The Moral of the Story

I begin with a questionable way to approach religion and science. (And my italics below offers a hint as to why.)

“The problem for scholars is to clarify the nature of the relationships between these forms of knowledge.”

This citation comes from a handbook for academics in religion, The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion. I think it’s misleading because for most people, relating science and religion is more about what we do than what we think. We ask, “What’s the impact on our lives?” And that means the story of science and religion is more about morals than knowledge.

Morals Not Knowledge

When there is conflict between certain religious and scientific views, we may miss the real story by focusing on claims about knowledge instead of morals—in other words, values that guide our lives. For example, conflict rears its head in the famous case of the rejection of evolution by conservative Christians. As John Whitcomb and Henry Morris assert in their vastly influential 1961 creationist text The Genesis Flood, “The morality of evolution, which assumes progress and achievement and ‘good’ come about through such action as benefits the individual himself or the group of which he is a part, to the detriment of others, is most obviously anti-Christian.”

On the other side of the cultural ledger, H.L. Mencken summarized the 1925 Scopes Trial about teaching evolution in Tennessee as a clash of cultural titans in moral categories. He painted a picture with a clear villain (the politician and conservative Christian William Jennings Bryan) and an equally identifiable champion (the atheist attorney Clarence Darrow), “On the one side was bigotry, ignorance, hatred, superstition, every sort of blackness that the human mind is capable of. On the other side was sense. And sense achieved a great victory.”

The cover is ripped off, and we see that “the warfare between creation and evolution” is no longer solely cognitive. Both—and probably all—sides seem to demonstrate that this and other discussions about religion and science concern the soul, and not simply the mind, of America.

I recently learned a great deal on this topic from the U.C. San Diego sociologist of religion, John H. Evans and his book, Morals Not Knowledge: Recasting the Contemporary U.S. Conflict between Religion and Science. Evans explains it this way: Most problems between science and religion consist not in “systematic knowledge conflict,” but more often in moral categories. It’s “morals not knowledge.” Or put another way, it’s about how these topics affect our lives. His thinking connects directly with our passions at Science for the Church: What does this topic mean to persons in the pew? How will it change their lives?


  • Biologos weighs in on where the conflict lies and how Christians can contribute to scientifically-based ethical topics.
  • A trove of resources on Christian views of science and ethics from the British organization, Christians in Science (CiS).
  • From that trove at CiS, Elaine Howard Ecklund’s talk is especially worth noting.

Making the Faith-Science Discussion Interesting Again

Do you also feel like the experts are missing what you’re interested in when it comes to faith and science?  As Evans puts it, “This elite reasoning can be described as an ‘ideology’ or ‘worldview.’” The work of elites in the field, Evans continues, often resides in their ability to see whether their worldviews and ideologies are consistent. To get technical for a moment—and speaking as someone spends most of my time these days in the university—this is partly the fault of social location. Academic writers who frame these discussions often don’t think first about the church—and I’m sensitive to this because I served as a pastor for eighteen years. My experience is that believers often don’t care as much about logical consistency as they do about personal impact. And so we return to the question, “Does this topic make a difference in our lives?”

In an earlier draft of this piece, a friend and colleague asked me to be sure to demonstrate how this “morals not knowledge” distinction gets specific. Where does it land?

I’ve mentioned evolution above. Evans also sensitized me to the importance of morality in science and religion, demonstrated by how this comes to a head with medical technologies where scientists are accused of “playing God” by some Christians and other religious respondents. For example, this might occur when asked about whether the ability to change our genes should not be left to God alone.

I’m not trying to resolve those issues here, but just to underline why topics like this, like studies of technology and rest, like the science of altruism and happiness, and many others are addressed in this newsletter. It’s because we think they are important to you.

In my view, it’s church leaders who can join the science and faith dialogue, reframe it, and set the conversation on some vital new tracks. Our hope is that this newsletter helps pave the way for that to happen.

Cheers,
Greg