There are four standard ways of viewing the relationship between science and religion: warfare or conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. (See my piece of March 12 for more details.) Now, let us see how these cash out, using Christianity as our example of religion, but suspecting strongly that conclusions can be extended readily to other religions.
The New Atheists like Richard Dawkins argue that science and religion are in conflict, and in many respects it is hard to disagree. If, based on your reading of Genesis, you accept that the Earth is 6,000 years old and that humans appeared complete (and adult) in a single founding pair, and that there was some time later a worldwide flood that wiped out almost all of the inhabitants, then you are simply in conflict with huge amounts of modern science, from astronomy to geology, from geology to biology. If, as a Mormon, you think that the native people of America are the lost tribes of Israel, you are in conflict with modern archeology which claims that they came over the Bering Straits about 12,000 years ago.
However, the simple fact of the matter is that, although apparently today it is by far the most widely held belief of Americans, Young Earth Creationism (as it is known) is simply not traditional mainstream Christianity. The same is even more true of the fantastical claims of the members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints of Jesus Christ. From at least the time of Saint Augustine (around 400 AD), it has been part of standard Christian theology that truth cannot be opposed to truth, and that if the claims of modern science refute those of the Bible taken literally, then the Bible must be not rejected or deemed false but interpreted metaphorically or allegorically. Although the great Protestant reformers urged a return to the Bible as the basis of faith, they too recognized the fact that (in the language of Calvin) God accommodates his language to the common people. This does not mean that Augustine denied the historical authenticity of Adam and Eve or that Calvin embraced a limited flood, but that their thinking embraced a methodology that allows -- insists on -- Christians understanding their beliefs against the background of the most up-to-date science.
Go to the other end of the spectrum, integration. In the 20th century, the most famous exponent of this approach was the French, Jesuit paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He argued that evolution is a progressive process up to humans and then on to something he called the Omega Point, an apotheosis that he identified with Jesus Christ. Many found this vision very inspiring, although his superiors in the Catholic Church were less than enthusiastic and forbade him to publish -- his supporters brought out his masterwork, The Phenomenon of Man, as soon as he died -- and the scientific community was withering in its response. Nobel Prize Winner Peter Medawar wrote: “I have read and studied The Phenomenon of Man with real distress, even with despair. Instead of wringing our hands over the Human Predicament, we should attend to those parts of it which are wholly remediable, above all to the gullibility which makes it possible for people to be taken in by such a bag of tricks as this. If it were an innocent, passive gullibility it would be excusable; but all too clearly, alas, it is an active willingness to be deceived.”
Today the most prominent integrationists often subscribe to a version of process philosophy, based on the thinking of Alfred North Whitehead. The see God as a “co-creator” along with us, not forcing the pace of evolution but trying to guide and influence it. But, as with Teilhard, it is hard to see how this can be maintained on either theological or scientific grounds. The God of Saint Augustine and Calvin is not a co-creator. And like Teilhard’s vision, there is about such enterprises the smell of a guided form of evolution, quite alien to the Darwinian picture.
Moving in to dialogue, I have included natural theology -- getting at God through reason -- in this category. Catholic theologians, in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas, tend to be sympathetic to this enterprise. Protestants, especially those influenced by the great, 20th-century theologian Karl Barth, tend to reject it. They just don’t think it works, and in the spirit of Kierkegaard they think that if you could prove God exists, this would rather diminish faith. The latter demands some kind of commitment above reason, a “leap into the absurd.” However, even if you agree to downplay reasoned arguments to God, there is certainly going to be some place for dialogue in the sense of trying to mark out the boundaries of science and religion. Given the controversies today, it is hardly a priori obvious where the one ends and the other begins, if indeed one does end and the other does begin.
What then about independence? I should say that this -- often now somewhat sneeringly called “accommodationism” -- has been the “official” position in much of the debate in America in the past few decades. It was the stance taken by the American Civil Liberties Union in both the Arkansas trial of 1981 and the Dover trial of 2005, when federal courts ruled that biblical-literalist-influenced accounts of creation -- Young Earth Creationism in the first trial and Intelligent Design Theory in the second -- could not be taught in state schools (in the science classes, that is). It is also the position endorsed by the National Center for Science Education, the organization specifically founded and shaped to fight anti-evolution teaching in state schools.
There is a fairly obvious reason for this stance. The First Amendment does not ban the teaching of bad science. So subscribing to the conflict thesis is a nonstarter politically. It has rather been interpreted as setting up a separation between Church and State. You cannot teach religion in schools, at least not in the sense of teaching it as something true. (It would be hard to teach American history without mention of religion.) So if you argue that religion is something completely other from science, you have a criterion of demarcation to keep religion out of science classrooms. At the same time, you are not putting religion down -- hardly the best of political tactics to take in a country like the USA. You are simply saying that there is a time and a place for everything.
The problem now of course is exactly what you are going to allow religion to claim. Stephen Jay Gould’s Rocks of Ages shows the dilemma in a stark form. He introduced the notion of a Magisterium, a kind of world picture or way of looking at things, and argued that science and religion are different Magisteria. Hence, they cannot be in conflict. But when you looked at the fine print, problems abounded. As far as Gould was concerned, religion can make no existence (ontological) claims. It can talk about ethics and that sort of thing, but once it moved on to things like God’s existence and miracles and the like, it was illicitly moving into the realm of science. Remember how in my last piece on the hobbit (Homo floresiensis) I said how Gould thought that human existence was a matter of luck. This is hardly an option for the Christian who thinks that the whole story revolves around us, “made in the image of God.” We may be many things, but we are not creatures of luck.
So let’s leave things (until the next time) with a question. If you agree that the independence option is politically savvy, and if (against the New Atheists) you think that intellectually it is at least a viable option, how are you going to make a case to preserve modern science and its integrity, and yet allow the traditional religious believer (for the purposes of this discussion, the traditional Christian believer) scope to make the claims that he or she wants to make? And obviously there is the subsidiary question. How are you going to do this and yet make it possible for the nonbeliever to continue as a nonbeliever with the scope to criticize the believer as subscribing to something false or at least unworthy of acceptance?