splendid isolation in homely ghettos. The absence of universal criteria or shared foundations, whether qua method or substance, might encourage irrationality and arbitrariness. Postmodernism might generate a pluralism that is inhospitable for an individual who wants to cross boundaries, leave particular ghettos, and be able to criticize a given culture. In my opinion, there is a great value in the universal ambition of modernity, the quest for truth and knowledge that is not partisan, but then, for the sake of truth we also need to appreciate the local that is so typical of the richness of bio- and cultural diversity.

We cannot take our traditions and myths as objective truth; what Paul Ricoeur (1967) in the concluding section of his book The Symbolism of Evil referred to as a primitive or first naiveté. Rather, we are heading for a different style of believing and belonging; one that is coloured by a particular history but that is also open to alternative voices. At different moments we play different games. We enter a cathedral, and may be moved by the light through the stained glass, but we may also observe the cathedral from the outside, seeing the windows but not sharing in the experience of the light coloured by the glass (Yinger 1970, 1). I am at moments an observer, like an anthropologist or scholar in religious studies, studying what is going on in the tribe of ‘religion and science’, while on other occasions I am a theologian or a philosopher, someone who participates in the discussions, and pleads for a particular vision. Insider and outsider perspectives may be distinguished, but they are intertwined.