A Response to a Thoughtful Skeptic (on Science needing Theology)

I was very interested, as the author of the initial post, to read a heartfelt and thoughtful blog, here, by Sergio Graziosi  in response to the short piece on TheConversationUK about Faith and Wisdom in Science.  Perhaps some responses I posted on his would also be helpful to readers of this blog.

First, I am aware that for many if not most people ‘science’ and ‘theology’ don’t seem to mix – but I have found that this is because of assumptions made through unfamiliarity ‘from the inside’ of both.  This is particulary true of perceived methodologies.  Of course the methodologies of two different aprroaches to the world dont have to be the same, BUT – it just isn’t true to say that religious belief is “ungrounded”- nor is (as Popper showed long ago) that science can be “verified”.  So we need a much more nuanced and informed approach.

That is why I’ve written a whole book about it.  The conversation piece was really just a flag to that and suffers from the universal difficulty of restating a 100000 word message in 800. So anyone who really needs to get a grip on this does (I know this sounds like a commercial – it really isn’t- I’m not going to make a profit on the book!) need to read Faith and Wisdom in Science (I don’t have any copies to give away though any thoughtful reader here certainly deserves one – but I can give them a 30% discount code to use on the OUP website: AAFLY6).

But this might help. “Theology” is not “the study of God” as I use the term. It’s “the study of everything in the light of God”. This is a standard usage actually. But perhaps that helps explain why I think that to ask “are science and theology compatible?” is a category-error before the question is out of your mouth. Theology is the intellectual exploration of an entire world view, so encompasses everything – including science and why we do it. Hence the idea of a “theology of science”.

Minor aside: this will worry you if you think that theology is all about doctrine and authority structures. But it isn’t. That’s religious power-bases and I want nothing to do with that (any more than with scientific power-bases which is are corruptions that also exist). True theology works within our current frame as “authoritative” in the sense of “paradigmatic” but openly and flexibly.

Here’s the rub – science also needs to talk about everything. So there can and should be a ‘science of theology’ or ‘science of religion’. Indeed Daniel Dennett has called for more of this, and rightly so.

I am therefore saying NOT that “science and theology are compatible” NOR that they are in conflict (both are category errors), but that in our narrative world they are “of each other”. Sounds like the logical equivalent of an M C Escher picture? So be it. We need better catogories of the relation between them.  Our language gives us the wrong geometry of discussion – Graziosi talks several times of “bridging the gap” between theology and science (and says that it is not possible to do it), but what if they nested inside each other?  What if theology could help resource for us the culutral reason to do science?  I spend a long time in Faith and Wisdom in Science pointing out the desperate need for a narrative that ties science deeper into our human communities of purpose.  Theology is really good at purpose. Scinece doesnt really “do” it.

As I say in the book and hint at in the TC piece, the other way to approach this is historically, where the (often explicitly) theological discourse of the purpose of science becomes very clear (Francis Bacon is a prime example). So Graziosi is also historically wrong in claiming that the “New atheism” has delivered our modern, permissive, society.  Actually this has its roots in the enlightenment, and that (contrary to much popular belief) is rooted not in a rise of secularism that somehow occluded religious obfuscation, but in the clearest of Christian theological motivations for understanding nature.  Not only Bacon, but Newton, Kepler, Galileo, Boyle, Wren, the list goes on… all had explicit theologies for the science they were doing.  Peter Harrison has shown this in staggering scholarly detail over many years, in The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, for example.

A few final points on the Templeton funding.  FIrst, as an academic and additioanlly as Pro-Vice-Chancellor of a research intensive university, I would never approve or accept funding from any organisation that inflected, filtered, biassed or controlled in any way the findings of a research project they funded.  All funders have a declared sphere of interest – resaerch questions they will fund and things that they wont – and Templeton is no exception.  But they do not determine the answers.  People might also want to check winners of the Templeton prize – several are self-declared atheists or agnostics.  Many colleagues also funded by them (including some in the same funded teams as me, are atheist).

We have lost a social grasp of what science is FOR. That’s what I want to recapture. And as far as I read either history or current cultural discourse on a global canvas, any hope of a purely secular answer to this urgent question is a no-hoper!

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