When issues of science and faith appear in the public eye, the picture presented is often of two warring combatants. It can be a hostile debate between leaders from opposing “camps.” It can be a big-budget film that pits a religious (or belief-centered) character against a cool-headed, logical scientist. In the end, the message is the same: we must choose between facts and faith because there is no middle ground.
Fortunately for those who dislike such ultimatums, conflict is not the only way to relate science and faith (specifically Christianity). American scholar Ian Barbour outlined four different ways for religion and science to interact with one another.1 In part 1 of this series we explored conflict and independence. In this article I will look at the remaining two: dialogue and integration.
Dialogue is an indirect interaction between science and religion. Barbour sees dialogue at play within the methods employed by science and theology and in the emergence of boundary questions.
Both theological inquiry and scientific theory formation use rational arguments, such as abductive reasoning. Abductive reasoning (or arguing to the best explanation) is employed in situations where events cannot be experimentally reproduced or proven. By it we reach conclusions that account for the most amount of evidence at hand, how well it fits together, how little imagination is necessary to make it fit, how plausible the fit is, and how well it illuminates other areas of reality. This type of reasoning is also common in forensics, detective work, legal arguments and jury decisions, medical diagnoses, and archeology.
We even use abductive reasoning in everyday situations. Imagine you wake one morning and look out the window. Your car in the driveway is wet. Inductive reasoning might suggest it rained overnight—yet the lawn and street are dry. Meanwhile, the hedge between your yard and the neighbor’s is wet, as is his driveway. And his car is shiny and clean. You weigh the evidence observed and abductively reason that your neighbor inadvertently sprayed water on your car while washing his.
The second element in dialogue is boundary questions, queries science raises but cannot answer. Science shows us that nature exhibits rational and contingent order. Yet the laws and initial conditions of the universe were not necessarily so. This gives rise to puzzling questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there order in the something? Why are there self-aware entities who can ask “why” questions at all?
Science cannot answer these questions—but philosophy and theology can and do address them head-on. This is why dialogue between science and other avenues of knowledge is essential to arriving at truth. That science, theology, and philosophy use shared methodologies should facilitate and enrich the discussion.
Integration, Barbour’s fourth way of relating science and religion, provides more direct interaction. For example, scientific findings can influence religious beliefs, theology can drive scientific inquiry, or they can both contribute to the formation of a coherent worldview or systematic metaphysics (view of reality).
When we pursue a coherent worldview that corresponds well with all of reality and experience, our philosophy or theology should harmonize, even integrate, with what we know from science, and vice versa. This perspective is at the very heart of Christian belief (Psalm 19:1–4; Romans 1:19–20). In fact, a study of the history of science reveals that the Abrahamic faiths and biblical thought influenced the rise of modern science. Christianity holds that the world’s order is contingent but not necessary. If God created form and matter, as the Scriptures say, then the world did not have to be as it is. We have to observe the world to discover the details of the order within. Furthermore, the biblical position, in contrast to one in which nature itself is divine, allows for the desacralization of nature and encourages the scientific study of it.
Pursuing truth is the precursor that drives people to seek science-faith integration. I think it is safe to say that only those committed to seeking truth in all things—even when it challenges their own preconceptions and biases—will be motivated to seek integration. Others will be content to allow the two to remain independent of one another. Those who hold to a naturalistic worldview or others who are committed to a particular interpretation of Scripture might be content or even committed to seeing conflict between science and Christianity (or other religions).
I’ve never seen science and the Christian faith as combatants. On the contrary, at various times in my career, I have related them to one another through independence, dialogue, and integration. I became a scientist because I find the intricacies and complexities of how things work fascinating and because I believe that science is a beautiful, noble pursuit. In it we can discover the order and function of nature and gain knowledge to apply to the betterment of humanity. Science facilitates the quest for truth in the natural realm. I am a scientist, but not one who espouses scientism because I find that the Christian worldview coheres and corresponds to reality best. It accounts for all of life (desires, suffering, longing, hope, joy, love, grief, and so on) and gives meaning and deep value to life. Nevertheless, I am a committed evidentialist. Christianity and the person of Jesus can be studied objectively. Jesus is an objective reality, not just a subjective imagining, and the truth claims of Christianity can be tested and therefore are subject to potential falsification.2
Every worldview can by tested and measured based on its correspondence to reality and coherence within itself. If we begin with a mind open to the existence of the supernatural and reject materialistic naturalism, then the Christian worldview passes these tests. And the Christian worldview is not just a good fit or the best fit, but it provides a foundation which allows us to value one another and the truth, and prompts us to seek and know the truth, and brings purpose and meaning to all of life and each individual life.
- Ian Barbour, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, rev. ed. (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997).
- K. Chesterton has said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried.” G.K. Chesterton, “The Unfinished Temple,” chap. 5 in What’s Wrong with the World (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1910).
By Dr. Anjeanette Roberts
Dr. Anjeanette (AJ) Roberts received her PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1996, and currently serves as a Visiting Fellow with the Rivendell Institute at Yale in New Haven, CT.