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The Incompatibility of Science and Religion as a Problem with Theology, not Science

Several contributors to the “After Science and Religion” project (ASR) find naturalism, whether metaphysical or merely methodological, incompatible with theism. Peter Harrison argues, in a response to Josh Reeves’s critique of ASR (2022), that prima facie, the incompatibility is obvious: naturalism, by definition, excludes God. This incompatibility reaches even to methodological naturalism, for a theologian cannot conduct an inquiry even “as if” God does not exist (Harrison 2023). 

As Harrison points out, however, this prima facie incompatibility admits of multiple qualifications. He holds, along with Paul Tyson, a weak version of the incompatibility thesis, which distinguishes between naturalism, science, and scientism (Tyson 2022). Harrison’s worry is that scientific practice, while not intrinsically inimical to religious commitments, may nevertheless inculcate habits of mind that produce, sociologically speaking, scientism. Tyson argues that, apart from the actual practice of science, it holds a role in Western society as “first truth discourse,” which is tantamount to scientism (Tyson 2022, 2–4). Hence the weak version of the incompatibility thesis might also be termed the sociological version.

Though I conclude with some comments on the weak version, my concern here is primarily with what might be called the strong or metaphysical version of the incompatibility thesis (e.g., Hanby 2022). On the strong version of incompatibility, much, if not most, modern scientific practice is intrinsically inconsistent with theism, to its detriment (Hanby 2013). The argument, in brief, is that the practice of science ultimately depends on the presupposition of an intelligible cosmos, but that modern science generally abandons just this presupposition by adopting “an ontology that unmakes our capacity to see and to think, replacing both with technique, so that ‘the creature itself grows unintelligible’” (Hanby 2013, 418). Modern science may give us power, according to Hanby, but it produces no knowledge, because it atomizes nature by abandoning the principle of nature’s intelligibility—namely, God, who is supremely intelligible and the source of all intelligibility.

While I generally share this theological outlook on metaphysics and epistemology, I nevertheless think that Peter Harrison’s remark about the Kuhnian problem of incommensurability is equally apropos here: “[Thomas Kuhn] identified the philosophical analysis of science as the true generator of its apparent irrationality: incommensurability is what you end up with if you insist on reading science through a particular philosophical lens” (Harrison 2022). Indeed—and strong incompatibility is what you end up with if you insist on reading science through a particular theological lens.

In this paper, I identify the strong incompatibility thesis as a problem, not with science, but with theology. I argue that the appearance of strong incompatibility in fact results from making a particular theological choice about the doctrine of creation, which emphasizes creaturely participation in God as the most salient aspect of the doctrine. What John Milbank terms “the metaphysic of existential participation” derives from this reading of the doctrine, and it drives the critique of Hanby et al. (Milbank 2014, 36). 

There is another theological reading of creation, however, which emphasizes the difference between creature and Creator as the most salient aspect of the doctrine. This reading obeys a maxim from the Fourth Lateran Council, central to the thought of the 20th century Catholic theologian and philosopher, Erich Przywara: One cannot note any similarity between Creator and creature, however great, without being compelled to note an even greater dissimilarity between them (Przywara 2014, 234n232). With respect to the doctrine of creation, this maxim relativizes, without vitiating, the metaphysic of participation, and it lays the emphasis on the contrast between the Being of God and creaturely beings: God is, but creatures only “are” analogously speaking. They are composite, contingent, arising from nothing and tending towards nothing, while being sustained in being by God. 

I argue that adopting this theological lens to read science makes room for the study of nature without explicit reference to the divine cause—call it methodological naturalism if you will—for a theological reason: the radical difference between God and nature. Moreover, I suggest it even makes room for the sorts of atomistic and mechanistic explanations that Hanby decries. These explanations, though partial, would truly reflect the analogical character of creaturely being.

As for methodological naturalism, adopting this lens offers another interpretation of what scientists are doing when they study nature without explicit reference to God. Neither theologian nor scientist need interpret these practices as the study of nature as if God did not exist. One could also interpret them as obedience to Przywara’s maxim. In so doing, we can counter the problem identified by the weak version of the incompatibility thesis, which I recognize as genuine. The very same practices that can inculcate scientism, interpreted differently, become a pedagogy of belief.


Hanby, Michael. 2013. No God, No Science? Theology, Cosmology, Biology. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

———. 2022. “Questioning the Science and Religion Question.” In After Science and Religion: Fresh Perspectives from Philosophy and Theology, edited by John Milbank and Peter Harrison, 155–70. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harrison, Peter. 2022. “Science and Religion as Historical Traditions.” In After Science and Religion: Fresh Perspectives from Philosophy and Theology, edited by John Milbank and Peter Harrison, 15–34. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2023. “Naturalism and the Categories ‘Science’ and ‘Religion’: A Response to Josh Reeves.” Zygon, February.

Milbank, John. 2014. The Suspended Middle: Henri de Lubac and the Renewed Split in Modern Catholic Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Przywara, Erich. 2014. Analogia Entis: Metaphysics : Original Structure and Universal Rhythm. Translated by John Betz and David Bentley Hart. Ressourcement. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Reeves, Josh A. 2022. “A Defense of Science and Religion: Reflections on Peter Harrison’s ‘After Science and Religion’ Project.” Zygon, December.

Tyson, Paul. 2022. A Christian Theology of Science: Reimagining a Theological Vision of Natural Knowledge. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 150 words)

What makes for the appearance of incompatibility between science and religion? Some contributors to the “After Science and Religion” project attribute incompatibility to scientists’ assumption of naturalism. In this paper, I argue that the appearance of incompatibility actually stems from upstream theological assumptions about the meaning of the Christian doctrine of creation. In particular, an overemphasis on creaturely participation in God as the consequence of creation can lead to a view that finds non-participatory outlooks, such as naturalism, totally incompatible with theism. I offer an alternative reading of creation as a corrective, which emphasizes the difference between creatures and Creator. Keeping this difference in view creates room for the study of the natural world apart from explicit reference to God, and for a theological reason: the “ever greater dissimilarity” between Creator and creature warrants a mode of explanation that seeks to understand creatures as different than God.