return to religion-online

Religion in an Age of Science by Ian Barbour

Ian G. Barbour is Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Carleton College, Northefiled, Minnesota. He is the author of Myths, Models and Paradigms (a National Book Award), Issues in Science and Religion, and Science and Secularity, all published by HarperSanFrancisco. Published by Harper San Francisco, 1990. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


What is the place of religion in an age of science? How can one believe in God today? What view of God is consistent with the scientific understanding of the world? In what ways should our ideas about human nature be affected by the findings of contemporary science? How can the search for meaning and purpose in life be fulfilled in the kind of world disclosed by science?

A religious tradition is not just a set of intellectual beliefs or abstract ideas. It is a way of life for its members. Every religious community has its distinctive forms of individual experience, communal ritual, and ethical concerns. Above all, religion aims at the transformation of personal life, particularly by liberation from self-centeredness through commitment to a more inclusive center of devotion. Yet each of these patterns of life and practice presupposes a structure of shared beliefs. When the credibility of central religious beliefs is questioned, other aspects of religion are also challenged.

For many centuries in the West, the Christian story of creation and salvation provided a cosmic setting in which individual life had significance. It allowed people to come to terms with guilt, finitude, and death. It provided a total way of life, and it encouraged personal transformation and reorientation. Since the Enlightenment, the Christian story has had diminishing effectiveness for many people, partly because it has seemed inconsistent with the understanding of the world in modern science. Similar changes have been occurring in other cultures.

Much of humanity has turned to science-based technology as a source of fulfillment and hope. Technology has offered power, control, and the prospect of overcoming our helplessness and dependency. However, for all its benefits, technology has not brought the personal fulfillment or social well-being it promised. Indeed, it often seems to be a power beyond our control, threatening nuclear holocaust and environmental destruction on a scale previously unimaginable.

Five features of our scientific age set the agenda for this volume:

1. The Success of the Methods of Science. The impressive achievements of science are widely known. Scientific research has yielded knowledge of many previously inaccessible domains of nature. The validity of such discoveries receives additional confirmation from the fact that they have led to powerful new technologies. For some people, science seems to be the only reliable path to knowledge. For them, the credibility of religious beliefs has been undermined by the methods as well as by the particular discoveries of science. Other people assert that religion has its own distinctive ways of knowing, quite different from those of science. Yet even they are asked to show how religious understanding can be reliable if it differs from scientific knowledge. Science as a method constitutes the first challenge to religion in a scientific age. It is the topic of part 1.

2. A New View of Nature. Many of the sciences show us domains of nature with characteristics radically different from those assumed in previous centuries. What are the implications of the novel features of quantum physics and relativity, such as the indeterminancy of subatomic events and the involvement of the observer in the process of observation? What is the theological significance of the "Big Bang," the initial explosion that started the expansion of the universe 15 billion years ago, according to current theories in astrophysics? How are the scientific accounts of cosmic beginnings and biological evolution related to the doctrine of creation in Christianity? Darwin portrayed the long, slow development of new species, including the human species, from the operation of random variations and natural selection. More recently, molecular biologists have made spectacular discoveries concerning the role of DNA in evolution and in the development and functioning of organisms today. What do these discoveries tell us about the nature of life and mind? Such questions are explored in part 2.

.3. A New Context for Theology. I hold that the main sources of religious beliefs, as systematized in theology, are the religious experience and the stories and rituals of a religious community. However, two particular areas of theological reflection must take into account the findings of contemporary science: the doctrine of human nature and the doctrine of creation. Instead of reductionism, which holds that all phenomena are determined by the behavior of molecular components, I will develop a relational and multileveled view of reality. In this view, interdependent systems and larger wholes influence the behavior of lower-level parts. Such an interpretation provides an alternative to both the classical dualism of spirit and matter (or mind and body) and the materialism that often replaced it. I will suggest that process theology offers a distinctive answer to the question: How can God act in the world as understood by science today? These issues are taken up in part 3.

4. Religious Pluralism in a Global Age. The technologies of communication, travel, and today’s global interdependence have brought adherents of differing world religions into increasing contact with each other. In the past, absolutist religious claims have led to repression, crusades, and religious wars, and they continue to contribute to hostilities in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere. In a world where some future conflict could escalate into nuclear war, we must take seriously the problem of religious pluralism. There is also a great diversity of ideas within each tradition. For example, feminist authors have criticized the dominance of patriarchal assumptions in the history of Christian thought, and Third World liberation theologians have pointed to the influence of economic interests in theological interpretation. Religious pluralism calls into question exclusive claims for any one religious tradition or theological viewpoint. This issue arises throughout the book, but especially in chapters 3 and 7. We will focus attention on the Christian tradition, but always within the context of a pluralistic world.

5. The Ambiguous Power of Technology. Public support of science derives largely from a desire for the technological applications of science. But today there is widespread evidence, not only of the new scale of technological power, but also of the mixed character of its impact on humanity and nature. A nuclear holocaust would wipe out modern civilization and produce climate changes and famines that could conceivably jeopardize human life itself. Toxic chemicals, deforestation, soil erosion, and multiple pollutants, together with continued population growth, are severely damaging the environment. Ours is a planet in crisis. Computers, automation, and artificial intelligence will have powerful impacts on work, social organization, and our image of ourselves. Genetic engineering offers the prospect of altering the structure and behavior of living forms, including those of human beings. Large-scale technologies contribute to the concentration of economic and political power, increasing the gaps between rich and poor within nations and the gaps between rich and poor nations.

The control and direction of technology involves ethical values such as justice, freedom, and environmental stewardship. Respect for persons and for nature is not a scientific conclusion; wisdom in applying knowledge toward humane goals is not a product of the laboratory. Such ethical issues will be the topic of the second volume in this series, Ethics in an Age of Technology. But implications for ethics and technology will be evident already at many points in this first volume. Our view of nature will influence the way we treat nature, and our view of human nature will affect our understanding of human responsibility. The two volumes together will offer a unified treatment of science and technology on the one hand and religion and ethics on the other.

In looking at these five challenges -- science as a method, a new view of nature, a new context for theology, religious pluralism, and the ambiguous power of technology -- my goals are to explore the place of religion in an age of science and to present an interpretation of Christianity that is responsive to both the historical tradition and contemporary science.

Viewed 133778 times.