Can science and religion be friends?

Small Chico conference tackles big questions

Yes, science and religion can be integrated, says Greg Cootsona, associate pastor at Bidwell Presbyterian Church and the driving force behind the Science and Religion conference last weekend.

Yes, science and religion can be integrated, says Greg Cootsona, associate pastor at Bidwell Presbyterian Church and the driving force behind the Science and Religion conference last weekend.

Photo By Kyle Emery

About the author:
Kim Weir is an alto in the gospel choir at Bidwell Presbyterian Church. She studied biology and environmental science as an undergraduate. A journalist by trade, she is founder and editor of Up the Road,, a new nonprofit public-interest media and environmental-education project focused on sustainability.
About the conference:
For those who missed this year's chance to dive into these and other big questions of science and theology, thanks to the John Templeton Foundation there is always next year. The foundation, a philanthropic catalyst for explorations of "human purpose and ultimate reality," awarded a $2 million grant to Bidwell Presbyterian Church to help encourage interchange between science and theology in congregations. The Templeton Foundation's Scientists in Congregations program, run through Bidwell Presbyterian Church, has awarded sub-grants to 36 Christian congregations in 25 states--and scientists and others from those congregations attended this year's conference.

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void. Then God finished the task, which included the potential for ongoing molecular change and discovery of creation’s essential mechanisms. God saw everything that had been made, and, indeed, it was very good.

Such a simple adjustment in our understanding of the biblical creation story allows Christian theology to embrace modern science rather than oppose it.

This was one message of the fifth annual Science and Religion conference held last weekend at Bidwell Presbyterian Church in downtown Chico, an event now underwritten by a $2 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation and its Scientists in Congregations initiative, headquartered at Bidwell Pres.

Conference coordinator Greg Cootsona, associate pastor of adult discipleship and college ministries at Bidwell Pres, first engaged the intersection of Christianity and science as a student. Cootsona holds a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in systematic theology and the philosophy of religion from Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union.

In his book Creation and Last Things Cootsona points out that only integration—one of the four ways that religion and science have historically interacted—allows for the possibility of transformative thought. He suggests the persecuted astronomer Galileo Galilei as an excellent example of such transformation, because Galileo understood his scientific work as essential for preserving the truth of Christian understanding—faith grounded in truth—yet looked to God as final arbiter.

Conflict between science and religion is more common, often played out in politics and other public discourse. Some theologians freely attack “godless science” and, at the other pole, practitioners of “scientism” limit the realm of legitimate knowledge to that which can be proven.

More popular, according to Cootsona, is independence, or engaging the worlds of science and religion separately and strictly on their own terms. But this approach has led to the unfortunate conclusion that what is tangible or measurable by science is real—as in “the real world”—while religious faith and spirituality in general are relegated to the realm of fantasy or delusion.

The third relationship model, and the best that can be achieved at most conferences seeking common ground, Cootsona says, is the dialogue model. Respective disciplines respectfully share ideas and insights in conversation yet often talk past each other.

Only the integration of science and religion allows the knowledge and unique perspective of each to inform the other, Cootsona says—and both have plenty to learn through this exchange. In the words of Albert Einstein, a notable integrative scientist: “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”

Subjects definitely not on the conference agenda: creationism, creation science and even theistic creation, which fall into the first three categories of engagement. Speakers and most attendees were interested only in integration—the full monty—or the complete compatibility of Christian belief with modern scientific knowledge, from the Big Bang and chaos theories to evolution. For all the topic’s heft, conference keynote speakers sometimes engaged it with surprising lightness.

Karl Giberson, a scholar of science and religion, popular author and Huffington Post blogger, revisited the biblical creation story by completely revising it. The Genesis story gradually “lost much of its power to move us” after it was written down. The unchanging nature of the Bible coupled with literal interpretation can make it seem like faith has been “met and conquered” by modern science.

Giberson shared the “literary exercise” of rewriting Genesis 1, where the Bible’s first account of creation occurs, to incorporate contemporary understanding and kick off further discussion. He kept the story’s seven-day structure but substituted more scientific daily accomplishments—from the Big Bang and the appearance of matter and stars to the development of water, life forms and intelligence.

A particular difficulty with the Genesis story, he said, is the implication that on the seventh day God was done, that creation was complete, though today “we see no evidence that this process has ended.” So in Giberson’s creation story God rests only after “having entered into fellowship with creatures of the universe.” Creation is ongoing and open-ended as life continues to respond to environmental change, an understanding compatible with evolution.

But what about extraterrestrial life? If intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, would these beings be angelic, like Steven Spielberg’s E.T., or demonic like the monsters from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day? Would they embrace faith and morality as well as science? Robert J. Russell, experimental physicist and theologian, playfully extended the notion of “fellowship with creatures of the universe” with his talk “Philosophical and Theological Implications of Extraterrestrial Intelligence.”

Founder and director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley and the Ian G. Barbour Professor of Theology and Science in Residence at the Graduate Theological Union, Russell took a “non-reductionist” view of life—wherever it may exist, and however rare it may be—following the thinking of Francisco Ayala instead of the “nature red in tooth and claw” views of Richard Dawkins.

Ethical or moral behavior came about through evolution not because it is adaptive in itself, Russell said, but as a result of human intellectual development. In other words, rational thought is adaptive for human beings—supports survival—and came about through natural selection, the process that drives evolution. While rationality leads to moral questions, the particular answers to those questions—values—come from culture.

Russell predicted that extraterrestrial life forms, should they exist, would exemplify God’s intentions in creating the universe and have the same inherent value that humans do. They would also bear God-like traits such as capacities for rational thought and moral behavior, stewardship of the environment “and most fundamentality, relationality.”

But whether extraterrestrials would be interested in hanging out with human beings would depend on the particular tenets of their morality.