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The Words ‘Science’ and ‘Theology’ in Popular Usage

‘Science’ and ‘scientific’ are frequently appealed to as a means of bestowing respectability on a subject, bringing with them connotations of rationality, reliability and utility. How often in the media do we encounter the authoritative ‘Science tells us...’? Interviewees when pressed riposte with ‘We need to be scientific about this...’ and advertisers attract us with such phrases as ‘The appliance of science’, ‘The science diet’ and all manner of goods which come with a supposedly scientific seal of approval. In contrast ‘theology’ and ‘theological’ have, for some at least, taken the place of the once popular ‘metaphysical abstraction’ as the standard terms of derogation: ‘Theological nonsense’ cries an M.P. across the floor of the House, implying irrationality, confusion and irrelevance.

The theological problems occasioned by the rise of science extend then, it would seem, beyond particular disputes to a more pervasive sense that science stands as the measure of all valid knowledge in such a manner as calls into question the notion that theology is a route to truth. This belief can take many forms:

  • science is a truly modern form of knowing whilst theology represents a pre-modern throw-back;
  • science is useful whereas theology promotes a disengagement from reality;
  • science is value-free whereas theology is compromised by personal commitment;
  • science is open to falsification and renewal whereas theology is dogmatically entrenched;
  • science is based upon empirical data whereas theology is a matter of pure speculation;

in short, science seeks after objective truth whereas theology deals only in subjective meaning.

These assumptions can be as untrue to the reality of science as to the practice of theology.For a detailed analysis see God, Humanity and the Cosmos, Ch.2.Their uncritical acceptance tends to perpetuate the ‘conflict’ or ‘warfare’ hypothesis. But see possibilities for dialogue for ways to a different understanding.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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