Religion and Science: Toward a Postmodern Truce

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Religion and Science: Toward a Postmodern Truce

This month I began doing a monthly column in Religion Dispatches . You’ll find it here, followed by a (wide) variety of responses.

I copy the column in below as well… and encourage you to post your responses.

— Philip

“Through the study and analysis of a system’s components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof…” (

“People of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments that I have touched upon. Religion poisons everything.” (Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great, 13).

A friend quipped recently that the two topics a liberal and a conservative should never discuss together are abortion and health care reform. She should have added the topic of science and religion to her list.

Why do attempts at reasonable discussion between science and religion in our society today range from disastrous to nonexistent? We need to step back and understand the broader context. Why do these discussions fail? How did the contemporary impasse arise? How might we as a society move beyond it?

A little background:

A bloody family feud

Think of it as a family feud running across three generations. The first generation spans from the Greeks through the early Medieval period. During this period, philosophy and theology set the terms of engagement. Knowledge for Aristotle and his medieval followers (epistēmē) was created in the image of philosophy. The Latin term for science, scientia<>, meant any form of organized enquiry. Unfortunately for the birth of modern science, in such a context one couldn’t even begin to make a case for the primacy of empirical observation, much less for quantum mechanics or evolutionary theory as we know them today.

Call the scientists and philosophers of modernity the next generation. The sons and daughters of the late medieval period simply had no choice. The only way they could carve out a space for their new empirical modes of enquiry was to flatly reject the medieval authorities and their assumptions. Thus Descartes proclaimed that everything is open to doubt; Francis Bacon berated the four “idols” of traditional philosophy and theology; and Galileo, somewhat more gently, wrote of “The Book of Nature,” written “in the language of mathematics,” as separate from the Book of Scripture.

This Declaration of Independence may have been peaceful at first. But it quickly deteriorated into a warfare fully as bloody as the French Revolution. Thus Andrew Dickson White rightly characterized the modern period as “A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.” Christopher Hitchens is only reflecting the prejudices of his generation when he expresses his hatred of religion in God is Not Great: “Religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.”

For the children of the third generation, however — call them postmodern, for want of a better word — the battle to the death between science and religion no longer seems either necessary or productive. Like children who can’t comprehend why their parents and grandparents must fight so much, this new generation has simply discarded the assumptions on which the centuries-long war was based. Thus the last few decades have seen multiple proposals for harmonizing, if not unifying, science and religion. (More on these in future weeks.)

This saga of three generations is crucial for understanding the current cultural situation. Some of the implications are deadly serious. Others come with a touch of irony. It amuses me, for example, to recognize that the much-touted New Atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris) are not the wave of the future. Instead, this analysis leaves them looking like dinosaurs, throwbacks to an earlier (second) generation attitude toward science and religion.

The battlelines today

So much for inter-generational histories in the abstract. The juicy stuff always lies in the details. When we survey the opposing armies, what do we see?

• The forces of science. Those who start from the standpoint of science fall into three main groups: the New Atheists, who argue that the mere existence of religion is a threat to science and weakens it; the “privately religious” scientists, who argue that their private faith supplements their science but who spend rather less time talking about how this actually works; and the True Separationists, who argue that the two spheres are, and ought to be, completely independent and have nothing to do with each other.

Relatively few scientists are working constructively to build conceptual bridges between science and religion. (Of course, this makes the few who are all the more important.) Most bench scientists are suspicious of those who call for an integration of science and religion, a new unitary perspective that draws from and learns from both. New Age, Eastern, and some liberal theologians, for example, make such calls, and upon them are heaped the greatest amounts of scorn.

• The forces of religion. Publically, most American Jews and Christians express interest in the religion-science discussion. In most cases, though, the motivation is defensive; people don’t want anyone to think that their faith undercuts or opposes science in any way. It’s quite another matter to view the discussion as a two-way street — one that might require believers to rethink and reformulate some of the important tenets of their religious tradition.

Learning to work together

In the American public square today, it’s hard to find discussions between science and religion that achieve what our society most needs: genuine self-criticism on both sides, born of the recognition that both sides will have to do some bending if any sort of truce is to be achieved.

Yet if we do not begin to engage in productive partnerships, how will we address those urgent global issues, such as global climate change, that can be solved only if the sciences and the religious traditions learn to work in tandem?

In future columns I’ll present specific cases of science-religion confrontation in our culture, analyzing the disasters and searching for cases of constructive engagement.

Next time: Evolution and Creation Fight to the Death … and What Emerges from the Ashes.



September 13, 2009at 12:47 am

“people don’t want anyone to think that their faith undercuts or opposes science in any way.”

What? I don’t know where you buy your religion, but around here, many believers speak of their “world view” which will frequently include such ideas as the earth being 6000 years old, Adam and Eve living with the dinosaurs, a total denial of any type of evolution, etc, etc. They RELISH in the fact that their beliefs undercut and oppose science. They want to see the world through a prism where every detail of the bible, based on their interpretation, is correct, and they think it reasonable to believe that every member of the scientific community is involved in a conspiracy to undermine their beliefs.

Still worse, they frequently send their children to private schools that are lite on education and heavy on indoctrination, so their world view and ignorance will carry forward to the next generation. There can be no bridge between this type of belief and science IMO. I wish it were not so. The world has serious issues to face and we will need rational and reasonable people to make the best decisions possible. “Rational and reasonable” does not exclude many, perhaps most, Christians, but the irrational Christians have been the uncontested media face of Christianity in this country for a long time with no end in sight to their reign. When people are willing to create fantastic, highly improbable, and unsupported scenarios just to maintain their delusional belief system, little can be gained by engaging in rational discussions, because both parties are not playing on the same field.

Just as many Americans, Christian or otherwise, have been critical of the Muslim community worldwide for not denouncing Muslim terrorists more openly and loudly, Christians should be ashamed for their lack of protest directed at those Christians that would still have us living in the dark ages all in the name of their twisted faith and beliefs.


September 13, 2009at 2:38 am


Anecdotes first. Empirics later.

Anecdotally – I keep learning a stochastic and fractal lesson. That many people are willing to talk about their faith and doubts outside of church and outside of ‘religious’ settings. I’ve picked oranges with migrant workers. And worked in education, law, and counseling. And as a partner in a scientific instrumentation business in which I worked daily with scientists in over a dozen hard-core scientific institutions. In all these settings, I keep getting surprised. By the accidental and out-of-nowhere conversations of people into faith-talk. And equally into faith-testing. A bit of a copy and paste of mine from elsewhere. This is all anecdote. Worthless, without testing.

Empirically – I’d distrust the speculative bent. I’d run analytics and factors-tests to tease out the degree to which the porous science-religion intersections are multi-axial, compositional-narrative, and too dynamic hierarchically (religion v. science) to yield to easy heuristics. For just one e.g. in a far longer body of findings (not quite Newtonian), see, Miner, M. H. and McKnight, J. (1999). “Religious Attributions: Situational Factors and Effects on Coping.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 38(2), 274-287 – showing that active and confessing Calvinist creedal adherents present no real life net effect from their confessed theology in making everyday attributions to God for natural events. Theology is already discounted coming out of the mouth. And probably going in, introspectively for starters, and thereafter in the comparison of theology to the successes and usefulness of science. This is not theology-bashing. Just empirics. See next.

To your point – “the ‘privately religious’ scientists, who argue that their private faith supplements their science but who spend rather less time talking about how this actually works; and the True Separationists, who argue that the two spheres are, and ought to be, completely independent and have nothing to do with each other … Relatively few scientists are working constructively to build conceptual bridges between science and religion.”

My response – Bayesians, frequentists, they’re all the same – the old stats joke goes. I’d like to see more than polls on/about scientists as religious, and more than a few all-inclusive-meaningless-babble chestnuts spit out by ‘believing’ scientists to appease fawning or furtive religious constituencies. I’m guessing that the generic sense of Stephen Weinberg’s prediction about an eventual TOE – that a future TOE could turn out to be so general as to be useless – is an operating default axiom like a near-null hypothesis for many scientists regarding religion too. At least the speculative features of religion. Consistent with the Miner study above, scientists put themselves on house arrest (keeping silent or evasive) as a nod to Galileo and they mumble “eppur si muove” under their breath. Less for fear of persecution. More because scientists see no net payoff beyond poetic vagaries, that is, no net payoff for scientists meddling in a TOE of religion that’s unyielding of useful results, and mired in variations of unlimited psuedospecies. Post-modernism is about as viable to scientists as Sokal proved the editors of “Social Text” to be competent at discernment. There’s good news in the Miner study (and the lineage of such studies since), if you think about it. That theology-religion is discounted and hard-tested. A vital form of love. Though I wouldn’t want to be a scientist facing social responses from falsifying someone’s pet theology. Alas.


Philip Clayton

September 13, 2009at 9:39 am

These are challenging posts.

Todd, I stand corrected on the sentence you quote. There certainly are many evangelical and mainline believers who insist that they do not want to be anti-scientific — just as there are many scientists who, as Jim nicely puts it, “put themselves on house arrest (keeping silent or evasive) as a nod to Galileo,” even though they privately believe that science must eventually put an end to religion. But you are right; there are many Christians who are proud of their anti-scientific stance and who flaunt it every chance they get.

Putting your two posts together leads me to a terminological proposal. Let’s call the people and groups that Todd describes “religious fundamentalists” — those who not only have no interest in the results of science, but who publically mock scientific methods and results. In the American context, this is what fundamentalism looks like.

Where I disagree most strongly with the scientists whom Jim describes is not in their interest in empirical data about religion, or even in their expectation that science will eventually replace religion. It’s in their certainty that the dispute will be settled by science alone, that ONLY scientific questions are raised. My bet is that humans will ALWAYS confront boundary questions that science cannot resolve — in part, that’s what the failure of “theories of everything” (TOEs) implies. In fact, I suggest that we not use the term “scientific fundamentalists” to mean not those who dislike religion or think that the empirical study of religion will yield important new information. I suggest we use it to describe those who pretend to know that, in the discussion between religion and science, no philosophical questions are raised, only scientific ones. For if all conceptual questions are dismissed in this fashion, dialogue about the deeper questions really does become impossible.

— Philip


September 14, 2009at 1:40 pm


I’m working. A quick reply. More later.

I agree on the terminology for religious fundamentalists. This terminology seems more than justified as a matter of their simplest self-reports.

I think I agree on the persistence of boundary questions which science cannot solve. Even if we discover a truly useful – not a failed – but a useful TOE , then any future re-partitioning of these domains (science, philo, religion) will likely result in skeptical holdouts from inside all of them, that is, skeptics who resist unification and synthesizing effects of a useful TOE. I’m not holding my breath and waiting for a useful TOE We’ve got work to do here and now. Philo and religion as domains of criticisms of science and of each other seem likely never to go away. Maybe rightly so. We’re testy and testing creatures.



September 22, 2009at 10:39 pm

Philip – once again, nice work here…

I’m one of these “3rd generation” scientists working very much in the shadow of my senior colleagues. There is a bimodal distribution of academic scientists – a large (baby boom) group of full professors within 5-10 of retirement and a large (but dwindling due to economic circumstances) set of junior investigators. The latter were trained under the funding boom of the mid-to-late 1990s (NIH budget doubled and substantial increases to NSF). Many of us otherwise destined for non-academic careers were lured into biomedical and basis science training programs.

There is a widening divide between senior and junior researchers. Senior academics accuse junior researchers of focusing too much on the tenure rules and procedures, losing sight of the scientific enterprise. Junior academics resent having to jump through pre-tenure “hoops” and feel pressured to practice what the senior researchers preach (or face promotion and tenure consequences). The unspoken “rule” is to grin and bear the senior academics through the tenure process before blazing new territory with tenure in hand.

I agree with you that at least in my experience, the science/religion debate gathers its strength from more senior academic scientists. They’ve clearly experienced something that most of the junior scientists have not experienced. There is no call to arms, no emotion either way but rather an all too stereotypical gen-X shoulder shrug. Maybe over time, we too will grow jaded and start to hear and see the world as the 2nd generation do, but I’m not so sure that will be the case. I’ll leave this with an example. During a faculty research meeting we were discussing the implications of the ENCODE project (descendant of the Human Genome Project) which effectively turned much of what we knew about the Human Genome on its head, particularly as it relates to functional, essential elements of the genome that apparently arose from neutral mechanisms but also the reverse – conserved elements of the genome with no discernible function. After I pointed these exciting new findings out, a senior colleague laughed and said, “watch out everyone, it sounds like Matt believes in God or something”.

John King

November 19, 2009at 2:16 pm


I have found this blog very interesting even though I am not trained in any scientific field. My background is in liberal arts with emphasis in the historical-critical study of Christian writings, Christian theology and philosphy.

I have more of a question than a contribution.

Are you familar with Hans Kung’s essay “The Beginning of all Things: Science and Religion?

If so, I would be interested in your reaction to it.


Psybertron Asks

January 3, 2010at 1:11 pm

[…] to the list of theologians talking sense. Thanks to David Morey for the […]

Ian Glendinning

January 3, 2010at 1:38 pm

More power to your elbow Phillip. I’m as atheist as they come, but I see sophisticated theologians speaking so much more sense than the scientistic mob baying for blood.

Philip Clayton

January 3, 2010at 3:18 pm

Ian: it’s interesting that some of the new partnerships are not theists-with-theists and atheists-with-atheists, but those willing to engage in probing and open-ended discussions and those not willing to do so.

Psybertron: David Morey just emailed, and I’ve just written him back. He recommends the sites

for those interested in this dialogue.

— Philip

Robert Landbeck

March 4, 2010at 7:16 am

There can be no truce between science and religion, but a final ‘unification’ has already taken place and undergoing open trials:

Using a synthesis of scriptural material from the Old and New Testaments, the Apocrypha , The Dead Sea Scrolls, The Nag Hammadi Library, and some of the world’s great poetry, it describes and teaches a single moral LAW, a single moral principle, and offers the promise of its own proof; one in which the reality of God responds directly to an act of perfect faith with a individual intervention into the natural world; ‘raising’ up the man, correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries. Intended to be understood metaphorically, where ‘death’ is ignorance and ‘Life’ is knowledge, this personal experience of transcendent power and moral purpose is the ‘Resurrection’, and justification for faith. Here is where true morality, called righteousness begins.

Here then is the first ever viable religious conception capable of leading reason, by faith, to observable consequences which can be tested and judged. This new teaching delivers the first ever religious claim of insight into the human condition, that meets the Enlightenment criteria of verifiable and ‘extraordinary’ evidence based truth embodied in action. For the first time in history, however unexpected, the world must now measure for itself, the reality of a new claim to revealed truth, a moral tenet not of human intellectual origin, offering access by faith, to absolute proof, an objective basis for moral principle and a fully rational and justifiable belief.

Revolutionary stuff for those who can handle it?


November 15, 2015at 10:01 pm

Claims like yours are a dime a dozen. Yawn.

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