A Revolution in Science and Religion

These words mark the beginning of an exciting journey in which you are all invited to actively participate. Understanding the relation between science and religion is one of the most exciting frontiers of knowledge today, and I offer my services as your weekly guide to the field here on Patheos. Today I want to describe the itinerary of your tour.

The number of people working in the field of science and religion is multiplying daily and it can be hard to keep up. With so much information out there, it can also be hard to separate science from its use for a given secular or religious ideological purpose. It is my firm belief that scientific data, scientific explanations (which often try and eliminate religion with that data), theological defenses, and novel theological ideas all need to be understood on their own terms before being thrown into an arena where they can battle until a victor emerges. Such lumping together is largely how science and religion are presented in mainstream media outlets today. This is a problem, though, since it results in the audience agreeing with the perspective in the debate with which they already felt aligned. Understanding why anyone could take a different position than one’s own is a possibility thwarted before the conversation began.

To fix this problem I will be breaking the field apart into four digestible components: 1) the scientific study of religion, 2) the scientific explanation of religion, 3) traditional theological responses to scientific explanations, and 4) novel theological developments reached in response to scientific explanations. At the beginning of each month we will cover the scientific study of religion, then scientific explanations the next week (some of you may have heard about some fellow named Richard Dawkins), and so on until all four components have been dealt with. Sometimes I will just keep you up to date with cutting-edge work each week while some months may be devoted to a special topic such as morality and altruism with each week devoted to how each of the four perspectives understands that topic. Now let me say a brief word about these four perspectives.

1) Scientists are gathering lots of data about religion and religious experiences. This is fortunate, because we may have known less about this issue than we thought. For example, if “religious experience” is what happens to people in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and so on, then the designation of a phenomena as a religious experience does not clarify much content. Religious experience then looks like a vague designation that is happily tossed around without knowing what about any specific experience it is supposed to explain. Scientists are helpfully gathering data that can fill in our understandings of religious experiences and other religious phenomena.

2) Scientists are used to interpreting the data they find and are thus natural candidates for interpreting the data being gathered about religion. The resulting explanations range from clarifications of perplexing data for the lay person that are also friendly to religion all the way to arguments against religion and the impossibility of any supernatural realities. Some debates will reflect the fact that scientific consensus has not been reached in all the aspects of religion currently being studied. This perspective also moves beyond the mere presentation of scientific data to its implied philosophical questions.

3) Not all scientists are philosophers. Sometimes when a scientist thinks some scientific data has refuted religion, she may be wrong about that conclusion. Many theologians have been giving defenses of traditional theological teachings, showing that certain beliefs are still possible even given all the advances in scientific knowledge.

4) Sometimes people are too eager to defend beloved ideas. Other philosophers and theologians believe scientific explanations bring a more difficult challenge to religion. While all religions may not be false as some scientists want to say, those in this perspective understand science as demanding some massive reconfigurations of theological ideas. Religion is not doomed, but parts of it need to be rejected while others need modification.

The reason I find this four-part approach so valuable is that hidden agendas and ideologies dominate much of what is being said about the relation between science and religion. My goal is to present these different perspectives in their internal integrity before an article collecting all the posts for the month is created to give “the holistic view” with some guiding editorial comments and opinions from myself. I am not here to simply give you my own ideas, something that would quickly become tedious and probably irrelevant to most of you quickly. Rather, I want those who routinely stay up-to-date with this blog to understand the different options in the field and come to conclusions that reflect actual grappling with different arguments rather than affirming one’s secret wishes in the end. All four perspectives are live options, and it is our task to investigate each as thoroughly as possible.

In the meantime, if you want to prepare yourself by reading a classic about the different ways religion and science can possibly relate then get a copy of Ian G. Barbour’s Religion and Science.

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About Benjamin Chicka

Benjamin J. Chicka is a Ph.D. student in philosophy of religion and theology at Claremont Graduate University. His doctoral research focuses on relating the religion and science and religious pluralism conversations through the methodology of the American pragmatists he calls Pragmatic Constructive Realism (PCR). Someone following PCR is neither a naive metaphysician nor a bore without hope. Benjamin has published in astronomy, neuroscience, as well as theology.