Can science and religion coexist?

Who are you? What is the universe? And why? (Chard Baker/Photodisc/Getty Images)

My friend Bill made an interesting statement on Twitter today: "Maybe we can cut a deal where all the biologists can believe in God in return for evangelicals believing in evolution." This was particularly amusing because I attended a lecture last night by a man who was taught evolution by nuns and who studies meteorites while wearing a clerical collar.

American research astronomer Guy J. Consolmagno spoke at Agnes Scott College last night on the ethics of exploration and planetary astronomy (see my post at Discovery Space). He also happens to be a Jesuit brother and a planetary scientist at the Vatican Observatory. At the end of his lecture, he addressed questions from the audience, which led to some very heartfelt comments on the interplay between the worlds of science and theology.

Its easy to view this relationship in its extremes. There's the world of religion, full of people praying around statues, spouting fanciful myths and occasionally inciting horrifying atrocities. Then there's science, with its soulless dissections of human consciousness, imperfect (or outright wrong) theories and world-destroying nuclear armaments. What possible middle ground could these two world views share?

Brother Consolmagno discussed how his joining the Jesuit order was a kind of coming out to his friends and colleagues in scientific circles. He initially worried over how they'd react to him, but instead of rebuke, they came to him with confessions about their own varied religions. There seemed to be no shortage of astronomers who adhered to a particular faith.

"I've never encountered nor do I expect or conceive of a place where there would be a conflict [between science and faith]," Consolmango said, "partly because I know my science well enough to know not to trust it 100 percent, and I know my religion well enough to know that I don't trust my understanding of my religion 100 percent.

"Science is a process of trying to describe the universe with human explanations that can, in theory, be completely understood because they're human-made," Consolmango said, "but they're describing a universe that's always a little more complicated than we'll ever be able to completely describe. So science is understanding seeking truth. Religion is truth (or faith) seeking understanding -- the classic definition of theology."

Neither science nor theology can provide a complete understanding of the universe's more taxing and troubling questions, but Consolmango described the two approaches as complementary. It's easy to almost think of each as a lens in a pair of eyeglasses

"It allows me to have more than one perspective on the big mystery of life, and that's cool, because the more perspectives you have the better. But I don't expect them to agree. I don't want them to completely agree, because then I lose the benefit of having more than one point of view."

Consolmango gave an interesting take on the long-standing conflict between the scientific theory of evolution and the Biblical account of creation in Genesis.

"To say that the Bible is a science book is to say that it's a book you'll throw away after two years because it will become obsolete. Obviously that's not the kind of book it is. The science that we know 1,000 years from now will be very different from our science, and yet people will be reading and getting interesting stuff out of the Bible -- and maybe interesting stuff different from what we're getting. So yeah, Genesis is not a science book. The whole story of Genesis chapter 1 was the best science of its day -- Babylonian science -- and then something new and important added saying that rather than the universe being the chaotic accidental byproduct of the fighting among the gods, it was the deliberate act of a loving god who looked down and said it was good. That's the part of Genesis that I believe."

Granted, questions about the nature of that god can get pretty sticky, but it's a nice example of how two views of the universe can share the same mental space.

Also be sure to check out Allison's post, What the heck is noetic science? which explorers some of the same ground.

As for the question posed in the title, I think the answer is "yes." What do you think?

EDIT: Find this too rooted in Western monotheism? Read the followup post, Science and Religion: Two Shades of Why.