What hath Einstein to do with Jerusalem?

What hath Einstein to do with Jerusalem? April 19, 2010

If you have decided to follow these weekly posts on science and religion then you probably take it for granted that a valuable interface exists between scientific knowledge and theological thinking. However, things are more complicated than such a simple affirmation. While current debates have moved beyond this issue, the modern version of the field was initially dominated by different typologies picturing the possible relations between science and religion. Before jumping into the specific debates I laid out last week, I believe it is necessary to understand why and how the two disciplines can be related. Besides, for those completely new to science and religion, I wouldn’t be doing a very good job if I failed to introduce this classic issue. It is also worth noting that those interested in comparative theology as well as science and religion might find a renewed focus on typology to be a very relevant matter.

I’ve chosen Ian G. Barbour for this brief excursion. He is famous for developing the following categories that come out of his book Religion and Science which everyone should read. The internal problems to each approach that I mention also come from him. If you are already familiar with Barbour or find his breakdown too simple, Religion and Science: History, Method, Dialogue edited by W. Mark Richardson and Wesley J. Wildman is an excellent resource where many big names in the field who generally fall within Barbour’s four-part typology offer more nuanced breakdowns of their specific views.


Religion and science can be understood as locked in eternal conflict. Imagine two books full of completely different claims about the facts of the world that result in two groups with incommensurable understandings about reality. One book promotes the view that material reality is all that exists. The other book adheres to the inerrancy of the Bible and its literal interpretation. It is as if the author of one book read the other and felt driven to take the opposite view of every sentence that was read. Science has either made all religion obsolete or religion is the judge of all true science.

This sense of ongoing warfare between science and religion has been infamously handed down to us by what is sometimes called the “Draper-White Thesis.” John Draper published History of the Conflict between Religion and Science in 1874 followed by Andrew White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom in 1896. These titles are self-explanatory, though the content backing them up is no longer widely accepted. The problem is that this conflict thesis ignores both real philosophical issues raised by scientific activity (and they do not have to be of the religious variety) and Biblical reinterpretations among traditional and liberal religious scholars.


The independence model builds off the premise of the conflict model by agreeing that science and religion are completely different and then simply eliminates the possibility of any contact between them. Science and religion deal with different subject-matter and have developed different languages for talking about empirical regularities or for eliciting moral principles and emotions. And because they have nothing in common, science and religion can coexist. This thesis has been most famously advanced by Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) which he fully fleshed out in Rock of Ages. Something like this view also exists among philosophers of religion who use the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

There are two major problems with this view. First, these different languages would still relate to a common and publically accessible world. If different groups looking at that common world must still use different languages, then the second problem becomes clear. Such a picture cannot be what most religious people mean by reality. Religious adherents throughout time have understood their beliefs to be truths about reality rather than emotional outbursts or imaginative stories. However, if scientific explanations about the origin of the universe, life, and the evolutionary roots of religious ideas are complete, then the role of heartwarming fiction is the only one left for religious beliefs. They are not the language of a supernatural realm science cannot investigate, but are idle ramblings about values that are not based on anything real. It then seems easy to go one step further and suggest religions be eliminated because they are pointless.


Building off of the problems with the conflict and independence models, the dialogue model emphasizes certain similarities in method while noting that the differences between science and religion must be clarified for any chance of mutual transformation. Methodologically, both science and religion are theory-laden in the sense that their activities are propelled by existing beliefs and commitments of community members. Dialogue could then be about learning similarities and differences on this methodological level. But doing so would likely reveal that presuppositions held by each member of the dialogue lead to limit questions they are unable to answer alone. Discovering the limits of one discipline would reveal what it can learn from another. Here is how this approach can look in practice: Philip Clayton debating Daniel Dennett.

Here is my assessment of the debate.


This model has probably been one of the most dominant through history. Its exemplars can be found among the natural theologians who argue from certain features of the world that seem designed to their ultimate designer. William Paley is probably the most famous example due to his watchmaker analogy: Just as the inner workings of a watch are designed to work together and obviously could not have arranged themselves randomly, the universe, its laws, and life within the universe were created by a designer that is God. This argument waned after philosopher such as David Hume claimed it assumes more than anyone can know by stretching common experiences beyond their bounds with improper analogies. For example, many people have experienced watches and watchmakers, but no one has ever experienced a universe maker in action. As a result, no one knows if the analogy is really valid. However, the intelligent design movement being championed by people like Michael Behe has given the design argument a public reemergence even though prominent theologians reject it as science.

Other strong forms of the integration thesis promote a complete systematic synthesis between science and religion through the use of one metaphysical system. The best philosophical representation of such a synthesis is probably Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy. Ideally, if successful, the categories of the metaphysical system would apply to every phenomenon found in scientific research and religious experience. While the prospect for complete agreement between religion and science is alluring, few experts in the field would fall into this camp. Adopting one metaphysical system for exhaustively describing science and religion is a daunting task which has been attempted and failed many times throughout history. Such failures have led many theologians away from trying again. Furthermore, just like the independence model can go against practical beliefs about the unity of truth and the possibility for critical conversation and debate, the integration thesis can make science and religion look like the same thing. Such a prospect will equally offend the common-sense of many people. As a result, a certain amount of independence with openness for critical dialogue has been more commonly adopted.

So all these approaches have their problems and any sense of one being the winner over the others is far from being decided. Does that mean all is hopeless? Should I stop posting about science and religion? I hope not. I think the lesson is that engaging the field of science and religion is an adventure, one with a destination that cannot be decided beforehand. The field is about engaging and learning from a constantly changing world. Those changes have a tendency to reveal premature conclusions about the incommensurability or perfect integration of science and religion to be just that, early wishes rather than conclusions. And I know I will always welcome such corrections to any of my own views.

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