The Science of Religion

How the Scientific Imagination can Illuminate Religious Experience and Ministry

Some years ago I gave a talk at a now-defunct seminary in which I argued, surely less eloquently than I might have liked, that a critical postmodern challenge for people in ministry was developing scientific literacy and fluency. I took as my starting point Albert Einstein’s argument in Ideas and Opinions (1934) that “the main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of science and religion lies in [the] concept of a personal God” (47). Einstein advanced his argument by describing the development of general rules of scientific investigation that, over time, have been shown to be able to reliably predict, for example, the movement of planets, the transmutations of atomic particles, the mutation of genes, and (perhaps less reliably) the vicissitudes of weather.

So dependable have such scientific laws proved to be in the experience of modern people, Einstein argued, that the idea of a personal god “interfering in natural events” is increasingly hard to grok, even for the nonscientist. “If it is one of the goals of religion to liberate [hu]mankind as far as possible from egocentric cravings, desires, and fears”—a goal that his experience as a Jew in World War II compelled him to embrace with great fervor—it was time for religious folks to set aside the idea of a personal god and to embrace science as a true collaborator in “cultivating the Good, the True, the Beautiful in humanity itself.” He continued,

For a doctrine which is able to maintain itself not in clear light but only in the dark, will of necessity lose its effect on [hu]mankind, with incalculable harm to human progress. … The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge. In this sense I believe that the priest must become a teacher if he wishes to do justice to his lofty educational mission.”

Now, I wasn’t advocating Einstein’s argument on a personal god per se—though my thinking does tend to lean in his direction. Rather, I was pointing to the idea “the priest must become a teacher”—that is, a teacher of science. At least of a sort.

The turn I took with my argument (not Einstein’s) was that the scientific epistemology—our scientific understanding of much of reality—of postmodern life demands a deeper, more engaged fluency with science that can inform the practice of ministry, particularly in formation and preaching. I argued that, at the very least, people in ministry needed to be able to speak the language of science at the level of symbol, metaphor, and analogy so as to more fully and credibly communicate the Gospel in a world of increasingly scientific vernacularity.

I used the work of the poet Tracy K. Smith, then poet laureate of the United States, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Life on Mars (2011)among other things, mourned the death of her father, an optical engineer who had worked on the Hubble telescope. Smith’s “The Universe is a House Party” and “The Speed of Belief,” in particular, make clear that we can only hope to approach the unknowable, the unfathomable, the profoundly mysterious—whether that is the stuff of tragedy or ecstasy— through overlapping lenses of science, religion, and art. Her “Us & Co” sets the loss of her father in a cosmic dimension that can only be comprehended from such a kaleidoscopic vantage:

We are here for what amounts to a few hours,

a day at most.

We feel around making sense of the terrain,

our own new limbs,

Bumping up against a herd of bodies

until one becomes home.

Moments sweep past. The grass bends

then learns again to stand.

We are all mere specks, all mere moments. But we find each other, however randomly. We stand together, one blade of grass beside the next. We need science, we need religion, we need art to understand any of it in even the smallest of ways.

As I said, I was surely less than eloquent in laying out my argument. An Episcopal priest in the audience went off during the Q&A on what he took to be my call for the death of anyone’s own personal Jesus. It didn’t get much better from there. At least not that night.

After that, however, I slowly began to take up my own challenge. I began reading evolutionary biology and cognition, tiptoeing around the edges of quantum physics, dipping into the shallow end of transhumanism and posthumanism, having a brain-frying go at the semiotics of computer code. I have no hope of even the merest of competence in any of these fields. But I have wanted them at least to sound more recognizable to me, vaguely familiar. I want their lexicons to inform my own as I attempt to describe, analyze, and interpret religion as it is lived today.

This issue invites Bearings readers into this journey—or, for those who have already been well along the trail, invites a consideration of other trajectories. Two in particular are featured in the issue. The first, by Sean O’Callaghan, gives a theological read of what fans of the Netflix series “Altered Carbon” and “Black Mirror” will recognize as the adaptation of the human body and expansion of human capabilities that fall under the banners of contemporary transhumanism and posthumanism. In “Prophets of the Digital Divine,” Sean offers a survey of this brave new world, raising important questions for those in ministry in a world in which the nature of the human is changing dramatically, with profound implications for our understanding of religious life and of God.

For their part, sociologists Wendy Cadge and Michael Skaggs, awardees of a Compass Grant from The BTS Center, the scientific-religious journey runs decidedly off the beaten path. In “Enhancing Ministry beyond the Congregation,” Wendy and Michael share results of a survey of 1000 undergraduates from an élite liberal arts college in New England on their engagement with campus chaplaincy. Despite the well-ballyhooed increase in religious unaffiliation, the survey showed that “46% of respondents have spent time with some sort of chaplaincy.” Their research, here again, raises important questions for people in ministry about where and how religion and the spiritual unfold in these times. It also shows the power of science—social science in this case—to illuminate critical aspects of a changing religious and spiritual landscape.

Episcopal priest Andy Shamel is letting this journey across the evolving religious landscape play out—pun intended—”across the pond,” where he is completing doctoral studies at the University of Oxford. Andy’s studies of how people construct meaning today focus on the critical role of play and story in structuring and articulating the spiritual in everyday experience. His “Playing Games with God” is rich, inspiring commentary for leaders in ministry.

But there’s more! Later this month we will have a special Creative Insights offering from filmmaker, pastor, and seminary professor Ralph Basui Watkins. Look for news on that in the coming weeks.

Finally, we come close to the end of our publication season, we urge you once more, if you haven’t done so already, to share your thoughts about Bearings in our 2019 Reader Experience Survey. Our robots assure us it only takes 5 minutes to complete the survey, and it means much to us as we plan future issues.



Einstein, Elizabeth Drescher, Hubble telescope, physics, religion, Science, Tracy K. Smith

Elizabeth Drescher

Elizabeth Drescher, PhD is the editor of Bearings and a Consulting Scholar at The BTS Center. She is also an Adjunct Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and the author of Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (Oxford University Press, 2016), Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse 2011), and, with Keith Anderson, Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012) and Click 2 Save: Reboot (Church Publishing, 2018). Her commentary on contemporary religion and spirituality has been published in Alternet, AmericaThe AtlanticSalon, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Jose Mercury News, Religion Dispatches, The Washington Post, and other national publications. She is a much sought after speaker for religious and academic groups engaging the changing religious landscape in the United States. You can find Elizabeth on Twitter @edrescherphd.

Featured Image: Jeff Sheldon, Untitled (November 5, 2014). Via Unsplash. CC 2.0 license. Cropped. Image overlay from Pixabay, “Angel God Heaven” (August 9, 2016). CC 3.0 Recolored.