The Science and Religion Dialogue

By James Moore

I remember hearing Robert John Russell, founder and director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, California, argue many years ago that science and religion is now a field of study. He meant by that not only that students can actually arrange a degree program in science and religion but also that the field now has a recognized set of basic assumptions that are well established and a clear set of classic formative texts that have given the basic definitions of both the terms and issues that the field addresses. He also had in mind certain points of view that are shared by those who work as scholars in this field which meant that there are also positions and issues that may not be accepted as part of the field. At that time when Russell made this statement the field was conceived as essentially dominated by Protestant Christian thinkers who not only saw the issues from a specific perspective but also determined those issues on the basis of what has often been the principal concern of Protestant Christians.

If Russell was so confident in defining the contours of this field of science and religion several years ago, I would guess that in some ways he has grown less confident as the years go by. He is likely to see the same issues emerging as important, at least for those he is often engaged with in dialogue, but the field has changed because of the entry of other scholars from Catholic Christianity, Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism as well as several who offer clearly humanist perspectives that are not identified by religious affiliation into the conversation. Also, in great part due to the efforts of Russell’s center, the range of scientists who are now contributing has slowly but ever so surely expanded. What was once dominated by physicists, cosmologists, and cell biologists is now as often to include neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, physical and cultural anthropologists and population geneticists.

It is easy to see that with this expansion of the participants comes a diffusion of the discussion moving in a myriad of directions that can no longer so easily be defined by a few classic texts. Indeed, the field is so complex now that no review of the literature of the field can possibly adequate, at least not in a brief review essay like this. It would rather be more helpful to point to representative texts which might be especially interesting recent contributions driving the discussions in ever new directions. These texts will necessarily be scattered and diverse. Thus, laying them along side each other will not so obviously show that there is a cohesive field of study let alone a fully coherent conversation as Russell wanted to project those many years ago. But we can see how rich and inviting the field is by getting just a taste of what is being written. I focus on monographs essentially even though much of the work which is most creative is found in journals and the number of journals choosing to publish articles in this field is expanding as well. I will incorporate some comments on the journals that are important in my review of some key texts.

The Templeton Effect

Most in the dialogue are well aware that the decision by John Templeton and his foundation to give money to support and recognize work in science and religion has helped to produce an even greater development of this field than otherwise would have been possible. This is never so obvious as it is if we only look at the scholars who have been recognized with major prizes by the foundation. This reads like a list of the most important voices in religion and science over the last five decades. Among these are John Polkinghorne, Arthur Peacocke, Ian Barbour, Holmes Rolston, and Paul Davies. Many believe that it is the work of Ian Barbour that has forever set the agenda for much of this conversation, particularly in his two volume Gifford Lectures – Religion in and Age of Science and Ethics in an Age of Technology. It is, however, another set of these lectures that stands out to me as representative of the new vision emerging from these last decades of dialogue, Paul Davies’ The Fifth Miracle. I choose Davies not only because he is among the many scientists who have entered into the conversation in a new way but also because Davies has posed standard questions in a new way primarily because he draws the dialogue into the dramatically new worldview which has developed out of the current scientific consensus. His reflections show that for the first time scientists are confident that they can tell the story of the universe from the beginning until now and they can tell the story of the emergence of life on our planet from the beginning until now. Moreover, scientists are also, sometimes, even confident to tell projections of this story into the near (on relative scientific terms) future.

Davies invites his readers into an exploration of both the origins and the meaning of life as he tells both the narrative of a scientific view but also the many efforts to provide empirical support for this consensus. Actually the question of origins is on the one hand quite simple and straight forward. On the other hand, the origins are perplexing and mysterious. The exploration of this question leads Davies to speculate on not only the possible scenarios in earth’s evolutionary development but also the possibilities of life beyond our planet. The question of meaning is more challenging. On the one hand, a purely descriptive understanding of meaning is found in the merging of evolutionary theory with our growing understanding of the genetic system of life. For Davies, the genes are the key to understanding life. On the other hand, the question of meaning is complicated because we cannot unravel whether there is meaning in the sense of direction or purpose. This matter of whether life is purely a random accident of chance occurrences or a necessity that grows out of the structures of the evolutionary process is the dilemma with which Davies ends his book. It is still unresolved except for a personal predisposition toward meaning.

Davies is not the only scientist who has been actively engaged by this dialogue. Among other interesting contributors is Ursula Goodenough (whose father was among the key early partners in the dialogue with Ralph Burhoe) who in her small but significant book, The Sacred Depths of Nature, weaves chapters of scientific commentary unfolding the evolutionary story with reflections on spirituality. Of course, John Polkinghorne is both a physicist and an ordained clergyman who has been a prolific contributor, perhaps most interestingly with his volume, Faith of a Physicist. Arthur Peacocke is a biologist/clergyman who has pioneered the study of religion and science and Oxford University in England and has shaped the thinking of many others through his important book, Theology in a Scientific Age.

The Centers

The dialogue, however, actually grew from a few centers of activity which have continued to be the loci of the most significant work in the field. While so many centers of work have developed over the years, I will confine my comments to those in the States and among those the most important in my judgment. Initially the conversation was an idea principally shaped by the religious thinker Ralph Burhoe who gathered religious scholars and scientists together initially in the Boston area and then in Chicago to start what he believed to be a conversation necessary for the survival of humankind. That initial group formed an idea of a scholarly center which has evolved into the Center for the Advanced Study of Religion and Science. In addition, that early group formed a meeting that has over the years become the Institute for Religion in the Age of Science, meeting especially every year in a conference at Star Island. Perhaps most important among the achievements of that group was the establishing of a scholarly journal devoted to this conversation,Zygon. That journal is now celebrating its fortieth year of publication and its index of articles is the best barometer of the growing dialogue.

After Burhoe’s groundbreaking work, Philip Hefner and Karl Peters took over the task as co-editors of the journal and a center was created in Chicago, initially the Chicago Center but now the Zygon Center for Religion and Science. Set in the context of the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, the center became a location for developing both lecture series and academic curriculae designed to make it possible for students to form a degree program in this dialogue. The first director of this center, Philip Hefner, continues to be chief editor of the journal, Zygon, and his book, The Human Factor, has had a profound influence on a whole generation of students. One of those who has been particularly influenced by the work of Hefner is Gregory Peterson, who explores the field of neuroscience in his book Minding God. Hefner’s notion of the created co-creator as a way of thinking about the human person has been a defining idea for the dialogue and Peterson develops this notion by looking at aspects of the new disciplines of the neurosciences and their relation to theological issues. I suggest this book as a way into the dialogue because Peterson is successful both in arranging the key issues from the vantage point of both science and of religion as well as showing how theologians can prepare themselves to talk about science in a coherent and acceptable way.

Among the centers is also the important Philadelphia Center and its Metanexus Institute which has produced the first and most extensive listserv for the dialogue. Even more, however, we must acknowledge the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, California, which not only has been the site for creating degree programs and studies on the graduate level but has actively developed two major projects which have produced important contributions to the field. The series of conferences that focused on divine action produced five books of essays and the project Science and the Spiritual Quest allowed scientists to offer their take on spiritual matters in a way never before developed. I would point, however, to a conference that marks a unique contribution of this center, the involvement of Muslim scholars in the dialogue, published in God, Life and the Cosmos, edited by Ted Peters, associate director of the center. This text is the most thoroughgoing effort so far to bring Muslim scholars across the spectrum of disciplines into a religion and science dialogue with Christian scholars.

There are now numerous attempts to expand the religious participation in the dialogue. A fascinating example is The Quantum and the Lotus : A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet by Matthieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan in which a former scientist turned Buddhist monk talks with a Thai Buddhist physicist. What this shows clearly is that not only the content but the form of the discussion changes when the religious partner in dialogue changes. Any of us can recognize by reading such books the sort of bias and religion-specific questions we bring to any discussion. Jewish scholars have been active in particular and a good example of the contribution is Norbert Samuelson’s Judaism and the Doctrine of Creation.Once again, Samuelson brings a characteristically rabbinic approach to many questions which gives insight into alternative ways of seeing many of the questions that we may have thought about through Christian eyes in the past.

Religion through the Eyes of Science

Among the recent texts that have appeared and influenced the dialogue between religious thinkers and scientists are a number of books which use scientific methods of various sorts to explore the origins and meaning of religion within a framework of evolutionary history. Among the more significant texts are Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought by Pascal Boyer and Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society by David Sloan Wilson. Both texts attempt to understand religion as a component of human evolution and thus as part of what provides survival advantage. Boyer sees the narratives that are beyond rational understanding as mechanisms which help humans cope with fear and Wilson argues that thinking about cultural evolution based on the group level evolution of complex traits allows us to see that religious behavior provides a framework for satisfaction with life and positive group relations. Another fascinating and perhaps more controversial text is Dean Hamer’s The God Gene which argues ultimately the same as Wilson but builds on a research project which attempts to locate the cause of spirituality as a propensity in a particular gene sequence. If such attempts seem rather alien to theologians, they are nevertheless challenges to be considered demanding response. Each author is thoughtful and thorough even though Hamer’s work in particular has received a significant critique from the scientific community as can be seem in Kaplan and Rogers’ Gene Worship.

The approach by scientists to think about matters often connected with religion in experimental and empirical ways is a growing area of work. The texts I have mentioned are but a small sample of this. The Templeton Foundation has underwritten some of this built on John Templeton’s notion of theological humility. He seeks to support work which uses scientific research methods to study religion and has developed a number of projects such as the Spiritual Transformation Project administered at Metanexus Institute in Philadelphia. Where there is money for research, research will be done.

A Little Shift in Projects

I will close with reference to a six year project that I have personally helped to shape at the Zygon Center for Religion and Science. At the urging of Philip Hefner, I started to explore how a multi-faith conversation could be engaged more seriously in science and religion. This project began as a conversation between a select group of scholars, theologians, philosophers and scientists, who all were involved already in some aspect of the science and religion discussion. After our initial meeting we turned our efforts toward a dialogue on HIV/AIDS as a powerful focus for a religion and science dialogue with the potential to draw in all major religions with a common ethical motivation and scientists with a clear moral commitment to an area of research. It is an especially good topic to bring out the dimensions of how both science and religion can be positive and negative contributors to finding solutions.

The discussion has now entered its sixth year and recently was a centerpiece of efforts at The Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona during the summer of 2004. A summary of that effort was published by the Barcelona Unesco committee in their magazine Dialoga (published in Catalan and written initially by me). More accessible to the general reader is two years of symposia published in 2003 and 2004 in the journal Zygon. This last year the effort took on a new direction with a day long workshop held in Chicago which brought together medical professionals and religious leaders from the south side of Chicago to talk about HIV/AIDS and how cooperation might contribute to some solutions. It was the first of this type of meeting and unique, perhaps in the nation. It was also one of the first times that leaders of the Black Churches of Chicago were brought together in such numbers with health care professionals. We believe this was a landmark event and the details of this can be found on the web site of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science.

An Ever Complexifying Field

My efforts to draw attention to just some of the work that is developing in a dialogue between religious leaders and scientists does show how complex this field has become, probably far more than Robert John Russell could have imagined just a few years ago when I heard his remarks. Above all, this survey might be a window into the field that the reader can use to find just how vast and enticing the range of materials, journals, books, web sites, is. Once having explored the possibilities, my guess is that the reader will be hooked and will join the discussion as well.


Belief in God in an Age of Science (Yale Nota Bene) by John Polkinghorne, Publisher: Yale University Press (February 8, 2003)

Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, Vol 2) by Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (Corporate Author), Robert John Russell (Editor), Nancy Murphy (Editor), Arthur R. Peacocke (Editor), A. R. Peacocke (Editor), Publisher: Vatican Observatory Publications; 2nd edition (March 1, 1996)

Darwin’s Cathedral : Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society by David Sloan Wilson, Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (October 1, 2003)

Evolutionary and Molecular Biology: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action) by Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (Corporate Author), Robert J. Russell (Editor), William R. Stoeger (Editor), Francis J. Ayala (Editor), Robert John Russel (Editor), Francisco Jose Ayala (Editor), Publisher: Vatican Observatory (September 1, 1999)

The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker (Theology and the Sciences) by John Polkinghorne, Publisher: Augsburg Fortress Publishers (January 1, 1996)

The FIFTH MIRACLE: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life by Paul Davies, Publisher: Simon & Schuster (March 16, 2000)

Gene Worship: Moving Beyond the Nature/Nurture Debate over Genes, Brain, and Gender by Gisela Kaplan, Lesley J. Rogers, Publisher: Other Press (NY) (August 1, 2003)

The God Gene : How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes by Dean H. Hamer, Publisher: Doubleday (September 14, 2004)

God, Life, and the Cosmos: Christian and Islamic Perspectives by Ted Peters (Editor), Muzaffar Iqbal (Editor), Syed Nomanul Haq (Editor), Publisher: Ashgate Publishing (January 1, 2003)

The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion (Theology and the Sciences)
by Philip Hefner, Publisher: Augsburg Fortress Publishers (August 1, 1993)

Judaism and the Doctrine of Creation by Norbert M. Samuelson, Publisher: Cambridge University Press (November 24, 1994)

Minding God: Theology and the Cognitive Sciences (Theology and the Sciences)by Gregory R. Peterson, Publisher: Augsburg Fortress Publishers (November 1, 2002)

Neuroscience and the Person: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action Series) by Robert J. Russell (Editor), Nancey Murphy (Editor), Theo C. Meyering (Editor), Michael A. Arbib (Editor), Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press; 1st edition (January 1, 2000)

The Quantum and the Lotus : A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet by Matthieu Ricard, Trinh Xuan Thuan, Publisher: Three Rivers Press (October 26, 2004)

Quantum Cosmology and the Laws of Nature: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (Series on Divine Action in Scientific Perspective, V. 1), Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press (March 1, 1997)

Quantum Mechanics: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (Series on “Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action”, 5th V) by Robert John Russell (Corporate Author), Philip Clayton (Corporate Author), Kirk Wegter-McNelly (Editor), John Polkinghorne (Editor), Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press (February 1, 2002)

Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought by Pascal Boyer, Publisher: Basic Books; Reprint edition (April, 2002).

The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough, Publisher: Oxford University Press; New Ed edition (May 1, 2000)

Science and the Spiritual Quest: New Essays by Leading Scientists
by W. Mark Richardson (Editor), Robert John Russell (Editor), Philip Clayton (Editor), Kirk Wegter-McNelly (Editor), Publisher: Routledge (April 1, 2002)

Theology for a Scientific Age: Being and Becoming-Natural, Divine and Human (Theology and the Sciences) by Arthur Peacocke, Publisher: Augsburg Fortress Publishers (December 1, 1993)

From Zygon:

“Introduction to the Symposium.” By: Moore, James F. Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science, Jun2004, Vol. 39 Issue 2, p431.

“Is there None Left to Say Anything?” By: Moore, James F. Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science, Jun2004, Vol. 39 Issue 2, p507.

“Interfaith Dialogue and the Science-and-Religion Discussion.” By: Moore, James FZygon: Journal of Religion & Science, Mar2002, Vol. 37 Issue 1, p37.

“How religious tradition survives in the world of science: John Polkinghorne and Norbert Samuelson.” By: Moore, James F. Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science, Mar97, Vol. 32 Issue 1, p115, 10p

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