Science and Religion, A Series

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I will take a look at the locus classicus on the relationship between science and religion, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (1997) by Ian Barbour.

My last post outlined a problem that I saw with a particular answer Ken Ham gave in his debate with science educator Bill Nye. I cautioned that much of Christian public interaction with issues of science and religion commits the same error of arrogance that befell Ham. Seeing as of 3/13/2014 the debate has garnered 2.5 million views on YouTube, readers might be wondering what I think an appropriate engagement with science looks like.

If Ham’s presentation was not an acceptable way to engage issues at the intersection of science and religion, faith and reason, what is?

This question will drive my next series of posts. In this I will take a look at the locus classicus on the relationship between science and religion, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (1997) by Ian Barbour. The book is an expansion of his lectures given during his tenure as the prestigious Gifford lecturer in Scotland from 1989-1991.

Barbour himself died Dec. 24, 2013 at the age of ninety. His academic credentials include an advanced degree in physics from the University of Chicago and a divinity degree from Yale. He took a teaching post at Carleton College in 1955, where he worked out many of the ideas culminating in the Gifford Lectures.

The 50’s and 60’s were trying times for the intellectual respectability of Christianity. Logical Positivism working in tandem with a certain philosophical picture of science had all but forced the retreat of a robust Christianity to the subjective life of individuals.

In a nutshell, the positivists argued that the claims of Christianity could not be empirically verified. When the term ‘God,’ or some such religious term, was uttered it lacked any empirical reference. This entailed that the term was devoid of content or meaning. Quite literally they thought theological language was meaningless. At best, theological language was emotive, or representative of a person’s emotional or existential state(s). I’ll leave as an exercise to the reader why this might be a troubling position for a Christian to adopt and why this relegated theology to the sidelines of serious academic conversation.

Into this hostile academic climate, Barbour strove to build bridges between the fields of science, religion, and philosophy.

Barbour helped to create an interdisciplinary dialogue that burgeoned into a genuine field of study. In subsequent posts, I will look at what is perhaps Barbour’s most lasting legacy, his typology of the relationship between science and religion. Barbour thought that religion and science interact according to four different models: Conflict, Independence, Dialogue, and Integration. This series will examine each of these positions in turn.

A couple of closing comments. This series is intended to be informative. My project as a philosopher is eventually to carve out some unique real estate within the complex relationship between science and religion.

However, this series will not engage in that constructive task. Thus, I will not actually answer the question by which I started this post—mea culpa. Regardless, much of the public discussion of science and religion nicely fits within Barbour’s typology. Thus, there is a public benefit to understanding these models as it will help us engage the conversation as more informed citizens. Cheers!