The Catch-22 of Science and Religion

731px-b-25_of_catch-22_fame_making_a_low_pass_at_elmendorf_7674536434Last night I spoke at a debate organised by the British Science Association about science and religion, entitled ‘What do Science and Religion have to offer each other in the 21st Century?’ I’m often asked to speak at events like this, and I’ve increasingly begun to feel that, as well as providing an opportunity to introduce audiences to the richness and complexities of the field, it comes with a certain cost to that same field. In short, there’s a Catch-22. Here’s the text of my talk, where I attempt to explain – Continue reading

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Are there limits to science?

“Are there limits to science?” – this was the title of the recent Science and Religion Forum 2016 conference, where diverse subjects around naturalism, and the limitations of science (and religion) were aired by some of the leading experts in the area. As the Conference Secretary, I was asked to deliver some closing reflections. Here is what I said –

I want to say a special thanks to all the speakers – as can happen with these kinds of conferences organised around a central question, sometimes a diversity of answers leads to an emergent consensus, and I think that’s definitely happened here.

“Are there limits to science?” Yes and no. That seems to be the gist of what I’ve gleaned from this conference, with a particular weight falling on the yes, there are limits. Continue reading

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Science and religion: Clash of worldviews?

I recently spent an excellent week in the Faraday Institute at Cambridge, lecturing at their summer course (July 2016). They filmed my talks, and here’s the first one – “Science and Religion: Clash of Worldviews?”

Here’s a potted summary –
  • Many people in our world today believe that science and religion are at war. In this talk I argue that it’s not a foregone conclusion that science and religion should be in conflict with each other. Neither do I believe that they represent incompatible worldviews. There are many other ways of looking at this problem, and I suggest that the view that science and religion have to be clashing worldviews is, in fact, a worldview of its very own. Along the way, I look at the main models of interaction that have been suggested for relating science to religion. I suggest that, while these models all contain elements of the truth, they are also limited in their own ways. The point is that the relationship between science and religion is much more subtle than it’s given credit for. This is the starting point for a much richer investigation of how the two areas relate, something which the Summer Course did in depth.


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Conflict in Science and Religion

Usually, including the word ‘conflict’ in a headline draws attention. Not so much in the case of science and religion though, because the default relationship between them seems to be one of conflict, at least if the popular media is anything to go by. In other words, it’s hardly news if you announce that there is ‘conflict in science and religion’. This was the rather unsurprising result announced by the latest Pew Research Center survey of US opinions on science and religion. There was one novel discovery here though, and something which many of us in the academic study of science and religion had long suspected but had never seen substantiated (to my knowledge): those most inclined to uphold the idea of conflict are those with no strong religious commitments. Individuals who do have strong faith commitments, on the other hand, are most likely to claim that there is no conflict between their religious beliefs and science.

Working in science full-time, and before I came to the science and religion field myself, I used to be one of those people who maintained that there’s no conflict between science and religion. I slowly became dissatisfied with that response though, and exposure to the deep level debates in the science and religion field showed me why. Quite clearly, there is conflict between science and religion – quite substantial conflict over some issues (as in previous pages on this blog) – although it’s not of the generic kind of conflict that so many people assume is the case. I think of this generic level of assumed conflict as ‘surface conflict’. Instead, there is ‘deep conflict’ (just as there is also deep agreement) in some areas. There’s no easy way to characterise this deep-level conflict: it changes in intensity and quality depending on which sciences and which religious beliefs we’re talking about. But quite simply, we can’t speak too glibly of the conflict, either to claim that it’s all conflict between science and religion, or that it’s all harmonious. Both responses deliberately avoid engaging with the challenges.

And I suspect that reluctance to engage is at the root of the widespread misunderstanding of the science and religion dialogue: whether we claim it’s all conflict or all harmonious we’re saying it because we don’t want to engage.

The University of Edinburgh’s MSc in Science and Religion is one of the world’s few programmes of advanced study in the area, training students to engage to the utmost with the debate. We’ve just come to the end of the first semester for the current academic year. As with previous years, students express surprise that the issues run so deep, and are all too often painfully intractable either by science or religion. As the students also invariably discover though, along with deep conflict, there are areas of deep agreement between science and religion, not to mention the deep satisfaction that can be gained from wrestling with some of the most difficult questions known to humankind.

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Science and Religion through Poetry

It is hoped by some within the Science and Religion field that literature–both verse and prose–can enrich the dialogue between science and religion. Literature (and poetry, more specifically) allows for an intermingling of thought and affect. It is this affect component of the Science and Religion dialogue that is easily minimized. When engaging this field in academic circles it is easy to forget the practitioners of sciences and religions–people who may be less concerned with specific nuances and more concerned with the question: How then shall I live?

My research is within this literature sub-field of Science and Religion. I am interested in the ways literature can provide a more neutral medium of interaction for scientific and religious ideas, how literature utilizes (and perhaps alters) the language of sciences and religions, and how literature brings science and religion topics to a popular audience. Along with studying the writings of others, I am attempting to add my own voice to the field; the following poem, “Hermeneutics,” is one of my own.

The Science and Religion field is less about learning the right answers and more about asking the right questions. Or perhaps, taking a step back, it is about giving oneself permission to ask questions–especially questions of perceived authority, whether that be deities, religious leaders/writings, governments, scientists, philosophers, etc. To question authority can be disorienting, unsettling, isolating, and even dangerous. The speaker in this poem is asking questions about creation from the Judeo-Christian perspective. The speaker acknowledges the many voices of biblical scholarship, cosmology, quantum physics, theology, and practical religion. Three main questions drive the speaker: What happened? To whom do I listen? and What is important? It is this final question (found within the last stanza of the poem) that correlates to the question “How then shall I live?” A question that will hopefully remain at the core of the Science and Religion field.


In the beginning.
noun, feminine; beginning; also, chief.
From ראש
noun, masculine; head.
Common Semitic word; see also:
Arabic, Sabean, Ethiopic,
Amharic, Assyrian, Aramaic,
Palmyrene, Phoenician, Punic.

In the beginning
before there was time
before the big bang
before creatio ex nihilo

There was a singularity—
or perhaps there wasn’t—
we need a quantum theory of gravity;
Higgs boson wasn’t enough.

In the beginning—
at less than Planck time—
general relativity cannot be guaranteed.
Instead of singularity—infinite curvature?

In the beginning
our universe began
or was infinite
or was merely one oscillation of
big bang then big crunch
or was the birth of our tiny little corner
of the multi-dimensional
or variable multiverse.

In the beginning
God created the heavens and the earth.
Or did he merely create order
from his dark materials:
infinite night and chaos?

In the beginning,
who knows what God(s) did?
Did Moses or the Elohist,
the Hebrews or the Jews?
Did Peter, James, John, or Paul?
Did Jerome, Augustine, or Luther,
or the 47 scholars of King Henry VIII?

Do I listen to
Claus Westermann
Steven Hawking
Jorge Mario Bergoglio
Leonard Susskind
Walter Breuggemann
Jonathan Henry Sacks
the priest at the cathedral
the Anglican vicar down the road
the Baptist preacher Sunday morning
or the still small voice
that some say is the witness
of יהוה, Himself?

In the beginning—
What is the Good News?

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Science, Religion, and Changing Conceptions of Nature: An Interview with John Hedley Brooke

Recently, the Science and Religion program here at the School of Divinity hosted a three-day lecture series entitled “Galileo, Darwin, Einstein: Science, Religion and the Changing Conceptions of Nature” and delivered by renowned philosopher of science, Professor John Hedley Brooke. A leading figure in the Science and Religion arena, Professor Brooke brought his considerable knowledge and insight to bear on many of the key issues, controversies, and common misunderstandings in the history of Science and Religion. First focusing on Galileo and the common myths associated with Galileo’s complicated relationship to religion, Professor Brooke demonstrated that Galileo’s work was often constructively incorporated by theologians as they formed a new conception of nature as a mechanism. In discussing Darwin and his theory of natural selection, Professor Brooke highlighted common misunderstandings about Darwin’s scientific work and its relationship to Darwin’s own faith as well as to the wider religious culture. And finally, in celebrating the centennial of Einstein’s discovery of the theory of general relativity, Professor Brooke gave a fascinating and nuanced perspective on Einstein’s approach to metaphysics, religion, and the basic structure of reality. Not only did the lectures probe the many misunderstandings about the oversimplified “conflict” between science and religion, but Professor Brooke was able to demonstrate the complex ways in which religious thinkers and scientists have constructively informed each other’s work.

I had the opportunity to speak further with Professor Brooke about his work, and in particular about his thoughts regarding the wider Science and Religion field. What follows is an extended selection of that interview. Continue reading

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Research Seminar on ‘natural praise’ at the Faraday Institute, Cambridge

I recently had the pleasure of being invited to Cambridge to give a research seminar at the Faraday Institute. Since I have been thinking quite a lot about the topic of ‘natural praise’ recently (ever since giving a talk on the subject at the Knowing Creation conference in St Andrews in August 2014), I decided to re-visit this topic in the Faraday seminar, which means that (due to a lack of imagination on my part), I even ended up using the same title: “The Trees of the Field shall Clap their Hands” (Isaiah 55:12): What Does it Mean to Say that Creation Praises the Creator?

The audience appeared to be as intrigued by the subject as I am, and they gave me a number of useful things to think about to develop this further before I finally commit it to paper. Just as usefully, they also filmed the talk, and have made it available online. You can see it here –


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What Are We Defending? Territorial Claims Upon the Imago Dei

If you have not read the previous post on this blog, “The Assumptions We Bring to the Table,” perhaps you should pause here and read that first—then come back and read this post, for I am aware that I am bringing, if not assumptions to the table, at least a particular perspective to the table. I am relatively new to the Science and Religion discourse; my own background is in Bible and Christian Ministries, so I will not pretend to be an expert in Science or even in the broader field of Religion.

Yesterday, in class, we discussed humanity and the imago Dei (image of God). The most commonly referenced verse for the imago Dei is Genesis 1:26-27 “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (English Standard Version). This verse, along with a few others (Ps. 8.3-6; Gen. 5.1-2; Gen. 3.22; Rom. 8.29; 2 Cor. 4.4; Col. 1.15), has led to myriad speculations as to just what is the imago Dei that has been passed onto humanity, as well as led to the claim that human beings must be “uniquely unique” among the rest of creation.

However, if one is to espouse Darwinian evolution (as most biological scientists do—including those who claim “theistic evolution” or “intelligent design”), then one must concede that humans are no more naturally unique than any other unique species that has ever existed. Furthermore, any trait or function or relational ability that humans exhibit, would have come from evolutionary processes, rather than being independently conferred upon them by a Creator.

Not long into the class discussion, tensions began to rise. If one were not to look more closely, it would have appeared that those who bring a Christian perspective to the table were eager to maintain humanity’s uniqueness based upon the imago Dei, and that others—who were less eager to defend a particular theological position—found it easier to dispose of, or at least redefine, what it means to be “uniquely” human.

Now, I want to point out that it is not merely Christians who believe human uniqueness; many people live as if they—as humans—are unique even if they don’t state such a stance. As simple examples, notice the difference in support between “human rights” and “animal rights”—the former is punishable by international law while the latter is usually only supported by activist groups, or consider scientific experiments which use non-human animals as test subjects before using human subjects. The idea of human uniqueness is not isolated to Christianity or other religions. However, it does appear the Christians are keen to actively defend such a position based upon the imago Dei passages within the Bible.

My question—especially to Christians—is this: What are we defending? Are we defending God? Or the imago Dei itself? Are we defending the belief that Jesus Christ was both fully God and fully human? Or are we defending the truthfulness of Scripture? Maybe we are defending human culpability for sin and repentance? Or humanity’s dominion? Or perhaps merely our own sense of importance?

Here are some other questions. Is it possible that the Bible seems (and, arguably, is) anthropocentric merely because it is God’s revelation to and for humans? Is it possible that God relates with each creature in its own way—each according to its kind, and such that even the rocks can cry out to Him? Is it possible that God chose to be incarnated within a human being arbitrarily, and that he could have chosen to come to earth in another creature? Is it possible that the imago Dei is in every creation—perhaps a different aspect of the overall image, but an image all the same?

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Science, Religion and the Changing Conceptions of Nature – John Hedley Brooke lectures

Very soon we will be hosting Prof John Hedley Brooke, the renowned historian of science, to give three ground-breaking lectures on how science and religion have led to changing conceptions of nature throughout history. These are the dates:

26 Jan, 5pm – Nature as Creation

27 Jan, 5pm – Nature as Historical Process

29 Jan, 5pm – Nature Recreated

To register, go to

This is Prof Brooke’s synopsis of the series –


Science, Religion and Changing Conceptions of Nature

Recent developments in science have recast our relationship to “nature” in exciting new forms and in new light. The question “what does it mean to be human?” is now frequently answered in language drawn from biology and the neurosciences: we are defined by our DNA, the workings of our mind reduced to brain function.  If, as some would claim, this amounts to a dehumanisation of the human subject, it does so paradoxically because the methods, intellectual capacity and creativity of the scientists at work could equally be said to elevate, not objectify, what it means to be human.  New sciences, such as synthetic biology, confer powers on the scientist (eg to “create life”) that were once reserved for a transcendent Creator.  Nature, once understood as a work of Creation, has become susceptible not merely to transformation through human impact, but also to re-creation through human ingenuity.

It is tempting to see in such scientific and technological advances a desacralisation of the natural world.  What we call “nature” has surely been manipulated, exploited and despoiled by human societies in ways that leave any sense of pristine “nature” in a parlous state?  On one level the answer is an obvious “yes”, with Christian theology often implicated in a dangerously anthropocentric view of natural resources.  In all such reflections there is, however, a deeper question, which concerns the meanings of the words “nature” and “natural” and how they have changed over time.  In my three lectures, I propose to examine this deeper question, showing how advances in the sciences have been accompanied by changing images and conceptions of “nature” and how these, in turn, have been reflected in theological discourse and in new theologies of nature.  Although the sciences have facilitated secular interpretations of both physical and human nature, I shall argue that to place them essentially and exclusively in narratives of secularisation amounts to one of the many myths surrounding the historical relations between science and religion.


Lecture 1: Nature as Creation

An ordered “creation” as presupposition of early modern science. The scientist as one who, in studying the book of nature, thinks God’s thoughts after him.

The scientific movement of the 17th century was accompanied by a secularisation of theology – in the sense that lay scientists theologised about nature and reinterpreted theological doctrine in the process.  Accordingly, images and meanings of nature were transformed in 17th-century Europe by figures such as Galileo, Boyle and Newton who were laymen in the study of theology and natural philosophy. Each of the transformations of “nature” was inextricably linked to theological discourse as new ways were found for accommodating both scientific enquiry and belief in divine Providence:

Galileo: nature subverted: With the heliocentric system of Copernicus and Galileo, the universe was enlarged, and humanity diminished?  Tempting but false conclusions about the loss of human significance – the mythology (and in retrospect the paradox), that humanity was actually elevated by the new astronomy.  The need for demythologising extends to Galileo’s trial, still iconic for conflict models of the relations between science and religion. This transformed nature is still a Creation, as in Kepler’s Trinitarian and harmonious universe. With Galileo nature is also atomised, with dangerous connotations and possible implications for the Eucharist?  The book of God’s works is written in a different language (mathematics) from the book of God’s words, but one of the uses of science is to illuminate the meaning of Scripture.

Boyle: Nature still so much a Creation for Boyle that we have nature eliminated, or at least an attempt to eliminate the word.  Nature mechanized in a way that made science possible without sabotaging Creation. Strasbourg clock analogy mediating between experimental science & theology.  (Nature de-deified, Hooykaas). The rules followed by nature are determined by Providence, not by chance. The scientist as priest in the temple of nature. Final causes not to be excluded from the study of nature (pace Descartes); and a natural theology is revitalised (pace Hobbes).

Newton: Nature unified, Nature legalised, Nature mathematized.  Newton’s rich theology of nature, his invisible realm. Fusion of theology and science, as in Newton’s conception of absolute space. Unity, universal laws and divine omnipresence. Controversy with Leibniz and Nature as defective? This controversy shows how theology via philosophy still played a role in shaping acceptable science. Newton’s God according to Leibniz is a second-rate clockmaker. Lecture 1 can end with ref. to the myth of a separation of science from theology as a consequence of the scientific revolution. In natural history, the wisdom of God was still manifest in the works of Creation (John Ray); in Newton’s natural philosophy, the brilliance of a divine mathematician was demonstrable.  Nature was still a creation and a book to be read by the scientist.

Lecture 2: Nature as Historical Process

From nature as designed to nature historicised to nature naturalised, with special ref. to Paley, Darwin and T. H. Huxley.

Paley: nature designed, the theme of unity of nature and natural theology links Paley to Newton as discussed at end of lecture 1. How Paley went beyond caricatures of Paley : eg Paley in Darwin’s earliest models for evolution – as a way of preserving adaptation – and via his two Beings creating space for what Darwin filled with natural selection. Yet in Paley, nature was theologically overburdened and still essentially static.

Two views of nature historicised: Hugh Miller and Charles Darwin. In Miller, nature has a history but is still a work of (progressive) creation. In the young Darwin Paley’s natural theology is not yet extinguished, as evolution is nature’s way of preserving adaptation. But in Darwin’s mature theory, nature becomes usurper of at least one role of the Creator (in the origination of species). With Darwin Nature is also personified and indicted (for its horribly cruel and wasteful works). The possibilities for theodicy and for Nature as art (Tyrrell). Darwin’s dog and the origins of religion (Pleins etc.).  Nature as redefined by Darwin still leaves space for theology, with its reference to ordained laws (R. Richards). The absurdity for Darwin of suggesting that a man cannot be both evolutionist and theist.

Huxley: nature naturalised, as with Tyndall too (a process not complete with Darwin).  Another paradox: the concept of laws of nature, embedded in theism, becomes a primary vehicle, a Trojan horse, for naturalism. Theology’s role as critic: the myth of naturalism’s triumph (Lightman). Even Huxley himself complains that the “much vaunted antagonism between science and religion” is a fabrication.  Examples of theological critiques; eg  HenrySidgwick and Alfred Russel Wallace.  This lecture could end with the caricature involved in presenting naturalistic explanation as incompatible with and excluding theistic interpretation, given the historic range of models for their complementarity.(See Ron Numbers in When Science and Christianity Meet on naturalism as an offspring of Christianity).  How the modern opposition between nature and supernature, such that the latter is swallowed by the former, is more a product of than a cause of secularisation. Nature as all that is?

Lecture 3: Nature Recreated?

In this final lecture, I shall return to the paradox indicated at the outset – that in the reduction of humans to their DNA and their brains, there is a relegation, an objectification, of humankind, even as the scientific endeavour to understand, control and transform nature demonstrates an elevation of human powers that frequently elicits critical, certainly cautionary, references to the scientists “playing God”.  From Francis Bacon to the present, the applied sciences have been seen as a way of improving the human lot, even of improving nature. In the contemporary context of synthetic biology, the presumption to create novel forms of life arguably carries this to a new extreme in which Bacon’s vision of “effecting all things possible” extends the range of the possible into uncharted territory. This simultaneous diminution and elevation of humankind has a certain resonance with the Psalmist’s cry of astonishment that his God could take an interest in so insignificant a creature as man, and yet endow him with a significance only a little lower than the angels. During the preceding two lectures, we will have encountered the different gods of scientists who have theologised about nature. Have the scientists of our own day replaced those former gods with themselves?

I shall begin by identifying various respects in which, through the scientific innovations of the 20th and 21st centuries our relationship to what we still call nature has become more intimate. We insinuate our objectives into nature much as the gods of former ages were supposed to actively influence the course of events.  The evolutionary naturalism of the late-19th century makes it impossible to detach ourselves since there is at least a basic level on which we are nature’s products. One benign aspect of this intimacy is our propensity to find nature intelligible and beautiful, as Einstein did – the beauty discernible at both phenomenological and theoretical levels, even appropriated as a criterion in theory evaluation.  The “first question” Einstein said that he asked of any scientific theory was whether, had he been God, he would have made the world that way. The mystery of nature’s comprehensibility was one of the bases of Einstein’s “cosmic religion”, which, for all its denial of a personal God, spoke of a complementarity between science and religion, which he placed in opposition to atheism.

Taking up the theme of complementarity (perhaps with a brief ref. to quantum physics), I shall then consider two different respects in which theology might contribute to the discussion of biotechnology and its ambitions.  One, very different from an oppositional stance, has been to articulate theologies of nature that accommodate transformative technologies by stressing the incompleteness of creation and by presenting scientific research and its ameliorative applications as a form of collaboration between man and his Maker. (Teilhard de Chardin as an exemplar).  The other has been to support cautionary principles by pointing to the need for wisdom when the drive to effect all things possible is either unrestrained or tendentiously justified by an irresistible promise of unprecedented medical outcomes. There are sensitive scientists aware of the need for a theology of science that places the quest for wisdom above, or at least alongside, the bare quest for technological innovation (McLeish). And there is no shortage of commentators who would echo the fears of the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, who declares that “we are on the way to transforming ourselves into gods” and “we don’t know what we want.” [in A Brief History of Humankind (Harvill Secker, 2014). I shall conclude with reflections on this “playing God” motif, which for all the flippancy with which it has been expressed constitutes a literary trope deserving analysis [Sven Wagner, The Scientist as God, Heidelberg 2012].


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Lectures from the Faith and Cosmology conference

Now available – the four excellent lectures from our Faith and Cosmology conference (15th November 2014) on YouTube.


Fr Andrew Pinsent – ‘Cosmology and Being’ 

Prof Bernard Carr – ‘Cosmos and creation’

Dr Peter Bussey – ‘Cosmology, how physics and theology meet’

Jamie Boulding – ‘The multiverse and participatory metaphysics’

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