Science and Religion: Has the Conflict Model Won the Popularity Vote?

– Tom Uytterhoeven –

This morning my wife posted a picture on my Facebook wall. It shows two Post It notes on a wall in a community center in a Belgian town. The center had organized a cultural activity for kids: they were invited to write down who their hero was. So one kid posted: “God, because He made us and the Earth.” A second kid (the person who originally posted the picture on Facebook doubted whether it really was a child) replied with: “Charles Darwin, because he wrote the Origin of Species and proved the Post It above to be wrong.”

The picture is an example of how the assumption that religion and science are in conflict has gained influence, not only in your local Bible Belt area, but as part of popular culture. And that has its consequences.

Last week I noticed a press release by the EU about a survey on science and innovation today. It was featured on Science’s news website, where much attention was devoted to ‘a slight increase in traditional views’. I checked the EU-website and found a copy of mentioned survey. The only explicit question about the relation between religion and science asks whether the respondents think they are in conflict or not (“I think we depend too much on science and not enough on faith.”) The possibility of other forms of relation between the two apparently wasn’t even feasible to the authors of the survey. Since the results of surveys like these inform policy making, this is not only a case of poor scholarship, it is moreover a missed opportunity for a society that strives to be pluralistic.

Because that is what bothers me the most about the picture on Facebook: the attitude that “I am right, therefore you are wrong” in the Darwin-note. There is no room for discussion here, no desire to learn from each other. The case is very clear: science is right, therefore religion is wrong.

To say that this conclusion can be criticised is rather obvious, as the ever growing literature in the theological subfield of “science and religion” shows. But maybe that’s just it: maybe the religion-science debate has grown to become a part of theology instead of the interdisciplinary field it was/is supposed to be. Maybe models for the relation between religion and science that don’t assume both to be in conflict are too easily labeled as “believers trying to save their faith”.

There are two challenges here, I think. First challenge: eradicate biblical literalism through religious education. Ian Barbour, one of the founding fathers of the science and religion field, pointed to the paradoxical analogy between biblical literalism and scientific materialism, both looking for “knowledge with a sure foundation”. (Barbour, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, 1997, p. 78).

As long as e.g. literal readings of the Bible are endorsed, we just add fuel to the conflict-model. That is: as long as we teach children about the creation stories in a way that implicitly suggests that these stories are historical reports of what happened, they will tend to see them as fairy tales the moment they learn something about biology or geology (or even sooner: my kids once got a Dino-ABC book from Santa). Religious education should be about living your faith today, not about living your faith in a pre-modern world. This implies that teaching how to understand biblical language symbolically should be one of the main goals of religious education (read more about this here), as is the case in teacher education at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies and at the institutions of Higher Education of the KU Leuven Association.

Second challenge: theology should reach out (even) more, bringing the possibility of a constructive relation between religion and science under the attention of scientists, policy makers, but foremost: the general public. To do that, I think this interaction should be more central for theology proper. Just one example: we had an (excellent and very interesting) conference on liturgy in Leuven this year. But only a very small minority of the presentations touched on what science has to say about ritual. I think this is a missed opportunity for theology, which could only benefit from engaging in conversation with other perspectives on religion. But it is also a missed opportunity for science, which sometimes lacks an adequate view on what really is at stake in a religious ritual, or a religious story. I am not arguing that science should be normative for what theology can or should say, or that science has to replace other auxiliary sources (e.g. existential philosophy). But if theologians ignore science, they shouldn’t complain about those Post It notes becoming billboards, and those billboards determining how religion is valued.

To do theology in ‘an age of science’, to paraphrase Barbour, is not a matter of apologetics, however. It is a matter of doing theology in the here and now, of trying to discern ‘how things really are‘, as Lutheran theologian Philip Hefner would say. We can only do so if we go beyond conflict.

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