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.


Brexit and Evolution


Here is a troubling thought. The average mammal species lasts for about a million years. Humans have been around for 200,000 years, and human culture, it’s thought, may have been around for about 50,000 years. If human beings are around for as long as the average mammal we are only about 6% of the way into our cultural evolution. The trouble begins when we start reflecting – as the philosopher John Schellenberg has done – on what the epistemological consequences of this might be. What becomes clear when we take up this deep time perspective, says Schellenberg, is that for all we know, we are in a state of intellectual immaturity; our biological and cultural evolution has only come so far and may have a long way yet to go.

Now think about how much our understanding of just about everything has changed over what will (hopefully) be a tiny fraction of total human development. Around 2400 years ago Aristotle held that some people were “natural” slaves – a view that most of us would consider an abomination today – and this was Aristotle: a towering intellect. Modern democracy too is, from the deep time perspective, a very recent cultural achievement. Even some progressive Enlightenment figures like Voltaire still envisaged the perfect society as being a dictatorship. Examples like these aren’t hard to come by.

This is what taking a deep time perspective does. Despite our tendency to think we’re almost there, reflecting on how much our understanding has transformed in the past should prompt us to reflect on how much it may yet transform in the future, particularly when we realise we have much further to go (temporally speaking) than we have yet come.

Schellenberg uses thoughts like these to probe our thinking about religion. Might there be a whole gamut of religious possibilities as yet unexplored? Do we have any reason to think that the religious commitments of future generations will bear much of a resemblance to the religious commitments of humanity in 2016? These are interesting thoughts, but they’re not what I want to pursue here because, when you think about it, the deep time perspective doesn’t just apply to religion, and it doesn’t just apply to cultural evolution.

One place it applies is metaphysics. Metaphysics is hard. People who spend their working lives trying to understand the fundamental nature of reality push their intellectual abilities to the limit to do so. Chimps, on the other hand, have an IQ of 40. And chimps, we can all agree, are not capable of successful metaphysical theorising. (Yes, studies have shown that chimps can do some basic arithmetic, develop a vocabulary of around 25 words etc., but they’re completely useless at modal logic, grasping the necessary a posteriori, or saying anything sensible about mental causation.) Humans, on the other hand, have an average IQ of 100. Some humans have IQs much higher than this; Terence Tao, a mathematician who won the Fields Medal in 2006 is said to have an estimated IQ of 230 (though the way that most IQ tests are actually scored means that a perfect 100% corresponds to an IQ of 130–160). Now assume that humans are capable of successful metaphysical theorising. If that’s the case then the 60–120 IQ points we have over chimps are what make all the difference. Having an IQ of 100–160 is precisely the cut off point at which creature become capable of successful metaphysical theorising. But, on reflection, it looks like an incredibly fortuitous bit of happenstance that the IQ range we happen to have is exactly the point at which creatures become able to answer metaphysical questions. Another philosopher, Peter van Inwagen, has made exactly this point:

If we believe that we are able to solve the problems of metaphysics, then we must believe that we are just barely able to do this; we must believe that if our intellectual gifts were only slightly less impressive, we should be unable to do it. … And isn’t this a rather implausible thesis? Why should the intellectual abilities that we happen to have be just barely adequate to the task? Why should we expect such a stroke of luck? (Peter van Inwagen (2015), Metaphysics. Westview Press: 288.)

Part of what’s going on here, is that we see ourselves as being at the top of the intellectual pile. (Academics are perhaps particularly prone to this.) But what if we didn’t compare ourselves to chimps, but to aliens or angels with IQs of 250, 500, 10,000, 100,000,000…? Just entertaining the spectre of beings far more intelligent than ourselves makes us aware of how profound our own cognitive limitations are. As the chimp is to the human, so the human is to the alien, and so that alien is to a yet more intelligent alien, and so on. Once we’re cognisant of that, it’s harder to entertain the idea that out of the whole spectrum of possible levels of intelligence, we have been serendipitously placed at just the right point on that spectrum for successfully arriving at deep metaphysical truths. What metaphysical possibilities will tens of thousands of future years of intellectual development unveil? What metaphysical possibilities are simply beyond the powers of comprehension of a bunch of creatures with a measly median IQ of 100?

But what does all this have to do with Brexit? Well, the surprising-to-pundits vote to leave the EU means that we’re currently going through some pretty serious political upheavals. And this has caused us all to think a little harder and more sustainedly about political questions. But here’s the thing: political thought is plausibly in the same boat as metaphysical thought. Chimps are terrible at it (yes, they live in structured societies of sorts, but ask them to theorise about it…). And we take ourselves to be pretty good at it; at least, we do as individuals: one tends to take oneself to have correct political beliefs, even if we think other people are catastrophically wrong. In other words, it’s a subject where we take ourselves to be fortuitously located at the precise point at which creatures become cognitively capable of arriving at the answers. Not only that, political questions are infused with philosophical ones. For one thing, they are not merely straightforwardly descriptive questions about how things are, but normative questions about how things ought to be. Answers to political questions depend on answers to philosophical ones about what we ought to value or hope for, and how to weigh one valuable thing against another. They depend on answers to questions about what sorts of relationships we ought to have with whom; what coöperative bonds and duties we have to one another, and what rights we can claim for ourselves. The political is intertwined with the axiological, and with the normative more broadly. Normative questions, plausibly, are in the same boat as metaphysical ones.

They’re the sort of questions regarding which a deep time perspective will provide pause for thought: maybe we haven’t arrived at intellectual maturity; maybe thousands of years of intellectual progress or thousands of additional IQ points would reveal our beliefs to be immature, in the way that Aristotelian natural slavery or undemocratic governance seem immature to us today. And if normative questions are in this boat, and political questions depend on normative ones, then political questions are stuck in the boat too. And if all that’s the case, it’s a chastening thought, because it means that my efforts to think seriously about politics might be much like chimp’s efforts to think seriously about modal logic.

‘How I fell into Science and Religion’ – interview with Mark Harris

I am often asked how I fell into Science and Religion. Sam Ford, who produces Manna, the magazine of the Diocese of Bath and Wells, interviewed me about just this subject. His article, with the interview, follows here. 


The Large Hadron Collider at the CERN lab in Switzerland (Copyright Image Editor and licensed under Creative Commons,

Mark Harris has just returned from a conference at CERN, the world’s leading particle physics laboratory where the so-called ‘God particle’ has been discovered. He was there talking with physicists, philosophers, theologians and representatives from major world religions, exploring the relevance of the Big Bang theory for religious belief, and vice versa. As the author of a book on what the Bible has to say to science about the world, he stands confidently in the middle of a heated debate that has been characterised at times by fervent, even aggressive, stances on both sides.
Continue reading

‘Fuzzy Science’ – one of our MSc in Science and Religion graduates describes her time in Edinburgh

JaneThe Revd Jane Chamberlain, one of our graduates from the MSc in Science and Religion at Edinburgh, describes her time. This piece was originally published in the Diocese of Bath and Wells magazine, Manna.

From 2012-2014 I studied part time for a MSc (Master of Science) degree in Science and Religion at the University of Edinburgh. This meant flying to Edinburgh for one day a week during term time. Fortunately I live very close to the airport and my parishioners were unbelievably supportive in organising a rota and giving me lifts to and from the airport – no mean feat as it was week in, week out at 5.30am – even in winter! And although it was hectic being full-time in the benefice, the parishes and diocese were generous and supportive in allowing me some study leave. Continue reading

New Post in Philosophy, Science and Religion

Since I’ve not long started the new Lectureship in Philosophy, Science and Religion, we thought it would be a good idea if I said a few words about myself and what we hope to achieve over the coming years. My background is in philosophy of science and online learning here at the University of Edinburgh, and I’ve been employed as part of a new Templeton-funded project to develop a new MSc and MOOC in Philosophy, Science and Religion. Our aim is to see two to three online courses and the MOOC available this year, with the launch of the MSc taking place in 2017. It’s a joint project with PPLS, who have experience in this area, and already have a number of very successful online MSc programmes.

There’s a public appetite for a better understanding of these topics. People are increasingly aware of the enormous impact – both for good and ill – that science and religion, in all their various forms, have on our political practices, our conceptual frameworks, our moral commitments, every aspect of our lives; and there’s felt need to gain some reflective understanding of these forces. By bringing them explicitly into view we can reason about them, rather than merely be driven by them, and perhaps shape them for the better.

There’s also a real interest in the public sphere about how science and religion intersect (or really of how sciences and religions intersect). Public discourse has been dominated by the somewhat dilettantish efforts of the New Atheists; which are marked by hostility to religious thought, and the thesis that there is a rudimental conflict between science and religion. This discourse has trundled on with much understanding of the theological and philosophical thought that’s actually crucial to examining these issues in a perspicacious way. That’s something we think we can improve on, by bringing together people who know the science, know the theology, and know the philosophy, all in one place.

So we want to speak to issues like these, and not only cultivate new scholars with the sort of interdisciplinary expertise needed to address these things, but also raise the level of public discourse more generally. As well as all this, an important part of the motivation for branching out this way into new teaching methods has to do with inclusivity. An online programme will open up a really excellent, graduate-level education to groups of people for whom this simply wouldn’t have been an option a few years ago: people, for instance, with disabilities, family commitments, who come from lower income groups, or for whatever reason can’t relocate to Edinburgh.

All very exciting stuff as far as I’m concerned; not least of all being in such august company within the faculty, and working with a very smart group of grad students.

Catastrophists and Uniformitarians

I am just beginning my first sabbatical since launching our MSc in Science and Religion, and am enjoying getting into some research that I’ve had on hold for a long time. Those of you who have skimmed over this blog in the past will have realised that one of my abiding interests is in the fraught relationship between natural scientists and biblical scholars over how the Bible should be interpreted. A couple of years ago it occurred to me that the debate between them is exactly parallel to the old argument between ‘catastrophists and uniformitarians’ in nineteenth century geology. This argument is little-known today beyond geology, but it was truly foundational, in that much of what we know as modern science today stems from what was being argued about back then, not least Darwin’s theory of evolution. Continue reading

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.

The future of science and religion

The future of science and religion as an academic discipline has been pressing on my mind these last few days. I’ve just returned from the Science and Religion Forum‘s annual conference, held at Durham (UK), for three days, from 3 – 5 September. This being the 40th anniversary of the Forum (and its founding by Arthur Peacocke), the conference was billed as a look at the past, present, and future of the science and religion dialogue. Much to my interest, a number of the plenary speakers raised concerns about the current state of science and religion as an academic discipline. While much has been achieved over those 40 years in certain key areas such as the doctrine of creation, divine action, and the relationship between science and religion, there is much that is still unsolved in these areas, and also massive areas of concern elsewhere which have never been properly addressed. In short, there is an enormous amount of work still waiting for the current and future generations of scholars to take on. One of the wonderful things about the conference was that it became apparent that, despite the concerns, some completely new avenues are being opened up even now. The imperative will be to ensure that these new avenues become established research programmes across the field in time.


The definition of atheism

We were delighted to see that Ethan Quillen, one of our graduate students at Edinburgh, has just published a paper from his PhD in the new online journal Science, Religion, and Culture. Ethan blogs about it here (this can also be found in Ethan’s own blog).

Shameless Self-Promotion

My initial intention with this week’s post was to discuss the little differences we might imagine between cultural and national identities, particularly concerning the notion of ‘community’ in regard to the odd liminality felt by the ‘foreign’ PhD student.  That will be next week.

Today, a special edition of the journal Science, Religion, and Culture on Atheism, Secularity, and Science was published, for which I srccontributed.  Not one to let the iron cool before striking, I thought it might be useful to use this week’s post as a blatant and entirely shameless plug not only for my own article, but for the others that accompany it as well.

I first came to learn of this special issue through Tommy Coleman, a colleague at the Religious Studies Project, who has made quite a name for himself in the field of the Psychology of Religion, and its influence on the study of Atheism, secularity, etc.  He is quite the proliferate scholar, so here are some useful sources for reading about his work:

As the co-editor of this special issue along with John R. Shook and Ralph W. Hood Jr., Tommy has played an integral role in communicating and assisting throughout the process.  For that, I am quite grateful.

The issue itself (as I perceive it) is an attempt at tackling the ever-growing identity crisis within the field of Atheist Studies, particularly in reference to the fact that there are some (perhaps many) who would likely disagree with my notion that this field should be, in any way, referred to as such.  In fact, this is rather well said in the issue’sIntroduction:

Where it was once typical to begin a research article, introduction to a book volume, or special journal issue such as this one, by the researcher lamenting their particular field of study for neglecting such topics, this kind of pleading is no longer tenable (Bullivant and Lee, 2012). Nonetheless, as researchers we cannot afford to rest on our laurels for very long. While studies on atheism and secularity now exist across disciplines ranging from psychology, cognitive science, sociology, religious studies, philosophy, anthropology, and many others, this provides only a theoretical and methodological starting point from which to explore the given topic. Importantly, within each of these disciplines lay multiple competing frameworks, field-specific conceptualizations, and inter-disciplinary scuffles as to precisely what secularity is, and how to study it. Typically, pre-existing frameworks developed for use in religious believing populations are modified to fit nonbelievers, as nonbelief is often presumed to be the dark shadow of whatever belief or religiosity is (Coleman and Arrowood, 2015Silver, Coleman, Hood, and Holcombe, 2014). How far this approach will go toward answering whatever questions the scholar is interested in is an open one.

While there are points and theoretical positions within the articles published here with which I find myself in disagreement (such as Jonathan Jong’s “On (not) defining (non)religion”), the issue itself makes a number of quite useful strides toward an establishment of some sense of academic identity.  Which is no small endeavour.

For years now I have been referring to this area of interest as a ‘flying dutchman,’ cast about in a sea of opposed approaches and interests, without a distinct port-of-call.  Where before I might have lamented this fact, such as we might do when presented with the myriad ways in which the very terms we use are defined, my position has shifted a bit.

No longer do I think our ‘flying dutchman’ status is detrimental to our cause.  After all, while many voices proclaiming different things might seem to some as an atonal din, for others, that might sound like a chorus.

Or, said otherwise, and as I argued in my article, rather than dismiss this discourse because it reflects many voices saying different things, why not embrace it and simply allow people to say what it is they think and believe.

It is my opinion that this special issue does just that.

For this reason, not only was I quite happy to have been considered for this publication, I am also hopeful that it might be perceived as an example of how our theoretical and methodological hodgepodge might also prove ultimately beneficial to the academy’s larger understanding of Atheism and its many cognate terms.

For the benefit of the reader, then, I’ve provided the following links:

An Introduction to Atheism, Secularity, and Science,” by Thomas J. Coleman III, Ralph W. Hood Jr., and John R. Shook.

On (not) defining (non)religion,” by Jonathan Jong

Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism,” by Ethan G. Quillen

The NonReligious-NonSpiritual Scale (NRNSS): Measuring Everyone from Atheists to Zionists,” by Ryan T. Cragun, Joseph H. Hammer, and Michael Nielsen

Atheism, Wellbeing, and the Wager: Why Not Believing in God (With Others) is Good for You,” by Luke Galen

Atheism Looking In: On the Goals and Strategies of Organized Nonbelief,” by Joseph Langston, Joseph Hammer, and Ryan T. Cragun

Explaining the Secularity of Academics: Historical Questions and Psychological Findings,” by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi

The God of Nonbelievers: Characteristics of a Hypothetical God,” by David F. Bradley, Julie J. Exline, and Alex Uzdavines

When Rabbis Lose Faith: Twelve Rabbis Tell their Stories about their Loss of Belief in God,” by Rabbi Paul Shrell-Fox

Research note: “A Profile of the Members of the British Humanist Association,” by Gareth Longden

Research note: “Simple Markov Model for Estimating the Growth of Nonreligion in the United States,” by John Stinespring and Ryan T. Cragun

Book Review: Trent Dougherty, The Problem of Animal Pain: A Theodicy for All Creatures Great and Small, by Liz Goodnick

Book Review: The New Atheist Novel: Fiction, Philosophy, and Polemic after 9/11, by Marcus Mann

Book Review: Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions, by Amanda Schutz

Science and Religion through Poetry

It is hoped by some within the Science and Religion field that literature–both verse and prose–can enrich the dialogue between science and religion. Literature (and poetry, more specifically) allows for an intermingling of thought and affect. It is this affect component of the Science and Religion dialogue that is easily minimized. When engaging this field in academic circles it is easy to forget the practitioners of sciences and religions–people who may be less concerned with specific nuances and more concerned with the question: How then shall I live?

My research is within this literature sub-field of Science and Religion. I am interested in the ways literature can provide a more neutral medium of interaction for scientific and religious ideas, how literature utilizes (and perhaps alters) the language of sciences and religions, and how literature brings science and religion topics to a popular audience. Along with studying the writings of others, I am attempting to add my own voice to the field; the following poem, “Hermeneutics,” is one of my own.

The Science and Religion field is less about learning the right answers and more about asking the right questions. Or perhaps, taking a step back, it is about giving oneself permission to ask questions–especially questions of perceived authority, whether that be deities, religious leaders/writings, governments, scientists, philosophers, etc. To question authority can be disorienting, unsettling, isolating, and even dangerous. The speaker in this poem is asking questions about creation from the Judeo-Christian perspective. The speaker acknowledges the many voices of biblical scholarship, cosmology, quantum physics, theology, and practical religion. Three main questions drive the speaker: What happened? To whom do I listen? and What is important? It is this final question (found within the last stanza of the poem) that correlates to the question “How then shall I live?” A question that will hopefully remain at the core of the Science and Religion field.


In the beginning.
noun, feminine; beginning; also, chief.
From ראש
noun, masculine; head.
Common Semitic word; see also:
Arabic, Sabean, Ethiopic,
Amharic, Assyrian, Aramaic,
Palmyrene, Phoenician, Punic.

In the beginning
before there was time
before the big bang
before creatio ex nihilo

There was a singularity—
or perhaps there wasn’t—
we need a quantum theory of gravity;
Higgs boson wasn’t enough.

In the beginning—
at less than Planck time—
general relativity cannot be guaranteed.
Instead of singularity—infinite curvature?

In the beginning
our universe began
or was infinite
or was merely one oscillation of
big bang then big crunch
or was the birth of our tiny little corner
of the multi-dimensional
or variable multiverse.

In the beginning
God created the heavens and the earth.
Or did he merely create order
from his dark materials:
infinite night and chaos?

In the beginning,
who knows what God(s) did?
Did Moses or the Elohist,
the Hebrews or the Jews?
Did Peter, James, John, or Paul?
Did Jerome, Augustine, or Luther,
or the 47 scholars of King Henry VIII?

Do I listen to
Claus Westermann
Steven Hawking
Jorge Mario Bergoglio
Leonard Susskind
Walter Breuggemann
Jonathan Henry Sacks
the priest at the cathedral
the Anglican vicar down the road
the Baptist preacher Sunday morning
or the still small voice
that some say is the witness
of יהוה, Himself?

In the beginning—
What is the Good News?