Various models have been proposed for understanding the relationship between science and religion. Some see the relationship as essentially one of incompatibility, or even conflict. Others see it as more harmonious.
1. Science replaces religion
According to this view, religion belongs to the intellectual infancy of the human race. Theology was a largely failed attempt to make sense of things. Science now gives us a rational method for understanding things in terms of natural processes.
The view was popularised by John Draper and Andrew Dickson White. The latter published a work entitled A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1897).
Stories such as Galileo v. Church (1616); Huxley v. Wilberforce (1860); Catastrophism v. Uniformatism; and Creation v. Evolution continue to be appealed to in support of the conflict model.
It has to be said that the work of Draper and White was based on poor historical research, and that the specific ‘conflicts’ just mentioned owe at least as much to mythology as they do to fact.
The ‘new atheists’ – Richard Dawkins, Peter Atkins and others – continue to represent the relationship between science and faith as essentially one of conflict.
2. Religion replaces science
A ‘conflict’ model is also held by some conservative Christians.
Young-earth creationists are likely to recognise that there are profound incompatibilities between the findings of modern science and a literal reading of Genesis 1-3. But since the former are because on the thoughts and discoveries of man, and the latter on the word of God, they will insist that the inerrant Bible must trump fallible science where there is conflict between the two.
Proponents of this approach quite reasonably state that science is, by its very nature, naturalistic, whereas the Christian faith is supernaturalistic. What they often propose is not a wholesale rejection of science, but a replacement of conventional science with ‘creation science’, which seeks to give full weight to the cosmological and other data taught in Scripture. They reject the idea of slow and non-purposive evolutionary processes in favour of catastrophism (by means of which a world-wide flood is invoked to explain the geological record).
Henry Morris was a noted proponent of this view.
3. Science and religion are independent
Recent research has indicated that for many scientists who are also theists, science and religion are independent realms (‘non-overlapping magisteria’, or NOMAs).
Science would then progress along the lines of methodological naturalism, and would deal with the phenomena of the physical universe, whereas religion would deal with ‘spiritual realities’ not susceptible to direction scientific observation or experimentation.
A popular way of expressing this would be to say that science deals with the question of ‘how’, whereas religion deals with the question of ‘why’. But this is simplistic. The notion of objectivity in science is a fallacy. Science, being a human endeavour, is value-laden. And the idea that religion does not bear any relation to ‘facts’ in the material world is undermined by the Christian revelation, which is based very firmly in what God is believed to have done in the ‘real world’.
A modified version of this view is popular amongst many evangelicals who are also scientists. They view science and theology as complementary (‘partially overlapping magisteria’, or POMAs). A noted proponent was Donald MacKay (1922-1987). Complementarians often appeal to analogies such as the ways a mountain would be described by different people using different perspectives and different tools. These views could supplement one another, providing they were not actually contradictory.
Adherents of complementarity often use Bacon’s analogy of the two books – the book of God’s words and the book of God’s works.
The complementarian approach is not without its problems. Critics point out that science and religion are completely different entities, and suggest that it is therefore meaningless to regard them as capable of offering complementary accounts of the same phenomenon.
In practice, complementarians such as MacKay tend to assume that science can operate without metaphysical and philosophical presuppositions, and to deny that Christian theology has anything to say to science. Christianity, for MacKay, does not contribute anything to science, although it does add a layer of significance on top of it.
If science and religious faith were to be regarded as complementary, we would expect them to be able to inform and influence one another. But there is no agreement on how science should mody religious beliefs or vice-versa.
It may be that ‘complementarism’ is best reserved for wave/particle, or mind/body, or even free-will/determinism debates, and not used to try to reconcile completely different entities such as science and theology.
4. Science modifies religion
In this view, science provides a philosophical underpinning for religion. This is exemplified in the process theology of Whitehead and Hartshorne. One problem with this approach is that it so conflates science and religion that Christian language is baptised into science, becoming in the process devoid of Christian content.
For Paul Davies, science has not so much disproved religion as transcended it. But the very rationality of nature is such as to point to some ultimate explanation for the cosmos, and a ‘divine’ nature within the very laws of physics, which some would call ‘god’.
5. Science and religion in dialogue
Within this category lies Frijof Capra, who attempts a synthesis of physics with Eastern mysticism.
Within the Christian community, we find names such as Auther Peacocke and John Polkinghorne. Science and theology are found to be ‘mutually instructive’. Quantum cosmology, for example, is thought to have profound implications for Christian theology. It may be less clear, however, how Christian theology may shape science, and so this position can rather readily collapse into the ‘science shapes theology’ approach.
6. Religion shapes science
All the above approaches are defective or unstable in some way.
Whether scientists acknowledge it or not, scientific theories rest on religious assumptions, in that they ascribe the status of divinity to one entity or another, be it matter itself, the laws of physics, or rationality.
Based on Steve Bishop, ‘A typology for science and religion’ Evangelical Quarterly 72:1 (2000): 35-56