SHiPS Resource Center ||   Science & Religion
  • Editor's Introduction

  • Diluvial Geology
  • Galileo's Trial
  • James Hutton
  • Michael Faraday
  • Evolution & Ethics
  • Evolution & Design
  • How should we view the relationship between science and religion? How should that affect how we teach science? This special section of the SHiPS website offers several case studies that both suggest ways to ease the tension between science and religion and, at other times, sharpen the distinction. Historically at least, the relationship is far from simple. Here, you will find questions and cases to provoke student thinking, rather than arguments about how science triumphs in a presumed battle with religion. Indeed, many cases were selected to show how the common "either-or" dichotomy is problematic.

    In the 20th century, the intersection of science and religion has ignited significant conflict in the schools--epitomized most notably by the Scopes "monkey" trial that inspired the drama, Inherit the Wind. The two perspectives have not always been viewed as antithetical, though. At the peak of the Scientific Revolution in Europe, for example, the Book of God and the Book of Nature were seen as complementary--with neither having primary authority. In non-Western traditions, conflict between science and religion rarely arises with the severity seen in the West: why? Is there something distinctive about Western (or Christian) concepts of religion--or of science? This contrast alone may offer a broad perspective from which to begin discussion. Is there a conflict? How would we know? Students deserve the opportunity to explore the relationship in the context of a science class.

    Editor's Introduction

    Nearly everyone has an opinion about science and religion. Such views are frequently entrenched. What can one say that is not hackneyed, trite, or ineffectual? In this section of the SHiPS website, one will find themes and examples that might disturb commonplace notions (or misconceptions?), thereby contributing to a fuller understanding of the relationship. By challenging many popular views or assumptions, they may inform and promote deeper reflection.

    Scientists sometimes revel (at least among their peers) by exposing religious claims as "pseudoscience," typically with lessons about the danger of religious bias in building trust-worthy knowledge. Voices for religion, likewise, sometimes dismiss science as fallible, inherently limited in dealing only with observables, and--most important--unable to explain the most fundamental facts of our universe: creation and the purpose of human life. In either case, the result is the same. Both claim access to "the" truth. They place a sharp "either-or" wedge between the authority of science and of religion. And the consequence is predictable: a power struggle ensues. An individual student some-times feels compelled to accept one and to reject the other. At best, they may construct a schizophrenic view of the natural world.

    Stories of conflict pervade our culture. We are inundated with "either-or" images from ethnic warfare and international economic competition to the Super Bowl and detergent advertising. Thus, much of the website presents alternative views--that religion might promote science, for example, or that science can inspire deeper religious thinking.

    Two stories most often epitomize our image of the conflict between science and religion--the condemnation of Galileo for advocating a Copernican worldview, and the rejection of human evolution. A richer understanding of historical context in each case, however, can lead to dramatically revised conceptions (see links above).

    Science and religion can be compatible, as many cases here demonstrate. Thus there is tangible promise for those cases that seem unresolved, especially for certain persons. In other cases, though, one may very much want to disturb what seems an easy "compatibility." Consider the implications of the process of fertilization for many arguments about abortion. It is a common and uncontroversial biological fact that both egg and sperm are living. Life does not begin at fertilization; rather it continues. Fertilization is a process that takes several hours, with several important landmarks that determine different features of the future potential of the merging cells. Separate individuals (twins) sometimes do not form until several days later. Ultimately, identifying any particular "point" of fertilization or "moment" of conception is problematic. At least one cannot appeal to biology or observation to do so. Even so, one can find students who acknowledge the "scientific" account in their personal journals and accepted the "evidence" for it, then unhesitatingly reassert (appealing to their religion) that life begins at the moment of conception. The biological account seems completely irrelevant to their thinking. Why? What is their working (versus their classroom) conception of science?

    These cases present deep educational challenges. A constructivist perspective suggests that the best strategy is not to teach the scientific method more vigorously. Something else is at stake. Nor do apparent conflicts between science and religion seem occasions to reassert the authority of science. Rather, they seem like opportunities to delve deeper into the foundations, roles, and limitations of science and religion both. Anything less seems an incomplete education, regardless of the course title.

    The relationship between science and religion continues to challenge us--perhaps because we've reached no consensus on characterizing either science or religion. How can we define a relationship between two things that themselves remain both elusive and contentious? Concrete stories may help shape an answer and guide students towards an understanding of their own.

      SHiPS helps teachers share resources for integrating history, philosophy and sociology in the science classroom.