Science and Religion: Can There Be A Conversation?

Religion / Rhode Island / Science / SOSc

Last week I gave a talk in Little Compton Rhode Island on the complexity involved in the conversation between the scientific and theological enterprises. There were two big take-aways I hoped people would leave with.

First was that the difficulty in conversation stems primarily from the different methodologies the two systems use in discriminating between opposing claims. Science uses the lab bench. It’s not clear what the final referee is in theological conversation is, but I made a few suggestions.

(The question in theology isn’t simply answered by claiming that you use the Bible to resolve all disputes – people interpret and use the Bible differently for one thing, and there are a number of modern questions that the Bible only speaks about tangentially if at all.)

The second take-away was that there must be a conversation. Truth is truth whether it is found within the scientific enterprise or the theological. The two “rival” systems have to take account of what the other claims. To simply ignore a claim is to place oneself into an ideological zone that strives to keep oneself pure (at best) and segregated (at worst). Essentially, when one system decides to ignore the other system’s work, we are creating intellectual ghettos (in the old sense of the word) and I will not accept that God created us to live in such ways.

If you’ve got an hour of free time and you’d like to see the talk in its entirety, the people of St. Andrew’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Little Compton recorded the presentation and have posted it:

Richard Dujardin, a reporter for the Providence Journal attended the talk as well, and did a write up that was published in the Sunday paper.

“Now I would love to tell you that there is no conflict between science and religion at all,” [Knisely] told the gathering, “but I’m afraid there is.”

He says there has been some overreaching by both sides.

Richard did a great job of presenting a rather esoteric talk in a way that I think is accessible to the general public. That’s a skill I’m not sure I’ve mastered!

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Helen Bodell says

    Bishop Knisley,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughtful work on this subject. We appreciated having this conversation with you this spring at St. Martin’s as well.
    I think your honest comment at the end of this post could be an important conversation starter in our churches and diocese. We certainly want our church to be accessible to the general public, on many levels.
    In peace and with thanks for your leadership and ministry,
    Helen Bodell

  2. Sam Coale, parishoner at St. Martin's says

    This is fascinating. The first two chapters in my book, Quirks of the Quantum: Postmodernism in Contemporary American Fiction (Virginia, 2012), now in paperback, are a layman’s attempt to explain quantum theory in “lay” terms. It certainly fits your sense of mystery and, from my perspective, the romantic sublime. I’m now working on a project of the struggle between the causal construction of narrative and how to “describe” sublime, “religious,” revelatory epiphanies as/in narrative. I think I’m in for a long and bumpy ride.

  3. Bill Ghrist says

    The relationship between science and religion is something I have always found compelling, and this lecture provides new and valuable perspectives on the subject. One of the ideas that particularly sticks in my mind is your sister-in-law’s proposal (paraphrasing) that truth is a great idea but is so complicated to get to that maybe we need to give up on the idea of absolute truth and instead concentrate on meaning. One thing I would like to hear you address in greater scope is how science can talk about meaning. I understand your example of how values must affect the ethics of how we do science. It would be helpful however to hear more about whether and how science can contribute to the discovery of meaning. Maybe there is more in the book 🙂

    One thing is clear is that modern science has made it more and more difficult to conceptualize the underlying reality of what the theories and observations are telling us. Of course some scientists would simply say that only the theories and observations are really science and that the conceptualization is something else. That seems rather unfruitful however. Perhaps it is in the attempt to understand underlying reality that science and religion meet intellectually–in the world of analogy.

  4. Procaccini says

    One of the emerging fields where science and religion work in a mutually supportive fashion is bioethics. So many of the bioethical principles that govern the field, like beneficence, nonmaleficence, autonomy, and justice are deeply rooted in religious teachings and beliefs. It is wonderful to observe theologians, philosophers, and medical scientists put their heads together and hammer out nearly universally-accepted principles. One example is the ban on selling organs for transplants in all countries, except one, Another is the rapidly growing elimination of capital punishment. It appears that each of these fields, science and religion/philosophy, needs each other as complementary parts of the whole in bioethics.

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