Ecology, Religion, and Science

Ecology, Religion, and Science
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in The Encyclopedia of Religion, Second Edition, edited by Lindsay Jones, New York, Macmillian Reference, V. 1, 2005.

The contemporary dialogue between religion and science is part of the foundation of the religion and ecology dialogue. Many of the contemporary luminaries in this dialogue—Ian Barbour, Holmes Rolston III, John Haught, John Cobb, Jr., and many others—also have published on ecological issues. Both fields try to understand the relationship of humans and nature.

Religion is an extremely diverse phenomenon, always plural, and difficult to philosophically define. The same can be said for science. For many today, there is a deep cultural ambivalence about one or the other. Science for many people brings to mind negative images of toxic industries, genetically modified foods, or nuclear holocaust. Similarly, religion also brings to mind negative images for many of religious wars, inquisitional torture, fanatical intolerance, genocidal persecutions, and deadly cults. Often juxtaposed to these negative images of one domain, either religion or science, is generally a positive and sometimes utopian orientation towards the other domain.

Typology of Science and Religion. Ian Barbour has suggested a four-part typology for how different people relate science and religion—conflict, separation, dialogue, and synthesis. Theconflict model sees religion and science as necessarily in opposition. Within the conflict model, one needs to choose sides, so there are two versions. Scienticism promotes science as an alternative belief system to religion against superstition and supernaturalism. It favors a commitment to materialistic and reductionistic understandings of reality often along with a commitment to human progress or betterment. Contemporary advocates of this position include Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Stephen Weinberg.

The religious version of the conflict model promotes an absolute ontological and epistemic dependency on God as revealed in a scriptural tradition in which cosmological references are interpreted literally. The conflict generally revolves around accounts of natural history—evolution and cosmology—but also questions about the human person and ethics. These religious fundamentalists promote alternative “sciences” because they understand contemporary science to being necessarily atheistic and immoral. Both versions of the conflict model generate competing mythologies about the history of science and religion.

The separation model sees religion and science as different categories of endeavors. Stephen Jay Gould popularized the term “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” or NOMA to describe this view of science and religion (Gould 2002). Science seeks to answer questions of “what” and “how,” whereas religion seeks to answer questions of “why.” Science deals with facts, religion deals with values. It is only when the two step out of their proper domains that conflict arises.

The problem with the separation model is that separate is never really equal. Religions necessarily make ontological claims about reality; the insights of science necessarily impinge upon questions of values and purpose. While religion and science are certainly distinct endeavors, they need to be in some kind of conversation. This then leads to the dialogue model, where religion and science need to engage each other on boundary questions of metaphysics and ethical dilemmas such as the ecological crisis or the challenges of new technologies. Science is sometimes understood to be mute on these questions, though it gives rise to new insights and technologies that present further challenges for humanity.

Others promote the synthesis model, wherein they seek to join science and religion in metaphysical, meaning, and moral systems. In this view, philosophers, theologians, and practitioners should be willing to reinterpret their fundamental beliefs in light of contemporary science; even as they mine their religious traditions to recover profound insights about the nature of the Divine, the nature of humanity, and the nature of nature. Advocates of this model note that there is not a metaphysical-free way of understanding the world and ourselves. Humanity would be better served if we develop a consistent, probable, and holistic understanding of science and religion. The contemporary conversation is profoundly influenced by the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, the evolutionary mysticism of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and the hierarchical epistemological of Michael Polanyi. This synthesis model is particularly helpful for the religion and ecology field that affirms the importance of science in both its philosophical implications and practical understanding of the world of nature.

This four-part typology of the relationship between science and religion was turned into an alliteration by John Haught, who speaks of “conflict, contrast, contact,” and “convergence” (Haught 1995).

General Philosophical Issues – All science assumes some kind of reductionism, whereby a complex problem is broken down and analyzed in terms of its parts. Reductionism has led to increasing specialization in the familiar list of disciplines and departments of the modern university, as well as the growing lists of sub-disciplines and interdisciplinary communities of research. One can distinguish between philosophical reductionism and methodological reductionism. The latter is simply a tool for exploration and problem-solving, while philosophical reductionism becomes an all-encompassing worldview. There is a kind of reductionism that assumes everything can be broken down to constitutive parts, namely, consciousness is merely biology, biology is nothing but chemistry, and chemistry is just particle physics. Many scientists and philosophers, enamored with the incredible progress made in the last century, make intemperate claims about the power and prospects of reductionism to answer all questions, but this can lead to absurd category mistakes. A biologist need know nothing about particle physics to effectively practice biology. Cosmology is not likely to shed new light on economics. The concept of emergence is now being explored with scientific and philosophic rigor. The whole is often more than the sum of its parts. Novel entities come to be in an evolving universe that builds on existing structures and processes to create new levels of complexity. Many religious philosophers see the concept of emergence in science as a way of recovering religious understandings of the universe and the human person. Moreover, for some this is an important philosophical basis for understanding the large-scale evolutionary context for present day environmental questions.

Another philosophical debate within science and religion deals with the issue of materialism. The universe is nothing more than matter-energy and space-time. In this view, science cannot allow for any phenomena that are not material. All real phenomena, as opposed to imagined phenomena, can be analyzed as material or physical processes. In this extreme form, materialism precludes the truth claims of religion. Materialism also can leave no grounds for protecting the natural world.

However, religious and scientific philosophers today note that many scientific disciplines need the immaterial concept of information in order to understand material reality. Contemporary physics, for instance, assumes a transcendent understanding of mathematics, even as it deconstructs material reality into ephemeral subatomic particles, extend wave functions, and immaterial field equations. These new ontological categories open up a possibility for understanding aesthetic, moral, and spiritual realities as more than just imagined fantasies. Information science is also an important part of understanding the complex interactions of ecosystems and species.

Another philosophical debate within science and religion deals with the question of causation. The reductionist and materialist view understands causation to always be from the “bottom-up,” while religious thinkers postulate modes of “top-down” causation. In contemporary physics, we also confront the conundrum of non-local causation in entangled quantum states. All of this opens up the possibility of a robust understanding of free will in human action, as well as divine action in the universe that need not violate the laws of science. Rather than simply a bottom-up or top-down approach to causation the complex interaction of chance and necessity is now part of the discussion.

Contemporary science challenges many of the traditional ontological hierarchies of religious worldviews.  Science offers two kinds of hierarchies—chronology and size. On the one hand there is the chronological unfolding of the universe; from the infinitely dense and infinitely hot originating singularity some thirteen billion years ago; through the rise of stable particles to galaxy and star formation; the stellar fusion of heavier elements; the growth of solar systems out of second and third generation stars with complex chemistry; the rise of life on at least one planet; the stunning evolution of life into myriad forms over hundreds of million years; and the recent rise of our own species with its capacities of mind and language.  Science also offers a new hierarchy of size from orders of magnitude smaller and larger unimaginable to our ancestors even one hundred years ago.  This new epic of evolution and the new topography of the universe challenge some of our religious notions of human dignity and divine purpose.  Many traditional religious cosmogonies seem quaint and parochial in light of this new scientific worldview.  The science and religion dialogue seeks to offer new interpretations of the epic of evolution that integrates this new natural history with the enduring wisdom, spiritual quest, and cultural insights of our religious traditions. This context of the epic of evolution is also critical to the dialogue of religion and ecology. More people are realizing that the future of the evolutionary process is severely challenged by the presence of more than six billion people on the planet, along with the environmental destruction humans have wrought with their sophisticated technologies.

Another general philosophical issue explored at the intersection of science and religion is the question of dualism versus holism. Humans have often understood the metaphysics of the universe in terms of philosophical dualism—animate and inanimate, human and non-human, mind and brain, spiritual and material. Modern science undermines many of these dualisms. Religions have promoted both dualistic and holistic metaphysics. Humanity is lost in this new understanding of the universe without a compass or a map to the great moral, aesthetic, and ecological questions. The ecological sciences are offering a more holistic vision of life—human and non-human—which has implications for more comprehensive environmental ethics.

Specific Philosophical Issues. There are also a number of specific philosophical issues that science raises for religious thought and practice which are explored in the contemporary encounter between science and religion.

Physics and cosmology. Physics and cosmology raise a number of profound metaphysical questions. A number of the fundamental characteristics of the universe appear to be “fine-tuned” for the later development of complexity. This can be seen in the specific values of the four fundamental forces—gravity, electromagnetism, and strong and weak nuclear forces. Other characteristics, like the ratio of matter to anti-matter, the rate of expansion of the universe, or the particular properties of carbon, could all be hypothetically slightly different, in which case it would have been impossible for the universe as we know it to evolve. Sometimes referred to as the Anthropic Principle, physicists are often attracted to the idea that the universe, including our own consciousness, was some how intended and is sometimes interpreted as evidence for the existence of God, though the impersonal, mathematical God of Physics bares little resemblance to the God of Scriptures.

Contemporary physics understands the nature of space-time and matter-energy to be radically different than our common sense experiences would suggest. Time is relative to the location and speed of the observer; space bends and folds under the influence of intense gravitational fields. Little bits of matter can be converted into an enormous amount of energy, as seen in nuclear bombs or the stellar furnaces. Energy can be converted into matter, as seen in the Bubble Chambers of particle accelerators. Moreover, what we understand to be the concrete stuff of our everyday world turns out to be mostly empty space at the atomic level and ephemeral chimera at the subatomic level. These subatomic particles exhibit the strange properties of quantum mechanics. With both particle and wave, subatomic stuff is entangled, implicating both other subatomic particles and the observer, able to influence other quantum events at a distance or backwards into the past. The strangeness of quantum phenomena has led many a physicist to take a religious or philosophical turn, in spite of their prior materialist and mechanistic commitments.

Contemporary astronomy and cosmology also confront humanity with a scale and grandeur of an evolving universe difficult to imagine. Measured now in billions of light-years and hundreds of billions of galaxies, our lives on this planet might seem rather small and insignificant. On the other hand, our ability to even comprehend this new cosmic topography can also ennoble and enlarge our appreciation of these unique human abilities. In either case, this new view of the cosmos is an occasion for religious and philosophical reflection and an opportunity to expand our understanding of the divine. Moreover, it can enhance the reasons for protecting this remarkable planet.

Evolution and biology. Evolution and biology raise a series of different questions for religious thought. Where cosmologists see issues of elegant improbability in the design of the universe, evolutionary theory points towards a chaotic and brutal developmental process in which famine, predation, disease, and death are the ultimate editor of a story written through random drift.Darwinian evolution has been a flash point of conflict between science and religion, because it appears to undermine traditional religious understandings of nature as a product of a benevolent and powerful God. As applied to humans, social Darwinism also seems to undermine traditional religious morality, indeed in some cases to have contributed to ruthless political ideologies in the twentieth century.

Many religious and scientific thinkers have interpreted evolution through teleological orteleonomical lenses, arguing that natural history presents us with a progressive unfolding of greater levels of complexity and beauty in nature. Some scientists also point to mathematical patterns in nature, as well as the convergent evolution of similar life structures among unrelated species. It is important to remember that the problems of suffering, death, and evil have confounded humanity long before the theory of evolution, so the challenge of Darwinism is not a new issue for religious and theological thought. Some think it useful to extend the notion of free will beyond the human, that all of nature has elements of self-creative possibility not governed by causal processes or Divine fiat.

The lacuna of applying evolutionary theory to human behavior revolves around the question ofaltruism. If survival and reproduction are the key motive forces in evolution and human behavior, then why would anyone sacrifice his or her self for the benefit of someone unrelated?  When science explores human nature, it necessarily confronts religious moral teachings, which universally teach some version of the Golden Rule.  Many argue that humans evolve in aLamarckian pattern by which acquired cultural adaptations are passed on directly to the next generation and that as such humanity transcends mere biological processes.  Moreover, humans are a profoundly social and symbolic species; and we use narratives — for instance, sacred stories — to navigate existential moral and value choices. In that sense, everyone employs metanarratives, consciously or unconsciously, to navigate the uncertainties of life. Homo sapien is a moral and believing animal in which religion, broadly understood, is involved, even if that “religion” be atheism, pragmatism, or materialism.

Finally, evolution gives us a new perspective on the recent past and future prospects for humanity and the planet. Science, technology, economics, education, and government have given humans enormous power to engage in large-scale environmental engineering, even as we are about to embark upon wide-ranging genetic engineering of other species and ourselves. In the fields of bioethics and environmental ethics, religion and science discuss what it means to be human and the prospects of humanity’s self-transcendence or self-destruction in a Brave New World of twenty-first century technology. Science itself does not give much guidance as to whether such a future is desirable or whether it should be resisted.

Chaos and complexity theories – Applied in numerous scientific disciplines, chaos and complexity theories suggest that some of the most creative phenomena are distributed systems anditerative processes. In some cases, simple mathematical models can describe natural phenomena. In other cases, the multiplication of feedback loops and complexity confound us with knownlimitations of science and computation. Computer models are used to simulate climate change, which inform environmental policy debates. Computer models are now also used to simulate religious and cultural systems. Philosophers and theologians ponder the significance of this new paradigm for understanding the nature of God and creativity.

Aesthetics and ethics – In these domains the interaction of science and religion also plays itself out. Many philosophers realize that we cannot maintain a simple Is/Ought distinction. The nature of nature must inform our understanding about how humans desire to transform their lives, which values are possible and desirable to maximize. Traditional religious philosophy makes the distinction between natural moral law, knowable to any reasoning human being, and revealed moral law, knowable only those initiated in a particular tradition. The old natural law tradition needs to be conversant with the best of contemporary science, rather than fall back on antiquated Aristotelian notions of fixed natural kinds. All moral discourse presupposes sets of obligations and the necessity of sacrifice. There is a growing appreciation of the role of religious beliefs and practices in existentially grounding ethical deliberation, even as we debate issues like abortion, euthanasia, human and animal rights, and eco-justice.

Intra- and inter-religious dialogue – Finally, science provides a powerful common denominator for this exciting and productive dialogue. In many conferences and workshops today around the world, organized by groups like the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (, the Zygon Center for Science and Religion (, Metanexus Institute (, the John Templeton Foundation (, and others, religious thinkers and practioners from diverse religious and philosophical traditions—as well as diverse scientific disciplines—find common ground and profound challenges in confronting some of the greatest questions of our time.

Ecology – Once dubbed “the subversive science,” ecology also challenges the adequacy of reductionism and materialism, as it poses both new and enduring questions about the appropriate relationships between humans and the more-than-human world. By all accounts, we live at a unique moment in the natural history of our planet and the cultural evolution of our species, filled with challenge and promise. Whatever the future holds in store, the endeavors of science and religion, separately and together, will play an important part in the unfolding story.


Gould, Stephen Jay. 2002. Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. New York: Ballantine Books.

Grassie, William. 2004. Biocultural Evolution in the 21st Century: The Evolutionary Role of Religion. Metanexus Online.

Harel, David. 2000. Computers Ltd.: What They Really Can’t Do. New York: Oxford University Press.

Haught, John F. 1995. Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Huchingson, James Edward. 2001. Pandemonium Tremendum: Chaos and Mystery in the Life of God. Boston: Pilgrim Press.

McKinley, Paul Shepard and Daniel. 1969. The Subversive Science: Essays Toward an Ecology of Man. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.