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Science and religion

Science and religion

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Science and religion

Dec. 23, 2005    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando {0421}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

Recently I tuned into the Charlie Rose show on PBS. Rose was interviewing the prominent scientist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins was not discussing science, but religion; or, he was discussing how science has replaced religion as the source of truth and how we need to rear our children so they do not believe in God. Charlie displayed no inkling of the intellectual and spiritual challenges to such a facile point of view. He could only emit obsequious squeaks of delight.

Dawkins belongs to a small number of intellectuals who embrace a Comtian view that the human race has passed through several phases of knowledge from the religious to the metaphysical to the scientific. Auguste Comte was confident that religion belonged to an early era of human development and now has been surpassed by science.

Dawkins is one of those scientists who cannot distinguish between knowledge obtained by the scientific method and his own philosophical presupposition of atheism. He assumes that science proves atheism without acknowledging the unwarranted philosophical leaps of doubt he makes from genuine scientific knowledge. For a critique, see Alister McGrath's "Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life and The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World."

Listening to this interview reminded me how vital the discussion of the relationship between science and religion remains. The media like to highlight the conflict between atheistic scientists like Dawkins and religious fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell. Less often the media feature scientists who are religious believers and religious believers who respect science. Many of us think that one can believe in God as the Creator and also accept a contemporary scientific understanding of the physical universe.

Science and religion are based upon two different orders of knowledge. Science is based upon the scientific method of empirical observation, and religion is based upon divine revelation and a perception of reality that cannot be known through the scientific method.

The reality of God — and other invisible realities such as beauty and love — cannot be a subject of the scientific method since God is not an object in the universe who can be verified empirically. Therefore, as a methodology, science cannot prove that God is not or even indicate that the belief in God is unintelligible. Likewise, religion is not concerned with the many important subjects of the natural sciences. To use a cliché, science asks, "How?," but religion asks, "Why?"

Acknowledging that science and religion constitute two different orders of knowledge does not solve the personal problem of how each of us develops a holistic theological understanding in which there can be no conflict between the two orders. Part of the program of religious education in the church is to assist persons in doing this.

Beyond the personal problem, there is the political problem of what should be taught in public schools funded by a secular state. Religious parents worry that classes in science where the Creator is not mentioned might undermine their children's faith. Educators worry that introducing religious concepts in science classes will undermine the methodology of science and also cause the public schools to teach religion.

My own view is the public schools ought to teach both science and studies of religious beliefs, practices and cultural influences, but they should be taught separately. Given the influence of religion in the world (which is growing rather than waning, contra-Comte), it is odd that students are not taught courses in comparative religion, the sociology of religion, etc. In the courses on religion, students would be exposed to the way religious thinkers respond to scientific theories.

Moreover, Christians ought to realize the theological integration of scientific knowledge and faith is the responsibility of the church. If the church is failing in this task, then it needs to develop a more adequate program of religious education that involves serious learning and much more time than is typical. In a pluralistic society, the church ought not expect the state to do its job.

Front and center in this debate today is the question of whether the theory of "intelligent design" should be taught. For a better understanding of this and other models of relating religion and science, see "Evolution From Creation to New Creation" by Ted Peters and Martinez Hewlett.


This article relates to Church and Society.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.