Science and Religion: A Call for Reconciliation
When we consider what religion is for [hu]mankind, and what science is, it is no exaggeration to say that the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between them. We have here the two strongest general forces . . .
Alfred North Whitehead
Perhaps the biggest battle in today’s so-called culture wars lies between what are perceived to be two conflicting worldviews. There is the worldview of science, on the one hand, and the worldview of religion, on the other. Let’s hope neither side ever wins, for each is basically right in its central affirmation, but often wrong regarding the truth if fails to accord the other.
Science affirms that its methods of investigation are valid means of understanding, and largely explaining, the phenomena of the real world. This is surely correct. Have you watched TV lately? Used a computer? Been to the doctor? Taken any medicine? Flown in an airplane? Turned up the air conditioning? Every technological invention, every medicine, every practice of the physician’s art, is based on knowledge gained through science. Science still has much to discover, but what is known through science is amazing, and derives from the critical, empirical, investigative methods science employs. Deny that and you can claim to know little beyond the realm of your own private experience.
On the other hand, religion–at least in the Western traditions--affirms that the world investigated by science is of God’s creation. The Hebrew Bible begins with a story of God creating the world. The first article of the Christian creed affirms that God is “Maker of heaven and earth.” We are not told how--but that God created the world is, at least for “believing” Jews, Christians, and Muslims, a non-negotiable conviction of religious faith. Deny that and you put yourself in opposition to the predominant religious faiths of the world.
Science errs when it claims that there is no place for God in accounting for the existence, order, beauty, and creativity of the world that we know. Science may rightfully claim to be naturalistic, but naturalism may be variously defined. When naturalism is defined in materialistic terms, when science claims that everything can be fully, exhaustively explained without God, it exceeds the limits of its own methods. What is non-negotiable for science is the conviction that there is a natural ordering of things. Thus there can be no arbitrary, supernatural, divine intervention that disrupts or suspends the normal causal nexus of events.
Religion errs when it insists, invariably without confirmable evidence or reasonable explanation, that science is wrong about this. The view that God can and sometimes does suspend the natural order of things is simply dogma. No real evidence exists for this, only the teachings of traditions pre-dating our scientific understandings. So how can religion claim that God is the Creator of the world? How can religion claim that God has anything to do with world events?
What is required is an understanding that regards all events in the world as in some way manifestations of the divine creativity. Supernaturalism is a vestigial misconception of a earlier, largely mechanistic, worldview. If God is understood as contributing to all that transpires, supernaturalism becomes superfluous.
The natural order of events is not simply a manifestation of universal physical “laws,” cause-effect relationships, or probabilistic occurrences, but also of God’s creative presence. This is not a new idea, rather an idea that now needs to be understood and interpreted in light of everything else that we know about ourselves and the universe we inhabit.
So, science is right to affirm the power, validity, and integrity of its methods, as long as it never claims to provide an exhaustive account of events. Science rightfully insists upon a naturalistic view of the world, as long as naturalism is not equated with materialism, thereby denying divine presence in the creative process. And religion has every right to affirm that God is the Creator of the world, so long as it does not insist that God can and does disrupt the causal nexus or contravene the natural order at will. Religion rightfully affirms divine presence and influence in the world, so long as it recognizes that presence and influence to be manifest within what we think of as the natural order.
This means, of course, that the natural order must be extraordinarily complex and mysterious. But is there any scientist worth her salt, or any person of seriously reflective faith, who would ingenuously argue otherwise?
Copyright 2005 by Byron C. Bangert