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Religion and science

30 November, 1999

From the Veritas ‘Into the Classroom’ series: Fachtna McCarthy and Joseph McCann introduce the subject of the relationship between religious and scientific enquiry. This series, edited by Eoin G. Cassidy and Patrick M. Devitt, is designed for teachers of the new Leaving Cert religious education syllabus.

191 pp, Veritas Publications, 2003. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie.


Part One:
The scientific and theological enterprises
1.1 Questioning in context
1.2 Communities of inquiry

Part Two: The relationship between religion and science
2.1 Galileo: Science and religion go their separate ways
2.2 Descartes and Newton: science versus religion
2.3 Darwin: Science and religion in tension
2.4 Ecology: Science and religion in dialogue

Part Three: Current issues for religion and science: origins
3.1 The debate about origins
3.2 The new physics and religion: emerging questions

Part Four: Current issues for religion and science: life and death
4.1 The life questions
4.2 The genetics debate



Religion and science is an excellent introduction to a fascinating subject. It is divided into four accessible sections:
• The nature and methods of science and religion today
• Key moments in the history of the relationship between religion and science
• The current debate between cosmology and religion concerning the origin of the universe
• The ethical implications of current developments in the life sciences, biology and genetics

Comprehensive and stimulating, Religion and science is a key text for understanding some of huimankind’s greatest debates.

The Scientific and Theological Enterprises

1.1 Questioning in Context

An overview
One of our deepest human needs is to make sense of our experience, to give a coherent and full account of the world in which we live so that we can be fulfilled and happy in it. It is a quest that science and religion have in common for they are both, in their different ways, trying to explore aspects of the real, the way things are. But they are hardly equal partners in the quest today. There is a sense that science and theology are two completely different spheres of human interest having an uneasy tension between them. Science holds a privileged position in modern culture whereas organised religion is in decline. The media and popular culture reinforce the ‘cultural ascendancy’ of the sciences as central and predominant. Science and technology have transformed our map of the physical universe and their many powerful applications penetrate every facet of life from the economy to our health and our lifestyles. The world since the rise of science has increasingly pushed religious thinkers to the margin. Theologians and religious philosophers seem to be dealing with the mystical, the spiritual, the personal, the private, the subjective, and the emotional – areas that appear vague and woolly. Empirically based science is the ‘hard core of modernity’ and provides the dynamic engine of change, constantly revising its conclusions and pushing back the frontiers of knowledge.

Popular stereotypes also get in the way of a proper dialogue between religion and the sciences. There is the image of the ‘nerdy’, or even the ‘mad’ scientist, detached from reality, the person in the white coat who speaks in the impenetrable language of higher mathematics. Science is also demonised as the cause of many of our modern ills: the pollution of the planet, the nuclear threat and weapons of mass destruction. While not denying the obvious benefits of scientific research, some blame science for wresting all mystery from the universe, making it a godless place and in the process destroying all human meaning and value. Such negative stereotyping of science and scientists worries educators today because it deters young students from pursuing science subjects in our universities. On the other hand, religious people are sometimes portrayed as well-intentioned do-gooders, a little ‘dotty’ like ‘Father Ted’, or ‘sky pilots’ who are out of touch with the real world.

This polarisation is unfortunate because a division between the religious and scientific spheres can lead to two opposite and quite harmful consequences: an unfeeling and spiritually arid technical view of the world, or an unthinking woolly and ultimately unconvincing spirituality. We need the insights and energy from both areas to achieve a balanced understanding of reality and a humane approach to our life with others in the world. The great physicist Albert Einstein said ‘religion without science is blind; science without religion is lame’. Religion without science runs the risk of becoming superstitious and irrational. Science without religion is like an attempt to walk on one foot, a partial vision that sees science as furnishing the only knowledge of reality. Science can make people better but can it make better people? People have to explore the capabilities of the planet for the full development of human life, and at the same time, pay heed to the needs of the human heart and spirit. We need science and technology and an enthusiasm for discovery and experiment to understand and develop the world. We need philosophy and theology, ethical convictions, religious belief, an ecological ethic, contemplative awareness, and devotion to the human community to nurture the human spirit. Humanity requires both if we are to be successful in resolving the pressing issues before us, many of which will be explored in the following chapters. Our civilisation is facing into very big decisions: about the use of natural resources, about care of the environment, about medical advances, about population control, about the care of sick and elderly people, and about new technologies and procedures in genetics. The opportunities and hazards that await us demand careful reflection and responsible decision-making.

The purpose of this book
What is the place of religion in an age of science? The purpose of this book, then, is to help bring the insights and concerns of these two distinct disciplines together in a mutually constructive dialogue.

There are four parts to the book, responding to one of the following aims:
• to discuss and analyse the nature and methods of the scientific and theological enterprises: Part One
• to tell the story of some key moments in the history of the relationship between religion and science and their importance: Part Two
• to examine some of the emerging and contemporary debates between religion and science and their contexts: Part Three and Part Four

Hence, the first part of the book is about the relationship of science and religion in theory, the second part is about the relationship of science and religion in the past, and the third part is about issues in the relationship of science and religion in the present.

The relationship between science and religion is one of the most fundamental challenges that face the mind and spirit of people today. The contemporary dialogue shows positive and hopeful signs, specifically in the last quarter century in the open climate that lends itself to a constructive debate among scientists and theologians. Scientists and theologians regularly come together to discuss fields of mutual interest, areas of overlap and pressing issues in cosmology, evolution and genetics. Scientists are showing more sensitivity to religious questions and theologians are actively engaging with the implications of modern science for their religious picture of the world. Both scientists and religious people together can face the challenges of our age bringing their respective sources of truth and insight to bear on the human search for a fruitful and fulfilled life.

The human need to question
Wonder is the beginning of knowledge. Wonder is the human urge to find out things, to explore, to satisfy our natural curiosity. Our minds come programmed to question and to wonder, to look behind the obvious, to explore further, to find out what makes something work. Developmental psychologists have come to believe recently in the ‘child as scientist’. Even by the age of two, in fact, at the same time as they learn to talk, children are asking the entire range of questions. If we want to put it more technically, there is within the human heart an irrepressible and unrestricted desire to know and to love. This desire is awakened by questions like what? how? where? when? and why? These questions are provoked by the great variety of experiences that humans undergo, experiences of good and evil, joy and sorrow, love and betrayal and suffering and death. It is natural for human beings to wonder about life and destiny, where they have come from and where they are going. The Greek philosopher Plato had a wonderful image of the restless human quest for meaning and fulfilment. We are like ‘leaky vessels’ into which we keep pouring experiences. Nothing in the world of things ever fulfils us as everything leaks away, nothing lasts, nothing ultimately satisfies. Relationships fulfil us and make us happy, but they can be fragile and fleeting. In the midst of imperfect loves and wounded relationships we experience a drive beyond the limited toward transcendence, for that which ultimately satisfies. St Augustine summed up this drive toward transcendence in the words, ‘you have made us for yourself O Lord and our hearts are restless until they rest in you’. Both science and religion offer answers and explanations, or at least descriptions and accounts, which attempt to answer the whole range of questions.

Broadly speaking, science seeks to answer the ‘how’ question and religion addresses ‘why’ questions. Science analyses and interprets the data of the natural world and religion interprets the data of human experience and history from within a community of faith. Religion is concerned with ultimate questions of meaning and purpose: why do I exist rather than not exist? Does life make sense? Is there a God, and if so, what kind of God? What is the ground of order, beauty and intelligibility in the world? Why be moral? Do evil and injustice have the final word in life? Why bother to search for truth? All the world religions have in common the search for a meaningful and fulfilled life and bring a religious vision and moral traditions to bear on that search.

The natural sciences are concerned with understanding the structure and composition of the physical world around us. Science accepts the givenness of the real world and asks, what is there? What is the relationship between what is there, and what laws or principles describe these relations? A working definition of science run as follows: the discovery of knowledge about the natural world that is empirical, inductive, systematic, and rational. Science in its methodology steers clear of matters of moral value, quality, meaning and purpose.

Questions common to science and religion
Perhaps the distinction is too neat, as there are borderline questions and areas of overlap between science and religion. Questions common to science and religion include questions about origins/beginnings and conclusions/endings. The science of cosmology studies the origin and evolving structure of the material universe, how it all began and what will become of it in the future. The religious doctrine of creation speaks of the universe as God’s creation and its continuing dependency on him for its existence. Eschatology is the religious teaching on the future of the world and God’s plan for the final destiny of human beings. Questions on human evolution in biology often appear to be at odds with the biblical vision of humans created in the image and likeness of God. Historically, as we shall see, answers offered by the one posed questions for the other, often as a result of misunderstandings and confusion as to their proper roles. Formulating the correct questions is therefore indispensable to both enterprises. Many of the historical disputes between both could be attributed to the blurring of religious with scientific questions and vice versa. Holmes Rolston said, ‘questions tell us what to look for, what to discount, what to make of what we find; and in this sense, they are proposals as well as discoveries’.

Science and religion continually struggle against the temptation to fundamentalism, against a hardening of attitudes, a tendency to overplay their hand and to claim more for their discipline than is warranted. In science this temptation is manifested in ‘scientism’, which claims that science is competent to explain everything and can provide us with the only reliable knowledge. Religious fundamentalists base their world-view on the absolute truth found in a religious revelation, rejecting the findings of science and reason where they clash with a literal interpretation of their religious texts.

‘God of the gaps’
A classic historical example of confusion between science and religion is the so-called ‘God of the Gaps’. The phrase describes the mistaken policy of locating God’s action in those phenomena of the natural world for which science was not yet able to give a satisfactory account. God is located in the gaps not yet explained by science. For example, in ancient times thunder was interpreted as an expression of God’s anger whereas now it can be explained by meteorology. A religion relying on such gaps is then forced into retreat when the gaps are eventually filled by scientific explanation. Isaac Newton’s universe required God, by means of the ‘divine arm’, to perform minor adjustments to the orbits of the planets. Such an impoverished God, restricted to filling in the scientifically unexplained parts of the universe, was gradually squeezed out altogether, as the gaps got smaller and smaller. As we shall see, it led, unintentionally, to the rise of atheism. Theology today looks for evidence of God’s action within natural processes, rather than apart from them.

Two other images of God and their implications for science
The way we understand God and his action in the world, as illustrated by the God of the gaps, has implications for our scientific picture of the universe. An erroneous or inadequate image of God has often been at the hidden core of disputes between religion and science in the past. For Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval Christian theologian, God is profoundly mystery. God in his essence is incomprehensible and unknowable to us because he is the Creator of all that is, and there is a deep ontological gap between creatures and their Creator. He is outside the order of beings and objects in the world, and so he cannot be classified as any kind of being. He is the reason why there exists a universe at all. God is in everything holding it constantly in existence, but he is not located anywhere. Aquinas was fond of saying that we do not know what God is, only that he is (exists) and what he is not. The incomprehensibility of God may give the impression that there is very little we can say about him at all, as we do not know what the word ‘God’ means. For Aquinas, we can know something about God from his effects, from the creatures he has made. Creation is fundamentally a relationship between God and his creatures. Creatures have being as a participation in God’s absolute Being.

The great monotheistic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) see God as actively sustaining the order of the physical universe, that God continues to sustain the laws, which govern the regularity of the cosmos. The creator intends to make himself known to his creatures and, in fact, one main reason why there is a universe at all is to create beings that can find happiness in knowing and loving God and in co-operating with the creator.

But how does God act in a world so well described by science? The classical Christian view developed by Thomas Aquinas, based on the idea of ‘double agency’, distinguished between primary and secondary causality. God is the primary cause of all that exists and he works through the secondary causes of the natural world, which science studies. God’s sovereignty over nature is exercised always through the use of secondary causes, through natural laws and human agency, to achieve his purposes, without infringing on the freedom of his creatures. This means that God’s activity is always mediated through secondary causes. He does not interfere with the laws of nature; rather, God acts to devise and implement the laws that generate new patterns of complex beauty and order. The two kinds of causality are required for a complete description of the real, but they are on a completely different level; scientific and theological explanations are independent of one another. We cannot say how God acts because divine causation is very different. There is no ‘causal joint’ between God’s action and events in the natural world and there are no gaps in their scientific account. God acts ‘behind’ the systems of cause and effect at a level not amenable to physical description.

Karl Rahner, a Christian theologian of the recent past, addressed the question of how we are to speak of God in the context of the dynamic and evolutionary universe understood by science today. His image of God is as the permanent co-presence or omnipresence of God to the world. He argues that whenever we become conscious of ourselves or of other beings in the world, we are also aware in a dim, pre-conceptual way of the limitless mystery that surrounds the world. It is the nature of the material universe to develop toward consciousness as it has a God-given tendency toward self-transcendence. God operates within an evolutionary universe inviting it toward self-transcendence. This means that evolutionary changes happen through natural powers intrinsic to the creature, a process discovered by science; yet, that power ultimately belongs not to the nature of the creature but to the Creator.

The value of this image of God is that it does not interfere with developments or discoveries in science, and at the same time allows religion to speak about the presence of God in the world. Theology sees God, not as being opposed to the world or interfering in its workings, but in treating all that exists within the horizon of God as its origin and its end. ‘Horizon’ is a helpful metaphor to describe the presence of God; as the horizon that surrounds us and invites us into the future, God is not far from us. We do not ‘see’ the horizon, but it is the backdrop against which we see everything else. God is not an object within the world, and hence not the concern of science, but he is the beyond, the horizon over against which the limitations of everything in the world are exposed.

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