Science & Religion: How Methodological Models Inspire New Ways of Thinking and Writing

In discussing science and religion, several typologies arise explaining how science and religion relate. These typologies often include conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. This discussion has benefits for the fields of science and religion and gives insight into subsequent writing in those and related fields of study.

Conflict: Many people think of science and religion as being in a state of conflict. In fact, both scientists and people of faith have argued this to be true. Think of the sharp division in sides that emerged during the Scopes Trials for example. The prevailing thought of the conflict point of view is that science and religion contradict one another and are incompatible. Thus, one is right and the other is wrong.

I find that many incoming freshmen in my Introduction to the Bible courses tend to think in black and white terms regarding science and religion. Sometimes a student will speak with great passion, identifying himself as a man of science or a man of faith, implying that science and religion can’t exist together.

No matter which introductory course I teach, we invariably deal with this faith and science discussion near the beginning of the course as we jump into Genesis. I invariably ask the hard questions: Is the creation story incompatible with evolution? Is the only possible interpretation of Genesis 1 that of a 7-day creation? Are there limits to science? Does it take faith to believe in science? Sometimes the sparks fly in this discussion, showing a true unwillingness to budge from preconceived beliefs.

I oftentimes try to get students to examine and hopefully understand the other point of view, even if they are unwilling to change their own point of view. Thankfully, popular culture also provides many entry points into this discussion. Through the past several years, we have used television shows, such as Lost and Fringe, to talk about the nature of faith and belief as well as science and reason.

Benefits: There is nothing like discussion and conflict to help a person refine his beliefs, present his point of view in a thoughtful manner, and to take ownership of what he believes rather than mimicking what others have taught him. Conflict sharpens one’s understanding in many ways. A key is the level of respect and understanding that you show a person of an opposing viewpoint. Questions arise: can you understand and represent accurately a point of view that you do not hold and even oppose? Can you see another’s viewpoint? Can you agree to disagree?

In performing dissertation editing, I sometimes can see clearly the writer’s point of view in the midst of evaluating different viewpoints. Sometimes derogatory language gives that away. As a researcher and writer truly seek to understand an opposing viewpoint, even if you are unwilling to consider it as part of your personal belief system. It will help you grow in your research and writing skills and give you a better understanding of those who believe differently than you do.

Independence: Theories that fall into the independence category generally hold that religion and science are separate realms of enquiry and do not involve one another. Usually this line of thinking explains that science deals with observable facts gathered through the scientific method, developing theories that explain empirical data. Religion, on the other hand, deals with questions of ultimate meanings and moral and value questions that arise in life. These two realms of inquiry are not in opposition; they simply do not overlap and remain separate.

I often point to statements of personal belief that people use in conversation, citing evidence for their belief and how it differs in religious and scientific language.

On a basic level, scientists lean toward statements of “I observed the following” while people of faith make statements that begin with “I believe.” Thus, the fields of study sometimes mimic portions of the human experience and the language people commonly use. I once talked with a doctor who worked in the field of genetic engineering. He basically expressed an independence point of view by explaining that his job was to develop the technology, but that my job was to decide the moral use for that technology and where the limits are.

Benefits: Those who tend to think of religion and science as valuable fields of study, but addressing different areas of knowledge and experience, may be described as compartmentalizing each field of study. Sometimes this is portrayed negatively, especially in our age of quick media polls for or against topics.

The media tends to oversimplify complex issues into sound bytes and may spur on the general public to take sides. However, there is something to be said about letting each field flourish on its own and carry on investigations where the other field of study cannot. This approach to each field of study is much like the experience of a child becoming his own self in a family of other distinct personalities. Each child is unique and special.

As a writer, your voice is unique. You must develop and nurture it no matter your detractors or how much you differ from or are similar to key figures in your area of study. Dissertation writing is unique in many ways in that your writing must review the literature on a specific topic, tipping your dues to the giants whose shoulders your dissertation stands upon, but then to make your own unique contributions to the field through your work. We all tend to label others as to where we think their writing falls into an area or field of study. Resist the labels others try to affix upon you. Be your own unique voice in your field of study.

Dialogue: This typology acknowledges an overlap in interests and fields of study and allows their work be influenced through this dialogue. Thus, there is true conversation occurring between fields. A model of dialogue might say that both science and religion speak to the ultimate truths of human existence, having theories about the problems and answers to human existence and giving insight into that reality.

When I think of models of dialogue, David Tracy’s modified method of correlation always comes to mind. He took Paul Tillich’s method of correlation, where biblical truths speak to the philosophical questions of human existence, and makes the flow of questions and answers a true dialogue. Dialogue is not just one side asking a question, and the other answering it. As information is communicated, it literally changes the conversation, both the answers and questions. That is the true test of models of dialogue. Do fields of study truly allow questions from other fields and allow modification of theories and approaches based on those questions? Is there room for growth? This is the heart of dialogue.

Benefits: Having true dialogue of different beliefs and viewpoints is one of my goals every semester in my Introduction to the Bible courses. Each person, even if he is not of the Jewish or Christian faiths, offers different viewpoints based on his beliefs and experiences. These small class discussions are about topics like creation and evolution, the possibility of supernatural intervention in our natural world, and the central questions of human existence (such as Who am I? What is my purpose? What happens when I die?). This conversation mimics dialogue that occurs between other fields of study. As a writer, you have the opportunity to build bridges and tear down silos and break down barriers between fields of study and explanatory theories. Don’t back down from branching out into uncharted territory.

Integration: The integration typology describes those theories that attempt to unify both fields of study. These theories concentrate on similarities between the fields, focusing on how both fields speak about the world we live in and questions of ultimate concern.

Whether these theories start with the foundations of science or speak of all truth being God’s truth, this person has a predisposition that the two fields of study are interrelated on multiple complex levels. A theory of integration might say that science and religion are really getting at the same truths through different languages. Some say this approach has at its heart Anselm’s concept of faith seeking understanding. They begin with a belief that informs their worldview and shapes how they understand the data and interpret the world around them.

Benefits: When I think of people who are able to see connections that others don’t between fields of study, I think of one of my Ph.D. professors. He always clearly identified differing points of view and how many times people talk past one another by not understanding the other’s unique perspective.

There is a true talent in ignoring differences and focusing on areas of common ground. This professor often pointed out how humans are creatures of personal stories that explain the world around them, assigning meaning and purpose to events. It is natural to have a personal narrative that explains one’s history and background. Similarly people like to explain the history and background of how things came to be, why bad things happen to good people, and what their purpose is in life.

This tendency toward personal story allows people to work on unifying theories that bring together the fields of science and religion. Readers respond to stories in the same way. Don’t be afraid to share your personal story and let your passions influence the direction your research goes. How you put together the field of science and religion is important to your research and can inspire others to keep working through these important issues.

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