Science v. faith: Is the battle diminishing?

Is the so-called war between faith and science exaggerated? Some people of faith — most prominently conservative Christians, including many evangelicals — interpret the Bible literally and reject the accepted scientific account of the Earth’s origin and the evolution of the human species. Biblical literalists have pushed to get their view, in such forms of Creationism and Intelligent Design, into public school science curricula, generating lawsuits, textbook debates and intense school board campaigns in their wake.

In 2006, two world-class Protestant scientists, Dr. Francis S. Collins and Owen Gingerich, wrote books asserting that being Christian is compatible with their work and that no conflict exists between science and religion. The books introduced an argument that changed the dynamic of the discussion about science and religion, and now only 15% of scientists believe that the two are always in conflict. This could not only change the nations discussion of the topic, but also affect how schools teach the two subjects.

Background

Why it matters

Highly regarded scientists who are religious have not always been public about matters of faith, and now that they are there might be less focus on how religion and science conflict and more about where one is able to fill the gap left by the other. Those who have already accepted this concept of congruence have shown that a synthesis of the two realms is possible and the perception of conflict is, at the least, exaggerated.

Can the fraught relationship be saved? Should it be saved? Much is at stake, from climate change to abortion policies to science curriculums in schools across the country.

Scientists and religion

Dr. Francis S. Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, and Owen Gingerich, a retired professor of astronomy and the history of science at Harvard University and an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, wrote books in 2006 that integrate their perspectives as scientists and Christians into arguments for the congruence of science and religious belief. Their perspectives are a middle ground between the scientists who eschew religious faith and those who promote Intelligent Design or believe that the book of Genesis’ account of creation is scientifically accurate.

Collins’ The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief and Gingerich’s God’s Universe argue that religion and science both reveal forms of truth.

Controversy about the teaching of evolution in schools is largely based on a widespread perception of an inherent conflict between science and religious belief. Many prominent scientists have rallied to the defense of evolution and astronomical and geological findings that hold that the earth is billions of years old rather than the few thousand cited by Biblical literalists.

“In my view, there is no conflict in being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us,” writes Collins, who was raised in a nonreligious household but journeyed through agnosticism, atheism and belief in a creator to evangelical Christianity. Gingerich, raised in a pious Mennonite family, found that his career in astronomy strengthened his religious faith that “a superintelligent Creator exists beyond the cosmos” and that the nature of the universe, “permitting and encouraging the existence of self-conscious life, is part of the Creator’s design and purpose.”

Collins termed this perspective theistic evolution, and called it the predominant view of the scientists who profess belief in religions based on the Bible. It holds that:

  • The universe began some 14 billion years ago, although science has not yet identified the processes that brought it into being.
  • Life on earth began through processes as yet unknown but evolved through Darwinian natural selection into the species currently present, including human beings, who descend from the same ancestor as the great apes.

To these statements, which are universally accepted by mainstream science, Collins added that humans have unique features expressed in all cultures, such as a sense of right and wrong and a desire to seek God, that “defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature.” In addition, both authors posit that:

  • God created both the universe and the laws of physics, chemistry, geology, evolution and genetics that govern it. Those laws produced a universe perfectly suited to the development of life.
  • Through God’s intention, these laws resulted in the evolution of a species possessing intelligence, free will, a sense of morality and a desire to seek God.

Both scientists state in their books that (1) science can only study phenomena that the human senses and their technological extensions can observe and measure; (2) statements of faith lie outside the realm of science and therefore cannot conflict with it; and (3) all scientists, whether or not they believe in God, go about their scientific work in the same way.

In addition to presenting this argument, the books lay out critiques of various competing views, including atheism, agnosticism, Young Earth creationism and Intelligent Design.

Developments

The announcement that Bernard d’Espagnat, a French physicist and philosopher of science, was awarded the 2009 Templeton Prize highlights once again the long-running debate over the relationship between faith and science. D’Espagnat has theorized that quantum physics could provide insights into alternate spiritual realities. He has said that recent discoveries in the field may be “signs providing us with some perhaps not entirely misleading glimpses of a higher reality and, therefore, that higher forms of spirituality are fully compatible with what seems to emerge from contemporary physics.”

Yet even that qualified statement can cause agita among scientists and theologians, as well as the general public. Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould famously referred to religion and science as “non-overlapping magisteria” that should each tend to their own fields, and history is replete with examples of conflict when the two intersect. It’s been more than 400 years since Galileo developed the telescope and began the observations that would get him into trouble with the Catholic Church, and more than 150 years since Charles Darwin published his historic book, The Origin of Species.

While Rome made peace with astronomy – in December 2008 Pope Benedict XVI paid tribute to Galileo as a scientist who helped the faithful “contemplate with gratitude the Lord’s works” – the United States continues to be an arena for science-faith disputes.

In March 2009, as he lifted a ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, President Barack Obama announced his decision to separate politics and science. But religious conservatives and others pointed out that such a division is not always possible, or even desirable, especially when it comes to moral issues like stem cell research, human cloning and the like.

In terms of the debate over Darwin vs. creationism, Americans remain divided. A Gallup Poll taken Dec. 17, 2010, showed that 16% of Americans accept the theory of evolution, 38% believe God guided a process of human development over millions of years and a full 40% believe God created humans in present form approximately 10,000 years ago.

Questions for reporters

Does the view that science inherently conflicts with religion have substantial support in your area, as, for example, in efforts to limit the teaching of evolution? If so, what has been the reaction of scientists who are religious believers? Have they taken any action to make their views known or to influence the public debate?

Are there any organizations of scientists who are religious believers in your area? If so, what sort of activities do they engage in? Do they attempt to inform or influence the public?

Articles

Polls and surveys

National sources

  • Francis Collins

    Dr. Francis Collins is director of the National Institutes of Health and former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. Collins has explained his belief in God in many press interviews and in his book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

  • Orval Gingerich

    Orval Gingerich is director of the Center for Global Education at Augsburg College in Minneapolis and has created and led experiential study abroad semesters as part of EMU’s Global Village Curriculum.

  • Karl Giberson

    Karl Giberson serves as scholar-in-residence in science and religion at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. He has written or co-written a number of books, including Worlds Apart: The Unholy War Between Science and Religion; Species of Origins: America’s Search for a Creation Story; Oracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists Versus God and Religion; and Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution. He is critical of intelligent design theory, charging that it is a religious belief because the “intelligence” referred to is always God. Giberson has lectured on science and religion at Oxford University and the Vatican, as well as many American universities and colleges.

  • Kenneth Miller

    Kenneth Miller is a biology professor at Brown University and author of Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution. He felt that the debate over intelligent design and evolution was both religious and political in that ID proponents want to enlist the government to ensure their ideas are taught in public schools under the banner of First Amendment protection.

     

  • Robert John Russell

    Robert John Russell, founder and director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences and professor of theology and science at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., is an ordained minister and leading researcher committed to a positive interaction between the fields of theology and science. He is co-editor of Quantum Mechanics: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (CTNS and Vatican Observatory/University of Notre Dame Press, 2001).

  • William Grassie

    William Grassie is executive director of the Metanexus Institute, an organization that seeks to promote dialogue between the fields of religion and science. He said that within the current debate there is a need to distinguish between the “what” and “when” of evolution, which he said is well supported by scientific evidence, as opposed to the “how” and “why,” which is another, open matter. He also said the ID camp included many young-Earth creationists, and that hurt the chance of ID being taken seriously by unconvinced scientists.

  • Charles E. Curran

    Charles E. Curran is the Scurlock Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He specializes in moral theology, social ethics and the role of the church as a moral and political actor in society. He is a liberal theologian who was dismissed from Catholic University of America for his teachings on human sexuality after an extended struggle, which included meetings with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Curran can also comment on the politics of the papacy.

  • Carol Rausch Albright

    Carol Rausch Albright is a visiting professor of religion and science at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and is co-author or contributor to several books on science and religion, including The Humanizing Brain: Where Religion and Neuroscience Meet and NeuroTheology: Brain, Science, Spirituality, Religious Experience. Albright believes that human beings’ experience of God involves virtually every part of the brain. She has written about the interface of neuroscience, spiritual growth and complexity studies. She can be contacted here.

  • Joan Roughgarden

    Joan Roughgarden is a retired professor of biological sciences and geophysics at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. She now resides in Hawaii where she is an adjunct faculty member at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology. She is author of Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist (Island Press, 2006) among eight others.

  • Keith B. Miller

    Keith B. Miller, research assistant professor of geology at Kansas State University, is editor of Perspectives on an Evolving Creation (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), a collection of essays, and an officer of the Affiliation of Christian Geologists.

  • Stanley L. Jaki

    The Rev. Stanley L. Jaki was a Benedictine priest with doctorates in physics and theology and was the author of over fifty books, including Cosmos and Creator (Regnery Publishing, 1990). He was Distinguished Professor of Physics at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

  • Gary B. Ferngren

    Gary B. Ferngren is a history professor at Oregon State University and the author or editor of multiple books on science and religion, including Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction and Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity. He can also be reached via the website contact form.

  • Antje Jackelén

    The Rev. Antje Jackelén is archbishop of the Church of Sweden and is an adjunct professor of systematic theology/religion and science at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. She is president of the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology and is a former director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science, which brings together scientists, theologians and other scholars for discussion and research.

  • Institute for Theological Encounter with Science & Technology

    The Institute for Theological Encounter with Science & Technology in St. Louis is an interfaith organization of Christians working to foster a “community of scientists and technologists who are dedicated both to the advancement of scientific understanding AND to the growth of Christianity.” Sister Marianne Postiglione is director of communications.

  • Louisville Institute

    The Louisville Institute is a seminary that works to enrich the religious life of American Christians and to encourage the revitalization of their institutions, by bringing together those who lead religious institutions with those who study them, so that the work of each might inform and strengthen the other.

Scientists' organizations

  • American Scientific Affiliation

    The American Scientific Affiliation is an organization of scientists who are also Christian. The group maintains no official position on the intelligent design-evolution debate but tries to strike a balance between the two. It maintains a page of papers, articles, definitions and positions on the debate.

  • Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists

    The Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, founded in 1947, fosters the synthesis of science and Orthodox Jewish teaching and practice through symposia on specific topics, an annual conference and publications. Both science and Torah are regarded as expressions of truth, and therefore conflicts between them are only “apparent,” according to the group’s website. Clara Wajngurt-Levy is executive director of the association, which is based in Fresh Meadows, N.Y.

  • Science, Religion and the Human Experience

    Science, Religion and the Human Experience was a program from the University of California, Santa Barbara. It ran from 2001-2003 and it studied human history through the lens of the intersection of science and religion. James D. Proctor was director.

  • Center for the Study of Science and Religion

    The Center for the Study of Science and Religion at Columbia University’s Earth Institute examines the idea of the natural from both scientific and religious perspectives. Robert Pollack is founder and director.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • David Wilcox

    David Wilcox is a biology professor emeritus at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pa., teaching the theoretical models of biological origins and the relationship between faith and science. He is the author of God and Evolution: A Faith-Based Understanding (Judson Press, 2004).

  • Carl Feit

    Carl Feit, a retired professor of biology and chairman of health sciences at Yeshiva University in New York City, is an immunologist and cancer researcher as well as an ordained rabbi and Talmudic scholar.

In the South

  • Jay Hollman

    Dr. Jay Hollman is a cardiologist at the Ochsner Clinic in Baton Rouge, clinical assistant professor of cardiology at Louisiana State University Medical School and a former president of the American Scientific Affiliation, an organization of Christian scientists. He wrote an essay titled, “Genetics, Medicine and the Image of God” for the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion.

  • Neil A. Manson

    Neil A. Manson is assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Mississippi in Oxford and editor of God and Design: The Teleological Argument and Modern Science (Routledge, 2003).

  • Shenandoah Anabaptist Science Society

    The Shenandoah Anabaptist Science Society, a membership organization with headquarters at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., sponsors programs fostering dialogues “at the intersection of science and religion.” The secretary of SASS is Tara Kishbaugh, Eastern Mennonite University professor of chemistry.

  • Lindon Eaves

    Lindon Eaves is Distinguished Professor of Human Genetics and Psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth School of Medicine in Richmond, Va., and an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Virginia.

In the Midwest

  • Loren Haarsma

    Loren Haarsma is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., and has written on the relationship of science and religion.

  • Deborah Haarsma

    Deborah Haarsma is president of the BioLogos Foundation, a Christian organization that promotes the harmony of religion and science. She is a former professor in the physics and astronomy department at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and has written widely on the relationship of science and religion.

In the West

  • Jeffrey Schloss

    Jeffrey Schloss is professor of biology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., and evolutionary research consultant for the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He is interested in the relationship between evolutionary and theological understandings of altruism. Schloss co-edited Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy and Religion in Dialogue (Oxford University Press, 2002) and Evolution and Ethics: Human Morality in Biological and Religious Perspective (Eerdmans, 2005).

  • Martinez J. Hewlett

    Martinez J. Hewlett is an emeritus professor of molecular biology at the University of Arizona, a lay member of the Dominican order and resident of Taos, N.M. He is also an adjunct professor at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

  • Terry M. Gray

    Terry M. Gray is a computer support scientist in the chemistry department at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and is active in the American Scientific Affiliation.

  • James D. Proctor

    James D. Proctor is a professor and director of the Environmental Studies Program at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. He holds degrees in environmental science and religious studies. He has directed programs on the relationship of science and religion.

Related source guides