Dialogue Between Science and Religion

    The thirty-second annual Paul Wattson Lecture ( named after the founder of the Graymoor Friars) was held Feb. 27 at the University of San Francisco. The Wattson lectures ( on whose board I serve) always stress issues of ecumenism to honor the man who also inaugurated the annual week for Christian Unity. This year's lecturer was Bishop Antje Jackelen from Lund, Sweden who is a specialist on the dialogue between science and religion. Author of the book,Time and Eternity: The Question of Time in Church, Science and Theology ( Templeton, 2005) and co-author of How Do We Know? Understanding in Science and Religion ( T.and T Clark, 2010), Jackelen was also a co-founder of the International Society for Religion and Science and, between 2003-2007, before she was made a bishop, the director of Zygon, a distinguished center for the study of science and religion at the Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago.

      Jackelen's main topical thrust was to chart the European perspective on science, religion, atheism and secularization. That latter term, often a fuzzy word, meant for her the gradual denuding of the public square of any explicitly religious lanugage. In Europe, church adherence is much lower than in the United States. Yet, the churches do not have a total monopoly on religion. As the British sociologist of religion, Grace Davie, has shown, there continues to be a great deal of believing without church belonging. Jackelen was quick to add that in her own Church of Sweden and in other European churches, there is also, often enough, a fair amount of belonging to churches without much believing, as well. Religion, overrall, is tolerated but it is seen as something that is purely personal and merely private. This extreme privatization of religion exacts a price, however, in public conversations about social life, values and an overall assessment of true well-being. Whole generations of Europeans have grown up rather illiterate about faith or theology.


      But, noted Jackelen, there is a growing interest in questions of religion and theology in contemporary Europe. The comparative World Values Surveys across European countries show a vivid concern with what might be called ' existential' issues. Again, by and large, Europe lacks the kind of fundamentalist religions found in the United States so few get embattled in forays fighting evolution or climate change. This growing interest in religion and theology, however, does not, as such, translate into much explicit interest in being or becoming active church members. Those who might call themselves ' spiritual but not religious' recognize that much of what we call spirituality has its ultimate roots in faith and theology.

      Scientists in Europe, as in the United States, often enough focus very narrowly on one topic of research. They recognize that their worlds do not encompass the whole of even what is sciencee, let alone humanism or knowledge or what we can know. One recent German language best-selling novel by Daniel Kehlmann, translated now into English, The Measuring of the World, represents a biting critique of the Western apotheosis of science, as if we could ever live on pure reason alone. There is a growing sympathy for the kind of open humanism, embracing science, to be sure, and rightful technology but recognizing their limits which one found in such an exemplary humanist as Vaclav Havel.

       Jackelen also referenced the rise of a new militant atheism in Europe, as exemplified in the figures of Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. This new militant atheism caricatures religion as irrational, rigid, dogmatic, violent and anti-humanist. It tries to co-opt the very term, humanism, as simply co-extensive with science and technology. The future for such a new militant atheism does not look bright, however. In effect, its main goal is a kind of a second coming of the European Enlightenment. Yet, as the Twentieth Century amply showed, that first Euroean Enlightenment was anything but truly humanist, 'rational' and non-violent. No one wants to undercut the famous Kantian motif:aude sapere--Dare to know. But, asked Jackelen, just how totally autonomous can reason ever really be ? Just how authonomous can any self ever be ? the alternative ideal of the militant atheists ( a world ruled entirely and only by science and technology) looks rather bleak indeed.

       The sheer privatization of religion and its expulsion from the public sphere means that a spurious ideal of a totally autonomous reason and an autonomous individualized self reign supreme. This leaves little room for a more vigorous understanding of embodiment, the emotions as guideposts to the good and the true. Rationality is always embedded and relational. Theology may have more resources to talk about such embeddedness and ralationality than ideals of autonomous reason alone.

      In the new dialogue between religion and science, there is more interest in hybridity and in the complex and the particular  than in the pursuit of universal ideals. Much of the ideal of the dialogue between science andd religion aimed at making things fit together intellectually, creating an intellectual coherence. But an intellectual coherence is only a half-way coherence. People also want to make things cohere also spiritually. Jackelen felt we needed to find some mid-point between what some see as the overly imaginative and spiritualized scientific views of Fritjof Capra, author of The Tao of Physics and The Web of Life, and the autonomous scientific view of Richard Dawkins. She also insisted that much is at stake for society that the dialogue between religion and science be a two-way dialogue. It will need to reach beyond the walls of academia. Yet, is is not clear to her that, in seminaries, future clergy are being given much in the way of resources to engage the dialogue.

       We do need a genuine and rigorous enlightenment but also a more useful ontology.If the new concern is with the particular, the complex, with relationality and hybrids, with hope, is not relationality and hope what theology and religion are primarily about ? In the United States, the major centers which promote the dialogue between religion and science, besides Zygon in Chicago, are The Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton and The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. But the dialogue needs, surely, to broaden beyond Chicago, Princeton and Berkeley!

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J Cosgrove
6 years 10 months ago
My background in college was science, physics and mathematics and I spent a year in a Ph.D. program in math before deciding to do other things.  My image of scientists when I was young was of very rationale people who followed the evidence and logic to wherever it led. 

In recent years I have had numerous dialogues with scientists and my image of them completely changed.  They are as political as anyone and their assertions and I use that word instead of conclusions are often based on political considerations.  On some things they can be extremely logical but on certain topics they are intellectually bankrupt.  One of those topics is religion and origins of things.  Science is particularly weak on many important origins, existence, the universe, life, higher functions in life, the peculiar suitability of earth for life, and some others.

The overall scientific evidence supports the existence of a creator.  There is nothing that leads necessarily to the Judeo Christian God which is a revealed doctrine.  But it interesting to watch the sceintists dance their around the actual evidence with theories that rival the existence of Zeus throwing thunderbolts in anger during a storm.  They can not give the theist an inch or else they believe the game is up.  Their atheism must be defended at all costs and they know it based on very shallow reasoning and almost no evidence.  It has belittled the whole scientific field as they are shown to be as narrow minded as those they disdain.  And believe me most of them do disdain those who believe.
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 10 months ago
Sounds like a fascinating discussion and endeavor - like trying to get the big picture and how all the different parts fit together.
Jim Gunshinan
6 years 10 months ago
I have an MS and MDiv degree and work in a very secular, science-centered job. Occasionally I have a dialogue with an athiest coworker and the more we talk, the less alientated I feel from her and perhaps other athiests.

I have come to the conclusion that one can look at religion as a kind of culture, which embodies, like every culture, values and beliefs that give people a sense of belonging and purpose, or inate value. We live in a time when, As Charles Tayler has noted, there are multiple moral sources. The old overarching institutions such as the Church no longer influence society alone, but are one of many sources of influence.

This gives me hope. An athiest and I may share very similar values, and a similar sense of purpose and inate value (culture), but based on a different belief system. The only problem I see is that some athiests insist that their beliefs are correct and no other, and I hear the same from religious fundamentalists. If we can learn to begin every dialogue with those who hold different beliefs from ourselves, with ''I may be wrong, but...'' than I have hope for us.


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