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Philosophical Relationship of Scientific Naturalism and Religion

by John J. Eberts

The relationship between scientific naturalism and religion in much of modern western philosophy has been one of antagonism and outright hostility. The new developments in physical and natural sciences present a challenge to religion according to R.J. Russel, W.R. Stoeger and G.V. Coyne, far greater even than that presented by the introduction of Aristotelian philosophy to the western world. [1]

This presents a challenge that must be addressed or fragmentation to the already delicate balance between religion and science may occur. Christopher Mooney contends that many theologians are not equipped to deal with the new findings in science; conversely, scientists have difficulties working and communicating with mainstream theologians. [2] Science's essential nature is a nature of inquiry, the ability to discern the truth. In its attempt to fathom the truth of the universe, science employs a rational and critical method based upon evidence. The goal of science is to analyze and systematize its subject matter and develop rigorous logical inferences to support its conclusions. Its primary focus then is the attainment of knowledge; it seeks truth, a truth not limited to the area of experience but a truth which encompasses the whole. In contemporary society the attempt to subdivide the categories of natural science has resulted in the development of artificial limits that obscure the whole.

Both religion and science embrace the total sphere of individual experience and both purport to encompass the Whole of knowledge. In one aspect science looks into and searches for truth of the Whole, on the other hand religion affirms the sphere of experience and asserts knowledge according to its adherents. In the end both domains have the same goal, to affirm the knowledge and truth concerning the Cosmos.

Individual belief and fervor for truth are by necessity grounded in reason or they become mere folklore. Belief requires some 'reason' for belief. The reason must be grounded in some form of legitimate thought that can appeal to a rational foundation. Therefore religious assertion concerning the reality of an entity becomes rationally based. The theologians then, like the scientists, must examine areas amenable to reason in their search for the uniformity of the natural order.

Theology then maintains a commitment compatible with that of critical reflection. Critical reason with its innate ability to comprehend that although it can investigate the pre-critical suppositions of existence, it can never fully grasp them; although one can identify that no theoretical reason can reside outside the realm of a resolution of the practical reason, that can never be wholly grasped. [3]

As an intellectual domain theology is rational whose purpose is to present a rational explanation of belief. In an attempt to reconcile the perceived difference between religion and natural science the 'concordance' model brings together the scientific and theological explanations of nature and therefore their presupposition would reside within the same plane, one of natural theology. 'Plainly,' writes C. Raven, 'if analysis degenerates into disintegration and existence becomes fragmented into a rubbish-heap of "shreds and patches," coherence, significance and growth become impossible; compass-bearings are lost; civilization founders; and mankind sinks to a level lower than that of the brutes.' [4]

The areas of astronomy, astrophysics, and physical cosmology represent the major branches in physics that have direct bearing on this issue and will be addressed here. Process Philosophy as developed by Alfred North Whitehead will also be addressed at a later time. Process Philosophy, which becomes the basis for Process Theology, can be categorized as natural theology; its main intent is to demonstrate the constructive relationships between religion and science.

Since there is an interrelationship sought between science and religion, the first step that needs to be established is the actual basis of that relationship.

Naturalism as defined in the 19th century has been viewed as having a negative connotation according to some analytic philosophers. During the 19th century the laws of physics encompassed a larger and larger area of space and time events. This gave the universe a deterministic mechanistic appearance residing solely on the laws of motion. This in turn devaluated the concept of God and the concept of immateriality. The appearance of the Darwinian theory and its evidence of the evolutionary aspect of man seems to be the final blow for traditional religion. In their opinion, the 19th century philosopherS had erased objective norms and replaced them with scientific facts.

The metaphysical presuppositions established by Newtonian science influenced scholars from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. David Ray Griffin defined this type of naturalism, which he referred to as naturalism (SAM) as encompassing sensationalism, atheism, materialism, determinism and reductionism, sometimes referred to as metaphysical naturalism. In addition to these attributes, Griffin also states that it encompasses what he refers to as naturalism (NS) which he concludes is only a rejection of supernaturalism and casual relations interruption. In Griffin's opinion naturalism (NS) is compatible with theism, whereas naturalism (SAM) is not.

The present problem is that naturalism (SAM) seems to have dominated science and is synonymous with scientific naturalism. This is primarily represented in the works of Searle, Dawkins, Weinberg, Uttal and others. Although scientific naturalism dominates in the academy, particularly in its methodology and mechanistic varieties, it is increasingly being challenged both inside and outside the academic circles. [5]

To initiate a dialogue and possible harmony of naturalism and religion, the first step is to advocate a common world view concerning the use of naturalism (NS) only and the elimination of the dependence on supernaturalism within religion. The type of theistic naturalism that is postulated as well as a dialogue that builds constructive relationships resides in Whitehead's Process Philosophy.

Although Whitehead's philosophy has tremendous bearing on the compatibility of science and religion, other areas also need to be addressed. These areas include:

Theological perspective: The intention is to look at the traditional theological perspective and its cosmological view point.

Metaphysics and Epistemology: Metaphysics asks the normative question concerning what is reality and its relation to mere appearance. Epistemology asks normative questions concerning knowledge and its relationship to belief.

Process Philosophy and religion: a comprehensive metaphysical philosophy showing God as the principle of concretion whereby actual processes arise.

Traditional theology's main endeavor was to place faith in a relationship with science. It must be remembered that throughout this early period, 'Christian thinkers typically thought of science as a "handmaiden" to theology, which was the "queen of sciences": science might serve theology by assisting in understanding biblical references to nature, but it ought never to challenge the sole authority of theology to define reality.' [6]

Although this changed drastically with the introduction of Greek scientific, medical and Aristotelian natural philosophy, the groundwork had already been laid for fundamental problems to develop. St. Thomas Aquinas had created a synthesis of Aristotelian, Arab Commentaries and Church doctrine to overcome many of the tenets within Aristotelian natural philosophy that were at odds with Christianity.

The Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides was also able to relate God to nature as Aquinas had. Both of these scholars were able to modify Aristotle's view that the order of nature is rationally necessary [7], and the world was external to be compatible with Christian and Jewish doctrines:

'Contemporary developments in science challenge theology far more that did the introduction of Aristotle into Western Europe in the thirteenth century. Yet these developments also offer to theology a potentially important resource. Just as Aristotelian philosophy, through the ministry of such great scholars as St. Thomas Aquinas, ultimately came to shape some of the most profound expressions of theological doctrine, so can we not hope that the science of today... may invigorate and inform those parts of theological enterprises that bear on the relation of nature, humanity, and God? [8]

Given the standard cosmological model that the physical universe is expanding based on the 'big bang' theory, the laws of physics can't explain the singular state (singularity) when space and time become infinitely distorted. The singularity in relation to our general theory of relativity causes a dynamic space-time expansion with the universe — rather than being a preexisting static space-time.

This model has greater significance in the realm of theology than in physics. It is of greater importance that this finding be grounded in science than theology. William Stoeger, an astrophysicist and a priest, states that science needs not, in fact, should not have to accept conclusions from theology. Science needs to follow its own methodology and not rely on theological principles. The result of not following one's methodology would be pseudo-science.

Scientific discoveries like the big bang theory have major consequences on theology and are based upon sound scientific principles. William Stoeger outlines three ways science in general affects theology.

It confronts theology, causing alterations in its own conclusions, the way they are reached, and terms by which they are expressed.

It, through philosophy, is modifying the metaphysic employed in theological reflections and articulation.

It influences theology — with new images, concepts, perspectives and symbols, thereby enriching a common cultural field [9]

All three of these are present when referring to the big bang theory and theology. In the first case, physics reflects an accurate theory on the origin of the universe and reveals questions dealing with physical reality that still remain unanswered. Theology must also allow the gaps in the standard model explanation to remain as gaps. Theology must defer to cosmology to answer the question — and resist the urge to fill in the gaps with God.


1. Pope John Paul II, 'Message of His Holiness Pope John II to Conference Participants.' Physics, Philosophy, and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding, ed. R.J. Russell, W.R. Stoeger, and G.V. Coyne (Vatican City State, 1988), m12.

2. Christopher Mooney, 'Theology and Science: A New Commitment to Dialogue,' Theological Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2 (June 1991), 290.

3. Rahner, K. 'Theology,' Sacramentum Mundi: An Encyclopedia of Theology, ed. Karl Rahner et al. (New York, 1970), VI,234.

4. Experience and Interpretation, Second Series of the Gifford Lectures: Natural Religion and Christian Theology (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1953), p. 35

5. Ferngren, G. (2002) p. 332 Science and religion: a historical introduction. John Hopkins University press.

6. Ferngren, p, 324

7. Griffin, D., R. (2000).Religion and scientific naturalism: overcoming the conflicts. New York: State University Press. p.325

8. Pope John Paul II, 'Message of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Conference Participants.' m12.

9. Stoeger, W. (1988). 'Contemporary Cosmology and its Implications for the Religion-Science Dialogue,' Physics, Philosophy, and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding, ed R.J. Russell, W.R. Stoeger, and G.V. Coyne. Vatican City State, p. 243.

© John Eberts 2006