Darwin, Science and Religion

Darwin, Science and Religion

In 1860, Thomas Henry Huxley (known as Darwin’s Bulldog) went on the offensive claiming, “Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules; and history records that whenever science and orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, the latter has been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed if not annihilated; scotched if not slain.” In 2006, Richard Dawkins (known as Darwin’s Rottweiler) argued in his immensely popular book, The God Delusion, that if we appropriately allow science to “raise our consciousness,” we will come to the conclusion that the entire field of theology is a discipline without content. Early in the first chapter he suggests, “the notion that religion is a proper field, in which one might claim expertise, is one that should not go unquestioned,” answering by mid-chapter two, “I have yet to see any good reason to suppose that theology (as opposed to Biblical history, literature, etc.) is a subject at all.”

Moving from science to religion and dropping the canine epithets, the year 1874 saw the principal of the Princeton Theological Seminary Charles Hodge stating, “We have thus arrived at the answer to our question, What is Darwinism? It is Atheism.” More recently, Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga wrote a book entitled, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, Naturalism (2011). Plantinga’s book offers an aggressive argument suggesting that it is atheism, not religion, that is incompatible with good science.

Huxley, Dawkins, Hodge, and Plantinga characteristically illustrate Ian Barbour’s conflict model. The idea is that the universe is not big enough for the likes of science and religion to coexist. The conflict proponent, whether pro-science or pro-religion, adopts an attitude of total domination. Secular scientists need to be baptized, or religious scientists need to be exorcised. The idea is that “the other” has an unacceptable worldview. If I could expunge one word from Christianity’s vocabulary, it would be the term ‘worldview.’ However, that is a topic for another day!

A worldview is a slippery concept including epistemological (knowledge—e.g., what is a trustworthy authority), moral (value—e.g., good/bad), and ontological (existence—e.g., gods, atoms, unfortunately not hobbits) commitments. Worldviews provide the intellectual and cultural backdrop by which we “live, move, and have our being.” They allow us to make sense of the world by providing an account of how everything hangs, so to speak, together.

A worldview putting science at the conceptual core is called scientific materialism. The ethos promoted is one of scientism, which holds that science is the only epistemic authority telling us what exists and what to value. A worldview putting a religious authority at its conceptual core is often called supernaturalism. Even if the religion doesn’t hold to supernatural tenets, say certain strands of Buddhism, the ethos promoted is one of trust or faith in religious principles. Thus, faith, usually in some sort of religious authority, informs us of what exists and what to value.

Thus, the conflict model, and science and religion generally, is really the latest iteration of a long standing conversation concerning the nature of faith and reason. The examples I quoted in my opening paragraph tacitly assume that religion and the worldview built around it is faith based, while science and its consequent worldview is reason based. Faith and reason become mutually exclusive categories. A move eloquently captured in Tertullian’s quip, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? The Church with the Academy?” Although, if I may be granted a bit of artistic license, “What has religion to do with the National Academy of Sciences, the Church with the Laboratory?”

In conclusion, the conflict model tends to assume what we call in logic the exclusive or. You either pass or fail the class. It is either science or religion, faith or reason. However, an apt question is whether the exclusive ‘or’ is appropriate in this circumstance. The term ‘or’ also has an inclusive sense.

How about an example? After a long night of philosophical contemplation, it is often necessary to stymie the damage done by visiting a Vegas-esque all-you-can-eat (AYCE) buffet. These are marvelous gifts of grace given into a fallen world for weak souls such as myself. As I groggily stand before my options I might reflect, “Wow, I can have french fries or french toast or fried rice or prime rib or orange chicken or...” But notice that what I really mean is that I can have each and every option in front of me, neglecting for the example our biological limitations. The ‘or’ we use when discussing options such as an AYCE buffet is inclusive. It isn’t that selecting french toast excludes me from also selecting french fries. Perhaps, it is the same with science and religion.

If conflict assumes an excessively exclusive ‘or,’ then the next position I will discuss, independence, requires an overly inclusive ‘or.’ The conflict model assumes that irreconcilable differences are essential to science and religion, the independence model suggests that tensions are nothing but illusions. But, the unpacking of the independence model must wait until next time. Cheers!