Science and Religion: Conflict or Consonance?

Galileo before the Inquisition in Rome on the charge of 'vehement suspicion of heresy', for his defence of the Copernican view that the earth revolves around the sun.

Galileo before the Inquisition in Rome on the charge of "vehement suspicion of heresy", for his defence of the Copernican view that the earth revolves around the sun.

 Recent popular debates over the relationship between science and religion have too often degenerated into shouted polemics between religious fundamentalists and new atheists. Yet many of the really important historical, philosophical and theological questions call for more careful attention.

This conversation seeks to contribute to this goal, by exploring a range of questions, in particular:

  • To what extent does modern science pose a challenge to belief in the existence of God?
  • What does it mean to have ‘faith’ in an age of science?
  • Can science satisfactorily address the ultimate questions of human existence, which have   traditionally remained within the domain of religion?
  • Is religion of any use to science? Conversely, is science of any use to religion?

Opening Comments From Chairs

A common view is that there is an inherent conflict between science and religion.  This can take the form of an historical claim.  It has become almost a throwaway line to support this claim by pointing to the treatment of Galileo by the Catholic Church in 1632. Yet much recent historical scholarship has now challenged the view that this episode is representative of the ‘inherent conflict’ between science and religion.

Historically, religious concerns guided the science of Kepler, Newton and many other pioneers of the Scientific Revolution. For them, studying the universe demonstrated the attributes of God. This view was eventually replaced in the 19th century by radically different ones: to some science and religion are necessarily antagonistic, to others they belong to separate realms, while others still see a mutually illuminating consonance between the two.

The perceived conflict between science and religion is fuelled by at least five challenges to religion from the natural sciences.  The first concerns the belief that the universe has been created by God for some purpose.   However, according to the natural sciences the universe operates according to blind natural processes, which reproduce the appearances of design and demand no reference to any purpose.  

The second challenge is the problem of natural evil.  The universe has so many natural processes (no human agency involved) that are contrary to what we should expect to find if the universe was created by an all knowing, all powerful, perfectly good God.  Attention is focused on particular natural processes (e.g. tsunamis, genetic disorders, extreme weather events - before human contributions were a serious factor) and more generally the suffering and death in the evolution of life.  

The third challenge is a conflict between faith and reason where ‘faith’ is taken to be belief held in the face of contradictory evidence and reason is commonly seen at its best in scientific inquiry that yields evidenced based beliefs.  It seems obvious that embracing a scientific approach to the world must rule out such ‘faith’.  

The fourth challenge might be seen as a particular example of the third but it figures in many discussions of ‘science and religion’ that it deserves separate recognition.  It is the tensions between the scientific view of the universe and the very different view presented by Sacred texts, for example the account of Genesis we find in the Old Testament.   At best the Bible is seen to be outdated for anyone with a scientific view of the world.   

The fifth challenge is a philosophy that is based on the natural sciences, and is often identified with the natural sciences.   It makes two claims.  One is that the only way to find out about the world is to use the methods and standards used in the natural sciences to justify knowledge or rational beliefs.  The other is that all there is, is what the natural sciences say there is.  On this view, the totality of existence is reducible to what physics says there is, or complex configurations of the same.

Two of the places where this shows up is in the scientific explanation of religion and in the assumption that human consciousness is entirely produced by brain processes. But this in turn raises questions about the extent to which moral judgements, or purposive action more generally, can be understood from the perspective of a ‘naturalistic worldview’.

Theological and philosophical debate continues over these challenges.  It is easy to find an inherent conflict between fundamentalism in religion and say scientific naturalism.  But this does not mean there is an inherent conflict between science and religion. It is possible to be a practising Jew, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu and be a practising scientist.   

On the other hand there are indications that other levels of reflection are engaged. Steven Weinberg has said that the more we understand the universe the more pointless it seems, but then goes on to say that only scientific inquiry raises our existence from the level of a farce to that of tragedy.  Yet if we reflect carefully on Weinberg's remarks, it quickly becomes apparent that this ‘raising’ is no small shift, and one wonders what it is about human inquiry that Weinberg thinks gives it this power. Moreover, one may well ponder whether the so-called ‘ultimate questions’ dealing with the meaning and significance of human existence can be satisfactorily answered by secular intellectual traditions.

An alternative to the idea of inherent conflict is the possibility of a constructive mutually critical conversation between science and religion. To illutrate, might not science and religion find common interest in the remarkable phenomenon of human inquiry and whether such inquiry could be ‘placed’ in any world view; in promoting science as a worthwhile vocation; in examining the scientific and philosophical presuppositions of economics; in challenging the cultural roots of the anti-science attitude, that has appeared, for example, in many of the sceptical responses to climate change. 


Scientific naturalism, a challenge to religion


The five challenges to religion by the natural sciences as outlined by Ames and Camilleri are important and require careful and thoughtful responses from those of us professing religious convictions (in my case, Christian).

Let’s talk about the fifth challenge. This results from the view that an adequate philosophical position is provided by the natural sciences. Further it implies that the only reliable knowledge is provided by science. Let’s be clear. This is a worldview that ignores the fact that there are underlying metaphysical assumptions involved in doing science. For example:- the rationality of the world we investigate; our capacity to interrogate that natural world with the methods of science; while our knowledge is always incomplete, it is not meaningless. But such metaphysical assumptions, and others also needed, actually lie outside science [a point made forcibly many years ago by the late Sir Peter Medawar, though not a religious person himself].

So what is involved here is a worldview that bases its position on the primacy of science. To be able to respond from an informed religious perspective, Ames and Camilleri express the hope for constructive mutually critical conversation. As a practicing Christian and professional scientist for well over half a century, I have always found it liberating to understand that faith and science can be understood in harmony. But what stands against creative conversations is the difficulty of establishing a common vocabulary and the associated difficulty of teasing out the assumptions underpinning different points of view.

These days there is an extensive literature at the science-religion interface which provides fuel for the kind of creative conversation Ames and Camilleri would like to see. Perhaps most important of all is the need to listen in such a way that one grasps what people mean, not just what they say.

John Pilbrow
Emeritus Professor of Physics, Monash University

Scientific naturalism, a challenge to religion?


I agree with with Professor Pilbrow, that the forms of inquiry undertaken in the natural sciences rest on certain presuppositions that, to some extent, are not explicitly recognized in the natural sciences. But it is not clear to what extent these presuppositions call for metaphysical explanation, or whether a religious worldview can explain such features of the world any better than a philosophcal worldview. Part of the difficulty, as I see it, is that in speaking of "science", we often find ourselves caught between two meanings: (i) a practical conception of science as a normative (purpose-driven) human activity, and (ii) a conception of science as a body of knowledge, or an assemblage of truths, about the world. If we restrict the latter to 'what physics says there is', then it appears to offer no resources to explain the former. How we proceed from here, is up for grabs - and it certainly opens up a space for a creative dialogue. My own inclination is in the direction of a more philosophically-informed naturalism.

Scientific naturalism, a challenge to religion?


I agree with John and Kristian that human inquiry, including and especially the sciences, has presuppositions. In particular that the field being inquired into is intelligible and open to rational explanation, without prejudice to the forms of intelligibility and forms of rationality that might be needed.  I regard this as a metaphysical presupposition.  This is what inquirers bring to their inquiries. It’s what gets them going on inquiry.   This is of common interest in the conversation between science, theology and philosophy.   I think this presupposition of inquiry could well motivate and contribute to a form of metaphysics, within which scientific inquiries and what they yield, would have an unconstrained place.  I regard human inquiry as one of the most remarkable phenomena on planet earth, and wonder what can gives an adequate explanation of this phenomenon?  That is to ask about an explanation.  First we need an adequate account of human inquiry – the thing to be explained. If this is truncated any explanation might seem adequate. This also applies to a parallel conversation pursuing a theology of nature – in which human inquiry is interpreted in the light of the theology that is part of a religious tradition – and pursuing a natural theology – in which human inquiry is examined to see whether and in what ways it provides an argument for some key elements in that theology.  I would like to think these several conversations between science, philosophy and theology might converge.

Scientific naturalism and religion


Just some preliminary comments. 1. Physics is not the only science. Rutherford jokingly said there are two sciences - physics and stamp collecting. A very rich thought because the correct classification of stamps led to the discovery of the periodic table and with that the theory of atomic structure, and the correct classification of biological specimens led to the rise of the theory of evolution. We clinicians are still classifying clinical syndromes. 2. Every science is still a work in progress. Even within physics there are many more discoveries to be made. We see through a glass darkly. We are gradually seeing more clearly as we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Dark matter and dark energy would suggest that there is a long way to go. 3. Science and the Christian faith are on the same quest - to discover the hidden wisdom of a universe which is both ordered and chaotic - with the science of weather and earthquakes illustrating clearly how mysterious and unpredictable large scale natural events can be. 4. We need all the tools at our disposal - the arts, the sciences, literature and philosophy to try and explore more the hidden assumptions which both illuminate and cloud our perception of what we know and how we should live. 5. As a clinician struggling with the defining and refining of disease processes we are still in our infancy, and then we need to reflect on the human condition which leads humans to treat each other so badly and inconsiderately. 6. I used to think science and the Christian faith were two ways of looking at the one phenomena, but now I see that the faith is also about trying to understand the wisdom which shapes the world and which has mysteriously allowed seeming impersonal forces to shape human beings into sentient reflective beings capable of not just switching bits and bytes over the miles but to make meaningful comments riding on those bits and bytes which others with better analytical tools can engage with, evaluate and refine. Each of us brings our own values and meanings to our quest. For me (and for many over the centuries of the traditions of natural philosophy) our faith shapes our quest and provides both direction and boundaries to our search. Historians of science will also attest how frequently their quest was shaped by these larger considerations.

Comment on Kristian Camilleri's post of 28Jan2015


Kristian Camilleri raises the question as to what we really mean by science when he says,
“in speaking of "science", we often find ourselves caught between two meanings: (i) a practical conception of science as a normative (purpose-driven) human activity, and (ii) a conception of science as a body of knowledge, or an assemblage of truths, about the world.”

Category (i) encompasses the practice of science. Category (ii) raises the question as to what science actually achieves. The body of knowledge, assemblage of truths about the world is best thought of in terms of paradigms that address the big picture. Examples would be Big Bang Cosmology and Evolution.

His point about limiting (ii) to what physics says seems to me to be an unnecessary restriction, particularly in the light of the success that Evolution has had in accounting for biological diversity and much besides. So I would want to argue that in the case of category (ii), one must take into account the big picture paradigms from across the entire scientific spectrum.

A lot of work has been done over the past several decades concerning emergence, complexity and self-organisation, thus rubbing out simplistic notions of reductionism e.g. that “I am nothing but atoms and molecules’ or that ‘All science reduces to physics’ and so on. What is now known is that the properties at each level of complexity are not explicable on the basis of the properties of the constituent parts. For example, biology cannot simply be reduced to chemistry and physics, even though both are involved in biological processes.

Kristian is concerned about the relationship between the categories (i) and (ii) and that if one restricts the conversation to physics, then he thinks category (ii) offers no explanation for category (i). Actually this seems to me to be the wrong way to approach the issue. A robust philosophy of science should incorporate both (i) and (ii) and explore the relationship between them in terms of a mutual interaction or feedback process. Given that scientific knowledge will always be incomplete, there will be an inevitable going back and forward reviewing evidence, suggesting new experiments or observations and revision of aspects of the paradigm involved. This is the normal scientific process. In summary, (ii) is about making sense of the data gathered in (i). It is not a one-way process.

I agree with Kristian that the sort of conversation here opens up a space for creative dialogue. Such dialogue will need to encompass science, philosophy and theology. Something more than ‘philosophically-informed naturalism’ will be needed.

Kristian's reply


Let me clarify a couple of points here, in reposne to John's and Alan's comments on my post.

First, let me stress, I in no way see the sciences as reducibe to physics. As Stephen will attest, I am staunchly anti-reductionist (though a proper discussion of this point would have to distinguish the various forms of epistemological and ontological redutionism)! My aim (though not very well expressed admittedly) in saying 'if we restrict ourselves to physics' was actually to expose the flaw in such thinking.

Indeed I agree wholeheartedly that the sciences make use of fundamentally differnt forms of explanation, and it is precisely this point that underpins my view that human normative action (incuding the kind of purpose-driven activity carried on in the various sciences) must be understood on its own terms. While the activities of human beings can, of course, be described in the terms of chemistry and physics, they are not fully comprehensible in these terms. This is in no way contrary to the spirit of naturalism - values and meanings may have their place here too.

However, I would say this: The recognition that there are a pluarilty of forms to understanding, which are not reducible to physics, opens up difficult questions, which no system of metaphysics - naturalistic or theistic - has adequately resolved.

Stephen's Comment


I happily testify to Kristian being staunchly anit-reductionist having had many conversations with him on this matter!  I would also like to make an initial response to Kristian's last sentence.  As I said in my previous comment inquiry presupposes the field being inquired into is intelligible but without prejudice to the forms of intelligibility that may be needed to understand our expriences, the 'data' of experiment and observation and the data of consciousness.   What I think is noteworthy is that human beings have brought forth and can hold together a multiplicity of different kinds of intelligibility, at least in the sense of moving from one to another, without yet integrating this multiplicity into a unity.  Perhaps an integration is not needed, perhaps not possible, perhaps not desireable, lest differences be overridden. Perhaps our 'holding together' of these different kinds of intelligibility is what is important.  If it is important, then equally important  is whether and on what basis we might assent to any proposed undersanding.  

What is faith?


I wonder if I might shift the direction of the discussion, and pose a couple of questions to our panelists regarding the meaning of faith.

John Pilbrow says "faith and science can be understood in harmony", but emphasizes "the difficulty of establishing a common vocabulary and the associated difficulty of teasing out the assumptions underpinning different points of view".

Alan Gijsbers says faith is "about trying to understand the wisdom which shapes the world and which has mysteriously allowed seeming impersonal forces to shape human beings into sentient reflective beings", and "faith shapes our quest and provides both direction and boundaries to our search".

But what exactly is faith? In reading the comments above, I am reminded of Anselm's view that "faith seeks understanding", but does this form of understanding presuppose there is a "wisdom which shapes the world"? In other words, must one hold that to be the case, to have faith?

What is faith? A reply


Kristian raises a key issue in the science and religion discussion.  An old saying is ‘seeing is believing’.  It is a much less misleading to say that believing is a way of ‘seeing’ the world, oneself and others.  This ‘seeing’ is a form of insight, a little like getting a joke or the kind of ‘seeing’ a new paradigm calls for.  A perspective is opened up and one is drawn to ‘try it on’ (so Peter Lipton) or commit to what is thereby ‘seen’ and if one assents, to live accordingly in the light of this ‘seeing’, usually as part of a community of people, large or small,  sharing this way of  ‘seeing’ and living.    Faith in this sense both contains and seeks understanding.  It has its own ‘logic’ or rationale, as well as making use of all the ordinary forms of rational inference.     Political ‘true believers’, for example, may be bearers of such faith.

Religious faith (in some forms) understands itself as discerning and responding to God and therewith to have some understanding, however limited, of God, of the world and of human life.  This faith has its own ‘logic’ and rationale.  This faith seeks to deepen, broaden, test, correct and strengthen this  understanding (Augustine 5c., Anselm 12c.) and the form of life it engenders.  

People’s faith in God is motivated in various ways.  Some make reason and ordinary experience a starting point, others point to revelation, yet others to spiritual or mystical experience, or all three, though not always in the same order. 

Those who take natural science as the ‘bench mark’ of rationality are often inclined to deny any rationality to such opening up of insight which is at the heart of religious faith.  In my view there is a serious question as to whether this is the only ‘benchmark’ for rationality.   Even so, I can think of three rough parallels between religious faith and the forms of rationality in the sciences.  1) Faith is analogous to ‘abduction’ so that 2) faith seeking understanding is a ‘theological research programme’ analogous to metaphysical and scientific research programmes, making use of all the well known forms of rational inference and like other programs, either progressing or regressing; 3) faith is (part of ) a person or community’s ‘web of belief’ (Quine) which confronts the tribunal of experience altogether, rather than as individual beliefs.  The consequences of a perceived or actual contradiction between the web of belief and the tribunal of experience have to be faced.

Following Galileo I may include in my web of belief his ‘Two Books’ principle and its consequence that some parts of the Bible that speak about the natural world will need to be interpreted theologically not literally in order to not to contradict what the natural sciences say about that aspect of nature.  On the other hand the testimony to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is not something which the natural sciences, as sciences, can raise an objection, unlike scientific naturalism.

Richard Dawkins claim that faith is technically a 'delusion'  - what people believe in the face of contrdictory evidence may apply to some believers but is inadequate as a full account of Christian faith.

Do Science and Religion Belong to Separate Domains?


Do science and religion belong to separate domains?

This question is of crucial importance to understanding whether science and religion are in conflict or consonance. Conflict requires shared intellectual territory, while consonance is only superficial if the two modes of inquiry cannot speak to the same issues.

Stephen Jay Gould famously suggested that science and religion occupied separate spheres – “nonoverlapping magisteria”. Scientific questions were considered empirical matters of what is, while religion dealt with matters of ultimate purpose and what ought to be.

This concept is not without significant basis. Moral imperatives are not typically generated by the inquiry of natural science, although naturalistic explanations of their existence are common. “Why” questions are dismissed as meaningless (e.g. Richard Dawkins) or simply conflated with “how” questions (e.g. Lawrence Krauss). Similarly, religion (mostly) does not claim to uncover knowledge of the natural world.

But do these different foci mean no overlap occurs? It seems unlikely. The natural world is obviously interesting to theologians, and questions of meaning and morality are important to many scientists. Areas of mutual interest clearly exist in practice.

As Dr Ames and Dr Camilleri suggested, it is easy to find conflict between a “new atheist” biologist and a fundamentalist proponent of “Intelligent Design” because they propose competing answers to the same questions. Similarly, attempts to create a scientific ethics (e.g. Sam Harris) often cause conflict by providing answers to previously religious (or philosophical) questions.

But overlap does not always mean tension. The most interesting examples of interaction between science and religion are those in which each mode of inquiry seeks to lend context to the other.

For example, neuroscience has provided fascinating insight into the brain’s activity during “religious experiences” that religious believers have found to illuminate God’s interaction with the human person. Conversely, theology aims to provide a richer understanding of the Anthropic Principle - the scientific unlikeliness of our particular universe – which is interestingly contextualised and perhaps explained by the existence of a supernatural creator. Thus, investigation into the natural world can provide an interesting and revealing context for thinking about God, and vice versa.

Of course, the existence and possibility of this dialogue does not mean that all scientists should find theology scientifically illuminating, or that religious believers should find science theologically illuminating. Dialogue does not necessitate agreement.

But it is easy to mistake this disagreement for a conflict between science and religion. Rather, these are debates between opposing philosophies (naturalistic and theistic) and their interpretations of science. It is fallacious to assume that science only produces one metaphysical worldview. Science rests upon a number of assumptions about natural laws, the intelligibility of the universe and the norms of inquiry, which can be plausibly explained by a supernatural worldview, perhaps even better than a naturalistic philosophy.

Dialogue between science and religion is essential, if only because exposure to new kinds of knowledge and alternative philosophical viewpoints inspires humility in both inquiries as they search for truth.

What is faith?


there are various levels of faith. I believe my patient has cancer because the biopsy shows that result. The evidence is conclusive. I can believe the patient has cancer because I suspect it is so, but only by doing the definitive test will my faith be confirmed. Thus we are already using faith in two different ways - one is belief because I suspect it to be the case, the other belief because I have evidence to show that it is. When I tell the patient the news I try to do it in such a way that the patient will have faith in our team that we will continue to support her as best we can on their journey to the end. She hopefully will put her trust in us that she will get the best curative or palliative treatment we can provide. She in turn may resort to all sorts of quackery to try for cures or she may trust us that we will not embark on futile treatments....In the new field of onco-psychiatry and palliative psychiatry clinicians then seek to help the patient to draw on her spiritual resources (personal and communal) to help her make sense of what us happening and to live a quality life for the rest of her days.

You can see there is also an element of trust involved in the sort interpersonal faith in each other.

Christians believe the Christian story because we think it makes the most sense of the way in which the world coheres, but we also are called on to trust God when things seem to be contrary to our sense of a trustworthy God. Hebrews 11, that great paean to the heroes of faith, eulogizes those who persisted in faith despite not being vindicated. They continued to trust in God's goodness and faithfulness in spite of the tough situation they faced. Such persistence is praised. The best analogy from the philosophical literature is continuing to trust a double agent in the war years even though he appears to be collaborating with the occupying regime.

Why then do we trust God? Because of the long tradition of divine faithfulness through the ages. We trust the witnesses who were there during the seminal events of the faith, and we continue to trust within the community of faith. We are also aware of shadows of doubt, of the fact that we do not have the whole truth, and that sometimes we can find our faith tested. We are not dogmatically certain for we recognize that there is a lot we do not know or have clear. But we also believe we have encountered the Higher Power and that we can speak to Him and that he is with us on our journey towards knowing more, trusting more and risking more...

Brief comments on all 5 of science's challenges to religion


I’d like to make a brief comment about each of the “five challenges to religion from science”. I think all are misplaced, so I’ll provoke discussion with my reasons why.

#1. “According to the natural sciences the universe operates according to blind natural processes, which reproduce the appearances of design and demand no reference to any purpose”; it would be more precise to say that “because the natural sciences do not deal in ultimate origins (notwithstanding Prof. Krauss’s ‘universe from nothing’ play on words), science does not need to concern itself with ‘non-natural’ mechanisms or entities. But it is only scientism that does not recognise the difference between this ‘methodological naturalism’ and a naturalistic worldview. More at #5.

#2. The “problem of evil” is profound; IMHO definitely the ‘hard problem of theism’. But let’s be fair; it also a thorn in the atheist’s flesh. An example: the same prominent atheist who rails against the evils of religion also said that we live in a pitiless universe where there is ultimately no good or evil. (Yes: Prof. Dawkins.)

#3. Faith as “belief in the face of contradictory evidence” is a caricatured straw person, which makes a mockery of serious-minded religiously convinced scientists through history. Fundamentalism (atheist and religious) may evidence blind belief, but that is not typical of sincere seekers for truth who accept, (e.g.) anthropogenic climate change or intrinsic human dignity or the resurrection of Jesus Christ, because in their best (evidence-based) judgement, they believe such things to be true. But ‘evidence’ is a many splendoured thing; evidence for black holes or for Nero’s intentions or for moral norms are three very different sorts of animals.

#4. It is true to say that “the Bible ... is outdated for anyone with a scientific view of the world”, but only if ... Only if one imposes that scientific view on Genesis and expects it to answer the questions we put to it (how many days did God take ...) and to do so in a manner of 21st century science. Is Macbeth outdated, talking as it does of kings and queens and of treachery, and war without lasers and night vision glasses? Does The Chronicles of Narnia have no truth to tell because it is pure fantasy? Rule #1 with interpreting any text is to think first about its original setting, genre, author(s) etc. and only then to ask questions about what it means to people reading it centuries later. No writer of Genesis ever dreamed of big bangs, Turing machines (do see “The Imitation Game”), or answering the questions we might put to them. Fundamentalists (on both sides) are to blame for pushing those poor dead authors into such anachronistic positions.

#5. Anyone who makes the claim that “the only way to find out about the world is to use the methods and standards used in the natural sciences ...” seems to commit a fallacy. In saying that only science tells us about ‘the world’ they either mean by ‘the world’ all that science can tell us about, in which case they are tied in tautology; or they mean by ‘the world’ everything there is to know, in which case they are caught in ‘performative contradiction’ because they have made a philosophical, ‘extra-scientific’ statement. Ultimately science depends on certain foundational beliefs that science itself cannot show to be true.

The Framing of the Science-Religion "Debate"


Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this discussion. I find the science-religion framing of the question a bit narrow, so want to open it out a little. First, in framing their opening foray, Stephen Ames and Kristian Camilleri, mention the problem of “natural” evil as characteristic of the problematic science poses for religion. While the question remains, and pertains to such issues as whether “predation” in certain carnivore and omnivore species is an evil or simply “natural”, i.e. part of who or what they are, the idea of “natural evil” in relation to such as tsumanis, hurricanes, floods, what have come to be understood as “extreme weather events”, cannot fully be separated from human action in this era of the Anthropocene, where humans as a species have themselves become agents of climactic and indeed geological change. This is not to separate humans from nature, but to understand that the old notion of “acts of God” that became “natural disasters” (somewhere around the Enlightenment) may also now involve a degree (not precisely calculable) of human agency. Second, beside the question of “natural evil” I want to sit a word that Ames and Camilleri have not used and that is beauty, perhaps also wonder, though the latter is implied in their words. Beauty and wonder are qualities that for many link science and religion; contemporary scientific cosmologies and ancient biblical accounts of creation. The documentaries of such as David Attenborough suggest, for example, if not precisely a religious, then a quasi-religious, attentiveness and veneration of the processes of evolutionary, planetary and cosmic unfolding, despite and perhaps also because of the tragic exigencies of predation, and events such as cyclones, and the reality of creaturely finitude.

Briefly, I would also point to the multiplicities of knowledge or “knowledges” that surround and may helpfully inform a debate framed in terms of two areas of human exploration and understanding, namely science and religion. I point to two. Firstly, Indigenous cultural knowledges about ecosystems and climate are often not constructed either as science or scientific, but will likely bring different nuances to the question of science and religion than the ones being addressed here. Secondly, poetry offers a way of engaging science and religion differently and potentially in ways that challenge or reframe tensions between the two. Even though the discourses differ, all three use metaphor to convey meaning.

I would like to say something also about matter, faith and the issue of climate change and a popular kind of anti-science relegation of scientific theory to the category “opinion”, but have passed my initial 500 words, so will write more in another post.

Reply to Anne Elvey


I agree with Anne Elvey that extreme weather events are now a good example of what cannot be wholly separated from human agency.  But not all tsunami’s would qualify, nor would all genetic disorders.  The whole sweep of suffering and death that is integral to the evolution of life would not qualify.  It may be claimed that these are all ‘natural’ events rather than ‘evil’. But this would be an ‘Enlightenment’ claim not a theological claim. For Jews and Christians a central theological claim is that God declares the created world is good, including the sense of beautiful.  The problem for many people is that many ‘natural’ events contradict what they would expect were the world indeed created by a perfectly good God for some purpose.  If theology didn’t make this claim there would be no question of ‘natural evil’, which is parasitic on some ‘good’ being contradicted.  The ‘natural evil’ claim presupposes that this universe includes much that is very different from and contradictory of what you would expect a perfectly good, all-powerful and all-knowing God to create.  How is this expectation obtained?  Atheists students in ‘God and the Natural Sciences’ have articulated the expectation as follows: a perfectly good God would create a universe in its perfect end state, perfectly realizing the divine purpose. There would be no suffering and death and there would be no process to achieve that purpose.  If this ‘perfect God’ theology is correct then given the scientific account of the world they conclude that this world is not the creation of a perfectly good God.  On the same basis the Biblical God is not this perfect God.  In my view this sets out ‘the problem’ in the problem of natural evil.  Is this ‘perfect God’ theology correct?

On Evil


I hesitate to enter such a fraught philosophical area as the problem of evil - or even natural evil, but having listened as a clinician to a lot of people trying to make sense of their suffering, and seeking to provide some care for them in their addictions I realise how little both our 'answers' are and how unsatisfactory the standard syllogism is (that if God is all good and God is all powerful there would be no evil, but there is evil therefore either God is not all good or God is not all powerful or that there is no such thing as God).
I have no answers but I follow the man some would say was the one good man in the world. He only lasted three years before the religious establishment turned on him and put him to death. He almost expected it, in fact in some ways his outspokenness brought it on, as if he exposed most deeply the evil within religious humans. Furthermore he told his followers to expect similar, for a servant is not greater than his master, a grain of wheat need to fall into the ground and die to bring forth fruit. And his followers did - they confronted evil in all sorts of ways and died, not to enjoy paradise with 70 virgins, and not by killing others but by living good lives and caring for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalised the rejected. Of course subsequently his followers codified his teaching and became part of an establishment which in turn put away its victims.... and so the cycle continues, but there is a mystery here in Christ's call to suffer quite at odds with the comfortable life we are tempted to follow. But when we follow his life, we too get the courage to face evil embodied within the human structures.

Science and religion do and do not conflict.


I'm sorry I'm late to this debate, but I would like to make the following claim: religion has always deferred to science, since science was done. This is not necessarily the claim that all religion defers to all science, nor that all science conflicts with religious beliefs. However, as movements of thought, religion has always tended over relatively short periods of time to effectively adapt to the best science of the day.

I don't therefore mean that faith is subordinate to reason in religious traditions; in fact it seems to me that since the beginnings of the modern era, faith and reason have tended to become more independent of each other, but apparent dogmatic theology aside, as in the Reformation, religious thinkers have traditionally been the most educated intellectuals of their day, and have moved to accept science within the most liberal constraints of their theological traditions. Taking just the Catholic theological tradition, spherical earth, heliocentrism, post-Galenic medicine, developmental theories in biology, and of course evolution have all been accepted and even promoted by the theologically educated within a generation or two of it becoming accepted in the scientific community, and often within the same period in which scientific communities themselves have adopted new theories in their domain.

Whether that goes to the philosophical question of whether faith and reason complete each other, as the Thomist would have it, or whether they are simply disconnected, as the liberal Christian or existentialist theologians would have it, history is pretty unanimous about this. And the reason is fairly obvious - dogma is malleable over time and adapts to the social "ecology" of current knowledge. An example is the doctrine of transubstantiation: it relied upon a physics of Aristotelian substance/form - the accident or species of the host remains the same (as do all its "physical" properties, but the substance is changed at consecration to the literal body and blood of Christ. Daltonian, and later, chemistry and physics undercut this severely, leading to a shift in interpretation of "substance" from being an actual physical substance to a metaphysical one, around 1900. By a simple trick, science was taken to not conflict with the "eternal" dogma of the Church. Similar moves were made by the Church in the case of heliocentrism (the literal words were taken after to be allegorical or simply ordinary language expressions) and evolution (the soul moved from being an explanation of emotion, psychology and agency to being something more metaphysical and less explanatory of observed facts).

Once science began to make empirical progress, faith was subordinated to reason in matters of reason, and marked out its territory in areas that were (to date) empirically inoculated from disproof. And that process is continuing today. This is not Gould's "nonoverlapping magisteria" so much as a strategic reframing of doctrine. Where science is prized, similar things occur in other religions, which are not always uniform (witness Hindu rejections of the age of the earth as too young, or Mormon rejections of genetic evidence that native Americans are not closely related to lost Jewish tribes) but which occur over time. In the long view, religion ceds ground to science.

Rethinking the aim of dialogue


Having read carefully over the comments posted by the panelists, I think I can safely say that all our panelists agree that science and religion are compatible. As an atheist, I certainly subscribe to that view.

Much of the discussion involving the relationship between science and religion dialogue has traditionally taken the from of engaging in a spirited intellectual debate about questions of metaphysics, theology, biblical hermeneutics, the relationship of faith and reason, and the history and philosophy and sociology of science and religion. I have certainly enjoyed many of these discussions over the years. 

But a question that is seldom posed is what is to be gained from a dialogue between those with different perspectives on the relationship between science and religion? And what would obstruct the realization of the aims of that dialogue, assuming we agreed it was a worthwhile thing to pursue? 

The two questions are intimately connected in my view.

In addressing the second question first, it is clear to me that the major obstacle to fruitful dialogue is the resurgence of the ‘conflict thesis’ that most of us are trying to dismantle, which has been recently fueled by the ‘new atheists’ and ‘religious fundamentalists’.

To this extent, most panelists (myself included) would dismiss ‘biblical literalism’ or ‘fundamentalism’ as an obstacle to fruitful dialogue, but we should not forget that fundamentalism (and new atheism for that matter) is part of the world we live in. And it is not confined to certain pockets of the American mid-west, but now enjoys increasing popularity in many continents around the world. One need only look to parts of Africa, Asia and South America.

But should we feel unsettled by this? What does it matter if certain groups of people, even large groups of people, think that God is a “father figure who created the universe in six days and now resides in the sky”. Should we, as atheists or as ‘true believers’ feel the urge to combat such views? What hangs on this?

If this is simply a matter of having the ‘wrong doctrine’, I cannot see that it matters all that much. After all, lots of people have beliefs that conflict with views I hold to be true. This brings us back to the first question I posed.

If, however, certain forms of religiosity, or science for that matter, constitute an obstacle to human and non-human flourishing or the alleviation of suffering, then I can see that it matters. Thus, we might re-conceive the “dialogue” as the attempt to forge a new kind of relationship that might serve us well in grappling with the problems of the modern world.

Here we should remind ourselves that science and religion do not exist in isolation. They form part of the wider social, political, and cultural world, and they are both shaped by and respond to that world. And by keeping in mind this wider context - the context of practice and action, not just of belief - a fruitful and constructive dialogue concerning science and religion might well emerge.

Comment by Prof Joseph Camilleri


Name: Joseph Camilleri

Affiliation: La Trobe University

I greatly appreciate the contributions of the forum chairs and panellists for raising so many questions and bringing such rich insights to bear on the relationship between science and religion. Yet, I cannot help thinking (and feeling) that critically important issues have yet to receive the attention they deserve.

The conversation thus far has focused largely on the approaches of science and religion to inquiry – how each goes about the task of making sense of the cosmos. The questions posed are important: what we understand by faith and reason; the assumptions – metaphysical or otherwise – on which scientific and religious inquiry are based; what it is we mean by “knowledge of the world’; whether knowledge (however defined) is of one kind or comes instead in many guises, each with its own logic and function.

These are fascinating questions, but they are not novel. They have long been the subject of debate, admittedly of variable intensity and discernment. More to the point they are far from exhausting all that is important in the relationship between science and religion. These two domains are not just about inquiry. They involve more than the production of knowledge. They are also ways of organising the world, ways of shaping the human future. It is in this context that their relationship is perhaps most significant.

Another way of framing this aspect of the relationship is to ask: What contribution might science and religion be reasonably expected to make in the current period of transition, as humanity struggles to grapple with some of the most daunting challenges it has had to face over an evolutionary journey spanning some 150,000 years?

What is it that science or religion can bring to the table, as we try and devise constructive responses to the ecological crisis, of which climate change is but the most dramatic manifestation? Similarly, with issues of peace and war in the atomic age, and health and disease in a time simultaneously described as ‘the age of the genome” and ‘the age of epidemics?

Central to these and other equally bewildering challenges is the question of ethics. Both religion and science influence and are influenced by the ethical content of the decisions that are made. What science is done, for what purposes, with what kind of funding and what kind of transparency and accountability are at the heart of the decisions scientists make day in day out. Similarly, as Pope Francis has been reminding the world, religion is inseparable from relationships – not just relationships with God, but relationships with fellow humans and with nature. Indeed, for many religionists, the experience of the divine or supernatural (however defined and different religious traditions define it rather differently) finds its full expression and meaning in the realm of nature in which human beings live and from which they draw sustenance.

So, exploring the relationship of science to religion requires us in part to think of science and religion as ways of living and acting in the world. Understood in this sense, we can then ask whether the ‘scientific’ and ‘religious’ journeys, though they may follow different pathways, have nevertheless a common destination. And, even if the destination is not the same, might not the different pathways allow for varying degrees of complementarity and collaboration?


Comment by Jospeh Ferguson


January 27, 2015

Name: Joseph Ferguson

Affiliation: Deakin University

I used to be quite scathing and intolerant of religion and a staunch defendant of science, but I am now much more open to the value of religion (and science) as well as much more critical of science (in particular the dominant Western paradigm).

The most appealing articulation of the relationship between science and religion that I have come across is that provided by Emile Durkheim (one of the fathers of sociology/anthropology) who said that:

"Science is said to deny religion in principle. But religion exists; it is a system of given facts; in short, it is a reality. How could science deny a reality? Furthermore, insofar as religion is action and insofar as it is a means of making men live, science cannot possibly take its place. Although science expresses life, it does not create life, and science can very well seek to explain faith but by that very fact presupposes faith. Hence there is conflict only on a limited point. Of the two functions originally performed by religion, there is one, only one, that tends more and more to escape it, and that is the speculative function. What science disputes in religion is not its right to exist but its right to dogmatize about the nature of things, its pretensions to special expertise for explaining man and the world. In fact, religion does not know itself. It knows neither what it is made of nor what needs it responds to. Far from being able to tell science what to do, religion is itself an object for science! And on the other hand, since apart from a reality that eludes scientific reflection, religious speculation has no special object of its own, that religion obviously cannot play the same role in the future as it did in the past."

I would finish my first post by saying that I think both science and religion need to be constantly questioned and their meaning carefully unpacked. Only by doing so can their potential value to society be unlocked.

Comment by Allan Patience


January 28, 2015

Name: Allan Patience

Affiliation: Asia Institute, University of Melbourne

It may be useful to distinguish between positivism as a worldview and the practices of science. Positivism seems to me to confuse epistemology with ontology. In this it shares some features of fundamentalism. The practices of science (as Popper once suggested) are characterised by scepticism and strictly limit their claims to the hypotheses that drive them - constantly seeking to DIS-prove those hypotheses, not prove them. Positivists frequently miss this important point. The positivist view asserts that we should only focus on the empirically measurable here-and-now, on the physics of matter and energy, not on speculating about some imagined metaphysical universe. The advocates of the positivist viewpoint maintain that science will ultimately negate all truth claims previously decreed by the world’s religions and other belief systems. They are driven by the conviction that science is on track to replace all of religions’ dogmas with testable theories that reveal the true facts of our diminutive and temporary occurrence in the cosmos - that there will in due course be a physical (or empirical) theory of absolutely everything. The conclusion drawn from this standpoint is that all metaphysical thinking is fantasy or dangerous nonsense. But what its proponents tend to overlook is that their view is as metaphysical as any other.

Comment by Ahmet Mithat Demir


January 28, 2015

Name: Ahmet Mithat Demir

Affiliation: Selimiye Foundation Vic.

In a debate about religion and science, I presume the term religion is not used exclusively for the Christian experience hence I would like to make an Islamic contribution. Here I wish to draw attention to the views of Fethullah Gulen. While Mr. Gulen acknowledges the problematic nature of the dichotomy of religion and science, he convincingly argues that this perceived conflict is the result of just that, perceptions, rather, misperceptions. The backbone of Mr. Gulen’s philosophy internalizes his strong faith in the interdependence of science and religion – resulting in a movement full of highly pious individuals who are that way due to their support of this complementary nature of rational and religious knowledge who have already began to successfully challenge the age old misconception that science and religion are diametrically opposed.

Comment by Dr Gregory Laughery


February 21, 2015

Name: Dr Gregory Laughery

Affiliation: Director - Swiss L'Abri

Great discussion of important matters. A colleague and I have just published a book: From Evolution to Eden that might be useful to some in this debate. We argue that science and religion (especially the christian expression), are related and distinct in a dialogical tension that edges towards the discovery of a reflective equilibrium.

Comment by Lee Wimberly


February 24, 2015 - 6:54am

Name: Lee Wimberly

Affiliation: Author of "Exploring the Gap between Science and Religion"

Since publishing "Exploring the Gap between Science and Religion" I have heard a full range of answers on the question: Science and Religion: Conflict or Consonance.
From the perspectives gained in writing the “Exploring the Gap", I find that following comment from the opening resonates: "An alternative to the idea of inherent conflict is the possibility of a constructive mutually critical conversation between science and religion. To illustrate, might not science and religion find common interest in the REMARKABLE PHENOMENON OF HUMAN INQUIRY and whether such inquiry could be ‘placed’ in any world view...
I have highlighted the phrase that I submit is key to the discussion. In Exploring the Gap, I shift the focus away from science and religion to the nature of those doing science and nature: humans as “definers". In other words, and nicely stated: REMARKABLE PHENOMENON OF HUMAN INQUIRY.
In the course of the panelist’s comments, I find evidence of our human nature as "definers" in the discussion around the meaning faith. In my book, I do define faith as the "continued acceptance of a position despite all evidence to the contrary," similar to the one mentioned in the opening statements.
I chose that definition because that is the usage one often encounters when engaging in dialog about almost any topic, but specifically when it comes to religion. A common defence I have heard (from someone who is stumped by a rational position, such as scripture contradicting itself) goes something like "God's mind is bigger than ours. The human mind just cannot comprehend God."
I submit that it is those people who subscribe to THIS definition of truth that will take the position that science and religion are in conflict.
Then along comes Paul Tillich. In "Dynamics of Faith" he takes and defines faith as the "ultimate concern." His redefinition of the term is because of the horror of WWII and the Nazi's.
I cite this because Tillich, in resounding to this historical event, is addressing what I term a “definitional dissonance.” It was the “faith” of Nazi Germany that gave justification for the genocide. Faith that they were, as Hitler stated in “Mein Kampf” “no doubt doing the will of God.” When we humans are faced with such a dissonance, we with ignore the information that introduces the contradiction, or we change the model.


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