Science in Christian Perspective


Sociology: Scientists and Theologians

From: JASA 18 (June 1966): 52-54.

It is customary to consider the problems stemming from the merger of science and religion from a cultural
perspective. Such questions are centered in the relative influence which one institution has over the other.
Seldom is one concerned with the interaction level where the scientist and theologian come into a dialogue.

Looking forward to the ASA-ETS meetings this year, however, it is apparent that some consideration should
be given to problems on this level. Of particular importance is the need to understand the similar and diverse value systems employed by scientists and theologians.

While the material in the sociology of science is quantitatively scant in this area, it is qualitatively rich. Probably nothing of a comparable nature has been done in the sociology of religion. Nevertheless, there appears to be profit in sketching out the relevant points of contact between these two social systems which allow for an understanding of their relationship.

Autonomy -

It is rather apparent that science and theology are both interested in a search for truth, the former on the empirical level and the latter on the super-empirical. Hence, each has a defined area of specialization. Probably the most significant conflict occurs when these boundaries are penetrated by one or the other.

The attempt to seek these truths produces two social systems, one stemming from the interaction of scientists among themselves, and the other from the interaction of theologians. Each social system, in turn, needs to maintain freedom in seeking truth. For this reason, autonomy is a cherished value and each social system protects itself from outside influences.1

To maintain perfect autonomy is, of course, not possible. Significant links with the total society, such as the university or the government, are ubiquitous. Increased relations with such social forces will weaken the autonomous nature of the system.

It should be noted that much autonomy has been lost by science and theology in our modern society. The
extent to which science becomes applied for the resolution of problems of a technological nature and the
manner in which theology is influenced by social ethics
are cases in point. While the ASA may be flexible in its position on autonomy, the theological position represented by ETS is, perhaps, more durably cast. It appears necessary, then, for ASA to evaluate its position relative to autonomy and realize the existence of a potential conflict with the autonomous theological system represented by ETS.

Priorities -

From these preliminary statements, we may conclude that conflict between these two systems, while necessary, may also be very functional. Such conflict is inherent in the social system of science due to the argument over priority of discovery. The history of such quarrels over priority in scientific accomplishment has been well documented.2 Of additional importance is the fact that the claim to priority becomes a basic norm of science and results in the need for reciprocity among the system's members. Consequently, scientists are motivated to claim priority for their discoveries, thus causing them to value the constant interaction which is necessary to establish priority.

It is entirely possible that a similar mechanism is at work in theological circles in those situations where doctrinal disputes develop. Refinements in doctrine appear to stem from theological conflicts requiring interaction of theologians across doctrinal lines. To counteract this conflict, there are also norms stressing humility and the proper recognition of the achievements of predecessors. The existence of such norms in science have been referred to elsewhere.3

For our particular interest here, we should note that such conflict would also occur when the two systems, represented by ASA and ETS converge. While the conflict functions to increase the unity within each system, it should also be noted that the interaction of scientists and theologians is similarly functional for the development of other value systems. It is suggested that these consist of two main values: the recognition of the limitations of one's own field of truthseeking and the importance of checking the claims made by the other system. Thus, the checks and balance system resulting from interaction among scientists and theologians appears to be significant.

Altruism -

In both science and theology, there appears to be a strain between what the individual wants to do and what the system expects him to do. It has been claimed that the scientist becomes altruistic in order to reduce this strain.4 Undoubtedly, such a norm also exists for the theologian. In both cases, the reason for such altruism would appear to have the same bases: the roles of scientist and theologian are both voluntary and outside of the typical reward systems offered by society.

It could be suggested here that ASA and ETS, representing minority groups within each total social system, do not share all of the rewards and norms found there. The liberal theologian, for instance, is rewarded by the norms implicit in the social ethic which is supported by most of the society. Similarly, the member of ASA is interested in problems which are often outside of the mainstream of contemporary science.

Largely because of the value of altruism, members of ASA and ETS would tend to have greater reciprocity and interaction, particularly on certain problems, than with members of their own discipline. Consequently, interaction with members of another social system should be personally rewarding relative to the value of altruism. Further, achievement of personal rewards rather than collective goals appears to induce subscription to normative systems.5 The members of ASA and ETS would appear to find their mutual interaction rewarding and, in addition, find themselves adhering more closely to the value systems of science and theology. The latter consequence would result, of course, only in the extent to which the total social systems of science and theology have moved away from altruism and its derived value systems.

Reward system -

In order to maintain social interaction and systems of norms, it is necessary to provide appropriate systems of rewards. Autonomy has been referred to as a goal of the system which is rewarding to the individual when achieved. The claim to priority results in the fulfillment of a personal goal in science and is usually referred to as professional recognition.6 In addition, it results in a significant value system of science which advocates interaction. Similarly, altruism is a personal goal and, as has been suggested, provides support for the value system of either science or theology.

The adequate control of these rewards is based on the norms of organized skepticism and appreciation.7 The former tends to be functional for the system and the latter for the individual. Thus, the deviant scientist who attempts to generate his own recognition by claiming illegitimate priority of discovery in science is sanctioned and loses his reputation.

It should be noted that such rewards tend to be maximized when disciplines overlap. Thus, a scientist's work, which may border on another discipline's area of specialization, may be properly criticized or appreciated only by a member of that other discipline. For this reason, interaction between disciplines becomes functional for the control of one of the representative social systems.

It would appear, then, that one. of the primary functions of joint meetings of the ASA and ETS is to provide the proper system of checks and balances implied by the rewards of organized skepticism and appreciation. Further, it is through such a system of checks that group and individual goals would appear to be most readily achieved.

Social consequences -

It is entirely possible that the social consequences of science and theology will be ignored in the pursuit of the more immediate ends of seeking truth and gaining individual goals as discussed above.8 Such consequences tend to be located outside of the system and may be understood with reference to the problems of latency and communication.

Population problems serve as a useful means of illustrating the problems of latency. In advocating the use of birth control, the scientist may ignore the cultural and moral implications of such practices. The theologian, however, who remains firm on certain religious interpretations may overlook the problem caused for the scientist by such a position. As we well know, it is only by proper evaluation of one's system's pronouncements by the other that we approach social consequences with increased objectivity.

The problem of communication results from the increased tendency for any discipline to become less intelligible to the layman as specialization develops. Again, the problem of communication may not be apparent to the specialist as long as there is communication only within the system. Ultimately, such limited communication results in the formation of elites which gain increased social power. Once the public can fully comprehend policies advocated by elites, there is a greater possibility that criticism and erosion of the elite's power will occur.

In our present society, scence and theology constitute influential elite systems with significant power. It is doubtful that ASA and ETS aspire to similar positions. With this assumption, we may conclude that the need for interaction between the two systems for the purposes of maximizing communication and minimizing problems, of latency is functional for the control of power elites and justifies the resulting system of checks and balances.

Conclusion -

As members of ASA well know, the Christian community may be readily disposed to be hostile toward science.9 Such antagonism may be largely the result of a hypothetical conflict between the ethos of science and that of religion. Profitable liaison between the ASA and ETS should go a long way toward dispelling such hostility, thereby allowing both groups to act as buffers between the Christian community and science. Until such a rapprochement might be achieved, the voice of ASA in the Christian community is likely to remain rather weak and distant.


1. Some of these ideas are based on a paper by Norman Storer, Science and the Creative Professions, presented at the 1962 meetings of the Eastern Sociological Society, (Philadelphia, April 7-8).

2. Merton, Robert K., "Priorities in Scientific Discovery: A Chapter in the Sociology of Science", American Sociological Review, Vol. 22,1957, pp. 635-659.

3. Ibid.

4. Storer, Norman, Institutional Norms and Personal Motives in Science, paper presented at the 1963 meetings of the Eastern Sociological Society, (New York, April 6th).

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. See both Merton and Storer on these points.

8. Merton, Robert, "Science and the Social Order", Social Theory and Social Structure, (1st ed.), The Free Press: Glencoe, 1949, pp. 295-305.

9. Merton states that such hostility toward science is probably more active and wide spread than would be generally recognized. Ibid., p. 304.