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How Do We Relate Science and Religion?—Summer Reading Group IV

Thus far, we have sampled some empirical evidence for biological evolution and an ancient earth and universe, and we have seen that some church fathers had an approach to Scripture that is more permissive of nonliteral understandings of origins. Chapter 3 addresses the question, How then do we relate science and religion?

Collins and Giberson argue that the alleged ancient war between science and religion is largely manufactured and has a relatively recent history, having originated in the nineteenth century with the publication of two popular books on the history of the supposed war between science and religion (1). The often referenced “Galileo affair” was but a minor skirmish and was more complex than the simple science-vs.-religion formula indicates. And the sensational headlines of today? They sell newspapers. “Who can imagine,” they write, “an evening news science report beginning with, ‘Scientists at Yale University today announced that they have discovered the origins of dark matter. Yale theologians report that this discovery has no relevance to religion.’”

But perhaps science and religion simply do not overlap for philosophical reasons. After all, science and religion seem to have very different rules and foundational assumptions. Collins and Giberson describe such a view espoused by the late evolutionary biologist and science popularizer Stephen Jay Gould. Gould’s view, known as “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” or NOMA, maintains:

[Each] subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority—and these magisteria do not overlap…. The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact), and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry….

In a media environment that treats every apparent controversy over stem cells or evolution or any number of political hot-button issues as another battle in the ancient and ongoing war between science and religion, this solution seems to have a lot to offer. Scientists would be spared the demonization they so frequently endure from the pulpits of countless churches and would be free to accurately communicate their science to the public. Believers would be free of the burden of answering perceived scientific challenges to their faith every time some scientist digs a rock out of a hole in the ground. Scientifically literate believers and believing working scientists would no longer be caught in the crossfire, pressured to takes sides in the dirty origins turf wars of politics and theology.

For all its apparent advantages, Collins and Giberson see a problem with NOMA: “If statements like ‘God exists’ or ‘child abuse is wrong’ are considered factual claims about reality, then, according to NOMA, they could not be religious statements. On the other hand, few scientists would consider statements like these to be scientific. So what kind of statements are they?”

Several leading “New Atheists” make this same criticism (2), author and neuroscientist Sam Harris among them. He goes further, offering a more extreme view that religion not only makes scientific claims but that science should mold our morality. In his book The Moral Landscape he advocates a scientific study of morality itself and imagines a future in which religious morality, along with Greek mythology and astrology, is relegated to the trash heap.

Of more concern to our Adventist community is that the Bible appears to make factual claims about the universe in conflict with the findings of modern science. How do we reconcile the seemingly overwhelming evidence from science for, say, an old earth and the evolutionary development of life over 3.5 billion years with the traditional Adventist reading of the Bible that the world and life on it were created in 6 literal days less than 10,000 years ago?

According to the authors, the answer to this question lies in hermeneutics, the theory of interpretation. Contrary to accusations of playing fast and loose with the text of the Bible, they have a profound interest in taking the text seriously, seeking out the best tools to help them understand what the text really says, rather than what we wish it to say. The authors suggest answering the following fives questions when we try to interpret Scripture:

  1. What kind of language is being used? (E.g., hyperbole, synecdoche.)
  2. What kind of literature is it? (E.g., historical, poetic, wisdom, apocalyptic.)
  3. What is the expected audience?
  4. What is the purpose of the text?
  5. What relevant extra-textual knowledge is there? (E.g., contemporary texts, facts from archeology.

When we do this kind of careful scholarship, it is argued, the theological meaning and purpose of Genesis comes into focus and biblical passages seemingly at odds with science are understood to be saying something very different; they are not making factual statements about the literal construction of the universe, the earth, and the life inhabiting it.

Quoting Augustine, the authors claim:

If anyone shall set the authority of Holy Writ against clear and manifest reason, he who does this knows not what he has undertaken; for he opposes to the truth not the meaning of the Bible, which is beyond his comprehension, but rather his own interpretation, not what is in the Bible, but what he has found in himself and imagines to be there.

A recurring theme throughout this book is authenticity. The questions raised by science are “genuine”, and we are challenged to “take seriously” both the Bible and science. It is not an appeal to marginalize the contents of the Bible and elevate secular thinking at the expense of God’s truth. To the contrary, at the center of this book is an appeal to that which is true and just, to integrity and an authentic search for truth in opposition to our favorite theories. It’s an appeal to an honest humility. These ideals are far more fundamental to my religious understanding than any particular theology of origins.

Another theme that is repeated in this chapter is a respect for the great religious thinkers of the past and a recognition that many of them had a more flexible view of origins and Scripture than many Christians today. Adventists, too, have a great respect for our religious pioneers. I would like to resurrect a great virtue of the Adventist pioneers: even strongly held beliefs like the Sabbath and the nature of Christ and the Trinity were open to skeptical analysis. Facing new data with an understanding that our deeply felt beliefs may be wrong is a necessary virtue of the authentic truth seeker.

I am not suggesting that the pioneers would embrace evolution were they alive today or that their approach to theological debate is ideal. But I believe that when we take each other seriously, with humility and respect, our discussions of origins will change dramatically. We will have no time for the conspiracy theories so ubiquitous in the Adventist church, nor will we any longer embrace the kind of willful ignorance and mocking tone of “Banana Man”(3) or “Peanut Butter Man”(4).

I am not suggesting that we make radical changes to our theology on origins. But I think careful self-criticism is crucial to a healthy faith community built around shared belief. Our most important, most fundamental beliefs are exactly those which deserve the most scrutiny and skeptical analysis. And the best people to do this are those committed Adventists who have made their life’s work the study of the scholarly disciplines relevant to this kind of analysis who are working at our Adventist colleges and universities. The rest of us should participate, too, but without the reactionary desperation and anger that comes from the fear of having our sacred beliefs challenged. So let us continue reading this book and reason with one another.

Robert Jacobson is a Ph.D. student in mathematics at Texas A&M University. He graduated from Southern Adventist University in 2004.

  1. Collins and Giberson note that “This view, known as the ‘warfare metaphor,’ originated in a pair of influential and widely read books in the nineteenth century: Andrew Dickerson White’s A History of Warefare of Science with Theology in Christendom and William Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. Prior to the appearance of these two books, science and religion, except for the occasional skirmish like the Galileo affair, got along fine and were actually supportive of each other, as recent scholarship has shown.” (p. 84)
  2. See, for example, Richard Dawkins, “When Religion Steps on Science’s Turf,” published in Free Inquiry magazine.  
  3. Creationist apologist Ray Comfort, a.k.a. “Banana Man”, became famous after a video clip of him sitting next to Kirk Cameron while explaining why a banana is proof of an intelligent designer went viral on the internet.
  4. Evangelist Chuck Missler, a.k.a. “Peanut Butter Man”, is featured on a video clip that went viral on the internet for its woefully inaccurate scientific content.
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