Conflict with the Conflict Thesis: Complicating the Religion-Science Dichotomy

“I think there is quite a conflict [between religion and science] … If you think that religion is a path to any kind of factual truth … then you’re just wrong.” —Daniel Dennett [1]

“Despite a developing consensus among scholars that science and Christianity have not been at war, the notion of conflict has refused to die.” —Ronald L. Numbers [2]


God the Geometer [credit: Wikimedia Commons]

In the last two blog posts, I discussed the history of the idea of inherent conflict between religion and science — i.e. the “conflict thesis” — with specific emphasis on how religion-science conflict historically resided primarily in the realm of thought and not action. In other words, there was much more discussion of inherent tension between religion and science than the physical presence of conflict. A critical reader might respond that it doesn’t matter that ‘conflict’ has a conceptual history, how we use the term today applies to the real world. While conflict is certainly part of the story, it is by no means the big picture. To demonstrate, lets talk about some of those alternative models to conflict of which I mentioned in the previous posts, all of which constitute distinct approaches to method and theory in the field of religion and science.

Discursive Entanglements

“It is my view that generally Buddhism … is very close to a scientific approach … the final validation has to be done on the authority of reasoning, logic … be open and investigate, find something, confirm it, then accept it …  there is a strong emphasis upon your own analysis and investigation and not simply a dogmatic adherence out of faith.” —Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) [3]

As in the above quote, mixing the language and meaning — and thus entangling the discourses — of religion and science challenge an easy separation of these concepts. This happens more often than you would expect. Even you, the reader, use and thus validate these tangles in your everyday communications, probably without even knowing it! For example, did you know the term ‘Big Bang’ was a critical phrase to refer to what was at the time thought of as a creationist theory? Fred Hoyle was mocking the theory with the idea ‘God said, “let there be light” and then BANG! It happened.’[4] And so the term was coined. Even though today the Big Bang Theory is not typically thought of as creationist — on the contrary, it is sometimes thought of as atheistic — the meaning of the term puts religion and science in knots. These knots are all over the place and they have real world consequences for scientific theory and religious understandings. For example, interpreting the Higg’s boson as the “God particle” or understanding Buddhist meditation as “contemplative science” demonstrates how “the ‘scientific imperative’ has itself been religiously productive.”[5] This is not just arising from religious communities or from critiques of religious views. Scientists themselves often employ religious language, as in the case of the Human Genome Project, which involved phrases such as “coding and decoding, reading and writing the Book of Nature and the Book of Life, [and] the playing-God motif — all … part of Western intellectual, religious, and scientific history.”[6] And just like how we use the phrase ‘Big Bang’ today without realizing its connection to religion, oftentimes religion-science mixing is done in a unreflective, unconscious way, but has far-reaching consequences about how we interpret the world — going back to the ‘Big Bang’ is pretty far indeed. From a discursive standpoint, concepts gain meaning in a specific constellation and sometimes those entanglements create shared meaning and new (or renewed) connections. Just as easily, the social communication and creation of knowledge can support a view of conflict, another entanglement. However from this perspective, inherent conflict — actually inherent meaning in general — simply doesn’t exist. Knowledge and meaning are created, destroyed, and recreated in an ever-evolving social, communicative process.

Integrative Movements

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” —Carl Sagan[7]


Nebula [credit: Wikimedia Commons]

With the recreation of the Cosmos series, Carl Sagan is in the news again. The Washington Post claims “it was Sagan’s embrace of the language of religion in ‘Cosmos’ that many nonbelievers think made it as moving and memorable as it was …  It is a way to re-appropriate people’s feelings of religious wonder and connect them to our scientific origins.”[8] It is cases such as this that make me feel particularly astounded at the preoccupation with conflict. There are numerous integrative movements that really are one of the markers of our generation, some explicitly connecting religion and science, some involving a total reformulation of these ideas. These integrations include, for example, the fields of yoga and fitness;[9] meditation and cognitive science;[10] Daoist ‘inner alchemy’ and physiology;[11] transpersonal psychology;[12] integral theory;[13] quantum activism;[14] and the list goes on and on. That these integrations are about religion and science is a controversial statement. For example, many totally divorce yoga from its religious background and some are not even aware of its origins at all. Because of this, some claim the religious roots of yoga are irrelevant to how it is practiced today in the context of fitness and health. But that is simply incorrect. The recent US debate about whether yoga in the classroom violated the ‘separation of church and state’ demonstrates that religious understandings have an impact on whether the physiological science of yoga has a legitimate place in society.[15] Thus this is about religion and science; but this also shows that integrations sometimes involve a major reformulation of the traditions being integrated, like claims that yoga is total secularized in these environments. However, religion is not the only one to adapt, as one might suspect. For example, previously the empirical study of meditation was largely regarded as pseudoscience because of its role as a religious practice. Today it is widely accepted in the scientific community, praised for its contribution to mental and physical health and flourishing, treating neuroses, and its therapeutic value, studied and utilized at top institutions, including Harvard and MIT.[16]

Fluid Extension

“You say that truth is to be grasped more by faith than by reason … Heaven forbid that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals! Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not believe if we did not have rational souls.” —Augustine of Hippo [17]

Mikael Stenmark notes how the boundaries of religion and those of science can and do expand into one another’s domain, labeled ‘religious expanisionism’ and ‘scientiific expanisionism,’ respectively.[18] On the one hand, we have examples like theistic and Augustian science, a research program based on the idea of a personal God in some way accessible through scientific methodology[19] and sacred or Islamic science, which has such an intertwined history with Western science that it has led some to conclude “modern science is nothing other than ‘Muslim science’ … transferred to the West.”[20] On the other hand, we have the example of scientism, which claims that scientific knowledge is the only viable knowledge and thus religious knowledge is erroneous. And yet it expands into the realm of religion even further. Scientism has its historical roots in the works of Auguste Comte, founder of positivism, and the great German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald, who characterized science as the ‘religion of humanity’[21] and the ‘substitute religion,’[22] respectively. Besides thinking of scientism as somewhat ‘religious,’ scientism also fluidly extends to ‘science.’ Rik Peel claims that the scientism of today can be the science of tomorrow,[23] like in the case of the study of religious experience, which has been associated with scientism only later to grow into the ‘cognitive science of religion.’[24] Where the knowledge of religious experience lies relative to the boundaries of religion, science, and scientism shows how the borders between systems of thought easily shift to and fro.

Empirical Findings

“There is enormous stereotyping about this issue (of science in conflict with religion) and not very good information.” —Elaine Howard Ecklund[25]

The empirical evidence also suggests that conflict is largely a stereotype and does not reflect the opinions of most people nor even most scientists! In a recent study and the largest of its kind, Elaine Howard Ecklund found that nearly fifty percent of scientists identified themselves as ‘religious,’ and, of the remaining, twenty percent claimed to be ‘spiritual.’ Interestingly enough, the study found that more people feel that religion and science are in conflict than personally believe that religion is hostile towards science or vice versa. This perhaps indicates that people think their personal view of religion-science pairing is part of a minority — but it is not! This may be why scientists tend to keep their scientific and religious lives separate, who fear negative reactions at work and within their religious communities according to the study. This is in spite the fact that scientists who identified as evangelicals were found to be more religious than evangelicals who are not in science. Among the pool of scientists from all backgrounds, thirty-six percent claimed they “have no doubt about God’s existence.”[26]

‘It’s Complicated’: The Religion-Science Relationship Status

“In spite of the unbounded and fluid extensions of the categories science and religion, many writers treat them as distinct classes with fixed, temporally independent, and self-evident meaning.” —Geoffrey Cantor and Chris Kenny [27]

religion science part ways

[credit: Bing images]

While I have discussed above some cases in which entanglements, integrations, and extensions can happen without people’s awareness — hidden in the history and implicit meaning of words — there are also many examples above that show this is not a simple matter of language, but rather reflects the attitudes and intentions of some people. Yet even these explicit connections between religion and science, as found in this empirical study, are also revealing of the implicit discourse underlying all our religion-science discussions of the day. And that is the conflict thesis, which is tacitly applied, otherwise there would be no fear of scientists discussing their religious lives, there would be no discussion of possible ‘integrations,’ there would be no study to determine ‘relationships.’ All of these are responses to an implicit understanding that religion and science are distinct and thus we see discursive constructs materialize in the very structure of our attitudes and experiences, our language, and our academic method and theory.

With entanglements, integrations, and extensions it is clear that religion and science are not necessarily inherently conflictual, even if they do conflict in certain circumstances.  Put simply, the religion-science link is ‘complicated,’ like the proverbial ‘relationship status.’ Even though we regularly see religion-science conflict ebb and flow, to and fro, like the recent Nye-Ham debate, there seems to be some conflict with the conflict thesis, as I’ve shown. Religion and science do not necessarily have a dichotomous relationship or even one of distinction. In a conventional sense, there two are, of course, distinct. But with our awareness of the tangles, integrations, and expansions and the increasing identification between religion and science, convention is changing. What happens when the wall comes down? Stay tuned.

Next post: “‘Religion-and-Science’: Complicating the Pairing,” as a balance for this blog post, in which I discuss the history of the academic field of religion and science and how the pairing is just as complicated as the dichotomy.



1. Phillips.
2. Hannam.
3. Hayward and Varela, 31.
4. On the history of the term, see Kragh, esp. 14–18. See also “Fred Hoyle: An Online Exhibition,” which contains Hoyle’s original typescript in which he first uses the phrase.
5. von Stuckrad 126.
6. von Stuckrad 130.
7. Winston.
8. Winston.
9. See, for example, Fields.
10. See, for example, Ricard; Hayward & Varela; Meditation Research from the Lab of Sara Lazar; and MIT News.
11. See, for example, Ryan.
12. For an overview, see Davis.
13. See, for example, Wilber.
14. Goswami.
15. In Goldberg, you can see the transformation at work with phrases like “yoga is religious, only it’s not.” Regarding the other religion-science pairings I’ve made here, I would like to say that I understand it is provocative and I cannot make good on all the claims here, but you can expect more detail on why these things are related to religion and science in future posts. The yoga case shows, however, that even though these pairings are not always clearly about religion and science, there a history and a conversation about the meaning of these terms that indicates otherwise.
16. See, respectively, Meditation Research from the Lab of Sara Lazar and MIT News.
17. Augustine 705–707, quoted in Lindberg & Numbers, 27–28.
18. Stenmark.
19. Moreland 41–42. See also Plantiga.
20. Guiderdoni 465, speaking in reference to various intellectual Muslims, including Jamal-al-Din al-Afghani (1838–1897).
21. Comte. See also Brooke & Cantor, 47–57.
22. Ostwald. See also Hakfoort; and Brooke & Cantor, 46.
23. Peels.
24. This is a fairly recent debate taking place between big names, including Daniel Dennett, whose book Breaking the Spell is criticized by Armin Geertz as ‘poorly representing serious cognitive science of religion’ by taking a scientistic view. Geertz argues instead that the cognitive science of religion need not, and should not, be linked to scientism. See Geertz.
25. Ruth.
26. Grossman. See also Ruth. This study was undertaken in the US, but is the largest study ever of religion and science, according to the AAAS. See also Ecklund.
27. Cantor and Kenny, 771.


Augustine, Letter 120, in Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, ed. A. Goldbacher, vol. 34 (Vienna; F. Tempsky, 1895).

Brooke, John Hedley, & Geoffrey Cantor, Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement of Science and Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Cantor, Geoffrey, & Chris Kenny, “Barbour’s Fourfold Way: Problems with His Taxonomy of Science-Religion Relationships,” Zygon 36.4 (Dec. 2001), 765–781.

Comte, Auguste, System of Positive Polity, or Treatise on Sociology, Instituting the Religion of Humanity (Longmans: 1875).

Davis, John V., “Transpersonal Psychology,” in eds. B. Taylor & J. Kaplan, The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (Bristol, England: Thoemmes Continuum, 2003), (accessed 29 May 2014).

Ecklund, Elaine Howard, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Fields, Gregory P., Religious Therapeutics: Body and Health in Yoga, Āyurveda, and Tantra, SUNY Series in Religious Studies (New York: SUNY, 2001).

Fred Hoyle: An Online Exhibition, St. John’s College, University of Cambridge, (accessed 7 March 2014).

Geertz, Armin W., “How Not to Do the Cognitive Science of Religion Today,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 20.1 (2008), 7–21.

Goldberg, Philip, “The Encinitas Yoga Case: Yoga Is Religious, Only It’s Not,” 20 March 2013, (accessed 25 May 2013).

Goswami, Amit, Physics of the Soul: The Quantum Book of Living, Dying, Reincarnation, and Immortality (Charlottesville: Hampton Roads Publishing, 2013).

Grossman, Cathy Lynn, “God Knows, Scientists Are More Religious Than You Think,” 16 February 2014, (accessed 21 February 2014).

Guiderdoni, Bruno, “Islam, Contemporary Issues in Science and Religion,” in ed. J. Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen, Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2003), 465–469. Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed 18 February 2014).

Hakfoort, C. “Science Deified: Wilhelm Ostwald’s Energeticist World-view and the History of Scientism,” Annals of Science 49, 525–544.

Hannam, James, “Science and Religion: A History of Conflict?,” The Guardian, 14 June 2009, (accessed 7 March 2014).

Hayward, Jeremy W., & Francisco J. Varela (eds.), Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind (Boston: Shambhala, 2001).

Kragh, Helge, “What’s in a Name: History and Meaning of the Term ‘Big Bang,'” (accessed 7 March 2014).

Lindberg, David C., & Ronald L. Numbers, God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986).

Meditation Research from the Lab of Sara Lazar, Harvard University, (accessed 29 May 2014).

MIT News, “The Benefits of Meditation: MIT and Harvard Neuroscientists Explain Why the Practice Helps Tune Out Distractions and Relieve Pain,” (accessed 29 May 2014).

Moreland, J. P., “Theistic Science and Methodological Naturalism,” in ed. Moreland, The Creation Hypothesis: Scientific Evidence for an Intelligent Designer (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 41–66.

Ostwald, Wilhelm, “Die Wissenschaft,” in ed. W. Blossfeldt, Der erste internationale Monisten-Kongress in Hamburg vom 8.–11. September 1911 (Leipzig, Germany: n. p., 1912), 94–112.

Peels, Rik, “A Conceptual Map of Scientism,” Laura Jean Vollmer notes of conference proceedings, All You Need Is Science? Scientism and Our Multifaceted Knowledge of Reality, Abraham Kuyper Center for Science and Religion, 23–25 January 2014, University of Amsterdam.

Phillips, Rebecca, “The Spell Breaker: Daniel Dennett on Why Faith Should Be Investigated Scientifically, and Why He’s Coming Out of the Closet as a Nonbeliever,” interview, (accessed 7 March 2014).

Plantiga, Alvin, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Ricard, Matthieu, “On the Relevance of Contemplative Science,” in ed. B. Alan Wallace, Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 261–280.

Ruth, David, “Misconceptions of Science and Religion Found in New Study,” Rice University News & Media, (accessed 29 May 2014).

Ryan, Alexandra, “Globalisation and the ‘Internal Alchemy’ in Chinese Martial Arts: The Transmission of Taijiquan to Britain,” East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal 2.4 (2008), 525–543.

Stenmark, Mikael, How to Relate Science and Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

von Stuckrad, Kocku, “‘What I Cannot Build I Cannot Understand’: Transgressive Discourses in the Life Sciences and Synthetic Biology,” The Gods as Role Models in Western Traditions, special issue of Numen: International Review for the History of Religions 60.1 (2013), 199–133.

Wilber, Ken, Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2000).

Winston, Kimberly, “As Fox-TV Re-creates ‘Cosmos’ Series, Carl Sagan’s Following Grows,” The Washington Post, 5 March 2014, (accessed 7 March 2014).

Further Reading:

Dennett, Daniel, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Penguin, 2006).

Hannam, James, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2011).



3 thoughts on “Conflict with the Conflict Thesis: Complicating the Religion-Science Dichotomy

  1. Pingback: Science as ‘Not Religion’: The History of the Conflict Construct (Part Two) | Knowledge Unbound: Religion, Science, & Philosophy

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