Science and Religion

Dale H. Easley

October 31, 2003

When teaching or studying geology, the issue of its relation to religion is likely to come up. In the U.S, the statistics indicate that 45% of the population believes that "God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years"1 When geologists present evidence for the 4.5-billion-year age of the Earth, plate tectonics, and the evolution of species, almost always there is someone in the university classroom who rejects these claims outright. Most keep their peace and do what's required to get the science credits needed for their degree. A few engage the material and change their way of thinking. And once in a while, the student will try to argue or simply drop the course. Because of being in New Orleans where Catholicism is dominant, conflict is less common than in other parts of the South. (The Catholic Church has little problem with physical evolution—more about that later.) Regardless, in order to be effective in the classroom, we geologists need to be aware of our students' issues with our teaching and be prepared to explain the ways religion and science interact. Ian Barbour (2000) has created a simple categorization for the interaction—conflict, contrast, dialogue and integration—that can help initiate a discussion of religion and science:
Conflict gets most of the press. We read about the atheist scientists and the book-burning fundamentalists, each condemning the other. No doubt there are plenty of people of both camps ready to take up arms to defend their beliefs. However, 39% of American scientists believe in "a God to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer." Many other scientists don't find religion relevant to their lives but do not care to comment on the desires of others. Likewise, Biblical literalists may be one of the more outspoken segments of American Christianity, but represent only about a third of Americans 2 Nor is it likely that they park their cars because the gas powering them is found using Darwinian ideas. The extremists on both sides would like to force people to agree with them, but the majority of Americans seem to muddle along in the middle.
An alternative to conflict is to encourage each side to tend to its own business—let Christians avoid making scientific statements and scientist avoid religious statements. This is the position of both Pope john Paul II and Jay Gould, the now-deceased Harvard paleontologist. 3 Since the 50s, the Catholic Church has allowed the teaching of evolution in its schools, and in 1990 John Paul II affirmed that evolution was "more than a hypothesis," having been validated by a number of independent methods. However, he sees each soul as having been created uniquely by God, outside the realm of science to comment upon. Gould said, "The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise—science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives. The attainment of wisdom in a full life requires extensive attention to both domains."4
Though science and religion each have their own areas of expertise, a dialogue between them might lead to mutual enrichment. For many people, an increased understanding of the natural world enhances their spirituality. A sense of awe is not an uncommon response to the beauty and complexity of nature. And religion can contribute much to the discussion of the application of science, such as in discussions of environmental or medical ethics. Science can contribute a greater sense of connection to all of life, and religion can weigh in with guidance on living responsibly.
Perhaps most interesting but least developed are attempts to integrate science and religion into a consistent and comprehensive world view. Some attempts at integration go back hundreds of years, simply stating that nature is a finger pointing toward God. The beauty and complexity we find in a butterfly's wing might point to a transcendent cause. However, as scientific knowledge has increased, such arguments have lost their influence. Instead, our understanding of the randomness and creativity inherent in Nature has led some to see God less as the all-knowing, all-powerful being and more as an ongoing co-creator, working with nature and humans in ways that are not predetermined but allow for potential pain and destruction but also tremendous beauty and novelty.
Obviously, topics as old and much-discussed as religion and science cannot all be fit neatly into four categories. However, Barbour's approach provides a framework for students to begin exploring their concerns. For some, it may be their first introduction to the idea that religion and science can peacefully coexist. Regardless, true education is not about indoctrination but about developing the ability to make informed choices in the face of uncertainty. A student who has simply memorized the definition of uniformitarianism is no more educated that one who has memorized a Bible verse. Though I personally believe that the evidence supporting plate tectonics and evolution is overwhelming, I hope students will be convinced by the evidence and not simply believe me because I'm an authority figure. I prefer dialogue. Whatever the resulting choices students make, open discussions will better prepare them for meaningful debate on the role of science in our society.


1Barbour, IanG. 2000. When Science Meets Religion. New York: HarperSanFrancisco. Barbour cites Gallup poll data from 1991.
2 See, for example, The article refers to Gallup polls from which come most of the statistics cited.
3,4Gould, Jay. Nonoverlapping Magisteria in Natural History, 3/97.

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