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.