Scientific research, and the popular notions that come out of it, are not always as objective as they seem. Ideas like the theory of natural selection have been twisted to fit certain agendas, and research itself may be backed by particular interests. Even in a perfect world, some types of science are almost impossible to do completely impartially. Using wisdom and ideas from religion to bridge this knowledge gap is a potentially productive approach that we often overlook. What truths does religion offer that science cannot?

As part of Sinai and Synapses’ series “More Light, Less Heat,” Sinai and Synapses Fellow Tim Maness and Rev. Dr. Kara Slade discuss when science and religion work in conjunction to create truth – and the times when they don’t.

Timothy Maness is a doctoral student at Boston University’s Graduate Division of Religious Studies, and he has been interested in questions of science and religion since childhood. He grew up certain both that he wanted to become a scientist and that nothing in his Christian upbringing conflicted with that desire. Eventually, Tim received a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Chicago. While at university, however, he became fascinated with the formal study of religion, which offered opportunities to pursue some of the questions that had always inspired him. Today, Tim is a full-time scholar of religion and science. His dissertation research discusses the way concepts of time affect Western religious traditions’ ideas about human freedom, and examines the implications of the special theory of relativity for those traditions’ views of time. He has also written and spoken about religion and science studies as a dialogue between different approaches to knowledge—one that might offer helpful lessons at a time of public debate about the very meaning of “facts” and “truth.” Outside of the academy, Tim has taught high school physics, worked at science museums, and helped to edit the Papers of George Washington. He lives with his wife in Princeton, New Jersey.

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Rev. Dr. Kara Slade is Associate Rector at Trinity Church in Princeton, NJ, as well as the Theologian in Residence and Associate Chaplain for the Episcopal campus ministry to Princeton University, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Westminster Choir College. Her PhD dissertation in theology and ethics from Duke University is focused on theological engagements with modern, scientific narratives of time. A former specialist in the dynamics of nonlinear and complex systems, she earned the BSE, MS, and PhD in mechanical engineering and materials science at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering before joining NASA as a research engineer. She subsequently trained for ministry and was ordained to the diaconate and priesthood in the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast.
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My name is Kara Slade, and I’m Associate Rector at Trinity Church in Princeton, NJ, as well as the Theologian in Residence and Associate Chaplain for the Episcopal campus ministry to Princeton University, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Westminster Choir College. Before I became a priest and a theologian, I did a PhD in engineering and worked as a researcher for NASA.

My current research, including my dissertation in theology and ethics, is concerned with the interactions of theology and science, especially around evolution. Often when people think about science and theology, they think in terms of generating a seamless and coherent account of all knowledge. But these conversations are not only about knowledge, but about morality. Think of how many times you’ve seen popular accounts of evolution that try explain social phenomenon with evolutionary theory. You see this kind of thing in evolutionary psychology, for example, in attempts to explain why humans are the way they are. And oftentimes these explanations confuse what is with what should be, or what was meant to be. There is a long history of using evolutionary arguments to explain why some people end up with a lot, and why other people end up with very little – why the people at the top of the economic ladder deserve to be there. Popular accounts of evolution often deploy the notion of scientific objectivity in an attempt to explain truths that biology cannot, in fact, explain – things that have more to do with politics than with science.

But the cure for this problem has nothing to do with re-asserting the reading of the creation narratives that is often dubbed ‘creationism’ in contemporary American debates. In teaching seminary students how to think about evolutionary theory, I often use the example of Ohm’s Law from introductory physics. It is uncontroversially true that voltage in an electric circuit is proportional to current and resistance: V=IR. Likewise, it is uncontroversially true that evolutionary theory has something to say about how species develop and differentiate themselves from each other, even if the exact mechanism of that differentiation is still contested. But that biological truth should have as little hold on the moral imagination as Ohm’s Law does. Electricity is everywhere, but no one believes that Ohm’s law explains the poverty of Haiti or the pitfalls of marriage. Popular accounts of evolutionary biology, however, have been far less circumspect in the limits of its explanatory power.

I do not mean to suggest that scientific inquiry and the scientific method cannot be a vital part of the intellectual life. But I do hope to suggest that there may be more of a collision than a conversation between science and theology in the moral register. I do hope to suggest that science people and theologians alike remember that science has given us the atomic bomb as well as the James Webb telescope. It has given us the eugenics movement as well as cures for diseases. It has been death-dealing as well as life-giving. And it’s up to all of us to be honest about that.