For many of our contemporaries, the figure who most represents the relationship between science and religion is Galileo Galilei. They might imagine someone like in the illustration above, a courageous man of reason and progress single-handedly challenging the authorities with their backward views. (One of the figures above even has his face half-concealed by a hood, like some kind of medieval Sith Lord!) Religion is, and always has been, simply incompatible with science. In his opening talk at the upcoming Manchester Living Theology course (Manchester Universities’ Catholic Chaplaincy, 25th-27th November 2016), Vatican astronomer Christopher Corbally S.J. reflects on the sometimes turbulent relationship between the Church and science.
Physicist and theologian Ian Barbour classified approaches to science and religion into four kinds: conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration (Barbour, 1990). The first approach, conflict, sees science and religion as irreconcilable enemies. It is like a fight between a boa constrictor and a wart-hog – the winner, whichever it is, swallows the loser. This approach is exemplified in the public talks and writings of the so-called “Four Horsemen” of Atheism – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris (Timonen, 2007). In this view, the scientific method is the only reliable means of knowledge; further, the most fundamental reality in the universe is matter-energy. This view is called scientific materialism (also sometimes called scientism).
Scientific materialists have their counterparts on the religious side too – biblical literalists and fundamentalists. Some simply reject the findings of science and uphold the biblical account of creation in seven days (Genesis 1). Others, such as those in the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, advocate a ‘God of the gaps’ and hypothesise an intelligent designer when science fails to provide all the answers. (It might surprise some to know that Isaac Newton fell into this category as well!) Science educator Michael Smith S.J. examines biblical literalism and evolution in the context of the Genesis creation story in his Living Theology talk on Saturday morning (November 26th).
In recent decades, philosophers of science and religion have pointed out that both scientific materialism and biblical literalism suffer from the same drawback – they fail to appreciate the limitations of their own fields and beliefs. Scientific materialists fail to grasp that their basic assumptions are philosophical, and not scientific at all. It is not the only “right way” to do science. Likewise, biblical literalists fail to find a role for human reason and spirit of enquiry. St. Augustine pointed out that the purpose of Scripture is to aid us in salvation, not answering every little question about the world we live in.
Barbour’s second approach, independence, sees science and religion as offering answers to different kinds of questions about life. Science asks the “how” questions; religion the “why”. Science is concerned with the mechanisms of the visible and measurable universe; religion with what our attitude towards the Ultimate, life and each other should be. Evolutionary biologist and historian of science Stephen J. Gould called this distinction ‘non-overlapping magisteria’. Both science and religion have their own respective domains of authority and expertise.
However, many philosophers, scientists and theologians think that more is possible – dialogue. At the limits of scientific enquiry are found questions to which science itself cannot offer an answer –philosophical questions about the underlying assumptions of the whole scientific endeavour (e.g. the rationality of the universe) and questions of ethics. The scientist is not an automaton, working in his laboratory to a preset program. Rather, the scientist is, like anyone else, a flesh-and-blood human being who lives in the same world as the rest of humanity. He or she needs to make moral decisions, judgments about the adequacy of data; he or she must be creative in formulating new theories. (And, yes, even scientists need to apply for funding!)
Likewise, the theologian cannot isolate herself or himself away from the world of science. Science can challenge theology to explore previously unimagined questions – e.g. what would it mean for Christianity if intelligent life were discovered on another planet? Christopher Corbally examines this intriguing question in his Saturday afternoon Living Theology talk (November 26th).
The final approach to religion and science is that of integration. Here, one carefully listens to the evidence of both science and religion to develop a unified view of reality. Concepts from the sphere of religion, such as worship and transcendence, can illuminate the scientific endeavour; just as those from the scientific sphere, such as evolution, can influence theology. French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is a good example of this synthesis. Teilhard saw evolution as God’s way of working within the universe – through the evolution of life from inanimate matter to consciousness and society. Ultimately, he saw the universe as evolving towards an “Omega Point” where we encounter Christ. Michael Smith S.J.’s second talk on Saturday looks at the thought and legacy of Teilhard de Chardin (November 26th).
The Living Theology weekend ends on Sunday, 27th November with a contrasting trio of talks. Christopher Corbally S.J. looks at the physics behind the Star of Bethlehem. University of Manchester researcher Gabriel Fonseca gives his perspective as an active scientist and believer in reflecting on the brain, consciousness and the divine. Finally, Michael Smith S.J. explores the ‘science’ of God Himself – theology.
Theologians and scientists explore the same world. Conflict is not the only mode by which they can interact. In the words of physicist Freeman Dyson:
Science and religion are two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here. The two windows give different views, but they look out at the same universe. Both views are one-sided, neither is complete. Both leave out essential features of the real world. And both are worthy of respect. (Dyson, 2000)
- Kensy Joseph SJ
To find out more about Manchester Living Theology, or to reserve a place, visit http://manchesterlivingtheology2016.eventbrite.co.uk
ReferencesBarbour, I.G., 1990. Religion in an age of science. London : SCM Press, London.
Dyson, F., 2000. Progress in Religion.
Timonen, J., 2007. The Four Horsemen: Discussions with Richard Dawkins. London.