Although significant progress is being made in the interaction between science and Christianity in this century, there remains a residual hostility between them that can be traced to the nineteenth century. When modern science as we know it first appeared in seventeenth century Europe, its encounter with Christianity could be generally described as friendly. Scientists then understood that God had created the world, and see science as the means by which they could examine the handiwork of the Creator. In the eighteenth century, however, there was a gradual rift between the scientific and religious communities. Influenced by Deism, which teaches that God, having created the world, is no longer personally involved with it, scientists maintain that they could study nature without the interference of religious metaphysics. This rift soon developed into open hostility in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with the rise secularism.
The hostility between science and Christianity has resulted in the conflict thesis promoted by prominent scientists in the nineteenth century like J. W. Draper in History of the Conflict between Religion and Science and A.D. White in A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology in Christendom. The scientists who hold this view argue quite simply that only science can enable us to understand reality, which according to them is the material world in which we live. But it would be a mistake to think that only scientists are responsible for the rhetoric of conflict and warfare. Theologians who take a literal approach to the interpretation of the Bible also come to this conclusion. The conflict thesis is therefore supported by materialism on the one hand, and biblical literalism on the other.
Some scientists and theologians maintain that it is misguided to speak of the conflict between science and religion because these two spheres of knowledge are totally distinct from each other. Religion, these thinkers claim, asks a totally different set of questions, work on totally different assumptions, and employ a different methodology from science. Science and religion in fact speak two different languages with totally different functions. Science is concerned with objective, public and repeatable data while religion is concerned with aesthetic experiences and the inner life. Science asks the ‘how’ questions, while religion asks the ‘why’ questions. The authority of science is the empirical study of the material world, while religion is dependent on divine revelation. Those who argue for the independence of science and religion wish to safeguard the integrity and autonomy of both.
Both these approaches, however, fail to appreciate fully the complex nature of the relationship between science and religion or theology. The conflict thesis fails to appreciate the multi-faceted nature of reality. And the independence theory, while acknowledging the fact that reality is multi-faceted fails to give an account of how these facets are related to each other. Furthermore, this latter approach will ultimately result in the privatisation of religion, treating it only as subjective experience that has no objective basis whatsoever.
The proper understanding of the relationship between science and the Christian faith is dialogue. Dialogue suggests a more constructive relationship between science and religion than both conflict and independence because it acknowledges the differences as well as similarities between the two. Dialogue requires science and theology to have a clear understanding of their own as well as each other’s presuppositions and methods. This would prevent caricatures that would inhibit fruitful conversations between them. For example, some philosophers have argued that science is objective because its theories are validated by clear-cut criteria and indisputable evidence. Theology or religion, on the other hand, is highly subjective and is based on individual or cultural assumptions. Many philosophers of science and theologians have rightly rejected this simplistic view of both science and theology. They have shown on the one hand that science is theory-laden, and on the other that although theological statements are not amendable to strict empirical testing they can nevertheless be taken to be objective.
There are indeed many areas of possible dialogue between science and theology. One such area is the intelligibility of the cosmos. Physicists and astronomers have long been seeking for a unified theory of the cosmos based on the conviction that the latter is simple, orderly and rationally intelligible. Theologians can account for the intelligibility of the world that scientists assume because they believe that the God who ordered the world is rational. In creating the world, God has given it an independent reality distinct from himself, which implies that the creation has its own integrity. Theologians like Thomas Torrance and John Polkinghorne discuss the intelligibility of the world within the theistic framework thereby bringing science and theology into serious and creative dialogue with each other.
Taking this dialogue seriously implies that consonance between theology and science is to be actively sought. But it also implies that all hasty attempts to achieve a happy but superficial synthesis between the two must be resisted. Failure to arrive at a synthesis, however, should not discourage further dialogue because the dialogical process itself is beneficial for both science and theology. As Pope John Paul II has so insightfully put it, ‘Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish’.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of ETHOS Institute for Public Christianity. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.