On Science and Religion: A Modest Proposal

(My thanks to Mike Parsons for some of these ideas)

Must science and religion be inimical to one another?  By no means.  I think it is feasible to speak of each as having a specific role and addressing very specific questions that the other does not.   To clarify, on the topic of creation . . .

Science can answer the question how and how long.

Religion can answer the question who and why.

Not everyone will be happy with this propsal.  That’s fine.  I don’t intend for it to be all inclusive or cover all the bases.  It does, however, seem to have some potential.

It is interesting to look, then, at what arises when the roles and questions become confused.

When religion attempts to answer the how and how long:

Heaven and earth, centre and circumference, were created all together, in the same instant, and clouds full of water,” and that “this work took place and man was created by the Trinity on October 23, 4004 B.C., at nine o’clock in the morning.”

Dr. John Lightfoot, Hebrew scholar
Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, 1644

When science attempts to answer the who  and the why:

“The cosmos is all that is, and all that ever was, and all that ever will be” and “we are snowflakes on the hearth.”

Carl Sagan, scientist

Neither of these statements is terribly persuasive, in my estimation.  The questions and roles have been confused.  This can lead to obvious difficulties.

To close, I would like to cite three specific prominent scientists on the matter of creation and science.  These sum up quite nicely the distinctiveness as well as the possible synergy between science and religion:

“The probability of life originating from accient is comparable to the probability of the unabridged dictionary resulting from an explosion in a print shop.”

Edwin Conklin, Biologist


“Believing the first cell in the universe originated by mere chance is like believing a tornado ripping through a junkyard full of airplane parts could produce a Boeing 747.”

Fred Hoyle, astronomer

AND my favorite quotation . . .

“Faith gives life to my discipline.  I have someone to thank when I admire beauty in nature–and I do admire it, even when I know how it works (such as a beautiful sunset, an eclipse, or a rainbow).  In scientific research I feel I get a chance to think some of God’s thoughts after Him . . .”

Dr. Greg Benesh, physicist, Baylor University

This final quotation is truly a beautiful way to put it. 

Thoughts, reflections, reactions?


11 thoughts on “On Science and Religion: A Modest Proposal

  1. Jason says:

    Nice! As I’ve mentioned in various comments on other blogs, I’ve all but abandoned the literal 6-day creation view. I have wrestled with it for years, given the gargantuan gap on the theory of origins between most scientists and many Christians. I found Walton’s functional creation view much more tenable. I’ve been curious as to your thoughts on Gen. 1:1ff. Good post!

  2. John Anderson says:

    Thanks, Jason.

    I found it interesting when teaching creation to my class the number of folks who wanted the argue for a seven day literal creation. That’s fine if they do, they are entitled to that view so long as they can articulate it thoughtfully. What they were not prepared to answer, though, was my question about WHY Gen 1? Why not Gen 2 as the way creation happened? Or Prov 8? Or Job 38-40? Or the various mentions in the Psalms? Or John 1? etc. That question really made them think, and it was some fascinating discussions. Science and religion was good fodder too!

  3. Richard says:

    I agree with your proposal, that said I do wonder to what extent we should say that Gen. 1 is not scientific, i.e. does it not reflect the “scientific view” (if that’s not too great an anachronism) of the ANE?

  4. Karyn says:

    Thoughtful proposal and great selection of quotes to illustrate your point. As someone who teaches both science courses and Biblical Hebrew, I continually think through these issues and the best way to articulate my own understanding.

  5. Doug Chaplin says:

    In what sense is this “unique” to Baylor? I would have said that in the UK (until some very recent encroachment by creationists) this approach has been standard mainstream orthodoxy for decades – almost to the point of being a cliché.

    Incidentally I think it needs at least nuancing, myself, to explore whether some versions of “how” can be inimical to some versions of “why”. It is one of the reasons that the wasteful cruelty of natural selection tends to lead more biologists to question God, while the elegance of cosmology and physics tends to make it easier for physicists to make space for awe of God.

    • John Anderson says:


      Unique to Baylor in the sense that only at Baylor have I heard this proposal. I am glad to stand corrected, though. It would seem a bit puzzling to me, though, to call it a cliche, given the still tenuous relationship between science and religion.

      • Doug Chaplin says:

        Thanks for the clarification – the Atlantic is a very big gulf. Yes, “cliché” is probably too strong a word. I have, however, heard this view expressed widely in the UK.

  6. Roy "Eli" Garton says:

    In my opinion, science and religion operate most solidly from different time-orientend trajectories. Regarding science, current cosmology shows the universe is expanding and will come to an end, but scientists struggle to explain how this universe originated. Philosophically, which is perhaps an unfair critique, I think they can’t within the set parameters of what constitutes science: one can theorize about expansion from a singular point, but it needs the metaphysical to explain where the point came from, otherwise one would have to argue for a static, eternal origination, which in itself is metaphysical argument.

    However, religion finds its most persuasive content in its conception of divine origination for the universe. (I hesitate to say “creation,” as this is such a loaded term.) On the other hand, some of religions’ most debated texts — debated in the since as to whether they are to be held at the same level of authority as other texts — pertains to consummation; i.e., eschatology.

    Between these two chronological polls — i.e., origination and consummation — science and religion exist in a messy, albeit, inescapable relationship, each asking why the universe and this speck of a world that we live on is the way it is. Are both realms of inquiry on equal footing, epistemologically speaking? No. But one cannot fully trump the other, as their realms of inquiry only overlap rather than being wholly congruent.

    Just a thought. 🙂

    • John Anderson says:

      Hey Roy, good to see you have some free time and are back to posting! Welcome!

      And isn’t what you said here just a gussied up, more complicated version of what I said (wink). Just kidding.

      I do indeed think the relationship between science and religion in the interim is a messy one. And I am curious as to if you could (and how you would) unpack your final sentence about one not trumping the other and there being overlap.

      • Roy "Eli" Garton says:

        John, glad to be back, but I really don’t “have the time” . . . I’m just taking it for the benefit of my own sanity. 🙂

        By one not being able to fully trump over the other, I simply mean to indicate that both sides are unable to empirically (or in the case of religion, “metaphysically”) debunk the assertions of the other side. In essense, a “Christian” cannot trump the empirical findings of science with faith claims any more than a scientist can trump the faith claims of Christianity with empirical data. The realms of inquiry, being what they are, allow for a certain overlap of conversation (e.g., cosmology, ecology, biology), but the presuppositions, methodologies, and parameters of inquiry of both realms are sufficiently dissimilar so as to preclude the formation of joint consensus regarding most matters. In other words, one cannot compare the two disciplines — if I may be allowed to call religion such — as apples to apples. They are different beasts, whose ramifications sometimes collide.

        However, I do think that informative dialogue is possible. Nevertheless, honest dialogue between the two realms must procede with extrodinary care. For example, if a Christian says “I don’t believe in the Theory of Evolution any more than I believe in the Day-Age Theory,” this person has just deluted the term “theory” into something unrecognizeable to the scientific mind. Scientists means something wholly different by the term “theory” than what the person in the above scenario recognizes. For a scientific hypothesis to achieve the status of “theory” takes an enormous amount of empirically data, repeated experimentation with predictable results, etc. For the Christian in this scenario, the term “theory” only means an idea that can’t be proven or disproven.

        In short (too late!), religion and science are not on equal footing epistemologically speaking, yet the neither one of them can fully negate the assertions of the other.

        Hope that helps. 🙂

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