Integrating Science and Religion: Can the Two Learn to Work Together?

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“…if some sort of reconciliation between science and religion is not forthcoming, the future of humanity is, at best, precarious.

-From Ken Wilbur’s “The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion

People have turned to science and religion for knowledge and truth since the dawn of human history. Depending on your predilections, when you are confused and looking for answers, you may turn to one or the other, or maybe even both.

In his book “The Marriage of Sense and Soul,” Ken Wilbur argues that, “Science is clearly one of the most profound methods that humans have yet devised for discovering truth, while religion remains the single greatest force for generating meaning.”

Some integration of these two sources of knowledge would then seem essential in our search for truth and meaning. But the relationship between science and religion is a complex one, having periods of harmony and cooperation as well as conflict.

This piece briefly explores this history and discusses 3 proposals for integrating science and religion.

A Brief History of Science and Religion

There was a time in Western society when the concepts of science and religion were largely fused together into one global search for truth.  

Throughout the Middle Ages, most important scientific breakthroughs were made by religious scholars. Roger Bacon, credited with formalizing the scientific method, was a Franciscan friar. Robert Boyle, one of the founders of modern chemistry, was also a Christian theologian, just to name a few examples.       

But this marriage between science and religion could get tense. There were explosive moments when sparks flew between the two, the most dramatic perhaps being the confrontation between  Galileo Galilei and the Catholic Church in 1633.

Galileo was sentenced to house arrest for claiming that the Earth rotated around the Sun, challenging the Catholic Church’s view at the time that the Earth was locked at the center of the universe.

With the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, which broadly occurred from the 17th to 19th centuries, a new era of thought was ushered into Western consciousness that prized rationality and scientific inquiry.

Science became the domain of universities, hospitals, and other secular institutions. Rather than being part of a broader search for truth, science was largely divorced from religion and grew into a refined set of methods that ultimately ushered in the modern era.

A science unbounded by the morality, values, and convictions of the church has produced a wealth of medical breakthroughs, technological advances, and discoveries about the universe. It has brought us life-saving antibiotics and conveniences, like air conditioning and instant access to information, that our ancestors could hardly fathom. Meditation

But modernity has also produced tremendous suffering. We now worry about nuclear war, face increasing intrusions into our privacy (e.g., hacking and identity theft), and must interact with impersonal and dehumanizing bureaucracies.  

And many have argued that if we continue down this path and science and religion fail to find better ways to coordinate their efforts, sooner or later, catastrophe is bound to strike.  

Integrating Science and Religion

Considering the schism that exists today, it’s hard to imagine what such an integration or collaboration would realistically look like. But that hasn’t stopped scientists and religious thinkers from proposing ways of bridging the gap.

Here are 3 leading proposals for coordinating the efforts of science and religion:

1. Non-overlapping Magisteria

The paleontologist and historian of science, Dr. Stephen Jay Gould, wrote an influential essay titled “Non-overlapping Magisteria” in 1997. In it, he argued that science and religion represent distinct domains or magisteria that pertain to different aspects of life.

According to Gould, “The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value.”

Thus, an underlying assumption here is that a better parsing of the division between science and religion will lead to more respectful discourse between the two and will in turn further “the common goal of wisdom.”

Still Gould acknowledges that, “Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer—and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult.”

2. Integral Theory

In contrast to Gould, Ken Wilbur, the author of “The Marriage of Sense and Soul,” believes that a true integration of science and religion must involve a broadening of these two pursuits, rather than simply asking them to stay in their respective corners. He calls for both an “Integral Science” and “Integral Religion” that utilize a common methodology and seek to inform one another. See infographic for more on this common methodology.

One implication of Wilbur’s model is that it elevates first-person experiences of religious and spiritual practices as data on equal footing, more or less, with data collected from a third-person perspective, where there is clear separation between the observer and the observed (e.g., a scientist observing bacteria through a microscope).  

Despite the intuitive appeal of Wilbur’s Integral Theory, he has been fairly criticized for not fully considering the practicalities of getting science and religion to somehow meet each other in the middle. As the philosopher, Dr. Michael Zimmerman, points out, “Wilber is too optimistic about what scientists and religionists are willing to do.”

3. Evolutionary Spirituality

The Christian minister Rev. Michael Dowd wrote a 2008 book titled, “Thank God for Evolution.” In it, he offers a vision of integrating science and religion that is broadly consistent with Wilbur’s ideas but goes a step further.

Dowd argues that part of the reason scientific findings, like those related to evolution, persistently fail to stick in some religious communities is that they’re often articulated in stale, secular terms and do not incorporate meaningful symbols and storylines that resonate with ardent believers.

Focusing particularly on evolution, Dowd weaves together the realities of evolutionary theory into a coherent, spiritually-inspiring narrative that is consistent with a Christian worldview.

The Bottom Line 

Dowd’s efforts, in particular, are worth highlighting in that he addresses a missing link that has seemed to escape prior attempts to integrate science and religion.  

If there is ever to be any meaningful integration of science and religion it must begin by opening up the hearts and minds of individuals. No matter how brilliant the theory, if it doesn’t account for what’s most important to people and produce real change, then it is perhaps of little value.

READ RELATED: The Do-It-Yourselfers Guide to Making Positive Life Changes

Encouragingly, when we look at the data, it seems that people often find creative ways to integrate science and religion into their own lives. For example, many of the men and women who have devoted their careers to science consider themselves deeply religious.

Though not as religious as the lay public, more than half of U.S. scientists endorse believing in God (33%) or a higher power/universal spirit (18%). Likewise, more than half of scientists in India, Italy, Taiwan and Turkey identify as religious.

So, perhaps we’re not as far from integrating science and religion as it may seem?

This week we take a closer look at this issue of science and faith.

In it’s own way, each article touches on this theme, starting tomorrow with an exploration of the science of faith where we will look at what scientific studies have to tell us about religion and spirituality.

Then, on Wednesday, we explore belief and faith in science and its role in people’s lives. And you can also let us know about your own beliefs on science by participating in our poll of the Lifespark community.

Thursday, we then look at patterns and trends of belief in America with regard to religion and science and discuss what it means for our spiritual journey as a country.

Finally on Friday, we explore doubt as a common thread that runs through both science and religion and offer some thoughts on coping with uncertainty.

So, join us everyday this week for more on science and faith. And let us know what you think about the relationship between science and religion in the comments below.  


Further Reading:

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Dowd, M. (2008). Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World. New York, NY: Penguin.

Ecklund, E. H., Johnson, D. R., Scheitle, C. P., Matthews, K. R., & Lewis, S. W. (2016). Religion among scientists in international context: A new study of scientists in eight regions. Socius, 2, 1-9.

Esbjörn‐Hargens, S., & Wilber, K. (2006). Toward a comprehensive integration of science and religion: A post‐metaphysical approach. In P. Clayton & Z. Simpson (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (pp. 523-546). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Gould, S. J. (1997). Nonoverlapping Magisteria. Natural History, 106, 16-22.

Masci, D. (2009). Scientists and Belief. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.

Suran, M. (2010). The separation of church and science. EMBO Reports, 11, 586-589.

Wilber, K. (1998). The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion. New York, NY: Random House.


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