Science & Religion — Ten Degrees of Separation

War is a horrible thing, especially an unnecessary and meaningless war.  One such terrible and tragic conflict exists between science and religion.  The popular media loves the whole idea — physics vs. metaphysics, secular vs. spiritual, rational vs. emotional, fact vs. fiction — and always portrays the issue in stark “either/or” terms.  Forget that “science” is a meaningless term — physics, biology, geology, immunology, botany, chemistry, astronomy, etc. are all “science,” but come to some very different conclusions about things “meta-physical.”  Likewise religion.  There are different religions, with different worldviews and creation myths, that embrace a broad and diverse theological spectrum.  The only way to perpetuate the “war” between science and faith is to create false dichotomies and to misrepresent reality by defining simple “sides” to the complex issues.

I served as the chair of The United Methodist Church’s Task Force on the Relationship of Science and Theology from 2001-2004, and continued to serve as a resource person in the area through 2008.  In working with a wide variety of people concerned with the issues involved, I came realize that there is no simple way to define the debate.  It definitely is NOT a tug-of-war between two sides.  A different model is needed that looks at a wider variety of positions (oh, say… ten).

science-theology

This allows a whole lot more people to find a place that is comfortable for them to stand.  By allowing for varying degrees of acceptance and rejection, we open the conversation in significantly fairer, more beneficial ways.  Here is a brief overview of the ten positions on the relationship of science and religion. (From left to right)

Luddites — reject anything technological, including medicine, electronics, and scientific discoveries that they feel dehumanize culture and replace dependency on God with dependency on “false gods.”  This attitude rejects as evil anything displaces God and our reliance on God.

Fundamentalists — reject anything scientific or technological that oversteps human limitations — oppose “playing God.”  Often vehemently against anything contradicting a literal interpretation of the Bible, fundamentalists have no qualms about using medicine, technologies, and scientific advances that have no Biblical precedent.

Creationists — Believe that the Bible is the absolute authority on science, history, geology, astronomy, and physics, so if it isn’t in the Bible, then it isn’t true.  From this position (along with the Luddites and the Fundamentalists) comes the main opposition to evolution through natural selection, the Big Bang theory, history of more than 10,000 years duration, cloning and stem cell research, etc.

creator2Intelligent Designers— those who preference faith over science, but are beginning to seek ways to build bridges between the two.  Often masking faith positions in the veil of pseudo-science, intelligent designers want to validate creationism as an equal (scientific) theory with evolution, Big Bang, etc.  The fundamental belief of intelligent designers is that while ‘science’ may be true, it is true to the extent that God designed it that way.  This group begins to allow interpretation of scripture as metaphor and myth, without demeaning its value in any way.

The first four categories account for about 20% of the voices in the debate, though media coverage makes the segment seem much larger.  These groups comprise the bulk of the opposition to things scientific.

Diplomats — many people believe that the Bible is true, and that in fact it is more true than science.  They just don’t feel that there is anything so important that they should get excited.  Science will catch up in time.  Religion changes (evolves?) and so does science.  What we don’t fully understand today, we will in the future.  It is more important to be civil, kind, and respectful than it is to be right.  The diplomats just wish everyone would chill out and get along.

Co-existers— science and religion focus on different things: science on the physical, religion on the metaphysical.  Each should stay focused and not worry so much about the other.  Any dispute over “truth” is wasted time, energy, and effort.  Both add value, both have positive contributions to make, and neither has all the answers.  Co-existers are not so interested in the differences between science and religion as they are in how both can be used to make the world a better place.

dinosaur-bonesIntegrators— fundamentally believe that science is a gift from God, and as with all gifts our greatest challenge is how to use it wisely and well.  Integrators believe that science has revealed to us many truths that pre-modern and primitive peoples were not able to understand, and that cellular biology, physics, astronomy, chemistry, genetics, etc., are all ways that God’s truth is constantly being revealed to us.  Certain practices, like cloning, are rejected not on moral grounds, but on ethical grounds.  Integrators believe that we honor God by using our scientific and technological advances in good, noble, and just ways.

Diplomats, co-existers, and integrators comprise about 65% of the voices in the science and religion debate — but they are the silent majority.  There is not a great deal of passion behind a position that basically says, “this is not a biggie…”  Science doesn’t do much to damage the faith of these folks, and religion isn’t a constraint on what they believe about science.

Agnostics — are honest enough to say “we don’t know.”  They do not profess a faith in a divine being and they do not dismiss such belief based on scientific knowledge.  They do not see proof of “gods,” and they do not believe that science can disprove them, either.  They are content to say they would rather focus on what can be known than endlessly debate that which cannot be known.  They will be fine no matter what the “ultimate truth” might be.

Skeptics — using the classic definition, these people doubt the existence of a God and find much more compelling evidence and proof provided by the various disciplines of science.  touchingthevoid4601They have no doubt about the age of the universe being measured in billions of years, evolution through natural selection as a well-established fact, of the efficacy of the sciences to prolong and improve (and even create?) life.  They require proof upon which to base beliefs.  Science provides such proof; religion does not.

Scientismists— scientism believes that natural science is the ultimate authority.  They believe that science has in fact proven that there is no God… but science.  Also called by some, scientific atheism, this view holds that religion is an irrational and indefensible worldview founded on myth, superstition, and ignorance.  For the hardened scientism-ist, there is no debate between science and religion because you cannot debate truth against something that doesn’t really exist except in people’s minds.

The agnostics, skeptics and scientismists (yes, I have made up the names for all ten categories, so there) account for about 15% of the voices in the debate — but an increasingly shrill and caustic minority. 

So, we find ourselves in a situation where two-thirds of the people could care less — or care more about other issues than this one — and one-third harp and harangue and hurl angry invective at each other.  And where does that leave us?  I find myself most closely aligned with the Integrators — I wish both sides could stop attacking each other and everyone focus on the good we could do for the world.  The rock in my front yard has absolutely no impact on my faith — whether it is 5,000 years old or 5,000,000.  The spider I crushed in a Kleenex is a miracle whether God flicked it from the end of a finger or its grossly primitive progenitor glopped up out of the primordial ooze in the age of the dinosaurs.  Those issues are beyond my ability to settle, and I’m sorry — there are people starving to death, there are children being abused, there are people killing other people with guns — there are much more important issues to address.

I don’t know all the answers — which is obvious to anyone who has read this far.  But what I do believe is that God is not happy with people who waste all their time arguing, bickering, debating, and disrespecting each other when they should be building a kingdom of love, peace, mercy, and justice.  In the ongoing “war” between science and religion there may be ten degrees of separation or more, but I would much rather use my time to break down the barriers rather than build new ones.

4 replies

  1. Your 10 categories provide a helpful framework.

    Are the percentages of people in the various groupings based on research or your own anecdotal experience?

    • The percentages — and the ten separate categories, for that matter — come from three different projects I worked on — one 2001-2003, a second 2006, and the last in 2007. While the percentages aren’t “clean” — only about 5% of the total population exists at either extreme. The conservative-faith end of the spectrum is slightly larger than the “pure” science end, but by far, two-thirds of the whole population don’t see why there has to be an “either/or” between science and religion.

  2. Thank you, Dan.

    The last paragraph strikes me as very much in the spirit of John Wesley. I love reading in his journals his little notes about useless controversies and fruitless debates at Methodist meetings. He would, I think, say “Amen” to your point about God’s frustrations.

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