The nature of the relationship between science and religion:Neighbors, layers, or deftly woven fabric?

A couple of weeks ago when I started this blog I said it was about science and region.  I haven’t said much since about the two endeavors since .  I aim to rectify that today.  As part of a Scientists in Congregations project funded by the John Templeton Foundation, I have the opportunity to talk about these two human trappings with people who have very different viewpoints.  This week I had occasion to think about how science and faith might be perceived by different people to be related.  I am by no means the first or last person to think about this, but I don’t thin enough people think or write about it.  So, I guess, I’ll give it a shot.

The first visualization I came up with was that championed by Stephen Jay Gould, Non-overlapping magestaria.  Science and religion can be viewed as neighbors.  Each of them dealing with a separate and equally important domain.  Science addressing the natural world in a strictly empirical manner and attempting to explain why nature and its processes occur the way they do.

Stephen Jay Gould

Religion on the other hand deals with how we should treat each other and ourselves.  Some people are very good at compartmentalizing these two domains and using each toolkit in the appropriate circumstance.  Others though, are not so good at applying the toolkit in the appropriate circumstance.  Who has tried to use a pliers instead of a wrench to loosen a nut and ended up stripping the nut in the process?

Another possible relationship is one of layers, similar to a geographic information system or on of those old transparencies of the human body where each overlay was a different organ system.  The idea

A three layer GIS

here is that you can look at each layer separately on its own or you can look at each layer together, one atop the other.  So in the case of  science and religion, by this view it is possible to view a problem or situation through the science overlay to assess why or explain how it is occurring.  Then look at it through the religion overlay to assess how that situation affects us spiritually or how it relates to our behavior towards others.  Finally, through deliberative theology, it would be possible to view a situation through both overlays simultaneously.  The primary aim being to match up what we know scientifically and theologically .  Again, some people are very good at this.  I’ve seen it while working on the SinC project mentioned above.  This may not be the best approach for everyone, it requires considerable thought and deliberation to look at both of those layers simultaneously.

Is it possible for science and religion to be interwoven in American Culture? Should it be?

The final possibility for the relationship between science and religion is best described as a fabric with the fibers of science and religion interwoven.  This is how I perceive the relationship as advocated by John Polkinghorne and others.  This is admittedly difficult to wrap your brain around.  I would go further to say, that as a culture, we are miles away from a relationship like this. The embedded theology of the american culture is not yet prepared to form a relationship as intimate as this one.

I have not finished thinking about these metaphors or descriptions for the possible relationships between science and religion, but I think it important to note that it is likely that different people will be better suited to different types of relationships.  It is glaringly obvious that some give these issues more though than others. The first steps will be to get the various denominations and religious faiths to inspect the possible relationships between science and religion AND TALK ABOUT THEM.  Additionally, we need sound science education in our public schools.  This will give young people the ability to ask thought-provoking questions.

So, I leave you, the reader to think about this and comment on these ideas.  They may have merit or I may be full of crap.  I don’t think these two choices are mutually exclusive, either…


About benevolentheathen

I am an Associate Professor of Biology at Northwestern Oklahoma State University. I teach courses in ecology, evolution, and behavior with an emphasis on terrestrial vertebrates, especially reptiles. In recent years I have become increasingly interested in the interplay between science and religion. I consider myself spiritual, but not religious. I am continually reassessing my thoughts and ideas about God, faith, and religion and how they fit into my empirical worldview. View all posts by benevolentheathen

One response to “The nature of the relationship between science and religion:Neighbors, layers, or deftly woven fabric?

  • J.F. Wickey

    As long as we remember that our metaphors are maps and not reality. Maps describe reality, but cannot capture the full measure of reality. Dogmatics can arise when we reify our metaphors and say that the metaphor is the reality it describes. This happens in religion when we say that God is Father. We lose the richness of other metaphors when we reify one. God as Father allows for many other metaphors. Hence God can also be Gardner or Potter. In science, Bohr’s model of the atom describes some aspects of the atom but does not fully describe the richness of quantum mechanics. Metaphors are models, but models are not reality. The relationship between faith and science bears aspects of all three models you’ve given; it is not fully described by any one model.
    And we know that I’m full of shit: I’m a theologian.

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