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Hannah Waite shares what she has learned from the first year of the Science and Religion project. 26/01/2021
In science and religion debates, what you need is two groups of people on either side who are willing and open to have a hospitable and humble conversation and that’s very often not the case. I think a little bit of intellectual humility would be helpful. – Interview 34.
The default portrayal of the discourse between science and religion is all too often one of culture war, full of antagonism and hostility, with headlines ranging from the direct (“Yes, there is a war between science and religion”; “If science and religion are at war, science is winning”) to the more nuanced (“Can science rule out God?”)
The conflict narrative between science and religion isn’t only found in media headlines, but on YouTube, Twitter threads, Facebook pages, and in popular books. Words become weapons in this war, used to tear down not only arguments but often individuals themselves.
The views presented on social media are invariably louder and more widely heard than those of academics who spend their time thinking about science, religion, and science and religion. People are inevitably more aware of an antagonistic Twitter thread or Facebook post, than the many books or articles that are written on the topic – and so, public opinion is likely to be formed by opposing views, and the idea that you must choose either science or religion. Last year we commissioned Savanta ComRes to conduct a questionnaire of 2,011 British adults to assess their views on science and religion. We asked participants how compatible they thought science and religion were, on a sliding scale of 0–10 (0 – completely incompatible, and 10 – completely compatible). We found that individuals were over twice as likely to say the relationship between science and religion was incompatible (37%), in comparison to 16% of respondents who viewed science and religion as compatible. The results also showed that, on the ends of the spectrum, people were four times more likely to say the relationship between science and religion was completely incompatible than completely compatible.
Over the last year, Theos and the Faraday Institute have been conducting the qualitative element of a three–year science and religion research project, the objective of which is to map the science and religion landscape in unprecedented detail, going wider and deeper than before in our attempt to grasp what people are talking about when they talk about ‘science’ and ‘religion’. In the process, we have interviewed a wide range of experts, from astrophysicists to philosophers of science, theologians to mathematicians, sociologists to evolutionary biologists, documentary makers, journalists and podcast hosts to geneticists, anthropologists and archaeologists. We have (so far) conducted over 80 in–depth interviews, with the vast majority of individuals – 61 out of the 80 interviews conducted – identifying as either non–religious or atheist (not least because this was the group we wanted to talk to).
We have listened to academic arguments, personal experiences and cultural influences regarding science and religion. Our discussions have covered… well, pretty much everything: astrobiology, artificial intelligence, ethics, evolution, psychology, anthropology, epistemology, ontology, methodology, neuroscience, cosmology and much else. It has been a genuinely fascinating enterprise to date.
And in the depths of these interviews (and in listening to and coding them) one thing has become apparent: the depiction of straightforward conflict between science and religion as drawn by (social) media is not a fair or accurate representation of the relationship as perceived even among more sceptical people.
It is important to make one point clear here: this is not to say that all is sweetness and light in the science and religion landscape, or that deep down most people see there being perfect harmony here. They do not. We deliberately spoke to a large proportion of people who were not religious or believers precisely because we wanted to hear about the perceived conflict. Rather, it is to say that there is considerably more nuance in this debate than is popularly imagined. Different interviewees found different areas in the debate between the relationship between science and religion either compatible or problematic, but they were not universally viewed in stark opposition to each other. Moreover, even those individuals who were most hostile to religion were nonetheless respectful and measured in their responses. The animosity that is perceived as the default position in this debate in the public mind was not the main narrative of our interviews; in fact, it was minimally present.
Instead, we found individuals excited about the prospect of discussing their own views on science and religion without having to ‘pick a side’ to battle on. The most fruitful conversations into the discourse of science and religion lie not in black and white arguments and opinions, but in the significant grey space in–between.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing throughout the course of the interviews, however, has been the positive reception we have received from our respondents. Interviewees have commented on how much they enjoyed the open, welcoming and hospitable conversation. This has obviously been gratifying to hear as a researcher – but has also underlined for us two important points.
First, while it would be false to pretend that there is harmony when there isn’t, the popular image of straightforward conflict or antagonism between science and religion is simply not accurate. Instead, what we have discovered is that the discourse between science and religion is more respectful, nuanced and varied than the stereotypical image that has been portrayed for the last twenty years or so.
Second, on a more personal note, the simple fact that our interviewees have enjoyed the interview process has encouraged us that the research is on the right tracks. We’ve found that people do want to talk about these issues and to have well informed, respectful, and open conversations without getting drawn into a peripheral conflict in the culture war. Instead of science and religion being a taboo subject, or a conversation to shy away from (similar to that of religion and politics) our research has displayed quite the opposite – it is a conversation many people want to have.
 The 11 point scale was separated into three categories; compatible, incompatible and middling. Answers of 0–3 were coded as incompatible, 4–6 – middling and 7–10 – compatible.
Image: Vadim Sadovski/shutterstock.com
Hannah joined Theos in 2019. She has an undergraduate degree in Psychology and Counselling and a PhD in Practical Theology both from the University of Aberdeen. She is particularly interested in mental health, disability and theology and was a founding member and community developer of Friendship House Aberdeen, a movement towards creating an inclusive community for adults with and without disability. She is working on Theos’ Religion and Science project.
Posted 26 January 2021
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.