Mental Wellbeing, Neuroscience and Religion

‘Mental Wellbeing, Neuroscience and Religion’ was the title of our annual Science and Religion Forum conference this year, held at Lincoln (31 August – 2 September). Some 55 people attended to hear and debate how practice and theory in mental health relates to the science-and-religion field. Here are my closing reflections at the end of the conference.

SRF 2017, Bishop Grossetest University, Lincoln

Closing reflections, 2 Sep 2017

This will be quite a personal reflection, but that seems appropriate in this particular conference where many of the talks have focussed on the inner, subjective life, its wellbeing and the role of science in investigating and promoting mental health. Those of you who are regulars at this conference will realise how different the tone of this conference has been compared with many of our previous meetings. For this reason, rather than doing a blow-by-blow summary of each speaker, I really will just offer my own overview without mentioning any names. Continue reading

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

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.


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.

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.

Human uniqueness, and are humans the pinnacle of evolution?

Huxley_-_Mans_Place_in_Nature-2-300x179I have been caught up in many conversations over the summer, at science-religion conferences and meetings with theologians, where the future of human evolution has come up. Almost invariably in these conversations, someone expresses the opinion – as though everyone there takes it for granted – that humans are the end point, the goal, or the pinnacle of evolution. A related viewpoint that I’ve heard said is that we humans have managed to extricate ourselves from the evolutionary struggle: our technological prowess has enabled us to raise ourselves above the survival of the fittest; we are, quite simply, the fittest. And another related viewpoint is that we humans were somehow the inevitable outcome of the evolutionary process. The final related viewpoint (the most explicitly theological) says that God directed evolution so that humans would be the end result. All of this is related to a much-debated idea in theology, of ‘human uniqueness’.

Continue reading

Science and Religion dissertations – the topics

Every year around this time our masters students in Science and Religion give a talk outlining their intended research over the coming months, as they work towards their dissertations which are the keystone to our MSc, due for submission in August. For me, as the programme manager of the MSc, this is one of the high points of the year, as I get to see how the students are developing their own thoughts way beyond the past 6 months’ classes, interaction and debate. I am always deeply impressed (and also rather humbled) by the breadth of interests and expertise.

Students are encouraged to explore any topic which falls broadly within the ‘Science-Religion’ field. The ‘classical’ field of Science and Religion, defined by the work of scholars such as Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne from the 1960s to the early 2000s, is being rapidly superseded these days, as we discover more and more crucial areas of engagement between the two disciplines. Our students have uncovered a number of new areas themselves, and we were all impressed by the degree of novelty and ingenuity on display. Topics included: intercessory prayer and divine action; Teilhard de Chardin and systems biology; natural theology in McGrath and Gould; dark matter/energy and Christian mysticism; T F Torrance, Polanyi and a new theology of science; creationism is UK schools; Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Nietzsche; Neanderthals and the ‘image of God’ theology; creationism and the evolution of inerrancy; critical realism and the potential influence of Polanyi; divine action in the human brain and religious belief; Sam Harris and Buddhism; the deep future, human evolution, and the ‘image of God’ theology

We look forward to seeing how these very fertile and imaginative projects emerge in the coming months.



Better no God than a God of the gaps

Bakerloo_line_-_Waterloo_-_Mind_the_gapI didn’t realise until last week that I felt so strongly about this, but I abhor the God of the gaps. We’ve been covering it in our MSc in Science and Religion, and I was challenged as to why I feel so strongly about it. After all, it forms the basis for some important attempts to build bridges between science and religion, not least Intelligent Design (ID). I feel no reluctance in saying that I would rather renounce belief in a creator God altogether, than stake my faith in a God who only works in the gaps in our scientific understanding. To my mind, the God of the gaps idea is subtly pervasive, and it miscontrues both Christian theology, and science, all in one. Clearly, not everyone feels as strongly as me, and some are quite open to the God of the gaps idea. But for the record, this is my where the strength of my response arises…

Continue reading

Near Death Experiences – science or religion or…?

Schiavonetti_Soul_leaving_body_1808Just returned from the excellent Science and Religion Forum meeting at the University of Chester, where one of the speakers (with a background in medical research) described current thoughts on the enigmatic and poorly-understood phenomenon of Near Death Experiences (NDE), which might include sensations of utter peace and assurance, often combined with the visual perception of a bright light at the end of a tunnel. Some Near Death Experiences take on the specific form of Out of Body Experiences (OBE), where subjects might report the sensation of leaving their body and perceiving it and its surroundings from above. Much to my surprise, the speaker went on to describe his own NDE after a near-fatal accident, an experience so significant that it had been instrumental in his own calling to become a Christian, and later ordination. My surprise sprang from the fact that the speaker, despite his scientific credentials, was willing to attribute objective spiritual significance to his experience. I have never had such a Near Death Experience myself, but I am aware that they can be intensely powerful to the subject. I am also aware that they are poorly understood scientifically. Nevertheless, it’s widely accepted that there must be a scientific explanation which must lie in human psychology or physiology. Science can’t rule out that NDEs involve spiritual encounters or a glimpse of the afterlife, but it can offer explanations within the context of its own naturalistic framework, seeing them in terms of hallucinations when the body and brain are in the extreme state of near death.

In discussing this later, a vigorous argument ensued. It became clear that I was unusual in being the out-and-out sceptic, completely unwilling to attribute any external significance to Near Death Experiences. Some people were prepared to be open-minded, others to go so far as to believe that these experiences were genuine evidence of the human soul separating from the body and preparing to go into the afterlife. The idea of “impossible knowledge” is often raised in Out of Body Experiences, where the putative disembodied person notices a detail in the scene that they couldn’t possibly have known about otherwise. I remain sceptical, on several grounds.

First, it seems to me that attributing objective significance to such experiences is little to do with religion, but is uncomfortably close to admitting paranormal activity, and I often worry that the science-religion field gets enough bad press from its (usually militant atheist) critics as it is for taking what they might refer to as “fairy tales” or “superstition” seriously. I am content to take the line of conventional science in such matters. (This reminds me of some interesting asides in Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge where he complains of the fact that, despite strong evidence for Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP), science cannot accept it because its framework is inadequate). At the moment the scientific framework is firmly embedded in naturalism, and is simply unable to make sense of such claims that there is a spiritual reality or dimension outside of the natural world. And while science is able to find an explanation for Near Death Experiences in naturalistic terms, however sketchy that explanation might be, it is preferable in my opinion to stick with that explanation than to depart from it into the unknown. In this, I am a clear supporter of David Hume’s empiricism, who, writing of the related issue of miracles, declared that “the knavery and folly of men are such common phaenomena, that I should rather believe the most extraordinary events to arise from their concurrence, than admit of so signal a violation of the laws of nature.” I happen to believe that Hume was wrong about miracles, but right about the empirical framework in which we judge them. In other words, a Humean such as myself would rather believe someone to be mistaken to attribute external spiritual significance to their Near Death Experience than to discard my whole intellectual framework of naturalism. And I say this with the utmost respect for those who claim such experiences.

Second, and because I am a keen supporter of naturalism, I do not believe in a spiritual detachable soul. As a Christian with relatively traditional beliefs, I am happy to put my hope in God’s salvation of the natural world, with me in it; as the Nicene Creed puts it: “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” It may sound inconsistent to voice such traditional religious beliefs alongside a Humean scepticism, but the Christian framework is fully consistent with the empirical naturalism of science: both affirm that we are material beings, embodied in a natural world. It is in such a world that we live, will die, and (I hope, going beyond current science) will live again.

So, I have given you my reasons. I’m aware that this is an intensely controversial subject. But it’s worth opening up the discussion more widely. After all, the science-religion field can little afford to be quiet on the matter.