The April edition of Life and Work, the Church of Scotland’s monthly magazine, has produced a special feature on our MSc in Science and Religion, as follows…
Jackie Macadam learns more about a new course bringing together science and religion.
“THERE is a great deal of interest at the moment in the debate between science and religion, and the rise of ‘new atheism’. These are huge topics, and the level of public engagement shows there’s an insatiable appetite for grappling with the big issues of ultimate meaning and purpose. Over the years, the realisation grew among some of us in Edinburgh interested in the interface between science and religion, that there might be scope for a dedicated postgraduate course in the subject, which would allow students to address and study the arguments involved at an advanced level, and give them a solid grounding in the debates.”
Dr Mark Harris, Programme Director, is talking about the new MSc in Science and Religion now available through the University of Edinburgh at New College.
“Strangely, considering the issues at stake, there are very few such courses in the world. We are almost unique in Europe, and certainly so in Scotland. Some of the teaching staff here, including Professors in Divinity, Physics, and the History of Science: David Fergusson, Michael Northcott, Wilson Poon and John Henry, decided that there was so much interest and casual discussion of the topics involved going on, that there was definitely an opportunity to expand the debate, bring in some historical perspectives and formalize the ideas behind an accredited course.
“We have constructed the course to inform and to engage in depth, looking at the subjects from scientific, historical, ethical and theological perspectives. It’s designed to give a strong grounding in these topics. The history of science is studied from ancient times, through the modern scientific revolution as well as the philosophical trends in our understanding of reality. We also examine the areas of dialogue between science and religion, including cosmology, evolution, divine action and miracles, consciousness and the human person.
“At the moment we have seven students who have come from all over the world – Australia, Canada and the US, Europe and Scotland. We also have some people doing the two year part time version of the course who commute for one day a week from England.
“The programme has been deliberately designed to suit students coming from diverse backgrounds. Some are trained in the sciences, some in theology, and some in other humanities subjects. Some have come straight from their undergraduate degrees, while some have already spent a whole career in the world of work. We simply expect enthusiasm, and a willingness to think outside the box.
“The course is broad based – giving students insight into the use of science and religion in literature and the common language of philosophy, but also a more in depth look at the way these same questions have been asked and answered through the years by people, using examples like Huxley and Milton. Ideally, in time, we’d like to open the course up to include more than simply Western Christianity, with perhaps a course in world faiths in the future sometime.”
“Once you start looking at it,” says Mark, “it’s the classic conflict hypothesis. The ‘religious’ side will often try to deny there’s any conflict, and to ‘smooth over’ things rather than argue. But I think the theological or religious side should stand up for itself a bit more against science – hold it to account. If you take the arguments of some of the more vocal scientists who see the relationship between science and religion solely in terms of conflict, then the natural conclusion of their line of thinking is that science is the answer to all of our questions of meaning, value and purpose. This threatens all of the humanities, not just theology. There really is a conflict here, and it’s disingenuous of us to pretend there isn’t.
“Every new scientific discovery brings up the same discussions and arguments – human consciousness; evolution v intelligent design; creationism; the end of the world; the soul.
“We’ve tried to offer a really thorough and diverse course – and other students doing other degrees in the university are taking part in some of the classes as part of their courses.