October 18, 1999
Volume 52, No. 8
Science vs. religion can be a more moveable feast
As I was reading about the latest duel between science and religion, in which the Kansas board of education chose to de-emphasize the teaching of evolution in the public schools, I was reminded of the metaphor of a boa constrictor and a warthog.
In this unlikely scenario, the boa constrictor represents scientific materialism at one extreme of the debate, and the warthog represents biblical literalism at the other. Of course, in a fight between a warthog and a boa constrictor, there is normally only one survivor. As Ian Barbour, author of Religion in an Age of Science, has suggested, "In scientific materialism, science swallows religion, and in biblical literalism, religion swallows science ... The victor swallows the vanquished." The fight between the boa and the warthog can be avoided if they occupy separate territories or if, as Barbour suggests, they each pursue more appropriate diets.
I would like to propose another alternative to this all-consuming approach. In addition to the "conflict" model of science and religion, there are at least two other possibilities to consider. One way to avoid conflict is to keep the two enterprises totally separate. Each enterprise has its own distinctive domain and should avoid the other's turf.
Science and religion address different questions and use different languages to describe and interpret reality. Science typically asks "how?" questions, and religion asks "why?" questions. There is room for both to coexist in the search for understanding, but never the twain shall meet. All things are relative, some would say--one person's meat is another person's poison. Therefore, keep them separate.
Mutual respect is not a bad place to start, but true, engaging dialogue does not always seek to avoid conflict. In a world as diverse as ours, conflict is inevitable and need not consume the other. On the contrary, good dialogue sometimes necessitates conflict, in order to pursue knowledge and growth.
A third alternative is the "dialogue" approach. But for dialogue to occur, some homework must first be done, lest our guest be consumed by its host. To bring the two to the table we must first do our market research and find out what is pleasing to our dining partners--in this case, science and religion. Apparently, evolution was not on the menu for the Kansas board of education, and while the teaching of evolution caused serious indigestion for them, others have been enjoying this diet for quite some time.
I recently heard about a science/religion lunch group on campus and was delighted to hear that we had "restaurants," where table manners were the norm and guests could be served, but not as the main entree. When I called for a reservation, however, I discovered that the group was full and the line went out the door, with more than 60 on the wait list. I was disappointed to miss the feast but encouraged to find yet another example of educated professionals (particularly scientists and theologians) who believe that dialogue between the two is not only possible, but essential. As our island of knowledge increases, so too does the coastline of questions. Interdisciplinary cooperation is not a luxury but a necessity for those of us who are committed to the quest for understanding and truth.
I am one of a growing number of scientist/theologians who are proponents of the dialogue model. Anyone who has paid a visit to the local library or online bookstore cannot fail to have witnessed a proliferation in the number of books which reflect a growing interest in the science and religion dialogue. Some of these texts are not worth the paper they are printed on, while others are worth their weight in gold. In particular, authors like Paul Davies, Margaret Werthiemer, John Polkinghorne and Ian Barbour are writers who engage critical dialogue and theory with a knowledge of both subjects, making reading a pleasure even for the lay reader. For those wishing to follow up with further reading, may I recommend checking out the website at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at <http://www.ctns.org>.
One group increasingly interested in this dialogue is teenagers. Each summer 60 high school students assemble at the Candler School of Theology for the Youth Theological Initiative (YTI). Here 17-year-old "scholars," guided by competent adult mentors, encounter interdisciplinary dialogue between theology and a number of disciplines, including science, law and ecology. I lead an exploratory course titled "Creation and Chaos: A Science and Religion Dialogue." This past summer I was surprised and delighted to discover that many of my students were already familiar with some of the writers mentioned above and had encountered certain concepts-such as the wave/particle duality of light, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and chaos and complexity theory--in high school physics. These certainly were not on the menu when I was in high school!
Teenagers today are often stereotyped as being a bunch of smorgasbord seekers who enjoy fast food and convenience as much in ideas as in eating habits. The truth is that teenagers today enjoy healthy food just as much as McBurgers and appreciate a good feast every once in a while.
YTI provides such a feast. During our time together, the scholars study the perennial creation/evolution debate, along with the insights of the new physics and the challenges and promises emerging through genetic engineering. What is so refreshing about these inquisitive teenage scholars is their openness to engage in interdisciplinary dialogue and to honor the complexities of reality. They are not pacified with dualistic oversimplifications but desire to engage the tools of critical thinking in issues of faith as much as in science and literature. There is an audible sigh of relief when scholars discover that it is possible to be a rational intellectual and a person of faith, that the two are not mutually exclusive and that one can accept evolution as a reliable model without denying one's faith. For these teens, the dichotomy between science and religion is a false assumption heralded by extremists on both sides.
Historically, science and theology are first cousins, sharing a common ancestry in philosophy. So we should not be surprised that in a family as dysfunctional even as ours, we can sit down and have a civilized dinner every once in a while. In an era of growing interdisciplinary cooperation I find it ironic that we are still struggling with the same old issues. Kansas, shift your paradigm! Find a way to bring the boa and the warthog to the table and, if necessary, don't be afraid to seek a little gastronomic mediation--this is the '90s, for goodness sake!
Waiter! What's for dinner?
Mark Monk Winstanley is interim director of the Youth Theological