Last 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 –
Richard Holloway (speaking before me) spoke of the ethical challenges that science has brought us, particularly as regards human life issues (beginning and ending). Without wanting to lessen the magnitude of these challenges, I’d see them as challenges coming from technology, not science as such. Of course, technology makes science possible, and vice versa – they feed off each other – but I want to distinguish technology from science. We’ve had technological progress in various forms for thousands of years, starting with early tools, agriculture, invention of the plough, development of weaponry and so on through to the steam engine and the modern industrial age. But science – pure science as a distinctive way of knowing about the world – is much more a feature of modern times, the last few hundred years or so. And I think it’s fair to say that, as a way of knowing, science has swept all before it, to the extent that other ways of coming to the truth – especially religious ways, but also others in the arts and humanities – find they now have to justify themselves.
A polarisation between science and these other ways of knowing has entered our culture, so that it seems entirely natural that when engaging scientific and religious viewpoints you should assume disagreement from the off, and therefore hold a debate, a contest, just like this one. As someone who teaches the subject of science and religion, I’m invited to take part in many such events: sometimes they’re billed as conversations or discussions if they’re organised by people friendly to religious belief, otherwise almost always as debates. There are usually two sides, in other words: one scientific, using rigorously evidence-based reasoning, and the other religious, based on irrational faith, or that’s the way the rhetoric goes. I always find myself in an uncomfortable position here, as a scientist with religious beliefs of my own who has become more and more interested in theology. By taking part in these debates, and by seeking to demonstrate that there are other ways of looking at the relationship between science and religion than conflict, I find that I’m actually reinforcing the idea that conflict is inevitable, while still trying to pour oil on troubled water. I can’t do one without the other. Merely to talk about science and religion, I find, is straightaway to legitimate the myth that these are two monolithic entities crashing into each other. But I truly believe that this is an unhelpful way of looking at things. I am, by nature, a bridge-builder, but straightaway by admitting that a bridge needs to be built in the first place, I’m admitting that there’s a river that needs to be crossed.
So this is the catch-22 of the field I represent: science and religion. It began because of the conviction that there’s conflict between the two, and it’s maintained in part by people like me who insist that there is no conflict. Catch-22. Where did this situation come from? – why does it seem so obvious to most people today that science and religion are distinct and different things which should be in conflict with each other? Well historically, the phrase ‘science and religion’ appears in English usage around the mid-C19, not long before the Darwin debates were beginning to insist there was a separation between the two. The term ‘science’, as something which a ‘scientist’ might do, is also really a nineteenth century innovation, and the term ‘religion’ (as a distinct viewpoint standing over against others) isn’t that much older. It sounds incredible now, but the idea that there are discrete religions – which might totally disagree with each other on basics – is quite a modern idea. It’s no coincidence that all of these terms, Science, Religion, Science-and-Religion, arose in a relatively short period of history as the natural sciences were establishing themselves in Western culture. There’s a clue here to why the idea of conflict between science and religion should have so much traction: it’s a ‘social construct’, an idea that seems so obvious that a society will largely believe it without question, because it supports (or legitimates) another belief that’s become important to that society. And in this case, and in UK society, that other belief concerns the status of science. Remember that science is – despite the rhetoric – an enormously fragile activity. If you follow the ins and outs of Brexit you’ll realise that many (if not most) British academics are very worried about what’s going to happen to our Universities, and none more so than the scientists. To do science well requires large amounts of international subsidy and goodwill, flourishing co-operation across national borders, as well as years of highly-expensive training for all of the individuals concerned. As I said, science is an enormously fragile activity, and I think it’s no accident that, just as science was carving out a niche for itself in Victorian society in Britian as a profession in its own right, the notion arose that it should compete with other sources of truth, especially religion. What I’m saying is that the myth of conflict between science and religion arose at least partly in Britain in order to legitimate the claims of science to cultural territory of its own. (Now I should note that the situation is rather different in the US, where the conflict has taken on a much more social character). But such has been the juggernaut success of science, this myth is maintained to this day. Like I said, the myth of conflict between science and religion is a social construct, because it supports the place of science in society.
Now this isn’t to say that I believe science is some kind of imposter, or that it’s all relative. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a physicist who’s still working in the research field (although less often than I’d like since being distracted by philosophy and theology), I’m passionate about science. But I think that we need to do a lot more to think about the place of science in our culture, alongside other ways of seeking knowledge, not just the religious. I actually think that the challenges between science and religion actually concern the status and the public understanding of science. Science is not well understood in our world, sometimes even by its own practitioners, who can display a real lack of understanding of the history and philosophy of their own disciplines. Moreover, professionals working in the science and religion field, people like me, talk about other kinds of relationship between science and religion than conflict: relationships like independence, or consonance, or complementarity, even integration. All of these flavours of relationship demonstrably have an element of the truth, as much as does conflict, and it very much depends upon which scientific idea you’re looking at, which religion, which doctrine, and so on. And this is another reason why it’s a fallacy (or at least a myth) to say that science and religion are in conflict – I immediately want to come back and say well which science do you mean, which scientific theory, and which religious belief? There’s a great deal of complexity and nuance here which I simply can’t go into, but I do want to flag it up.
So, just to sum up what I’ve said. I believe that science gives us a distinct way of looking at the world and knowing about it, and one that’s of unique importance, but I regret the fact that in order for this to be self-evident to us, it needs to be supported by the spurious idea that science and religion are in conflict. I think that idea says rather more about us as a society than it does about science and religion.