How Do We Relate Science and Religion? (RJS)

How Do We Relate Science and Religion? (RJS) March 17, 2011

I recently received, compliments of the publisher, a copy of a new book by Karl Giberson and Francis Collins The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions. This book has its origins in the avalanche of questions unleashed on Collins following the publication of his earlier book The Language of God. But this new book is not an encyclopedia of frequently asked questions – it is a readable book walking through many of the frequently asked questions and the important issues in a narrative form. It is written for the non-scientist and will make a good resource for those with questions, for discussion groups, and for church leaders.

In chapter three The Language of Science and Faith turns from scientific issues – the evidence for evolution and the evidence for the age of the earth – to address the question of the relationship between science and religion. The Christian faith and science are often understood as at war, in necessary conflict with each other. The conflict model, however, is more fiction than fact. Most of science has no bearing whatsoever on religion and most religious thinking addresses concerns outside of the realm of science. This realization has led to a second approach commonly labeled as non-overlapping magesteria or NOMA where science deals with facts about the material world and religion with values and morals. The view of non-overlapping magesteria too limiting though – it does not do justice to science, to religious faith, or to the areas where the two do come into contact.

According to Giberson and Collins:

NOMA, while certainly helpful, and broadly applicable, is too limiting. Its definition of science breaks down at those murky theoretical boundaries where observation becomes impossible, like the claims about other universes.  Likewise, religion in almost all of its manifestations is more than just a collection of value judgments and moral directives. Religion often makes claims about “the way things are.”(p. 86)

In reality science informs our religious faith and religious faith shapes our understanding of science. It should be this way, it has to be this way.

This leads to several questions discussed in the book – and worth discussing here:

Can religion contribute to science?

Can science inform religion in helpful ways?

How do we know when we can adopt a new understanding of scripture?

One of the most controversial assertions – at least in a Christian audience – is that science can and should take a role in informing our faith and our understanding of scripture. It feels as though science is in the drivers seat and religion must conform. Yet science must inform our understanding of scripture. Not because materialism and modernism trumps the supernatural and revelation, but because God is the creator. All science does is explore and seek to understand creation. When a person, scientist or non-scientist, dismisses God from the picture, it is not for scientific reasons. There is a philosophical assumption in the dismissal.

Science, like the science at the root of the dispute between Copernicus, Galileo, and the church, will offer a refinement to proper understanding of scripture. Psalm 93 states that “Indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved.”  Psalm 96:10 in another creation passage repeats the theme: “Say among the nations, ‘The LORD reigns; Indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved; He will judge the peoples with equity.‘”  These passages cause little concern today, yet they caused consternation when it was discovered that the earth, in fact, does move. Science has informed our reading of these passages and our reading of many other passages as well.

Ancient “science” is incidental to the meaning. One of the conclusions here is that the Bible contains ancient understandings of the world that are incidental to the intent and meaning of the text.  Giberson and Collins quote Donald MacKay from Open Mind and Other Essays as providing a healthy perspective:

Obviously a surface meaning of many passages could be tested, for example, against archaeological discoveries, and the meaning of others can be enriched by scientific and historical knowledge. But I want to suggest that the primary function of scientific enquiry in such fields is neither to verify nor to add to the inspired picture, but to help us eliminate improper ways of reading it. To pursue the metaphore, I think the scientific data God gives us can sometimes serve as his way of warning us when we are standing too close to the picture, at the wrong angle, or with the wrong expectations, to be able to see the inspired pattern he means it to convey to us.

We suggest that Darwin’s theory of evolution, now that it has been confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt by science, offers the same sort of help in understanding the Genesis creation story as Galileo’s work helped his generation to better understand the psalmist’s reference to the mobility of the earth. (p. 89)

The ancient “science” in the text – from misclassification of animals to the assumption of a stationary earth, and more – is incidental to the intention of scripture. The Bible is not and never was intended to be a text revealing such details about the world.

Modern science is not in the text. We should not take the text of scripture literally as a science text – not by assuming that ancient “science” must be correct, whether cosmology, biology, astronomy, or medicine, or by discovering modern science hidden in the text. There is no modern science encoded supernaturally in the text and we misunderstand the nature of the text when we expect to find it. In fact, reading a current understanding into the text is one major source of subsequent conflict.

The historical lesson to be learned here is that Christians should be wary of using the Bible as a scientific text. Every generation has had pundits insisting that the science of its time was taught by the Bible. So Christians confidently wedded their faith to their science only to have it experience a painful divorce when science moves on to new ideas. The faith of many Christians today is wedded to the pre-Darwinian and even pre-geologic science of the nineteenth century, and that marriage is now in serious trouble. (p. 91)

Science does not inform our reading of scripture or our faith by confirming the reliability of scripture or by proving the existent of God. It does not reveal hidden messages or meanings in scripture. However, our improving understanding of the world does help us separate genre and form in scripture. It helps us dig into scripture and understand the message and intent.

How do we know when we can adopt a new understanding of scripture? The remainder of this chapter discusses approaches to scripture that can help make sense of the text with a robust understanding of the intended and inspired message. The reader and interpreter must consider things like the nature of the text, its genre, the expected audience, the purpose, and relevant related knowledge including analysis of the language, examination of word usage, and comparison with related texts from other sources. If certain forms, say hyperbole, or stylized genealogies for example, are common in other sources, we can expect them to be used in scripture as well. This is part of the expected form for the original audience, used to convey the inspired message. With respect to Genesis 1-2, the simple observation that we have two creation accounts that differ in detail in important ways provides an important clue to their form and intent.

Scripture is a key part of Christian tradition, it is both literature with genre and context and intended audience, and more than just literature. It is a library and it opens a conversation with God. It connects us with the church universal and the story of God’s work in the world. Giberson and Collins close the chapter:

When we read the Bible, we join our hearts and minds with literally billions of Christians across centuries, and continents and cultures in a common practice that has defined Christian worship since the first century. … We are part of that tradition, informed by the wisdom of the past that passes through our experience and into the future. … In humility we must also recognize that we are certainly not immune to correction by those who come after. (p. 103)

What do you think? Can science inform religion in helpful ways?

How do we know when we can adopt a new understanding of scripture? When do we need to listen carefully to tradition?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • Perry L Stepp

    One brief comment on a statement from the post: “One of the most controversial assertions – at least in a Christian audience – is that science can and should take a role in informing our faith and our understanding of scripture. It feels as though science is in the drivers seat and religion must conform.”

    The longer I interpret the Bible (and study interpretation), the more convinced I am that we ALWAYS read the Bible out of & through our experiences; e.g., my sainted grandmother’s insistence that Jesus & Paul must have used / meant non-alcoholic grape juice rather than wine, because alcohol is sinful & evil.

    We can’t go back to the pre-scientific worldviews of the Bible writers, that genie is out of the bottle. The difference in our worldviews is going to make us ask questions that the Bible writers didn’t ask or attempt to answer. It’s better to be aware of the differences, and to hold our own worldviews more tentatively and self-critically, than to claim that we’re not going to allow science to drive our view of scripture.

  • CJ

    While I generally agree with this approach to the disciplines, it is challenging to teach it or share it with others in the Evangelical world. The failure to recognize that their own approach to scripture is itself a culturally-conditioned theological construct (typically a pre-20th C hand-me-down) means they only hear this as a challenge to THE TRUTH…a challenge that must be defended at all (intellectual) cost.

  • Cathy

    As Einstein said, “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” Not only can science inform religion in positive ways, this can now be absolutely and positively confirmed. Over 30 years of research contained in Charles E. Hansen’s published work, “The Technology of Love” demonstrates that Jesus’ example and teachings of love can withstand the most rigorous scientific scrutiny,including a mathematical test that is akin to that used in our most advanced physics. Hansen’s published work is available through Amazon or
    This is a startling breakthrough that demolishes the mainstream opinions that science and religion are separate. It is just now being brought to the public eye in layman’s terms with discussion at
    Thanks for asking this tremendously important question.

  • normbv

    Science is not the only problem that the ancient scriptures have difficulties with, as a study of the history of the ANE demonstrates. Even for the novice student it is quite obvious that the Mediterranean peoples did not all originate from the three sons of Noah after disembarking from the Ark around 2500BC. Anyone who has read some of Donald Redford’s work on the origins of Israel might be quite stunned to realize that true historical archeology does not bear many details of the OT history out. Between science and good archeological history it starts to become clearer that the Bible was written from a distant perspective by the Jews for other reasons than accurate history.

    The question begins to arise about the purpose and intent of OT scripture. The literature is often a highly stylized blend of allegory that is unique to Israel which makes it difficult to discern its intentions. The starting point is to trust the NT literature that we have and determine accurately how they understood its purpose. This is difficult under the modern day paradigm of evangelical constructs concerning the literalness of scripture. It is presently a huge colossal mess of interpretations in which even the best scholars bring some of this baggage into their work. Most folks will simply not attempt to deal with these paradigm blowing issues and so it’s left to the scholarly world to discern these issues and hopefully pass things on to the church without getting branded as liberal secularist by the evangelical crowd.

    I would challenge that science is the lesser of the threats to modern concepts of the bible. The true challenge comes from new archeological developments of the ANE, especially Israel’s true historical past as presented through the lens of scripture and the reality that it is not true history as we have imagined it. That is when we will know we have to change our reading of scripture and its intended purpose.

  • Science absolutely informs religion. A big issue, I think, is that religion used to inform science and doesn’t really anymore, at least not on a day-to-day basis. Religion provides a framework and basis for science, but most scientists tend to just ignore this. So, it become religion (past tense) informed science while science (present tense) informs religion. And it seems unfair.

    I’m interested in seeing if Giberson and Collins do pursue a dialogue model of science and religion in a meaningful way. Dialogue seems to be the term to throw out when you want to be respectful, but after saying evolution should inform creation, many go back to NOMA for everything else.

  • rjs


    Don’t you think there is a necessary asymmetry though. Science informs religion – but it is a factual provision of information and context. Religion informs science – not by determining the facts based on revelation, but by providing a context and meaning, an end and purpose for the whole endeavor?

  • RJS,

    Sure, but asymmetry doesn’t mean one-way dialogue a small portion of the time and NOMA for everything else. Especially when your target audience is Christians who, by default, are afraid of science speaking on matters of faith? Right?

  • RJS,

    I’m coming at it as how it could be received by an Evangelical audience, not how I feel about it. Important to note.

  • nathan

    “Religion providing context and meaning, an end and purpose” sounds a lot like Tillich’s basic contention (if one does a careful reading of him). His insight would be particularly helpful, IMO, to this ongoing discussion in the wider evangelical world. It seems that many writers/thinkers are trying to re-invent the wheel when he’s already done a lot fo work.

  • RJS #6,

    Science does not merely bring a “factual provision of information,” especially when it comes to things long past that are not observable or repeatable. It brings an “interpretational provision of information” (to keep with the structure of your phrasing) from its own philosophy and worldview. If interpretation of data or history from a particular philosophy is only allowed to be one-way, then science is not just “informing” religion but is dictating to it.

  • rjs

    Jeff Doles,

    Giberson and Collins make a point that they are not talking about the origin of life, an event for which we have no evidence other than our existence. Rather they are talking about things that can be read from the evidence.

    The evidence for the age of the earth comes from a wide variety of independent lines of evidence.

    As a record of history the information encoded into the genome of living species points to common descent and evolutionary processes. There are scientific disagreements as to mechanism, but the evidence for the history is quite clear. It is in the DNA, consistent with the fossil record.

    One can take this evidence and argue for some forms of intelligent design – that put forth by Michael Behe for example. I don’t agree with his conclusions, but he doesn’t disregard the evidence.

    But there is no way to get a young creation without an assumption of mature creation. A mature creation that includes things like light created midflight to reflect a supernova that never occurred and nonfunctional genes placed in human DNA – in a place where functional genes exist in creatures the evolutionary model finds to be related.

    The only reason to hold to a young creation without evolution is a conviction that the interpretation of Genesis requires it. The evidence, I think, requires us to test the assumption that this is the only appropriate interpretation of Genesis. I don’t think it is the only appropriate interpretation – and thus the most likely correct interpretation looks at Genesis for a theological message rather than a literal account of origins.

  • Inasmuch as we are talking about history, we are talking about interpretation of information from a particular philosophical viewpoint. It is an interpretation to say that all life descends from a common life form. It can neither be observed nor repeated. It is not a fact but an explanation developed to account for facts that can be observed. So science does not present religion with a “factual provision of information.” It presents it with an interpretation based on a philosophical viewpoint. Whether it is the best interpretation is a different question, but it IS an interpretation. Science can inform religion about its interpretation, but religion also has some alternate interpretations. So, an asymmetrical or unidirectional situation where science is free to tell religion what to think (and how to think) but religion is not free offer up to science a different viewpoint on that data is a dictatorial situation that places science in the driver’s seat on religion.

  • Jeff L

    Jeff Doles writes that Science brings “an interpretational provision of information.”

    I can’t imagine any other kind of “provision of information,” including religious.

  • My point, Jeff L #13, is that science, or rather scientists (science does not bring us anything apart from scientists) do not simply bring us facts. They also tell us what we should think of the facts, how we should interpret the data. They are bringing us their philosophical viewpoints along with the data. I don’t begrudge them their viewpoint, but I object to the effort of denying that they are presenting us with their viewpoint in the conclusions they draw from the data.

  • Nathan

    @Jeff Doles,

    But isn’t better to accept science’s observation about the light from past supernovas rather than open up the can of worms that is the deeply problematic conception of a God that allows us to discern natural laws, but effectively tells lies about the occurrence of said past supernovas, and does not bother to explain any end or purpose for it?

    It seems that our ability to speak coherently about God ends up suffering if we do not allow science to speak authoritatively from its circle.

  • But I do agree, Jeff L #13, that every “provision of information,” whether from science or religion, is interpretive. Since they both necessarily bring interpretation in everything they present, the dialogue should not be asymmetrical. It is unreasonable to portray science as “Just the facts, ma’am,” while religion presents a philosophical POV. They both bring a worldview to the table.

  • Nathan #15, whether science brings a better interpretation is a different question. My objection here is that science merely brings the facts. What you are describing is an interpretation of a set of facts. Even the act of identifying facts — which data is relevant and to what it is relevant — is interpretive. I am not against scientists necessarily presenting their viewpoint along with the facts they have identified, as long as we are clear, and not in denial, that they are indeed bringing a viewpoint, a philosophy, a worldview.

  • I don’t know that more scientific or religious input about archeology, or evolution or history about the OT or NT help me be a better Christ follower…but I do know that knowing how to LOVE and the precise elements it involves has made a world of difference. It’s the one thing required.

  • rjs

    Jeff Doles,

    This is interesting. When I wrote the line about science bringing the facts I had in mind claims that science tells us about the purpose or lack of purpose in creation. My intent was to specify a limit on what science can do. Yet you’ve interpreted it as a limit on religion.

    As a Christian and a scientist this is how I tend to view the relationship in my work and study. Science can give facts but can’t tell us about purpose beyond utilitarian purpose.

  • RJS #19,

    Science cannot give us facts, even about things that are observable and repeatable, without interpretation. When we are talking about historical questions, things that are neither observable nor repeatable, such as the theory of common descent, interpretation from a philosophical perspective is even more pronounced.

  • Tim


    Concerning meaning, purpose, aesthetic appreciation, awe, wonder, etc., I don’t think anyone disputes that religion, whether it be Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, or Christianity can contribute to a variety of human enterprises. Science of course would be among them, as is the focus of this post, but so would, for instance, the humanities (e.g., art), and even industrial pursuits could claim benefit.

    But of course the benefit derived seems only associated with the inspiration felt by the individual, and is not tied to the truth value of any religion. That is why religions so very different from one another can still equally inspire an individual across these various endeavors.

    But super-naturalistic religion hardly has a monopoly on this market. For instance, many scientists find more secular frameworks inspiring, such as Pantheism (Albert Einstein’s “religion”) and Secular Humanism – and these orientations can serve to motivate them in their pursuits just as I am sure Christianity motivates Francis Collins.

    But there are a couple elements pervasive within many religions, Christianity included, that aren’t perhaps the strongest allies to science.

    Authority-based approaches to truth aren’t so helpful. Sectarianism isn’t so great either, particularly when combined with the uncritical wholesale writing-off of competing views from “other” groups by conveniently quoting some scripture or some bit of religious folk wisdom (e.g., “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.”). Neither is the lack of curiosity inculcated by thinking one has already attained comparatively easy answers to difficult questions from their religious text, therefore rendering the much harder path of rigorous scientific inquiry less appealing &/or relevant – outside of apologetic reasons of course to attempt to “prove” tenets of ones faith to the world (e.g., creation “science”).

    So how helpful is religion as a ally to science? I don’t know. But I think that an honest discussion should acknowledge the good along with the bad, and not just focus on one side of the coin.

  • Brian Considine

    Does science inform religion? Yes. An understanding of quantum physics might help to understand how miracles recorded in the sacred text are possible. An understanding of String theory, with the theorized 10 dimensional universe, can provide explanation of why, as it is claimed, there is no evidence for God. It can help us understand that we live in a 4 dimensional universe that limits our understanding, but we can theorize that something exists outside our 4 dimensions, beyond our empirical ability to grasp, and then empiricism doesn’t have the last word. This can be added to what we already know from science with respect to information theory, DNA encoding, and genome study to appreciate how God may have done what He did, although the ardent unbeliever will still refuse to accept this idea.

    Can religion inform science? Collins develops this idea in his first book along the lines of bioethics and it is worth understanding. Simply because we may have the science to clone life in a lab doesn’t mean we should. Religion trusts that God got it right the first time and not messing with that basic idea may be the key to keeping us from going down some ruinous path. Additionally, simply because we have the growing technology to end life (either pre-born or elderly) does not mean that we should, as all life is sacred. Robert Spitzer does some excellent thinking on this topic (see Healing the Culture).

    I think important today that we need to change the conservation to how science and religion can compliment one another, for they certainly do not compete with one another (that is simply a false argument) nor should they be made to. Neither should we who believe be trapped in old dogma that discredits the intellectual integrity of religion. The Bible is not a constitution that needs to be adhered to unfailingly on every point, where it speaks to scientific understanding in the bronze age, but rather a wonderful message of how a loving Creator desires to be known and commune with His people today.

  • rjs

    Jeff (#20)

    Of course. If I explore the ruins of a ghost town or read the bible or study science there is interpretation. Not just facts. If I tour a ghost town some interpretations are reasonable and some aren’t. 

    Mature creation (meaning evolution is an illusion) is an interpretation of the observations analogous to assuming the ghost town is a movie set. Possible, yes. Probable,no. 

  • Tim


    “Religion trusts that God got it right the first time and not messing with that basic idea may be the key to keeping us from going down some ruinous path.”

    Right. Like the genetic disorders humanity has inherited as a necessary consequence of a mutation-driven evolutionary process. Yep. Let’s not mess with reducing our vulnerabilities there. As “that’s the way God made us.”

    From my vantage point, this type of thinking doesn’t fall into the “benefits” that religion can grant science.

  • rjs


    I agree, it would be nice to change the conversation to how science and religion complement each other. I think they do. But that’s not where the conversation is in much of the church.

    As long as the focus is on Genesis and origins it is hard to move on.

  • Tim

    After reflection, and a second reading of #22, I think my comment in #24 may have been too harsh. If I misread you Brian, I apologize.