Are Science and Religion Compatible? You betcha!

Ted Peters of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences offers our first in a series of responses to the science-religion debate we’ll be posting here at the Faith Forward blog over the next week.

Why would someone want to think that science and religion are incompatible? I can think of two reasons, both of which are inadequate.

First, science and religion seem to be at war with one another over the credibility of Charles Darwin’s model of evolution, according to which species change over deep time due to variation in inheritance and natural selection. Some Christians and some Muslims object to the alleged determinative and exclusive role played by natural selection here. They would prefer to paint a picture of nature that includes divine providence. Creationists and Intelligent Designers object to evolutionary theory, saying that Darwin’s view is mistaken science because it excludes divine causation; it disappointingly excludes a divine design of the human person. Once this point is made, these religious critics go on with a moral diatribe. They ascribe responsibility to Darwinism for moral atrocities such as the German war machine in World War I, Nazi genocide in World War II, the eugenics of Planned Parenthood, abortion, and today’s permissiveness toward homosexuality.

Note that this is a war being fought over one topic within science, evolution. No such religious attacks have been launched against physics, cosmology, chemistry, computer science, or any of the other hard sciences. Only evolution. Even though a culture war is being fought over the credibility of Darwinian evolution, virtually no religious person finds science in general incompatible. If on the basis of the evolution controversy one wants to conclude that science and religion in general are incompatible, this would commit the fallacy of hasty generalization.

Second, many scientists presume that the science they pursue undermines and decimates all traditional beliefs, including religious beliefs. Empirical research takes no prisoners. Nothing is sacred. No presumed dogma can escape the scientific machete which cuts it off at the roots.  Here’s an example from Science 328 (30 April 2010), “Irreverence and Indian Science.”  The problem this article by R.A. Mashelkar addresses is India’s slowness to date in making scientific advance. The way to speed up scientific progress is to embrace “irreverence” toward Hinduism’s long tradition of religious beliefs. These beliefs must be swept out of the way if scientific research is to enjoy freedom of inquiry. Scientists must take a stand “against the fatalistic ethic of Hinduism” and “create a nurturing environment for creative irreverence within India.” If one is a Hindu living in India and sees this attack of “creative irreverence” coming, science will by no means look neutral let alone friendly. Science has declared a culture war on the Indian religious heritage. One could easily conclude that science and religion are incompatible.

Despite this declaration of war by one scientist against one religion, it would be a mistake to assume that scientific research in general requires a materialist ideology that is categorically opposed to religion. Some scientists are religious. Others are not. Religious commitment or non-commitment is not required by science itself.

This is plainly the case when one counts the number of deeply religious individuals who are accomplished laboratory researchers. At the birth of modern science in Western Europe, Roman Catholic Copernicus and Galileo along with Lutheran Kepler saw the cosmos as nature’s book revealing the glory of the creator God. In our own era, NIH director and geneticist Francis Collins along with laser inventor and Nobel  physicist Charles Townes provide two examples of accomplished researchers who are also persons of faith. If scientists pursuing science can find compatibility between their faith and their science, then why do the media and the culture find it so difficult?

In sum, when you hear it said that science requires a commitment against religion and in favor of irreverence, listen carefully. What you might be hearing is an ideology plopped on top of the science. Religion is definitely incompatible with materialist ideology, even if for the most part conscientious religion can share a cultural nest with authentic science.

Ted Peters is a professor of Systematic Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, California. He is author of GOD-The World’s Future (Fortress 2000) and Science, Theology, and Ethics (Ashgate 2003). He is editor-in-chief of Dialog, A Journal of Theology. He also serves as co-editor of Theology and Science published by the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley.

Visit the Patheos Public Square on Religion and Science to read more perspectives on the topic, and check back here at the Faith Forward blog for more mainline Christian responses from Noreen Herzfeld, John Haught, Blake Horridge and Michael Zimmerman in the days to come.

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