Cover Story: Science and Faith

Research and Faith Are not a Contradiction in Terms

By Friedrich Wilhelm Graf

In the conflict between Creationists and Darwinists, the pious and the researchers collide head-on. But science and religion are not good for a new round in the clash of cultures; on the contrary, they need each other.

The perceptions of the history of science in modern times have been determined by countless hard-fought battles over weltanschauung. Hardly any major revolution in scientific thought has taken place without indignant reactions from impassioned believers or clerical authorities. Anyone challenging traditional certainties is bound to upset people and cause shock-waves. A classic, but eternally relevant example of a science-induced clash of cultures are the fierce conflicts of belief associated with Darwin’s theory of evolution. Originally, most university theologians and church dignitaries reacted to Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” with interest and approval. But when some of Darwin’s devotees started to upgrade evolutionary theory to the religio-scientific belief in a universal principle to explain the world and man as a whole, some pious traditionalists started to express their criticism.

“Things that are banned in one society are allowed in others. This has a great deal to do with religious traditions and the power prospects of the clerical elites.”

Support is growing for the increasingly powerful religio-cultural movement amalgamating diverse forms of Creationism, which totally rejects evolutionary theory. And not just amongst American “fundamentalist Protestants”, but also amongst European Evangelicals, Orthodox Jews and Koran-believing Muslims. Creationism is certainly not a regression into the Middle Ages but an extremely modern phenomenon and, indeed, the religious reaction to the tendency to turn science into a weltanschauung. Wherever modern science goes too far and establishes itself as a kind of alternative to religion, it produces a backlash.

Scientists as pious people

However, the frequently propagated images of an irreconcilable polarity between autonomous scientific reason on the one hand and traditionally determined religious faith on the other are wrong for all that. Research on the history of science in the last thirty years has shown that many great natural scientists of the modern era, like Sir Isaac Newton, were very pious people whose scientific curiosity was crucially stimulated by their faith in God. Admittedly, in most experimental sciences tough battles over interpretation led to the establishment of a kind of methodical atheism, and “God” – whatever that was supposed to mean – was dismissed as a pattern of explanation. Even so, in terms of progress and failure, successful insight and ideological obliquity, the varieties of modern scientific history have been very strongly determined by all-embracing ideological certainties and religious convictions. “Faith” is not the only multilayered, ambiguous concept; “reason” is also polyvalent, and there is no lack of controversy in philosophical and scholary debate as to what strictly rational reasons are.

Modern scientific history and modern religious history are not easy to separate. They overlap. Scientifically relevant insights can also be generated in religious debate. The hard-won and legally anchored freedom of research and teaching does not automatically mean that cultural factors may not influence research and knowledge under any circumstances. We know of no culture that has not been decisively shaped by religious traditions, too. Furthermore, pious certainties are an important source of morals, and in open pluralistic societies religious actors such as the churches or the Central Council of Jews have plenty of opportunities to establish potential ethical boundaries to the freedom of research, all based on reasons that are good and serve freedom. It is essential to keep clarifying the manifold overlaps between religion and science. Historical cultural studies are science’s way of contributing to ongoing clarification by examining elementary changes in moral convictions, ethical debate and legal institutions: things that were considered morally reprehensible yesterday may well seem legitimate and necessary for the sake of freedom today.

The primary reason why this fundamental change in moral norms is relevant for scientific insight is that social discourse constantly redraws the borders of academic freedom. In this context traditional, often ancient religious certainties play just as important a role as the power ambitions of religious organisations and authorities. What is prohibited in one European society is allowed and promoted by the state in another. This has a great deal to do with religious traditions and the power prospects of the clerical elites. Jewish scholars take quite a different view on the moral legitimacy of research on embryonic stem cells from Roman Catholic bishops and the Pope, because for hundreds of years they have defined the beginning of human life in patterns of interpretation the Catholic church rejects – despite the fact that Jews and Catholics draw on the same account of creation in the Old Testament and the Hebrew Bible. On top of this, it was only 150 years ago that the Roman Catholic church developed the position on the beginning of human life, that it now propagates as generally binding, as the only true Christian stance. And many Protestant churches have quite different ideas on these issues.

For its own sake science has a serious interest in investigating such religious discourse because it goes beyond the boundaries of organised religion to pervade the political public arenas of modern societies. Science needs plenty of analytical religious awareness.

Ever more disciplines researching into faith

Religious research has been undertaken by quite different disciplines since the late 18th century. There was a time when faith was the cognitional prerogative of theologians and philosophers, but since 1770, ever more disciplines have vied with each other to investigate the realms of the pious and the symbols of belief and rites in the various religious communities. The sociology and psychology of religion, confessional studies, general religious studies, ethnology, cultural anthropology and, more recently, the economics and politics of religion and spiritual neuroscience (often referred to rather unfortunately as neurotheology in the German debate) continue to battle it out for sovereignty over the interpretation of religious consciousness, a dazzling object of cognition that shies away from speedy analytical access.

Just as in the interpretation of other cultural phenomena, interpretation of religion is also faced with the problem that there is no neutral ground from which to view and interpret. Anyone interpreting religion is automatically influenced by the implicit axioms of a certain culture and is unable to overcome the uniqueness of his or her individual perspective.

Thus religious research is conducted in an extremely tense and yet productive interplay of cooperation and conflict between the rather more historically-descriptive disciplines and the normative subjects which interpret and rationalise religion from the insider’s perspective of a certain religious tradition. And this is precisely the function of theology at university. Theology goes beyond pure description to examine the validity of the potential claims to truth made by religious traditions.

Reasonable theology to counter fanatical religiosity

It is true that confessional theologies themselves have been arguing about the position of the subject in the world of learning for a good 250 years. But at the same time it is clear that a free society, in which the majority of the citizens belong to religious communities, has an elementary interest in academic theology being taught at its universities. After all, these religious communities, in the case of Germany especially the two main people’s churches, need educated clerics and educated teachers of religion if their religious communication is going to succeed in a modern knowledge society.

To a greater extent than other religions, the various European Christianities have cultivated academic, reasonable theology in the interest of preventing fanatical religiosity and promoting educated religion since the early Middle Ages. This is still the crucial task of theologians in the science systems: to maintain the permanent tension between critical rationality and religious faith (Sinnglauben) while, at the same time, helping to ensure that science does not misunderstand its role and see itself as a religion or weltanschauung.


  • 17.11.2009 Karl Heinz Kienitz

    It is more accurate to say that research on the history of science REDISCOVERED that many great natural scientists “were very pious people whose scientific curiosity was crucially stimulated by their faith in God.” Unfortunately the faith of famous scientists (such as Kepler, Boyle, Ampere, Volta, Pascal, Newton, Leibniz, Faraday, Henry, Dalton, Joule, Stokes, Pasteur, Mendel, Kelvin, Maxwell, Planck) has all too often been concealed and viewed as an embarrassing topic in schools and universities. (Why?) To help mitigating the effects of such fault and to provide adequate information, mainly to the Portuguese speaking community, I maintain a website on Faith and Science with pertinent information and links, at

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Friedrich Wilhelm Graf Friedrich Wilhelm Graf

Professor Dr. Friedrich Wilhelm Graf teaches Systematic Theology in the Faculty of Protestant Theology at LMU Munich. He is a member of the Humboldt Foundation’s selection committee.

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