I’ve become fatigued by the ruts in which science and religion often become bogged down. Are the two in conflict or not? Is it Genesis 1 or evolution? Are Christians for or against technology? To gain traction and be able to shift gears, I’ve been reading some books recently that lead to fresh, new views on science and religion, especially for those of us in the church.
I have to be careful about promoting—or at least I’m more sheepish about mentioning—the first text, my book, Science and Religions in America: A New Look. So, let me take a slightly different approach. Of the multiple sources that stand behind my research for this book, they combined to convince me that understanding the diversity of viewpoints within religious communities can leading to a better grasp of our own tradition. They offer the possibility of a wider conversation between faith and science.
I think, for example, of Nidhal Guessom’s brilliant and accessible, The Young Muslim’s Guide to Modern Science. I learned from him (and a few others) the key Arabic word, ilm (علم). It is the broadest word for “knowledge” and one of most frequent words in Quran, used over 780 times. It came to mean “science” (i.e., the systematization of facts), as well as, “revealed knowledge” (i.e., the scriptures specifically and religious knowledge more generally). Many in the church resonate here and wouldn’t want entirely to separate knowledge of nature from Scripture (as the two books metaphor also implies.)
In addition, I was surprised to learn about the rejection of biological evolution in the Muslim world. Guessoum estimates that “no more than 15 percent of Muslim respondents accept evolution” with “about 60 percent rejecting it outright.” Oddly enough, this made me feel better about the recalcitrant anti-evolution approaches in the Christian fold. And studying Islam more broadly also made me want to find connections with another western monotheistic religion, Judaism, which has had an enormous influence on the development of science. It’s worth mentioning that Geoff Mitelman and our SftC team are working on collaboration—and Geoff’s insights play a crucial role in my book (some of which are in this interview).
Nature religions connect with, and find sacredness in, the natural world. And as I did research into these religions, I discovered something worth pondering. Native American languages (which can be set in this category) often have often no specific word for “religion.” For example, the Southwest Pueblo people’s closest word to “religion” really just means “doing.” Dan Koch and I had quite a discussion of this on his podcast, and one major takeaway is that this view of religion or spirituality means it is not separated from the rest of life. (And, really, should it be for followers of Christ?)
This leads to a particular view of science. Biologist and Tewa tribal member Gregory Cajete writes in the book Native Science, “Native science is born of a lived and storied participation with the natural landscape. In its core experience, Native science is based on the perception gained from using the entire body of our senses in direct participation with the natural world.” I think many members of our congregations would nod their head in agreement with this view of their faith and science.
- Nicholas Spencer’s book is Magisteria: The Entangled Histories of Science and Religion.
- My book is Science and Religion in America, and here are podcast interviews with Dan Koch and Tripp Fuller, as well as my presentation at the Oxford Interfaith Forum.
- Worth adding are two other new books that are on my shelf: John van Sloten’s God Speaks Science and Thomas Jay Oord’s The Death of Omnipotence and the Birth of Amipotence, both of which I hope to integrate into future newsletters.
- Here are the links for the interview with Geoff Mitelman and with Nidhal Guessoum.
- On bringing together Christian theology with Native American spirituality (and its view of the natural world, including science), I recommend Randy Woodley’s beautifully challenging text, Indigenous Theology and Western Worldview.
- To find SftC’s resource pages for your church ministries, click these links on artificial intelligence (AI) and Transhumanism.
Instead of the simple dichotomy of conflict or not, we must embrace complexity. Yes, we know the conflict thesis does not entirely hold up, but neither does a “perfect harmony” (to quote the next author).
Nicholas Spencer (Senior Fellow at the British science-religion group, Theos) has written Magisteria: The Entangled Histories of Science and Religion. Naturally, it’s impossible to comment in detail here on Spencer’s 446-page book. Nevertheless, from the title, you might be able to guess that he wishes to allude to, but also dispose of, Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-overlapping magisterial authority” (where science and religion essentially learn to stick to their sides and thus play nicely in the sandbox). Instead, Spencer emphasizes that science and religion have “entangled histories.” For those working in congregations, Spencer’s fascinating narrative can help break up the soil of hardened conflicts and cultivate more fruitful integration between science and religion.
I was also intrigued that Spencer ended his book by addressing AI and what it means to be human. I think it’s fair to say that AI has taken the public consciousness by storm—ChatGPT, anyone? Technological advancements are continually shaping our world, and the pace of their influence is accelerating. (It was particularly intriguing because as I was writing this piece, I was also participating in the Center for Theology and Natural Sciences Virtuous AI Conference.) Simply put, AI indeed is a topic we need to be well-versed in as church leaders.
All Together Now
In sum, these books can expand our conversations about science and religion in helping us appreciate the interwoven histories of science and religion, critically engaging with the technological developments that shape both, and recognizing a diversity of religious perspectives, even as we do this work in Christian congregations.
Is it possible that they might be able to move us beyond entrenched conversations and toward a more constructive and collaborative relationship between our faith and science? That’s certainly my hope.