What do a minister in a Christian church and a scientist working on the Human Genome Project have to talk about with each other? They might have more to say than you think. Religion has had a long and complex relationship with science and technology, and has varied in its influence from being the direct motivation behind scientific and technological pursuits to having no part in it whatsoever. Tensions between religion and science that have arisen in recent history have prompted efforts to reconcile the two, efforts that have begun to steer us towards the more intimate relationship religion and science shared in the past. The question remains as to just how intimate the two should become.
Religion has influenced technology and science throughout history (4). It played a role in the development of social stratification in humans through the establishment of religious leaders such as shamans, medicine men or women, who had important functions in social groups (2). Along with population growth and farming innovations, religious factors contributed to motivations to clear the forest in medieval Europe (5). Religious leaders allotted areas of forest to colonists to clear, farm and develop the land, which encouraged the development of a free and equal agricultural society (5). Early Christian fathers encouraged the view that humans had God-given dominion over nature, and that humans were God’s stewards on earth whose purpose was to finish His creations through alteration of the environment (5).
During medieval Europe, it was believed that studying and using technology brought humans closer to a god-like status (4). Western Christianity was also an important contributor to the creative technological developments of medieval Europe (5). In medieval Europe, most scientists were very religious and did not see their spiritual and scientific ideas as conflicting, reflecting the lack of clear boundaries between theology and science during this period (1). The forefathers of modern science such as Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton united spirituality and religion; they pursued the study of nature as a way of understanding the divinity behind its creation. In addition, the colonization of America was characterized by a sense of building a paradise and achieving salvation through technology (4).
In contrast to this past partnership, in recent history there have been conflicts between religion and science and technology (3). For example, the controversy over the teaching of evolution has a history of battles in court and the political sphere as creationists have argued for equal treatment of evolution and creationism in public schools (3). Right-to-life groups’ opposition to research using embryonic tissue has greatly influenced government support of research, and their arguments are based on moral and religious beliefs (3). Members of the public and writers of religious magazines have also objected to research in gene therapy, genetic engineering, cloning, and transgenics, with the claim that scientists are acting as God and interfering with His will (3).
Nelkin (2004) suggests that as part of an effort to reconcile this tension between science and religion, many scientists are using “God talk,” or “spiritual constructs and religious rhetoric to describe their work and convey its significance.” As an example, when Francis Collins, director of the National Center for Human Genome Research, announced the near-complete sequencing of the human genome, he followed with, “We have caught a first glimpse of our own instrument book previously known only to God” (3). Many geneticists use religious metaphors such as calling DNA sacred text, and the genome the Bible or the Holy Grail (3). Einstein believed that physics was a way to explain divine creation, and other physicists have also linked their work to theological concepts (3). This “God talk” is a response to the unease about the moral and social controversies of modern scientific research.
“God talk” is part of a larger reconciliation movement devoted to mitigating the conflicts between science and religion (3). Scientific institutions, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the International Society for the Systems Science, as well as journals, college courses, television and radio programs, and international conventions have taken part in this movement (3). Those who join the reconciliation movement see it as a solution to public concerns over selective issues in contemporary science that clash with important religious values (3). Furthermore, the reconciliation movement offers the idea that science and technology provide insight into nature that can guide the formation of ethical and theological values (3).
As a biology major and environmental studies minor, I cannot think of a time when religion has entered my scientific studies, and it has never been the motivation behind my academic pursuits. Along with the clashes between religion and science and technology in recent history, this makes evident the sharp contrast between the philosophies of science today and scientific thinkers of the past. It seems that we have come full circle, from intensely religious early scientists in Europe pursuing science as an extension of theology, to a clear divide between science and religion and the arousal of public concerns over certain research practices, and finally to an effort to reconnect the two through “God talk” and the reconciliation movement. However, as Nelkin (2004) suggests, using religious motivations in the advancement of science and technology may threaten the autonomy of each and muddle important distinctions between them that have encouraged peaceful coexistence. While an amiable dialogue between religion and science and technology may be helpful in smoothing over tensions, it may be better for both sides if the division between them remains intact.
1. Adas, Michael. “Before the Industrial Revolution.” Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance. Cornell Univ. Press, 1989. 17-35.
2. Ehrlich, Paul R. “From Seeds to Civilization.” Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect. Island Press, 2000. pp. 227-252.
4. Stalder, Felix. “The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention.” Canadian Journal of Communication 4(1998). Available: http://www.cjc-online.ca/viewarticle.php?id=495&layout=html.
Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies
last updated 3/7/08webmaster