Science and Religion: The Assumptions We Bring to the Table

This past weekend, I was on a hike in the Highlands with a group that included several people from the Science and Religion program here at the University of Edinburgh. Topics of conversation ranged from the philosophical status of zombies to the educational standards of UK primary schools, but eventually the conversation turned to the reactions we get when explaining to people that we work in the field of Science and Religion. Admittedly, the University of Edinburgh is one of a select few academic institutions with a specific Science and Religion postgraduate program, but I am always a bit surprised at the responses I get when telling people what I’m studying. A great many individuals respond with something along the lines of, “Science and Religion? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?” Others politely offer a “Hmmm, how interesting,” while some excitedly assume that we’re spending our time defending young-earth Creationism.

Fair enough. Popular culture and media representations have a long history of portraying theology and “hard science” as being at odds with one another. A superficial gloss of Galileo’s conflict with the Church, or well-publicized tirades against the evils of evolution are often the first images to come to mind when the words “science” and “religion” are uttered in the same sentence. Obviously, most people actually working in this field do not assume a necessarily mutually exclusive relationship between the natural, empirical processes of the observable world and some sort of religious reality; if we did, we’d likely find better uses of our time! Much has been written about the exact relationship between science and religion, but what I found particularly striking this past weekend was the profound role that our assumptions play in these discussions. More interesting than the actual content of people’s reactions to Science and Religion as a legitimate field of research and discussion is the way that most of us experience our reactions as self-evident – myself included! For example, when we assume that science and religion are inherently at odds with one another, we are likely operating with an understanding that science deals with “cold, hard facts” and religion deals with untestable spiritual realities. What is even more interesting is that both atheists and those who believe in God often hold the very same assumptions. A theist might be assuming that although science deals with the observable world and religion handles theological realities, they are both part of the same reality, while the atheist might assume that what is not scientifically testable cannot be truly “real.” They both assume that science and religion are incompatible with each other, but for different reasons.

Without getting into a discussion of the various typologies delineating approaches to the relationship between science and religion (Ian Barbour’s work being an obvious example), the salient point is that we all come to the Science and Religion table with assumptions about reality, the boundaries of science, and the interaction between God and natural laws. Rather than immediately jumping into a heated debate about the latest provocative television sound bite, what if we started asking altogether different questions? Any impasse in public discussions regarding science and religion will likely be overcome only by first 1) recognizing that we all have assumptions about reality, science, and religion in the first place, and 2) questioning our reasons for holding those assumptions. It certainly can’t hurt, and might start an entirely new conversation about the “big questions” of life, meaning, and reality – questions that are not only of public interest, but personally relevant and compelling as well. And if nothing else, walks in the Highlands become much more interesting.

1 thought on “Science and Religion: The Assumptions We Bring to the Table

  1. Thanks for that Sarah. On the subject of “assumptions” there is an interesting article in a recent “Church Times” (10 October ,p.12) by Mark Vernon: an ex Anglican Priest with degrees in all the right things (Theology, Philosophy, Physics). He points up to me the most important assumption about the debate, namely that theists have to answer the case made by the selfish-gene/life-is-an unlikely-epiphenomenon camp. There is increasing concern that the only way to understand biology is to use the concept of semiosis. In its early stages this is vital according the work of Terence Deacon, and others.If this is true the “Selfish Gene” is the wrong target: biology itself needs a paradigm change. Simon Conway-Morris (in a recent Faraday Institute symposium) advised that we return to the insights of the co-discoverer of evolution: A.R.Wallace who argued that human consciousness was way beyond anything that would bring survival advantage.
    The article in the C.T is worth a look. The Deacon book is “Incomplete Nature” W.W.Norton, 2012 but you’ll need a lot of time to master that: I know I’ve tried!
    Gerald Partridge

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