Science and Religion

 Douglas Hayhoe, Ph.D., Instructional Leader in Secondary Science, Toronto District School Board (

 “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Thus begins Psalm 19 in the Bible, written by King David as he reflected on his adolescent years, watching the moon and stars moving across the dark sky night after night while he guarded his sheep. Van Leeuwenhoek clapped his hand to his mouth in awe when he first observed through his new microscope a tiny “animal,” never before seen by human eye. And after formulating his ground-breaking equations for general relativity and gravitation, Einstein made the often-quoted remark that “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Scientists and theologians alike experience the same awe and mystery about nature, or creation as I like to call it, even though the scientists study it with different methods and for different purposes. But does this rule out any meaningful relationship between science and religion? The ways in which people relate science and religion to each other are both varied and complex. The physicist and theologian, Ian Barbour, recently received the prestigious Templeton Prize for ground-breaking work he has done in this area. In chapter 4 of his book, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (1997), Barbour elaborates on four broad categories or models he had previously defined for relating science and religion: conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration.

The Conflict Model

Galileo’s clash with the Church concerning his view of the solar system is probably the most well-known example of the conflict model between science and religion. Although this particular issue was resolved years ago, the public debate in America today focuses on the age of the universe and the origin of species. Creationists who maintain that the universe is only thousands of years old, when there is overwhelming evidence of its great antiquity, give credence to the idea that science and religion are invariably opposed. On the other side, well-known scientists who assert that science leaves no room for religion also support this model. For example, Carl Sagan started his famous film series, Cosmos, with the statement, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” And Richard Dawkins, author of The Blind Watchmaker, says “that a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate” (The Humanist 57, January/February 1997).

Many if not most scientists today, however, still have strong religious beliefs. A survey of American scientists conducted in 1997 found that 40% believed in a personal God who reveals Himself and answers prayer, the same number as was found in similar surveys conducted in 1914 and 1933 (“Scientists and Religion in America,” Scientific American, September 1999). It is probably not necessary to remind the readers that most of the scientists who laid the basis for the scientific age, including Boyle, Copernicus, Faraday, Galileo, Kepler, Maxwell, and Newton, believed in a personal God who revealed Himself in the Scriptures and answered prayer. For many people, therefore, there must be other plausible ways of relating science and religion.

The Independence Model

Following the conflict surrounding Darwin, many scientists and theologians developed an independence model for thinking about science and religion. This model assumes that each is an independent, autonomous field of study or sphere of reality, with its own unique rules and language. Science has very little to say about religious beliefs, and religion has very little to say about scientific study. The National Academy of Science, for example, in its controversial 1981 policy statement, espoused this model when it said that “Religion and science are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstanding of both scientific theory and religious belief.”[1]

This independence model appeals to many scientists and theologians because it gives them freedom to believe and think what they like in their respective fields, without having to relate one to the other. However, this strength of the model can also be considered its main weakness, for it compartmentalizes reality. Barbour writes, “We do not experience life as neatly divided into separate compartments; we experience it in wholeness and interconnectedness before we develop particular disciplines to study different aspects of it.[2] In other words, as appealing as the independence model is, it doesn’t do justice to the complex reality we live in.

The Dialogue Model

The dialogue model looks for methodological parallels between science and religion. It finds support from scholars who realize that scientific study is not as objective as once thought. John Polkinghorne, a theoretical physicist who became an Anglican priest, puts it this way: both science and religion involve personal judgment, as both deal with data that is “theory laden.” We can also say that both science and religion involve a set of beliefs. Barbour himself favours this dialogue approach to science and religion, especially in its multi-level approach to reality. However, he then takes it one step further by applying scientific methods and standards to religious beliefs and practices. This leads him in the direction of process theology, where the problem of the existence of evil is solved by limiting the power of God. The Oxford scientist and theologian, Alister McGrath, on the other hand, offers a more balanced exposition of this model, in The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion (1999).  McGrath understands the difficulties many people have with religion, when they try to grasp how an all-powerful and good God can allow evil and suffering in the world. He offers no simplistic answer, but points out that the wave-particle duality of light, accepted by all scientists today, is surely as difficult to understand as the duality between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will.[3]

Environmental concern is one practical area where it is essential that science and religion dialogue with each other; for there is abundance evidence that scientific knowledge alone is not enough to move people to deal with the overwhelming environmental challenges that confront us. Thus it is interesting to note that on one occasion the agnostic scientist, Carl Sagan, invited an important religious leader to share the same platform with him, when dealing with a key environmental issue. Another important area for practical dialogue includes issues with moral implications such as cloning. Along this line, the Dialogue Group of Scientists and Catholic Bishops recently remarked that, “despite occasional tensions and disagreements, there can be no irreconcilable conflict between religion and science … Science and religion can offer complementary insights on complex topics like the emerging bio-technologies.”[4] 

In another direction altogether, Fritjof Capra finds parallels between modern physics and Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism in The Tao of Physics.

The Integration Model

The integration model of relating science and theology is sometimes called the “mutual support” model.” As such it has a long history. From 1600 – 1800 most British scientists such as Boyle and Newton espoused “natural theology,” the idea that the perfection and variety in nature gives us evidence of God’s power and handiwork. This viewpoint was dealt a severe blow by Darwin’s theory that variety in nature actually arises from random mutation and natural selection. Many prominent scientists, however, continued to hold to a “theology of nature.” They believed that through religion, or the Bible (in the case of Christianity), scientists gain the proper perspective for engaging in science. This integration model was extended in the 20th century by Catholic scholars such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Islamic scholars such as Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

Recently, a group of American scientists including William Dembski have resurrected natural theology in terms of “intelligent design.” While accepting all the evidence in support of an ancient universe and most of the evidence for the evolutionary history of life, they argue that there may be an “irreducible complexity” to life that transcends the laws of chance and physics. If it’s not illogical for SETI researchers to look for intelligent design (i.e., extra-terrestrial beings) in the analysis of signals from outer space, Dembski asks, why is it illogical to look for intelligent design (i.e. God’s finger) at key points in the history of matter and life, such as the creation of the universe, the origin of the first genetic code, and the formation of complex biological structures? Others, however, such as the Calvinist astronomer Howard van Till and the Catholic theologian-biochemist Arthur Peacocke, feel that this “God of the gaps” theology leads only to disillusionment as the gaps are progressively filled in. The very laws of science, they reply, were the methods God used to develop the great variety of living things that exist.


The model or combination of models that a person adopts for relating science and religion is likely to depend strongly on his or her up-bringing, as well as on the fundamental presuppositions he or she brings to the issue. When talking with students about science and religion issues, we should emphasize that competent and successful scientists today can be found in all four categories. We should also avoid giving simplistic answers to questions about science and religion.

 Note: Web sites such as contain many reviews and comments on books written by the scientists and authors mentioned above. I have mostly restricted this essay to science and Christianity. However, web sites relating science to other religions are easily found.


[1] quoted by Barbour, Religion and Science, Chapter 4, Part II.

[2] Ibid.

[3] McGrath argues that any methodological parallels between science and religion should not imply that we have to make either field of study subservient to the other, but that we should expect to find similar complexities of concepts and even paradoxes in both. As mentioned above, if we find it hard to reconcile the thesis of the existence of an all-powerful and good God with the observation of evil and suffering in the world (as Charles Darwin did), then it is instructive to know that it is also difficult to reconcile the particle model of light and matter with the incontrovertible evidence that photons and electrons also act as waves. Who can understand how a particle so tiny that it fits through a slit several atoms wide also acts as a wave so wide that it travels through two slits million of atoms apart resulting in double slit interference? (See Richard Feynman’s fascinating discussion of this paradoxical wave-particle duality in The Character of Physical Law.)

 [4] Barbour, Chapter 4, Part III.