Science and Religion: Has the Conflict Model Won the Popularity Vote?

BY TOM UYTTERHOEVEN. This morning my wife posted a picture on my Facebook wall. It shows two Post It notes on a wall in a community center in a Belgian town. The center had organized a cultural activity for kids: children were invited to write down who their hero was. So one kid posted: “God, because He made us and the Earth.” A second kid (the person who originally posted the picture on Facebook doubted whether it really was a child) replied with: “Charles Darwin, because he wrote the Origin of Species and proved the Post It above to be wrong.” The picture is an example of how the assumption that religion and science are in conflict has gained influence, not only in your local Bible Belt area, but as part of popular culture. And that has its consequences.

This post was written by theologian Tom Uytterhoeven and appeared previously on his blog ‘Evolution, Culture and Meaning‘. He tweets at @TomUytt.

Tom-UytterhoevenLast week I noticed a press release by the EU about a survey on science and innovation today. It was featured on Science’s news website, where much attention was devoted to ‘a slight increase in traditional views’. So, out of curiosity, I checked the EU website and found a copy of the mentioned survey. The only explicit question about the relation between religion and science asks whether the respondents think they are in conflict or not (“I think we depend too much on science and not enough on faith.”) The possibility of other forms of relation between the two apparently wasn’t even feasible to the authors of the survey. Since the results of surveys like these inform policy making, this is not only a case of poor scholarship, it is moreover a missed opportunity for a society that strives to be pluralistic.


Because that is what bothers me the most about the picture on Facebook: the attitude that “I am right, therefore you are wrong” in the Darwin note. There is no room for discussion here, no desire to learn from each other. The case is very clear: science is right, therefore religion is wrong.

To say that this conclusion can be criticised is rather obvious, as the ever growing literature in the theological subfield of “science and religion” shows. But maybe that’s just it: maybe the religion-science debate has grown to become a part of theology instead of the interdisciplinary field it was/is supposed to be. Maybe models for the relation between religion and science that don’t assume conflict are too easily labeled as “believers trying to save their faith”.

There are two challenges here, I think. First challenge: eradicate biblical literalism through religious education. Ian Barbour, one of the founding fathers of the science and religion field, pointed to the paradoxical analogy between biblical literalism and scientific materialism, both looking for “knowledge with a sure foundation” (Barbour, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, 1997, p. 78).

As long as e.g. literal readings of the Bible are endorsed, we just add fuel to the conflict-model. That is: as long as we teach children about the creation stories in a way that implicitly suggests that these stories are historical reports of what happened, they will tend to see them as fairy tales the moment they learn something about biology or geology (or even sooner: my kids once got a Dino-ABC book from Santa). Religious education should be about living your faith today, not about living your faith in a pre-modern world. This implies that teaching how to understand biblical language symbolically should be one of the main goals of religious education (read more about this here), as is the case in teacher education at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies and at the institutions of Higher Education of the KU Leuven Association.

Second challenge: theology should reach out (even) more, bringing the possibility of a constructive relation between religion and science to the attention of scientists, policy makers, but foremost: the general public. To do that, I think this interaction should be more central for theology proper. Just one example: we had an (excellent and very interesting) conference on liturgy in Leuven this year. But only a very small minority of the presentations touched on what science has to say about ritual. I think this is a missed opportunity for theology, which could only benefit from engaging in conversation with other perspectives on religion. But it is also a missed opportunity for science, which sometimes lacks an adequate view on what really is at stake in a religious ritual, or a religious story. I am not arguing that science should be normative for what theology can or should say, or that science has to replace other auxiliary sources (e.g. existential philosophy). But if theologians ignore science, they shouldn’t complain about those Post It notes becoming billboards, and those billboards determining how religion is valued.

To do theology in ‘an age of science’, to paraphrase Barbour, is not a matter of apologetics, however. It is a matter of doing theology in the here and now, of trying to discern ‘how things really are‘, as Lutheran theologian Philip Hefner would say. We can only do so if we go beyond conflict.

  1. So, if “Theologians should not ignore science” to avoid that they should complain about ‘Post it notes’ that become ‘billboards’, isn’t the first necessary step to introduce some natural science courses in the bachelor programmes of Theology and Religious Studies?
    How can you otherwise discern “how things really are”? Only by knowing the other conflict can be avoided, isn’t it?

  2. Thanks for you comment, Manuel Sintobin! There’s something to be said for your suggestion, I think. In general, I agree that theologians could benefit from learning about science and the role science plays in our society. Of course, many of them, also at our faculty, do have a background in science. But even so, a systematic education in e.g. the differences between science and scientism, methodological and ontological reductionism, etc. could enable undergraduates to see possibilities for dialogue instead of conflict. For instance, most of my colleagues from the US have had at least one minor in science during their undergraduate education. Apparently programs are more flexible in the US than they are in Flanders (probably with disadvantages of its own, but that’s an other debate).
    Maybe one could argue for a course in science/philosophy of science as part of the bachelor programmes of Theology and Religious Studies, analogous to the “RZL course” (I’m not aware of any official translation of last term, maybe “Theological, Religious, and Philosophical Perspectives” gives some clue as to its content) which is now part of any bachelor program at KU Leuven? That said, that same “RZL course” should – in my view – be regarded as an essential part of undergraduate education, enabling students to see their scientific research in a broader perspective.

  3. A few weeks ago, I was part of the online audience for a fascinating live chat session at the AAAS Annual Meeting discussing the question “Can Science and Religion Coexist”. (See the recording here: The conversation was centred around new survey results on (religious) people’s perception of science in the United States, and, interestingly, scientists’ perceptions of religion. One thing that struck me was how many scientists identified as evangelicals (18%) and how many scientists (the vast majority) answered affirmatively to the question “Is your profession reconcilable with your faith?”

    This bodes well, I think, for a ‘common ground’ model, where interfaces between religion and science are both possible and very much already present in the daily lives of scientists (not to mention theologians). The survey results seem to support the idea that the ‘either/or’ false dichotomy often presented between science and religion – and espoused both by vocal evangelicals and defenders of evolution – is less entrenched than one might think. And that’s good news for both (especially young) people of faith, who have much to gain from and much to offer science, and scientists, many of whom hold a worldview that leaves room for religion and spirituality, whatever form that may take.

    I agree with Tom and Manuel that a compulsory, multidisciplinary, general course on science (which might include such things as: a basic overview of the scientific method, a close reading of The Origin of Species from a literary/historical perspective, ‘transdisciplinary’ exercises such as translating a complex scientific study into a text for a more general audience, etc.) would go a long way in facilitating this. If it were up to me, all bachelor-level students, in all disciplines, would take such a course. Multidisciplinary teams of professors (from the hard sciences, soft sciences, arts, theology..) would teach it. I’d really love to take it.

    One closing thought: Tom, you mention stories. Biblical, historical, scientific. I think stories – narratives, with a beginning, an obstacle to overcome and a conclusion – can be a tremendously valuable and effective tool in helping us (as scientists, theologians, creationists, evangelicals, humanists, or just plain humans) communicate across the (imagined!) gap between science and religion. Once we see the Post Its as episodes of the same story (Post It #1 = beginning; Post It #2 = obstacle) we not only force otherwise antithetical standpoints into dialogue with one another, but we also open up room for a conclusion that makes sense of both. (Hoera for Post It #3!)

    As a science communicator (full disclosure, I’m an editor in the KU Leuven newsroom), I use narrative to turn (beautiful yet hopelessly complex) phenomena into engaging stories others can understand, relate to, enjoy and add to. Theologians are good at this, too, I’d venture. Maybe good science communication, the essence of which is well-told, well-informed stories, is one productive site of interface between religion and science.

    A bit long to put on a Post It, but you get the idea.

    • I fully agree with Jack. Also in the Natural Sciences we need more “story telling”! Otherwise, each individual Science discipline, from geology to chemistry, is perceived as “boring”, by the way probably one of the most important causes of our failure to convince young people to choose for STEM.
      That “story telling” works, is convincingly proven by the success of documentaries by e.g. Iain Stewart, David Attenborough, the documentaries on National Geographic, etc. But this”story telling” is also present in a number of interfacultary courses offered by our Faculty of Science, focussing on the “story” from Big Bang to Man. These courses are “Wetenschap van de Kosmos”, “Wetenschap van de Aarde”, and “Wetenschap van het Leven”.
      So, what are you waiting for to convince your students to follow these courses … 😉


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