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Can Religion Accommodate Science?

Last updated on 20 Feb 2014

Recent posts and stuff online has led me to suspect it would be worthwhile my writing a book on this topic, as short posts often lead to misunderstandings and trolls. I’ve started sketching out the contents, and putting in various posts from here to use as a skeleton, but I thought it would be worthwhile crowdsourcing some of the material from my readers. So have at it in the comments: what would you like me to discuss, both issues and events? Or are you aware of any interesting literature? Or anything else.

I’m thinking of this as a semipopular book (aimed at making me a fortune some money). Any suggestions on publishers, forums, etc will be paid for gratefully acknowledged. If you have a literary agent you could connect me with would be even better. That will get you a beer.


  1. DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

    Jennifer Michael Hecht reckons (I am told) that religions are of two basic types:
    1) Those who personify the universe and therefore decide that how to live demands sucking up to the boss (I paraphrase)
    2) Those who recognise that the universe is impersonal and therefore the way to live is to go with the flow to minimise suffering and bad behaviour

    I’d offer in addition:
    3) Those who recognise that the universe is impersonal, but acknowledge the emergent properties of groups of humans and therefore the way to live is some form of informed humanism.

    Number 1) seems at odds with science because science undermines the personification of the universe.

    Number 2) is not necessarily at odds with science unless bells and whistles like reincarnation and a reified karma have been bolted on.

    Number 3) is not necessarily at odds with science but the is/ought issue rears its head.

    ‘The way to live’ does appear to be part of philosophy…

  2. Philosophy accommodates religion at the University of Woolloomooloo.

    BRUCE: Before we start, though, I’ll ask the padre for a prayer.
    BRUCE: O Lord, we beseech thee, have mercy on our faculty, amen!!
    ALL BRUCES: Amen!
    BRUCE: Crack the tubes!

  3. This is a topic I’ve explored over many decades, going back to a seat at divinity school, which I vacated (where I studied ethics, rather than ministry). Here is a reading list which has been edifying for me:

    Martin Gardner wrote a popular column for Scientific American. In this book he makes a rigorous examination of various approaches to God-belief, explaining why he retains it:

    Alvin Platinga’s work seems always to at the fore in the ongoing science-religon dialog:

    My review of this one is at the top of the queue: Spiritual Healing in a Scientific Age:

    Larry Dossey MD, an excellent story teller, has very succe$$fully explained the topic to lay audiences. His latest:

    Dossey somewhere mentions scientific testing of prayer, by a group of folks at Spindrift, including a guy named Bill Sweet (Chicago area) whom I know. Bill has a book which I’ve not read, as I can’t get my mind around the effort yet:

    I’ve just started to read (and enjoy) THE SCIENCE DELUSION, by biologist Rupert Sheldrake (Cambridge U). He speaks to your topic (perhaps subtractively). Here’s a link to the book:

    Best wishes to you on this project!

  4. One thing I often think about is the way in which Christianity has drawn strength from its paradoxes. It is hardly surprising that it should have done, since Christianity started in a time and place when philosophy was the most prestigious intellectual pursuit, and philosophers in the Roman Empire as in our own day tended to proceed by identifying and attempting to resolve paradoxes.

    So for example, Christians tend to look at the natural world and to see a mix of order and disorder. In the orderly bits, they find evidence of divine governance; in the disorderly bits, they find evidence of estrangement from the divine. The tension between these images of order and disorder feeds into the whole thing, articulated into sin and redemption, covenant and gift, Incarnation and Resurrection.

    Science has now gone so far in its exploration of order that this paradox is becoming hard to sustain. One suspects that there is no true disorder, that sooner or later science will be complete and all the apparent chaos and absurdity in our experience will be resolved into some grand equation that explains all of nature with self-contained, faultless elegance. If that should ever happen, the people living in that future time may build a religion around that equation, but it won’t be a religion that roots its doctrines in a soil of paradox. I should think that a religion created for a post-scientific world would likely be an altogether new sort of religion, impossible to imagine now in any of its particulars.

    For now, we are suspended between two worlds. Science has begun, and so we cannot do what Christians did in the first two and a half millennia of their project and take it for granted that what looks to us like a mixture of order and disorder in the perceptible world is in fact such a mixture, and build on the instability of that mixture a whole world-view. At the same time, science has only begun. Not only have we not produced a complete explanation of nature in terms of process and law, we are not yet warranted even in saying that such an explanation is a possibility. So we cannot now claim to know much of anything about either science, or religion, or the ability of one to accommodate the other.

  5. Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

    I would be very interested in a discussion of methodologies in different fields. Much of the scientism debate seems centered around religion/theology as a knowledge-generating field. The mantra “science is not the only way of knowing” is used a tactic for suggesting religion/theology is one – without any explanation as to how religion/theology actually works. The backlash to this is scientists claiming science is the only way of knowing and embracing scientism. I don’t think this is a wise strategy, but I haven’t been able to find good sources that cover the methodologies of history, literature, philosophy, etc. in contrast to science. Many of the sources I have been sent to pretty clearly don’t understand other fields – i.e philosophers of history not understanding philosophy of science. I am also not too impressed with scientists who move sidelong into religion/theology and try (and fail IMO) to find parallels to science ( Barbour 1990 Religion in the Age of Science and his brainchild the Center for Theology and Natural Science).

    • I certainly second your suggestion, but it does have a certain similarity to earlier proposals involving bells and cats.

      The problem with trying to understand what the other disciplines are up to is finding a language that allows you to talk about them without more or less automatically reducing one activity to a master activity or at least to something strongly analogous to the master activity, e.g. something that has a methodology like science is alleged to have. That’s hard to avoid. Wherever you are, you’re someplace. People like Bruno Latour (Modes of Existence) and Niklas Luhmann (Theory of Society) have taken a shot at a comprehensive redescription of alternatives by creating a new language or engaging in what Latour sometimes calls diplomacy between sovereign realms. Whatever you think of the validity of such exercises, the last thing they are is commercial. They can only sell to the extent they are misunderstood. People mostly figure these folks are selling some sort of relativism or skepticism. They pretty obviously aren’t doing that, but whether what they are doing is worthwhile is another matter.

      I specialize in projects with no commercial possibilities so I’m attracted to the project, though it seems to me that whoever pursues it will have to work as a temp in other people’s offices, which is to say, a general (not a master) understanding will have to be run off on stolen office equipment under a series of assumed names: philosophy, philology, tourism.

  6. There are probably some useful and productive ideas you could offer on this relationship. I’d be interested in what you have to say about it.

    I think the challenge, though, is going to be framing the question. It’s worth taking seriously how contested a concept “religion” is, as a description of a range of religion-like cultural practices globally. Beyond the term itself, there is just an incredible diversity of practices and beliefs.

    On the other hand, focusing in runs you the risk of narrowness. A group of us carefully worked through Michael Ruse’s Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? a few years ago, and discussed it with him. We were impressed by the quality of his effort and the seriousness with which he approached theological doctrine. But his careful analysis applied specifically to a particular tradition of Anglican theology which — though it has a certain official status in some places — reflects only a tiny, minority fragment of contemporary Christianity, much less religion more generally. The question he answered was less Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? than Can a Darwinian adopt the tenets of traditional Anglican theology, most of which doctrines I think are unknown to most Angicans/Episcopalians. It was a careful project that ended up, to my mind, with an overly narrow scope.

    So the question is whether one can remain careful and substantive as the project becomes more general?

    • Yes. A lot of the difficulty lies in defining the reference class of religion. For instance you might be asking two questions:

      1. Are there resources in the catholic (small C) tradition of theology dealing with science that are germane to the acceptance of science without modification or trimming of either tradition?


      2. Is the generic Christian tradition able to accept science by either trimming science or modifying Christian beliefs?

      Mostly the question covers the second range, and the answer is, very rarely.

      But I would dispute your claim that a only narrow part of Anglican tradition accepts science. In fact it is generally (in my experience) the consensus of theologians in most traditions (who often share a general core set of theological equipment) that science must be adapted. It is generally the broader, less technical, aspects of religious traditions that do not. This is as true of Catholic theology (big C) as of Baptists. What Ruse did is to show that the tools are there for most Christians to accept science in their shared heritage, even though few do.

      Religious traditions come in two flavours: elite and folk. Folk religion is typically conservative, reactionary and concerned about the modern, while elite religion, a tiny slice of actual religion, is usually adaptive, responsive and accepting of the modern. Not always, of course, as dispositions are varied even there. So the general question might be:

      3. In a religious tradition, can elite believer, who are educated to some degree in modern science, accept it without having to trim their theological commitments?

      And that is a much more interesting question.

      • Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

        Agreed. How many of the elite just drift off into unbelief or deism? My recent reading finds elite believers trying to equate transcendence with god. I think this may be what Alvin Plantinga means by sensus divinitatis – it is like a sixth sense that should properly be interpreted as a connection to a god.

        • jeb jeb

          “And that is a much more interesting question.”

          I would go for the uninteresting and boring question, the way elite practices and folk practices accommodate each other (I would claim religion is adaptive, responsive and accepting).

          That would be in the section labeled “Not always, of course”

  7. Jeb Jeb

    “The emergence of philosophy in Scottish secondary school Religious Education”

    Science/ religion debate was certainly central to how my daughter was taught the subject. Seemed to be a fair amount of lit devoted to the subject written by Scottish educational professionals working in secondary education.

    Outside of my interest but seeing how the subject is handled here may prove useful and I suspect you would find no shortage of research both on how the subject should be approached within the educational system and material written for this specific audience on the religion/science question. Religious and philosophical studies is taught to 17/ 18 year old’s at Higher level.

  8. Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

    A few thoughts:

    (1) Will your book contain a detailed discussion of how religion invented science (or at very least, heavily contributed to it)?

    (2) Will your book attempt to define or delimit “science” as well as “religion”? I would think most people accept most of “science,” but they nonetheless reserve the right as critical thinkers to dispute some aspects of what scientists say, for a variety of reasons that make sense to them.

    (3) Will your book recognize the reality and seriousness of science/religion conflicts (as implied by your word “accommodate”) rather than minimizing their importance?

    (4) Will your book take seriously the best argumentation from those who argue against (for example) macroevolution?

    All the best in your work on this book, John. Having been a reader of your blog for several months, I expect the book to be very interesting. Sorry I don’t know any literary agents.

    • 1. No. Instead I will attend to the actual history, not the mythologies offered by either side. I will discuss how science and religion coevolved and how they interact.

      2. No. I will take the existence of science as our best source of knowledge of the physical world as a given.

      3. Yes. I will address the actual conflicts as well as the philosophical conflicts.

      4. No. This is not a book about evolution. There are plenty of quite good ones.

      • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

        If I may press you a bit on just one of these items: What is this thing you’re reifying as “science”? Is it the majority view of “scientists” (this may also need definition) on some topic at a particular time? Or …?

        • John Wilkins John Wilkins

          I will get to this.

        • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

          Hi, John. I’m still hoping for an answer to my question above.

          Or did you address it already in some way, and I missed it?

        • Be patient, Richard. I’m travelling and have limited internet. The rule of thumb for now is you can talk about any topic that is relevant, but not preach. Since the probative force of the bible is limited to those who believe in it in the particular manner you appeal to it (i.e., as knowledge about the world), using it as evidence in this site is not appropriate. But you are free to discuss how that acceptance may inform your views about science.

        • Oh, I see you are not asking about that topic here. I see the threads on my iPhone as a stream of comments without context.

          “Science” is a historical tradition of reasoning from observations and measurements about the world, in order to understand the causes of these things. It is not the use of non-empirical sources (like tradition, especially religious tradition) to explain the phenomena.

          As such science is how we come to know about the world beyond commonsense; the fine grain detail one cannot get from a simple experience of the world. In order not to special plead, I will not say that science excludes religious views, as history shows us that it sometimes doesn’t. But I will say that modern science does, and not for ideological reasons, but because as Bacon said of teleological causes, religious attempts to influence science are barren virgins, dedicated to God but not to knowing the world.

        • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

          “ ‘Science’ is a historical tradition of reasoning from observations and measurements about the world, in order to understand the causes of these things. . . . As such science is how we come to know about the world beyond commonsense; the fine grain detail one cannot get from a simple experience of the world.”

          Thanks, John. I can certainly go along, at least provisionally, with that definition of ‘science’ as a practice. Under that definition, it seems unproblematic for “religion” to “accommodate science.”

          But my question actually concerned ‘science’ as a package of results. That’s where the “accommodation” becomes more of an issue.

          So, from that angle, may I ask, as I did before: “What is this thing you’re reifying as ‘science’? Is it the majority view of ‘scientists’ (this may also need definition) on some topic at a particular time? Or …?”

          On another post of yours, I made the following comment which may help illuminate what I’m asking here:

          ” ‘It is my view that science and religion can be mutually consistent so long as it is religion that accommodates science, and not science that accommodates religion.’ [John Wilkins, in Accommodating Science—the backfire effect, and conclusion]

          ?[Now my comment:] “But what is ‘science’? The current majority view of self-designated ‘scientists’ on a given topic — which is subject to change and often has changed? Why should anyone have to accommodate that sort of thing holus-bolus?

          ?”I’m glad that in a free society we are free to think critically and decide, as individuals, for or against competing claims, including those thrust upon us in the name of “science.”

          “?Having said those things, I am of course not at all opposed to practical, repeatable, tested data and results arising from empirical, observational science.”

  9. This is OT, but is there going to be any new PoTMs?

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