Science, Religion, Media & God (Part 1)

A post I wrote last week for the School of Theology blog (Auckland Theology, Biblical Studies, et al.). See Science, Religion, Media & God (Part 1) | Auckland Theology, Biblical Studies, et al.

Science, Religion, Media & God (Part 1)

Pasted GraphicScience and religion are often portrayed in conflict with each other. In one corner we have the religious fundamentalist contingent with their sacred texts and rejection of scientific worldviews, while in the other corner the scientific fundamentalists reject anything to do with religion, and instead place their faith in scientific methods and a non-supernatural universe. Both groups are destined to be forever at odds with each other and they make good copy for the media industries – religious and/or secular – who can sell a good stoush to the punters.

However, the real picture of relationships between science and religion is far more nuanced that that, as New Zealand historian John Stenhouse notes when he says:

Too many people still speak of what science states, or Christianity claims, or Darwinism means, as thought science, Christianity, and Darwinism were actual entities, real things, capable of speaking and claiming. They are not. Human beings speak, claim, debate, denounce, battle, and believe certain things—often in the name of Science, or Christianity, or Darwinism, and so on. But when human beings are involved, so are human interests and agendas—especially when those making certain claims invoke ‘science’ or ‘God’ (or ‘Darwinism’, ‘nature’, ‘history’ etc.) to support their position. (Stenhouse, 2004: 9)

Thus, as Stenhouse points out, those who seek to understand the cultural and historical relationships between science and religion would do well to avoid broad-brush generalisations and instead to focus upon particular locations where such relationships do occur. Doing so brings the human dimension of the science and religion interaction into view, and allows examination of personal, political, economic, intellectual, racial, social and cultural dimensions in that relationship.

Of course, while scholars such as Stenhouse, John Hedley Brooke (1991) and Ronald Numbers (1986) do pay attention to these historical and cultural contexts these doesn’t tend to fit well into popular views that like to see ‘science vs. religion’ in clear-cut, black-and-white relief. A key reason why these popular views continue to dominate are the narratives that particular groups – religious or otherwise – supply as lenses for looking at the science and religion, and which then influence both the media and popular culture. It makes a simpler (and more sensational) account if you can reduce a complex situation to one where there are two polarized camps and moderate voices are ignored. Publications from the 19th century, such as J.W. Draper’s History of the conflict between religion and science (1875) and A.D. White’s A history of the warfare of science with theology in Christendom (1895), established the interpretive framework for this conflict model. These works often looking back simplistically at situations such as Galileo’s relationship with the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th and 17th centuries and ignored the wider context those were set within.

However, we can’t ignore the fact that while there are a variety the relationships between science and religion one of those is conflict. Ian Barbour’s (1990) classic four-fold typology of science and religion relationships starts with the conflict model and the claim that in this category science and religion make competing and exclusive claims about reality and one must side wholeheartedly with either science or God. Rather than stop there though, Barbour constructs three other categories: independence – where science and religion attempt to answer different questions (e.g. facts vs values); dialogue – where one might emphasize similarities in methods and concepts (e.g. using particle and wave descriptions of light as a metaphor for Christ’s hypostatic union), and integration – such as in the case of natural theology, process philosophy or theologies of nature. These kinds of organisation, of which there are many, attempt to put a complex historical and cultural situations into an explanatory framework to aid in their understanding. Not all relationships fit nicely into proposed models, sometimes overlapping categories or not fitting into any suggested grouping, but key features can be identified.

An example of this complexity might be in the use of the terms ‘creationism’ and ‘creationist’, which is typically read as a Christian who believes, because of a particular reading of the Bible, in a young earth (10,000 years) created in a literal six days. But the picture is much more complicated than that with a variety of different perspectives of creation expressed within Christianity, some of which sit happily with scientific cosmologies and cosmogonies. At its heart Christianity asserts that God created the heavens and the earth, which makes a ‘creationist’ position the default setting for Christianity, but how that creation occurred is more complicated. For example, below are some different positions articulated within Christianity with respect to God creating the world (particularly with reference to Genesis 1:1-2:4a):

  • Young earth, literal six day creation – God creates the world relatively recently and did so in six literal days. Influenced by a literal reading of Genesis 1.
  • Gap theory – the earth was created billions of years ago (Gen 1:1), some catastrophe caused the world to become ‘formless and void’ (Gen 1:2), and God ‘re-creates’ the world in six literal days (Gen 1:3-27). This position allows for an old universe (and a Big Bang), while seeing humanity as a recent arrival on earth (and hence not evolved).
  • Flood theory – the world is young (circa 10,000 years old) but Noah’s flood ‘aged’ it to make it look older. Influenced by Henry Morris’ flood geology (1960s) which in turn influenced ‘creation science’.
  • Ideal-time theology – The world was created in 6 days relatively recently, but God made the world appear older with life, for example, created mid-life cycle. Critics note that this makes God seem deceptive.
  • Age-day theory – Each day (Heb. yom) in Genesis 1 represents a period or epoch meaning that God creates over vast periods of time. This accounts for the apparent age of the earth, while respecting the six days of creation in Genesis 1. Draws upon biblical texts such as Ps 90.4 “For a thousand years in your sight, are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” An obvious issue includes the exact order of creation, where plants precede the Sun they need. Sometimes linked into ‘progressive creationism’.
  • Revelation theory – Each day in Genesis 1 equates to a particular “revelation” where, for example, God made the sun and hence light, and later God “reveals” the sun.
  • Pictorial (Literary) theory – Creation narratives are literary descriptions to emphasize the central truth that God is creator. The different days highlight different aspects of creation, reject competing religious narratives (e.g worshipping the sun and moon), and link humanity’s and God labour.
  • Progressive creationism – God acts at different points in history to bring about his purposes alongside natural physical processes and evolution.
  • Theistic evolutionism – God is actively involved in creating and sustaining the world, but does that through the natural processes, such as evolution, that God has established.
  • Deism – God created the world, set up natural laws and processes, but no longer intervenes in the world.
  • Pragmatic approach – God created the world and how it happened is God’s business because I’ve got other things on my mind.

newsweek00_2As you can see from this list, which is not exhaustive nor takes into account other religious faiths who hold to a creator God, trying to narrow down the relationship between science and religion with respect to something like different religious perspectives on creation cannot be put simply into a ‘conflict-fits-all’ box. Some of these sit well with modern cosmology and neo-Darwinian biology, while others can accomodate parts of that, and still others would reject much, if not all, of the scientific accounts of life, the universe and everything.

Looking critically at different science-religion interactions forms part of the postgraduate course PTHEO 714 Science, Technology, Media & God being taught this year in the School of Theology. While students may have little or no scientific background the first part of the course introduces them to various models of science-religion interaction, the histories of cosmology, Darwinian and neo-Darwinian evolution, and various contemporary debates. The latter part of the course builds on that to look at aspects of theological engagement with technology (including biotechnology and the Internet) as well as religious use of new media.

References

  • Barbour, Ian G. Religion in an Age of Science. London: SCM Press, 1990.
  • Brooke, John Hedley. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • Numbers, Ronald L. “The Creationists.” In God and Nature : Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science, edited by David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, 391-423. Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 1986.
  • Stenhouse, John. “Science, Religion and History.” In A Seamless Web: Science and Faith, edited by Graeme Finlay, 7-10. Auckland: Telos Publications, 2004.

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