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.

1 thought on “Conflict in Science and Religion

  1. Hi there

    The relation between science and religion is, in my view, somewhat the same as two witness accounts of the same event given in a courtroom situation. If both witnesses agree, this is called a “stipulation”, and the judge or jury would accept it as the truth. If one witness says something, and the other chooses to not reply, the non-reply may be deemed as an “admission from silence”. And if there is a direct conflict, one witness is assumed to be in error, and the judge asks further questions to determine who had the better view, or has a motivation to lie, and so on. Expert witnesses may also be called in to help locate errors. And the judge or jury also keeps in mind that different people use different words to say what, in the final analysis, amounts to the same thing.

    These, in brief, are the sorts of procedures that are used in courtrooms to reconcile different witness accounts. The said procedures are based on a fairly simple logic of how
    descriptions function. And I would say that science and religion can be regarded as two witnesses, summoned to a “court of truth”, to give their separate descriptions of reality as they see it. And they can be reconciled by means of the same sort of logic of descriptions that is used in courtrooms.

    Of course, saying that it a lot easier than doing it. But, without boasting, I would like to claim that, after more than 3 decades of labor, I’ve managed to put together a reasonably complete synthesis of the Christian religion and classical Newtonian physics. My synthesis is based on the sort of logic of descriptions that I spoke of, and I’ll be happy to share the details with anyone that might be interested.

    Cheers, Bjorn

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