Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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If science is defined as that body of knowledge about man and the universe that is based on observation, experiment, and measurement, while religion embodies teachings that are based on faith, then it follows that these two domains are bound to come into conflict with one another if they are treated as epistemological equivalents.

One reason this is inevitable is that most religions contain both a cosmology and a biology, that is, they include an account of the origin of the universe and of life on the planet. In this sense, most religious teachings include scientific claims. However, as it took many centuries for science to emerge as a distinct and organized human activity, this conflict did not become apparent in the West until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The "warfare" that developed at that time between an emergent science and religion is epitomized by Galileo's epic struggle with the Catholic Church over the Copernican heliocentric theory of the heavens. Although eventually forced to recant by the Inquisition, Galileo was influential in developing the rational scientific method by his refusal to accept without question statements that were not based on direct evidence but that merely derived their authority from others.

This warfare has continued to the present day, reaching something of a climax in the nineteenth century in the battle between creationism and the Darwinian theory of human evolution. It should be noted, however that, although science could not emerge until intellectual inquiry was freed from the dogmatic constraints of an ecclesiastically imposed theology, it was developments in religious thought that eventually gave birth to modern science. For, as Robert Merton (1938) has suggested, following Max Weber's lead, it was developments in Protestantism that led to the emergence in seventeenth-century England of a culture of individualistic rationalism conducive to scientific modes of thought.

In the contemporary world, it is science and not religion that tends to possess the greater cultural status and significance. One index of this is the extent to which new religious movements, such as Christian Science and Scientology, try to appropriate this prestige to themselves by incorporating the word science into their titles. However, it cannot be assumed that science is complete master of the battlefield. Although the set-piece battles of the nineteenth century may have been won by science, skirmishes continue. Indeed, some have claimed that a fresh round of fighting is about to begin, following the growing popular disenchantment with science and technology that marked the decades of the 1960s and 1970s as well as the more recent crisis of confidence in secular thought represented by the "turn to postmodernism."

Certainly the 1980s and 1990s have seen a spate of books that purport to demonstrate that modern scientific thought, and especially modern cosmological thinking, is consonant with, if not actually supportive of, a religious position. This movement began in 1984 when Paul Davies, professor of mathematical physics at the University of Adelaide, published God and the New Physics (Cambridge University Press 1984), only to receive a further (and unintended) boost from the sensational success of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time (Oxford University Press 1988), a book that ends with the sentence, "If we find the answer [to the problem of a complete theory of the universe] . . . it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would truly know the mind of God." It was this comment that prompted Paul Davies to write The Mind of God (Heinemann 1992) in which he tries to prove logically and scientifically that God, or some sort of supreme being, must exist. Other writers have followed Davies's lead and tried to show that it might be scientifically possible for a God to intervene in the universe without breaking the laws of nature, while more recently Frank Tipler, in The Physics of Mortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead (Macmillan 1995), has tried to argue that the universe was created so that we could be here to observe it, and consequently that theology should be conceived as a branch of physics.

Against these attempts to incorporate scientific cosmology into a religious worldview, and in a manner somewhat reminiscent of T. H. Huxley's defense of Darwinian evolutionary theory, the biologist Richard Dawkins has sprung to the defense of an atheistic science. Dawkins, in The Blind Watchmaker (Longman 1986) and The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press 1989) observes that the term God , used in this sophisticated, physicist's sense, bears no relation to the God of the Bible or of any other religion. If a physicist says God is another name for Planck's constant, or God is a superstring, we should take it as a picturesque metaphorical way of saying that the nature of superstrings or the value of Planck's constant is a profound mystery. As Dawkins observes, the God hypothesis explains nothing; rather, it amounts to postulating what one is trying to explain, which is complexity. Science has been very successful in explaining complexity, whereas "God" is merely an improbably complex hypothesis invoked in an attempt to explain the complex.

It is too early to say whether this most recent attempt to represent science as supportive of theism constitutes a serious and lasting movement or is simply a publishing phenomenon, one in which theological references serve as little more than a marketing ploy, with the word God being employed by scientists and God apologists alike simply as a means of drawing attention to their work. It is also possible that the flirtation by cosmologists with the god hypothesis tells us more about the increasingly speculative nature of their theorizing than it does about the relationship between religion and science in general. In any event, these books provide little comfort for the supporters of any particular religious tradition. They support no specific religious claim and provide no comfort for hard-pressed clergy confronted with the hostility and indifference of a secular world.

See also Social Science and Religion

Colin Campbell


R. K. Merton, Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England (New York: Harper 1970 [1938]).

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