Peace Breaks Out in the War Between Religion and Science

The message that people do not need to choose between many religious beliefs and scientific understanding is not new -- but it has been spreading.
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If you're one of those who believe that religion and science have been at war (and I'll explain below why some believe that that "war" is actually a manufactured conflict), you might want to know that peace increasingly seems to be breaking out.

The message that people do not need to choose between many religious beliefs and scientific understanding is not new -- but it has been spreading. Let me provide a series of examples of what has happened on this front in the recent past, and then tell you about an exciting new initiative.

  • The largest, and perhaps most important, scientific association in the United States, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), has been working diligently in this field for an extended period of time. The explicit goal of the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) is to "facilitate communication between scientific and religious communities."

  • The US National Academy of Sciences, probably the most prestigious scientific honorary organization in the world, published a book in 2008 entitled "Science, Evolution, and Creationism." The book couldn't have been any clearer about the conflict between religion and science: "Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist."
  • The Clergy Letter Project, the organization that I founded, now consists of more than 13,000 religious leaders who promote the teaching of evolution and more than 1,000 scientists who are comfortable working with those religious leaders.
  • There are a host of additional organizations operating in all corners of the world designed to foster better dialogue about the relationship between religion and science. These organizations arise from many different traditions but they all recognize that religion and science need not be in conflict. Here are links to a handful of these groups to provide a taste of their breadth: The BioLogos Foundation; the International Society for Science and Religion; the Metanexus Institute; the Not Mutually Exclusive initiative of the United Church of Christ; the Society of Ordained Scientists; WesleyNexus: Science and Religion within the Wesleyan Tradition; and the Zygon Center for Religion and Science.
  • There are many, many other equally impressive examples I could point to, but I think this list makes my case. Instead, let me point to an exciting new initiative that is just getting started. Funded by the Templeton Foundation, this project will bring scientists into congregations with the goal of creating meaningful conversations about faith and science. The Templeton Foundation put up $1 million for this initiative, providing up to $30,000 to each of 37 congregations. You can read more about how some of these projects are playing out within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in a good article written by Susan Barreto. In summary, though, it is fair to say that the individuals involved will explore how it is possible to retain faith while appreciating science -- without compromising either.

    This last point is probably the most important, and often the most misunderstood. Thousands upon thousands of religious leaders recognize that scientific principles need not be compromised for faith to be honored. These deeply religious individuals know that they turn to religion for questions of spirituality that science neither asks nor answers. These individuals understand that their religion becomes meaningless if it requires them to discard materialistic explanations for natural phenomena -- exactly the thing that science excels at uncovering.

    Yes, there are religious leaders who proclaim that their religious teachings dictate their scientific beliefs. Fundamentalists who adhere dogmatically to a specific interpretation of ancient texts and demand that those bizarre interpretations be taught in science classes fall into this category. Fundamentalists like Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis who unilaterally break science into "operational" science and "historical" science fall into this category. And fundamentalists like those at the Discovery Institute who promote a redefinition of science to include the supernatural also fall into this category. But these people and organizations, as loud and as well funded as they are, do not represent the vast majority of religious individuals. When we conflate these two dramatically different groups and assume they have the same motives and intellectual underpinnings, we're making a huge mistake and missing an opportunity for enhanced understanding.

    And, yes, there are some scientists, who do exactly this. They characterize anyone who holds any religious belief in the same fashion as they describe those who are dogmatic in their misunderstanding of science. Some of these scientists believe that science must lead to atheism and, while such a path may have made sense for them, it is demonstrably not the case for large numbers of other scientists and millions of citizens interested in both religion and science.

    For those on both ends of the spectrum, the religious fundamentalists who mischaracterize science and the scientists who misconstrue the motives of any who believe in religion, there is value in keeping the war between religion and science alive.

    In fact, however, the "war" may never have been more than a manufactured controversy in the first place. As historian Ronald Numbers so evocatively pointed out in his wonderful book "Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion," the view that there was longstanding and deep conflict between religion and science was "more propaganda than history."

    Whether the war has been real or not, it certainly appears that we are reaching a point of greater understanding of religion and science. And that's a good thing for all of us.

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