Science and Religion

Lord May of Oxford’s final anniversary address as President of the Royal Society, perhaps the most distinguished scientific society in the country, raises concerns about the danger of an undermining of the rational basis of science.

Lord May has seen an undermining of scientific progress in the public response to the MMR scare. He has noted that the moral obligation to vaccinate children in high numbers has been assuaged by irrational beliefs about risks which have no scientific basis. Now the population are not well protected against mumps. There may well be far more harm done by mumps to children than any very unlikely link to other conditions as the risk of a serious outbreak is so much higher now so many people refused to get the vaccination.

Lord May also noted that in the US, the aim of a growing network of fundamentalist religious foundations and groups reaches well beyond “equal time” for creationism, or “intelligent design”, in the science classroom. He argues that the ultimate aim is the overthrow of “scientific materialism”, in all its manifestations. He quotes George Gilder, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, has indicated that this new, faith-based science will rid us of the “chimeras of popular science”, and those chimeras turn out to be ideas such as global warming, pollution problems, and ozone depletion. In other words religious fundamentalism is undermining a rational basis for enquiry which has given us greater health than ever, better resistance to diseases and infections, and more human beings than ever before as child mortality declines.

Richard Dawkins has bitterly opposed what he considers religious dogma. Dawkins sees education and consciousness-raising as primary tools, including the fight against certain stereotypes. He has written that,

Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness.

It is relatively easy to find evidence to back the moral argument against religion. Lord May thinks that the world is in danger and the spread of irrationality threatens the future of the world. There is an irrational failure to grasp the peril the climate is in and a turning of the back on notions of a rationally justified truthful picture of reality. Is religion’s strongest response to the knowledge we have in the modern world a straightforward denial of its merit? If that is the case, then the moral argument against religion will grow.

Making Sense of Science and Religion

It is easy to simplify the relationship between science and religion and characterize the relationship between them simplistically. We can see them as in constant opposition, diametrically opposed. We can see them as complimentary to one another, rather than opposing forces. We can even see them as intimately connected. In his book Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge, CUP, 1991) John Hedley Brook examines the history of science and religion and finds each of these representations of the link overly simplistic.

Religion and Science in perpetual conflict

The media tends to represent science and religion as opposites and a number of best selling books, such as Dawkins’ The God Delusion, underline this view. This is perhaps a commonly held view today and of course it might seem an attractive idea. The language we sometimes use about science and religion reinforces this separation. For example, the words faith and reason seem to sum up the extent of their difference. Faith is one thing and reason quite another – the two are irreconcilably different! Curiously, when these words are used, it is often without careful definition of what exactly each means. There is an assumption that this portrayal captures the historical reality of a war between science and religion which reaches back to the trial of Galileo and the publication of the Origin of the Species by Darwin. Brook captures this idea of the history of the two in the account of the reluctance of the clergy to fix lightning rods to their churches. In 1975 the Bell Tower in Venice had once more been shattered by a storm and although Benjamin Franklin had mastered the lightning rod and this could have saved many a church tower, such a device was viewed as meddling with providence. God’s wrath in the storm should not be denied. The clerical authorities allowed it to be destroyed twice more before installing the device, with the effect that the monument was saved. Brook argues this portrays a picture of how the development of science and religion can be seen – stuck in a perennial battle.

This view of the past conjures an idea that with the scientific revolution of Copernicus and Galileo, religion and science parted. However this picture does not reflect the reality. The English Copernican John Wilkins revised his beliefs as a result of accepting Copernicus’ sun centred astronomy, but did not abandon religion. He later became a Bishop in the Church of England. Galileo continued to support a place for theology and philosophy. Other later scientists maintained religious views. For instance, Newton had a particular interest in biblical prophecy and alchemy. This does not prove any links between science and religion but it does challenge the way in which we view and use the history of the two.

Science and Religion are complimentary

Brook identifies a second view of the link seeing the two as complimenting one another by responding to a different set of human needs. Scientific language is for one area of practice – the laboratory, while theological language for another – the place of worship. Debates about evolution verses creationism are based on a mistake. A proper understanding of the doctrine of creation is that God is the creator of everything, everything is ultimately dependent on God, not that every separate species has to be independently created by God.

An intimate relationship between Science and religion

Brook’s third observation is that some people directly deny the first category and instead suggest that there is a very close connection between science and religion and that one encourages the other. For instance Puritan values are seen to have assisted with the expansion of science in America. Those who believe in this connection see in science reasons to be religious and vice versa – one leads to the other.

A complex history

Brook argues that these three positions are maintained today and in each case they appeal to history to justify them. However this appeal to history is a problem because the lessons from history are not that simple. In other words we need to be careful about how history is used to justify arguments about the place of science and religion today. It is easy to think the picture we have today of what science is, has always been this way and the picture of what we believe religion is, is also unchanged. However, Brook argues that the way religion and science were defined in the past mean that easy correlations with the present debates are not appropriate. For example, in the seventeenth century what was termed Natural Philosophy explored God’s relationship to nature. This is an example of how religious beliefs could operate within science influencing the theories chosen. For T H Huxley, for example, the meaning of Darwin’s theory was found in its challenge to what he saw as the poison of Roman Catholicism, not Christianity per se.

Mutual indifferent co-existence

Over time it has become easier to insist on the mutual irrelevance of science and religion – perhaps they could co-exist in mutual indifference. This is because of a much clearer idea of what constitutes evidence and how that differs within science and religion.

New areas for connections

However, some developments in particle physics make the position of mutual indifferent co-existence doubtful. Rather they point to new parallels being drawn between science and religion. Developments in quantum mechanics have demanded a review of classical ideas of causality and the idea of physical reality. The possibility of drawing objective descriptions of the world, objective from the method used to draw, has been rendered highly problematic. In quantum physics, the rules seem only to apply whilst the observation is being made! The fact that photons and electrons exhibit both wave and particle characteristics, raise important questions about the building blocks of reality.

Reality has become somewhat more elusive than it once was thought to be. Brook notes this has attracted theological attention. With the new physics there is rather more indeterminacy, which again makes space for dialogue with theologians.

Brook’s survey is not about the actual connections between science and religion, but about the way in which there is a rather more complicated picture of how science and religion have been related in the past. Simplistic pictures of this relationship must be questioned, however attractive the picture might be.


Take two eminent scholars; Francis Collins, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, headed a multinational 2,400-scientist team that helped map the three billion biochemical letters of human DNA; Richard Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. Dawkins is a biologist and an atheist. Collins is a geneticist and a Christian. Science and religion are often presented as conflicting areas. Dawkins argues that religious belief is irreconcilable with a rational way of thinking. In a recent debate (,9171,1555132-3,00.html) Collins argued that God’s existence cannot be answered as a scientific question using tools of science. “From my perspective, God cannot be completely contained within nature, and therefore God’s existence is outside of science’s ability to really weigh in,” said Collins. Collins sees evolution and faith in the existence of God as compatible. He argues creation activated evolution. Dawkins finds it odd that God would choose a roundabout way of creating life and humans. Why wait for 10 billion years before life began and then another 4 billion years until humans were capable of worshipping. For Collins the Old Testament was never intended as a science textbook but rather a description of who God is and what our relationship with God should be like. The difference between the two is not about the difference between Faith and science but about compatibility. Dawkins is an incompatibilist, Collins a compatibilist.

Professor R J Berry is Emeritus Professor of genetics at University College, London. He thinks the opposition of creation and evolution is a mistake. In a paper for the Faraday Institute he argues that ‘Creation’ is a theological term that acknowledges the dependence of all that exists upon the authorship of the Creator. On the other hand ‘Evolution’ refers to our current understanding as to how God has brought biological diversity into being. As such he sees these two things as compatible with one another.

Dr Denis Alexander is the Director of the Faraday Institute for science and religion and Fellow of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge; and a Senior Affiliated Scientist at The Babraham Institute, Cambridge, where he was previously Chairman of the Molecular Immunology Programme and Head of the Laboratory of Lymphocyte Signalling and Development. He has surveyed the different models for the way science and religion interact and conflict is one of those models though it is not one that accurately described the history of the relationship. A second possibility is the NOMA model – No Overlapping Magsteria. This view holds that the two have nothing to say to one another. They operate in different kinds of compartments and address different questions. However, if science and religion claim to be about reality, then it is the same reality they are about. The third model is Fusion. In this view there are overlapping boundaries. The kinds of knowledge that science and religion represent are similar or the same. Quantum mechanics might be seen as similar to eastern philosophy, in this kind of model. However the Royal Society, a leading institution for science in the UK, has as its motto: Take no-one’s word for it. Religious traditions constitute someone’s word for it. The final model is complimentarity. This suggest science and religion address the same reality from different perspectives. They provide different kinds of explanations which compliment one another. They are not the same kinds of explanations. However this might fall into a form of NOMA and it may also give a suggestion that science is about facts and religion about values and opinions. We might feel that some crimes such as rape are moral facts, rather than just opinions.


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