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Science and Religion: the next chapter

Science and Religion: the next chapter

The ‘conflict’ between science and religion is sometimes talked up in the UK as if it were part of an emerging culture war, as it apparently is in the US. But what is the real picture in the UK? Is Young Earth Creationism on the rise? Do religious people think more negatively about science? And if there is a conflict between science and religion, who perceives it and why?

A decade ago, Theos and the Faraday Institute worked on a great project timed to coincide with the big Darwin anniversary.

There were events, debates, lectures, a play and acres of new quantitative and qualitative research – which told us that, among other things, the creationist vs evolutionist stand–off was not as simple and stupid as the caricature would have us believe.

The highlight for me though was the opportunity to get to know Mr Darwin himself better. I read his books, journals and letters, and ended up writing a short book– bizarrely the first to be published in the UK – exploring what Charles Darwin actually believed about God, why he lost his faith, and what impact he thought his theory had for theism and for Christianity.

The story was so much more interesting and moving than I had expected, and it drew me into a much deeper interest in the history and sociology of science and religion.

It is a curiosity of this discipline that not only does it have some of the best, most eloquent and learned scholars I have ever come across, but also the nicest. Time and again, I found them generous, humane, thoughtful, and reasonable. Reading and meeting John Hedley Brooke, Peter Harrison, and Fern Elsdon Baker, to name only three, has been a real privilege.

Many years later, as part of the BBC’s 2017 review of religion and belief, I suggested that the corporation would do well to focus less on religion per se and more on ‘religion and…’; to look through religion rather than at it, so to speak. There were so many possibilities: religion and the environment, religion and poetry, religion and politics, and of course religion and science.

The suggestion was taken up and after much discussion I got the opportunity to present a three part series on Radio 4 on the history of science and religion, which involved not only the opportunity to tell this absorbing tale but also to interview a number of my academic heroes, to meet a good few more, and to work with an excellent and talented producer, Dan Tierney.

The result is broadcast on 21 and 28 June and 5 July, and will subsequently be available here.  I hope you can tune in and that you find the story as fascinating as I do.

Timed to coincide with the series, I have also written a new Theos report “Science and Religion”: the perils of misperception, available from 8 July.  The report gathers together pretty much all the UK data in existence on science and religion, and tries to understand how the landscape here really lies. For this, I was hugely grateful to one scholar in particular, Dr Amy Unsworth, who generously allowed me to read and use some of her detailed (and, in some case, as yet unpublished) work.

By drawing on Amy’s work, and Fern’s, and our own Rescuing Darwin project, I was able to paint a reasonably full picture of ‘science and religion’ in the UK, but the loudest message was not about science, or evolution, or creationism but for the need for more work into what the public – religious, non–religious, and disinterested – thinks about science and religion. We simply don’t know anything like enough. We are, in this respect at least, light years behind the USA.

And so we are also embarking on a major study, again in partnership with the Faraday Institute, funded by the Templeton Religion Trust, to explore this landscape in unprecedented detail. We will report in… 2022.

So: there’s an awful lot going on here. Radio, report, research: you will, I hope, find something to engage your mind, heart and perhaps even soul.

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Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

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Posted 18 June 2019

Belief, Darwin, Humanity, Media, Reason, Religion, Science


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