"Science and Religion", "Christian Scholarship", and "Theistic Science"

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
"Science and Religion", "Christian Scholarship", and "Theistic Science": Some Comparisons
Eugenie C. Scott
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
With support from the Templeton Foundation, the Berkeley-based Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences hosted a four day conference on "Science and the Spiritual Quest" June 7-10, 1998. Scientists and philosophers who identify as Christians, Muslims and Jews discussed challenges and opportunities science presents to monotheistic traditions as well as how "the fundamental principles of religious faith affected the development of theory in the sciences." Future conferences will "include nontheistic faith, such as Buddhism, Confucianism and some parts of Hinduism".

The CTNS conference is one of a growing number of "science and religion" conferences. RNCSE reported on an earlier conference on "The Epic of Evolution", sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Program of Dialogue Between Science and Religion, held in November of 1997 (RNCSE 1997; 17[3]:7-8), and there also have been two "science and religion" conferences sponsored by "intelligent design" proponents [see article by Larry Witham, Washington Times 6/10/98).

The "science and religion" movement is a broad one, participated in by adherents to mainline Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish faith as well as conservative Christians. Attitudes towards evolution vary accordingly, from acceptance (as illustrated by the AAAS conference) to rejection (the "design" conferences.) The CTNS conference, judging from abstracts, dealt somewhat with cosmological evolution (the anthropic principle), and scarcely at all with biological evolution. Wider religious and philosophical issues seemed to be the order of the day: transcendence, science and morality, aesthetics, creativity rather than creationism. Participants seemed largely content to let science rather than revelation tell us about the nature of the physical universe. Physicist and ordained minister Robert Russell, Director of CTNS, presented opening remarks that seem to reinforce this distinction [see related article ]

Several institutions besides CTNS examine the relationship between science and religion, including the Chicago Center for Religion and Science, the Institute for Religion in an Age of Science (Concord, NH), and the American Scientific Affiliation (Ipswich, MA). The International Society of Ordained Scientists, founded by British biologist and theologian Arthur Peacocke, claims 3000 members. Dialogue between science and religion is clearly a hot topic. Science published a long essay presenting the views of both proponents and opponents of an enlarged discussion between science and religion (Easterbrook, Science and God: A warming trend?" Science 1997 Aug 15; 277:890). Newsweek for July 20 published a cover story titled, "Science Finds god", and the same week US News and World Report featured an exploration of science and religion titled, "Cosmic Designs."

Christian Scholarship

The "science and religion" movement should be distinguished from a more amorphous trend called "Christian Scholarship", with which it seems to overlap only slightly. Christian Scholarship sentiments are found predominantly at secular, rather than denominational universities, and are a reaction of (primarily conservative Christian) religious faculty concerned with the secularization of university life. It promotes the position that just as other ideologies (Marxism, feminism, environmentalism, and so on) can "inform" scholarship at the university level, Christian ideology should also be recognized as a legitimate perspective. A recent book, George M Marsden's The Outrageous idea of Christian Scholarship (Oxford, 1997) argues this view, and protests that the secularization of American universities has "marginalized" religion as a source of scholarship.

We will try to publish a more complete review of Marsden's book in a future issue, but let me note here that "Christian Scholarship" as a perspective on knowledge is more likely to be successful in the humanities and perhaps history, than in the natural sciences. If one may propose a feminist or Marxist interpretation of the causes of World War II, one may perhaps have a Christian interpretation as well. It is far less likely that a contribution to scholarship will be made by feminist thermodynamics or Christian meiosis. (For a more complete discussion see: Scott EC. Creationism, ideology and science, in The flight from science and reason. Gross PR, Levitt N, Lewis, MW, editors. Annals NY Academy of. Sciences 1996; 775:505-22).

Scientists do not seem to be heavily represented among proponents of Christian Scholarship, judging by the presentations at a conference titled, "Christian Scholarship: Knowledge, Reality and Method" held in Boulder, CO, in October 1997. Most abstracts dealt with philosophy, humanities, or social sciences. Only a few had to do with natural sciences, although there are indications that the role of natural scientists in Christian Scholarship is increasing. Still, it appear as if the major concern of Christian Scholarship is less upon Christianity as a source of specialized insight into the workings of the natural world (i.e., there is no "Christian meiosis" yet) and more the consideration of philosophical, theological and ethical issues in science. More information on the Boulder Christian Scholarship conference can be found at <(http://www.origins.org/common/conf-scholarship-abstracts.html>.

Theistic Science

Finally, the Christian Scholarship movement can be distinguished from the much smaller "theistic science" movement, though there is slight overlap. "Theistic science" is promoted by some "intelligent design theory" proponents and focuses much more closely on the evolution issue than do the other two movements discussed in this article. As proposed by Whitworth College philosopher Steven C Meyer, Biola University philosopher JP Moreland, and Notre Dame theologian Alvin Plantinga, "theistic science" goes beyond proposing a dialogue between science and religion to recommending a fundamental alteration of the very way that science is practiced.

Most scientists today require that science be carried out according to the rule of methodological materialism: to explain the natural world scientifically, scientists must restrict themselves only to material causes (to matter, energy, and their interaction). There is a practical reason for this restriction: it works. By continuing to seek natural explanations for how the world works, we have been able to find them. If supernatural explanations are allowed, they will discourage - or at least delay - the discovery of natural explanations, and we will understand less about the universe.

There is also a logical reason for methodological materialism: the essence of science is the testing of alternate explanations against the natural world. To "test" means to hold constant or control some factors. If omnipotent powers exist, by definition their effects cannot be held constant, or controlled. As a result, without making a judgment on the existence or nonexistence of God, modern scientists carry out their tests of hypotheses as if only natural causes were operating. It's a scientific analogue of Pascal's wager: if an omnipotent power such as God exists, then we can't control for its actions, so we're stuck with methodological materialism. If God doesn't exist, then of course methodological materialism is the best way to understand the natural world.

Advocates of theistic science would like to change all this by allowing "God did it" as a scientific, not merely theological, statement. They do stipulate, however, that God's hand not be invoked capriciously. Plantinga and others suggest that most of the time God operates using secondary causes, but room must be left for the occasional miracle. It is not coincidence that these allowances for miraculous interventions seem to focus around the topic of evolution: Moreland points out, for example, that "theologians have little interest in whether a methane molecule has three or four hydrogen atoms" but because God "designed the world for a purpose", he "has directly intervened in the course of its development at various points ([for example], in directly creating the universe, first life, the basic kinds of life, and humans)" (for details, readers should consult Moreland, Creation Research Journal, 1993 Fall; available on line at )

Echoing this approach, Meyer separates science into two kinds: "historical" and "operational" ("empirical"). Operational science is the familiar everyday science exploring the processes and mechanisms of how the universe works, and miracles are not expected to be discovered. Both theists and nonbelievers would conduct operational science in the same fashion. Historical science, on the other hand, deals with nonrepeating events such as speciation events in the fossil record, the explosion of the Pinatubo volcano, the appearance of a supernova and so forth. Of course historical sciences can be studied scientifically: there may have been only one observed eruption of Pinatubo, but there certainly can be a science of volcanic eruption that can be used to explain Pinatubo. Similarly, only once in history did a population give rise to genus Equus, but we can still derive theories from this and similar events to explain macroevolution.

More for theological than scientific reasons, God's direct hand is allowed in historical science, though strongly discouraged in operational science. This is so, it seems to me, because it is primarily historical sciences (like evolution) that have serious consequences for certain conservative Christian theologies.

When do theistic science proponents invoke a miracle? When they can't figure out a materialistic explanation. As Plantinga states,
"Why couldn't a scientist think as follows? God has created the world, and of course He created everything in it directly or indirectly. After a great deal of study, we can't see how he created some phenomenon P (life, for example) indirectly; thus probably he has created it directly." (Plantinga, 1997)
Plantinga's position is given in more detail in. "Methodological Naturalism? Part 2", Origins and Design, 1997; 18(2):34 (footnote 63).

It is telling that three of the topics most frequently cited as requiring direct divine intervention (and cited by Moreland, above) are ones for which there is not yet consensus on a fully naturalistic explanation: the Big Bang, the origin of life, and the Cambrian explosion. The fourth topic is the origin of humans, upon which there actually is quite a good consensus, though the degree of agreement is not well-known to the general public.

It is fair to state that "theistic science" is a form of special creationism, or even creation science that cleverly ignores issues divisive to anti-evolutionists - such as the age of the earth - and focuses on unifying issues - such as the importance of God's hand in the universe. Theistic science has not been uniformly embraced even within the ranks of conservative Christians. (For critical reviews, see Howard Van Till, "Special creationism in design clothing: A Response to The Creation Hypothesis", Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 42:p.123-131, June, 1995; and DF Siemens, Jr., "On Moreland: Spurious freedom, mangled science, muddled philosophy", Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 49:pp 196-199.)

Science, Religion, and Evolution

NCSE is concerned with evolution education and the public understanding of the nature of science. How will these three intersections of science and religion affect our issues? My evaluation is that the "science and religion" movement, consisting primarily of theists who already accept evolution and who have a healthy respect for science, is not a challenge and may be beneficial to the public understanding of science and evolution. Many members of the general public have not heard a counterargument to the anti-evolutionist position that one "must choose between evolution and religion." Greater public prominence of religious scientists who accept evolution should help put that falsehood to rest and may promote a climate in which more teachers can teach evolution without fear of reprisal.

The "Christian Scholarship" movement in its current form is also not a major threat to evolution. Currently, this movement is as much about "free speech" for religious academics as anything else, and, as mentioned previously, it does not seem to be targeting science. Little has been said by proponents of the Christian Scholarship movement for or against evolution. If the Christian Scholarship movement expands, we can anticipate an increase in religious expression on campuses, paralleling the expansion of secular ideologies (Marxism, feminism, etc) currently occupying the interest of the postmodern academy.

However, the third, "theistic science" movement is a challenge both to science and to the acceptance of evolution in our society. Theistic science seems to focus especially on evolution; few other topics seem relevant (see Moreland JP, editor. The Creation Hypothesis, Intervarsity Press, 1997). By proposing that we consider not just natural but supernatural causes, theistic science advocates employ a "let's use all of the evidence we have" argument, which ultimately is a more sophisticated version of the very popular antievolutionist "equal time" or "fairness" argument. Perhaps the most dangerous effect of the theistic science movement, if it gets off the ground, will be its effect on the public understanding of the nature of science. Theistic science proposes that we abandon methodological materialism in science, in favor of the "occasional" supernatural intervention. This is, in Plantinga's own words, a "science stopper", because once one stops looking for a natural explanation of a phenomenon, one is assured of never finding it. The fact that 30 or more years of research has not produced a complete understanding of how the first replicating molecule may naturally have originated does not mean that we will never devise a plausible explanation. But we never will if we stop trying.