The Dangerous Quest for Cooperation Between Science and Religion

Jacob Pandian

Religion is a subcategory of supernaturalism that was formulated during the medieval period with the spurious and dangerous quest to link supernaturalism with scientific knowledge, and this quest has continued

Recently, misleading articles have appeared in newspapers and news magazines claiming that religion and science are cooperating to explore the nature of reality. Gregg Easterbrook (1999) noted that “Signs of renewed interest in science and religion are numerous. The topic has recently been a top-selling cover for both Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report. Universities such as Princeton and Cambridge, which in the 1960s didn’t even offer courses in the relationship between science and religion, have established chairs for its study.”

Easterbrook points to the central role of the John Templeton Foundation in encouraging the cooperation between science and religion. The Foundation publishes Progress in Theology magazine but more importantly awards millions of dollars to people who reflect their philosophy of cooperation.

The 2001 Templeton prize, $1 million, was announced March 9. It went to the Rev. Arthur Peacocke, a British biochemist and Anglican priest who has written widely about God and science. The Templeton Award recipient for 2000 was Freeman J. Dyson, an emeritus professor of physics at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton. As reported by Larry Stammer (2000), Dyson was “baffled” at receiving the award because the Templeton prize is awarded for “Progress in Religion” and not for progress in science. Dyson claimed that he was “not a theologian” and “not a saint.” In his reflections on science and religion, Dyson noted that “The universe has a mind of its own. We know mind plays a big role in our own lives. It’s likely, in fact, that mind has a big role in the way the whole universe functions. If you like, you call it God. It all makes sense.”

Before that, $1.2 million was awarded to Ian G. Barbour, a retired professor from Carleton College. At Carleton he was professor of physics, professor of religion, and Bean Professor of Science, Technology and Society. His book Religion and Science (1997) is described by its publisher (Harper San Francisco) as “a definitive contemporary discussion of the many issues surrounding our understanding of God and religious truth and experience in our scientific age.” Earlier recipients of the Templeton Award include the Protestant Christian evangelist Billy Graham, the Catholic Christian nun Mother Teresa, the campus crusader William Bright, and the Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Ian Barbour, according to Gregg Easterbrook, “promptly announced he would give $1 million of his award to the Berkeley, California, Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, an affiliate of Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, and an organization whose own 1981 founding and rising importance are indicators of the science-an d-religion trend.”

Ralph Estling, in an essay called “Templeton and AAAS” in the SKEPTICAL INQUIRER (2000), pointed out that the American Association for the Advancement of Science has “a problem”: This association, which “has been promoting a study known as the ‘Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion,”‘ received for four years cash contributions of over one million dollars from the Templeton Foundation. As many board members of AAAS are also associated with the Templeton Foundation, Estling is right in raising questions about “conflict of interest,” and he advises the AAAS “to get the hell out from under the John Templeton Foundation.”

I suggest that the problem is a much larger one than the Templeton Foundation’s attempt to influence the scope of science through monetary awards to scientific organizations and scientists. The more serious problem stems from our profound misunderstanding of why and how the concept of religion was developed by the church fathers of the early medieval period our of the Roman/Latin concept of religio. It is this misunderstanding that opens the door to organizations such as the Templeton Foundation, and to arguments that science and religion should cooperate in understanding the nature of the universe.

Religio, Religion, and Supernaturalism

Supernaturalism (i.e., beliefs and practices associated with supernatural beings and supernatural power) is a cultural universal. Religion, however, is not a cultural universal; it is a subset of supernaturalism that developed during the medieval period of the Christian tradition to represent Christian supernaturalism as scientific truth. During this period, the Roman/Latin concept of religio changed its meaning and significance from ritual activities to doctrinal statements about the nature of the world and humankind.

An excellent discussion of why and how the Roman/Latin concept of religio was transformed by the church fathers into religion (attributing different characteristics to religio) is offered in William Canrwell Smith’s very important book on the subject of religion, The Meaning and End of Religion (1991). The concept of religion was developed in the Christian tradition to represent Christian truths as opposed to the untruths of “pagan” traditions of the Greeks and Romans and the satanic or demonic distortions that, from the Christian theory of religion, prevailed in non-Christian traditions.

The concept of religion that had become the theoretical framework for explaining Greco-Roman and non-Western traditions as false was also opposed to and contrasted with the supernaturalism of the non-Christians in general. Christian supernaturalism was conceptualized within the framework of religion as the scientific truth about the world and humankind. Christianity established an epistemological link between science and supernaturalism by conceptualizing religion as the framework to explain natural phenomena and to explain the nature of the relationship between God and humankind. In such a view, the religious framework of Christianity was aligned with scientific naturalism, and non -Christian supernaturalism was aligned with supersition.

For over fifteen hundred years we have been using the term religion without fully realizing its origin and development. Scholars have used the term to identify and discuss the supernaturalism of both non-Christian and Christian traditions. But while ancient civilizations such as the Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and Hindus had elaborate beliefs and activities that we associate with supernaturalism, they did not have “religion,” i.e., a formulation that combines scientific knowledge and supernaturalism. Thus labels such as Greek religion, Roman religion, Chinese religion, Hindu religion, and so on are erroneous. It would be more appropriate to discard the use of the term religion and instead attempt to define and discuss Christian supernaturalism, just as we describe and discuss other supernaturalisms.

Is there conflict or cooperation between supernaturalism and science? No. Supernaturalism belongs to the pan-human myth-making activity that generates models of personal/cultural coherence and integration through the formulations of supernatural beings and supernatural power. Science belongs to the pan-human analytic activity that generates accurate models to approximate, explain, and use nature.

Is there conflict or cooperation between Christian religion an science? Yes. Some cultural traditions, including the Christian tradition, have attempted to merge supernaturalism and science. Religion is the product of such an attempt, and the debate on cooperation between religion and science is a renewed attempt to subordinate science to supernaturalism. The first special issue of the SKEPTICAL INQUIRER devoted to science and religion (Frazier 1999) failed to note the fact that religion was a conceptual frame-work, a cultural category, which the church fathers of the medieval period developed to link science and supernaturalism epistemologically in order to proclaim Christianity as the true explanation of the world and humankind.

Many respected scientists appear to be unaware of this epistemological link. Stephen Jay Gould (1999a) notes that “Science and religion should be equal, mutually respecting partners, each the master of its own domain and with each domain vital to human life in a different way.” In his book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (1999b), Gould writes: “I do not see how science and religion could be unified, or even synthesized, under any common scheme of explanation or analysis; but I also do nor understand why the two enterprises should experience conflict. Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings and values–subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but never resolve.”

We can agree with Gould’s assessment of the relationship (or the lack of relationship) between science and religion only if the term supernaturalism is substituted for the term religion. I am surprised and puzzled that Gould, who has delved into historical issues in many of his essays, failed to make note of the reasons why and how the framework of religion developed.

Arising in the Roman cultural tradition, the Latin term religio had multiple meanings such as “the acquisition and possession of supernatural power” and “the performance of rituals for supernatural beings.” Religio referred to activities that dealt with supernatural powers and beings, and not with a conceptual model of the world. Religio was nor linked or contrasted with science in the pre-Chrisrian traditions of the West, but the medieval Christian church fathers such as Saint Augustine used religio to signifv the true knowledge about the nature of the world and humankind. The church, with its hierarchical priesthood, became the custodian of this true knowledge embodied in religion, combining supernaturalism and science.

Attempts to Integrate Religion Into Science

Contemporary efforts to represent science and religion as two ways of searching for true knowledge are essentially a continuation and revitalization of the medieval notion of religion. We are inundated with statements such as “evolution is God’s way of organizing the natural world,” “evolution is God’s way of creating human self-awareness,” “scientific discoveries reveal God’s design,” and “science is God’s gift to humankind.” There are scientists who intentionally or unintentionally confuse the separation of supernaturalism and science by confusing their personal supernaturalism and their objects of inquiry and, in turn, lend scientific legitimacy to religion.

The American scientist Dr. Richard Sneed, in an interview on CNN (1999), advocated human cloning with comments such as the following: God created humans in God’s image; God would not have given the intelligence to clone unless God wanted cloning; and cloning was a way of getting close to God. Peter Gosselin (2000) reported that Francis Collins, who runs the Human Genome Research Institute, is a “rare combination of premier scientist and devout Christian. [Collins] professes belief in a God that is beyond the reach of science. He says the pursuit of the genetic code is not, as some worry, an attempt by humans to play God, but only humans’ way of admiring God’s handiwork. ‘God is not threatened by all this’ he said in a television interview. ‘I think God thinks it’s wonderful that we puny creatures are going about the business of trying to understand how our instruction book works, because it’s a very elegant instruction book indeed.'”

God can be and is used to justify and legitimize any custom or activity, including science. God can also serve as a vehicle to prevent free inquiry and critical thinking in areas that are prohibited in the name of God, whose prohibition is verified only by the custodians of God and those who accept the custodial claims made in the name of God. Over a hundred years ago, the theologian/biblical scholar/anthropologist William Robertson Smith unsuccessfully defended himself as a scientist who had the moral duty to explore the cultural foundations of Christianity. He was tried for heresy by the Free Church of Scotland and defrocked. His defense was that if God did not want scientific research on discovering the origins of customs, God would not have endowed humans with rationality; he argued that thc non-use of rationality in the furtherance of science was fundamentally a non-Christian attitude. Smith’s inquisitors did not accept his defense because in their view the Bible was the revealed truth about the nature of the world and humans, and humans could not fathom the mind of God.

The intellectual history of the past five hundred years has been one of religion attempting to preempt and/or incorporate scientific discoveries as religious truths. Church-affiliated or sectarian universities were built to produce and disseminate religious truths as they were supported by science. If and when scientific discoveries could not be formulated and presented as religious truths, there were inquisitorial persecutions of scientists who were identified as heretics or as atheists. The teaching of “natural theology” and its opposition to the Darwinian model of life forms prevailed for a long time in academia. We now have departments of religion or religious studies in academia that continue the same intellectual tradition. What occurs today is a much more sophisticated and nuanced attempt to discredit the foundations of science through spurious platitudes such as “religion and science must respect each other,” “religion and science must cooperate to seek the basis of reality,” “religion and science ha ve a common ground,” and “religion and science must seek together to better the conditions of human life.” These statements contain expressions that have universal appeal: “respect for each other,” “cooperation,” and “looking for a common ground for discourse and the search for the betterment of human conditions” are laudable goals of all human beings. But by linking supernaturalism and science epistemologically, a distorted view of science is created, which could lead to the rejection of the scientific method because it discredits God’s design or plan.

The scholars of the Enlightenment who did so much to affirm the scientific method and liberate scientific research from supernaturalism failed to recognize that religion was a medieval Christian invention that was developed to oppose what the Church claimed to be pagan, magical, and demonic supernaturalism. Many scholastic treatises on God and the world were viewed by Enlightenment thinkers as facilitating the scientific understanding of the world–for example, formulations concerning a rational God and the rationality of the world, with humans endowed with reason to discover the rationality of the world. Enlightenment thinkers for the most part supported the ethnocentric assumption that religion was superior and more advanced than primitive supernaturalism and that the West had progressed and advanced along the evolutionary ladder because of the applications of rationality to discover the laws of nature and create rational institutions. The Enlightenment, which did so much to revive the Greek ideals of scie nce, was caught in the Christian theological assertions about the nature of religion and supernaturalism. When the exponents of the Enlightenment attacked primitive irrationality as standing in the way of progress, the focus was on non-Western peoples and cultures who, in the view of these scholars, embodied supernaturalism.

The anthropological discourse on humankind was (and is) equally caught in the Christian theological assertions about the nature of religion and supernaturalism. Nineteenth-century sociologists and anthropologists postulated that magic, witchcraft, and divination constituted beliefs and practices that preceded religion and monotheism, and that monotheism and religion manifested themselves only in the higher stages of human mental development. There was also hope that religion would be replaced by science as (and when) the human mind progressed to attain positivistic understanding of natural phenomena. Twentieth-century anthropologists and sociologists devoted considerable rime to defining religion, with definitions ranging from religion as supernaturalism to religion as sacred or sanctified values of society, and as the quest for ultimate meaning and reality. Postmodernists have reflected upon whether the definition of religion as supernaturalism is an ethnocentric Western assumption, suggesting that religion should be understood as a system of ordering the world and human life.

Defining Terms and Clarifying Arguments

Perhaps it would clarify discussion if we discarded the use of the term religion and substituted the term supernaturalism. As I noted earlier, supernaturalism is a cultural universal. Historically humans have created beliefs and practices associated with supernatural beings and supernatural powers, and these beliefs and practices have been used to construct sacred self and group identities and to formulate models or narratives of coherence and meaning to cope with feelings of helplessness, encounters with suffering and injustice, realities of uncertainty, and fear and anxiety associated with sickness and death. Humans have created innumerable forms of the supernatural world with an infinite range of attributes, and this process of creating and maintaining the supernatural world will continue. Science does not attempt to replace or duplicate this creative process, but it attempts to study the relevance and significance of this process in human life.

It is necessary to understand that the concept of religion that developed in the medieval period combines supernaturalism and science to formulate statements about the world and humankind. In this sense, religion does nor complement science but pre-empts and co-opts scientific discourse in support of supernaturalism. The most overt expression of how religion uses science in affirming supernaturalism is found in the evangelical or fundamental Christian perspective known as scientific creationism” or “creationist science.” “Creation scientists” do not see the combination of creation myths and science as an oxymoron but as a way of using the vocabulary of science to foster biblical discourse as scientific.

A recent example of how supernaturalism and science are combined is found in a lawsuit filed in the Minnesota Court of Appeals by a fundamentalist Christian teacher, Lod LaVake. As reported by Joseph Tyrangiel (2000), LaVake’s attorney has claimed that “For the first time, we have a teacher who is nor asking to teach creationism. He simply wants to reach science the way he thinks–and the way a lot of people think–it should be taught, in a more balanced way.” The implication is that Mr. LaVake should be permitted to reach science the way it supports his belief and the belief of many other fundamentalist Christians.

Tyrangiel correctly notes, “Indeed, creationists have become a lot more shrewd. For years they’d propose antievolution laws and lesson plans brimming with religious language, and for years their cases were struck down on constitutional grounds. Like LaVake, they began co-opting the logic of Darwinists and speaking in a softer voice.”

Religion does not complement science but pre-empts and co-opts scientific discourse in support of supernaturalism. We must recognize the importance of supernaturalism in human life and foster its study in terms of why and how humans create and maintain it. The use of the term religion to discuss the role of supernaturalism confuses and distorts our understanding of the latter. To the public, the use of religion would be more palatable and respectable than the use of the term supernaturalism because supernaturalism conjures up images of irrational practices such as witchcraft and magic as opposed to religion, which is viewed as a rational, scientific understanding of the world. When scientific research discredits the assumptions of religion, there is conflict between science and religion unless the scientific discoveries are incorporated into the religious framework.

As a first step toward resolving the “science and religion” controversy, and focusing on the real issues that reveal the nature of science and supernaturalism, I suggest that we rename the “departments of religion” in academia and call them “departments of supernaturalism.” It is more appropriate to have a discourse on “comparative supernaturalism” than on “comparative religion” because religion, as I noted earlier, is an emic, indigenous category that acquired significance in the medieval period of the Western tradition in an attempt to combine supernaturalism and science within the framework of religion.

Jacob Pandian is professor of anthropology at California State University, Fullerton. He can be reached at the Department of Anthropology, Califronia State University, Fullerton, California 92834-6846; telephone number 714-278-3294; or e-mail at


Barbour, I.G. 1997. Religion and Science. New York: Harper Collins.

Easterbrook G. 1999. Grappling with science and religion. Los Angeles Times, March 14.

Estling, R. 2000. Templeton and the AAAS. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER 4(24), July/August.

Frazier, K. 1999. A special issue on science and religion. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER 23(4), July/August.

Gould, S.J. 199a. Dorothy, it’s really Oz. Time, August 23.

—– 1999b. Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullnes of Life. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Gosselin, P.G. 2000. Public project’s chief Quiet but no pushover. Los Angeles Times, June 27.

Smith, W.C. [1962] 1991. The Meaning and End of Religion. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Sneed, R. 1999. Interview. Cable News Network, July 11.

Stammer. L.B. 2000. Physicist awarded $948,000 Templeton Prize. Los Angeles Times, March 23.

Tyrangiel, J. 2000. The science of dissent. Time, July 10.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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