Science and Religion—5 Models of Interaction: a talk at Common Ground

On Wednesday, September 11th, Jim Kenney, one of the co-founders of Common Ground, a group devoted to interfaith dialogue, went to one of the “satellite campuses” of Common Ground in Flossmoor IL to put on a two-hour version of a talk on the various models by which the interaction between science and religion have been characterized.  This post is a summary of this talk.

1.  Science and Religion as Enemies

In this model, called conflict theory, science and religion are locked in mortal combat, and there can only be one winner and one loser.   In game theory, a conflict in which there is only the possibility of a winner and loser is called a zero-sum game.  A non-zero-sum game would be one that admits the possibility of both sides coming out winning.  Robert Wright has written a book on the history of the ethical evolution of mankind called Nonzero:  The Logic of Human Destiny, in which he posits the claim that the history of ethics is a gradual shift from zero-sum games to non-zero sum games.

In 1875, the President of the French Academy of Sciences predicted that the success of science in answering all of the remaining questions would be total by 1925, and that success would be concomitant with the eclipse of religion to the point where it would totally disappear by that same date.

That prediction was so wildly optimistic as to be laughable now, but note that the total success of science automatically implied to the scientists at the time the total annihilation of religion.

2.  Science and Religion as Strangers

Stephen J. Gould, the contentious but brilliant evolutionary biologist, conceived of the idea that science and religion were nonoverlapping magisteria, where a magisterium is understood to be an “area of expertise or authority.”  Science has one area of expertise, and religion has another.  And never the twain shall meet, according to this model.

3.  Science and Religion as Neighbors

When a stranger comes to live next to you, he or she is gradually considered a neighbor.  And like neighbors, they became acquaintances with whom you may have some things in common.  In the case of religion and science, according to physicists Charles Coulson and Harold Schilling, the methods of science and religion have much in common.  They both require critical reflection, and have a threefold structure of

  • Experience
  • Theoretical Interpretation
  • Practical Application

They also evolve not by the mere collecting of facts, but by advances of creative imagination, which Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions called “paradigm shifts.”

However, there can be misunderstandings between neighbors, and one of the misunderstandings between religion and science is the confusion of mythos and logos, or between narrative and logic.  A polemical atheist like Richard Dawkins thinks that religion is to be decried when it can’t handle facts which contradict a certain narrative as set forth in some so-called sacred text.

Another difference between science and religion is that science is descriptive in describing what is and religion is prescriptive in describing what should be.  When religion tries to describe what is, or when science tries to dictate what should be, then there is increased possibility of misunderstanding.

4.  Science and Religion as Allies

There may be differences between allies, but the fact that they both face a common enemy should cause them to focus on their similarities rather than their differences, and to see the areas where they can most fruitfully cooperate.

The enemy of science and religion would be common problems faced by all humanity, the most prominent of which is the threat of the effects of climate change.

The International Society for Religion and Science or ISSR in the UK (, formed in 2002, and the Center for the Study of Science and Religion at Columbia University, are two examples of recent efforts to bring together leading figures in both science and religion to foster mutual understanding and collaboration.  One good example of that collaboration is The Universe Story, written by the cosmologist Brian Swimme and the theologian Father Thomas Berry.  By being able to combine the facts of cosmic evolution with a compelling narrative, the two of them can give a picture of humanity’s place in the evolution of the cosmos which is only enhanced by the respectful interaction between religion and science.

5.  Science and Religion as Relatives

The reason why science and religion have differences and yet evolve along certain similar lines is because they are related.  How they are related is illuminated by Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, in which reality can be looked at across two separate dimensions:

  • Interior experiences vs. exterior observations
  • Individual perspectives vs. collective perspectives

These combine to form four quadrants or perspectives as follows:

  • Upper-left quadrant—“I” perspective, intentional
  • Upper-left quadrant—“it” perspective, behavioral
  • Lower-left quadrant—“we” perspective, cultural
  • Lower-right quadrant—“they” perspective, social

In this perspective, science belongs to the “it” perspective, an individual’s spirituality belongs to the “I” perspective, religion belongs to the “we” perspective, and the culture belongs to the “they” perspective.  These perspectives are different and that is why religion and science are different approaches, because they belong to different quadrants which look at the same reality in fundamentally different ways.

However, despite the fundamental difference, just like relatives, they share some fundamental similarities or ontological DNA through the fact that their evolution obeys the same laws.  And that is why there can be communication between them.

The meta-perspective brought by Integral Theory makes sense of the 4 other models that have been referred to, and that is why Jim Kenney respectfully referred to Ken Wilber as the “most important living philosopher whom you’ve probably never heard of.”

If you are interested in hearing more about this topic, Jim Kenney is giving a three-part workshop to be held from 9:30-11:30 AM on September 25, October 2, and October 9 at the “main campus” of Common Ground in Deerfield, IL at 815 Rosemary Terrace, Deerfield, IL  60015.  For more information go the following link:,-Antagonists,-or-Al.aspx



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