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Science and religion: shallow or deep?

Science and religion: shallow or deep?

In this blog, Nick Spencer introduces our latest report ‘Science and Religion’: Moving away from the shallow end.

 There are those who walk among us who like to say, loudly and sometimes forcefully, that science and religion are incompatible. You will know who they are. You may even be one of them.

And then there are others, in whose ranks I have long counted myself, who disagree and claim that science and religion are compatible.

In the spirit of ‘my country, right or wrong’, I guess I’ll always support the latter team but as I get older, I get ever more dissatisfied with both. Neither seems, at least to me, to be completely satisfactory primarily because the debate itself presupposes so very much. Indeed, it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that your view on ‘science and religion’ is pretty much determined before you ever get to talk about the kind of topics – evolution, Big Bang, neuroscience – that usually dominate the debate.

What do I mean by this? History gives us a clue. For a century and a half now, we have been familiar with the idea that science and religion have always been at war with one another. There are many, many things wrong with this story, some of which I talked about in my Radio 4 series a couple of years ago and many more I discuss in my book Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion which will be published by Oneworld next year. But perhaps the thing that is most wrong is that science and religion don’t really exist, or rather didn’t exist in the past in the way we understand them today. As the historian Peter Harrison has shown in his brilliant book, The Territories of Science and Religion, those categories have long been capacious, shifting entities, without the clearly demarcated borders they have today.

Or rather – that we assume they have today. Because any attempt to clearly delineate and define science, even today, soon runs into a quagmire. Science has been defined in the US courts, repeatedly. After the 2006 UK Charities Act included “the advancement of science” as a charitable activity, the Science Council engaged a year–long project to define what science meant. In each instance, the definitions are long, composite, elastic, and slightly tentative. No single element is sufficient, and none is even necessary. And that’s before you get to academic discussions of the topic, where Karl Popper rubs shoulders with Thomas Kuhn, and Thomas Kuhn with Imre Lakatos, and Imre Lakatos with Paul Feyerabend, etc.

As for defining religion, don’t even start…

This isn’t simply angels on pins. If you want to know how two entities relate to one another, it helps to know what they are. For example, if you define science primarily according to its (alleged) method (many do), it’s reasonably easy to find compatibility with religion. If, alternatively, you prefer to define it according to its (alleged) commitment to ontological naturalism, it’s a bit harder. Conversely, if your understanding of religion is primarily ‘functional’ (e.g., the moral and social impact it has on people and society), it’s easier to find compatibility with science than if you have a more ‘substantive’ view of religion, meaning you believe it is telling you ‘factual’ things about reality. In effect, what you put into this discussion will pretty much determine where you end up.

So, what, then, to do? For the last several hundred years – did I write several hundred? Sorry, I meant three – Theos, in partnership with The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, have been conducting a massive study into this whole question. We interviewed over a hundred experts: scientists working in archaeology, anthropology, astrophysics, evolutionary biology, chemistry, cosmology, engineering, gerontology, mathematics, medicine, natural sciences, neuroscience, parapsychology, physics, psychology, and psychiatry, along with philosophers, sociologists, theologians, ethicists, specialists in biblical studies and in religious studies, and communicators and journalists specialising in either science or religion. We also commissioned a large quantitative survey of 5,153 UK adults from YouGov to assess public opinion. The qualitative interviews gave us depth, the quantitative study breadth. The objective was to get a bit of clarity to this whole debate; in effect, to identify what we disagree about when we are disagreeing about science and religion. The findings, or the first tranche of them, are published today in our new report Science and Religion’: Moving away from the shallow end

It’s long (and there’s more to come) but in effect this report argues that we have been having the wrong conversation. Evolution, cosmology, and neuroscience are all important, and it’s certainly better to talk about these than it is generic ‘science’. But what emerged from the 100+ hours of conversation with experts, is that these topics are effectively flotsam and jetsam, floating on the surface of our definitions of science and religion.

And how do we define science and religion? Well, back to ‘Go’. There is no single definition, let alone one that everyone agreed on. People understand science and religion in (some radically) different ways. There is no consensus to be found here.

That isn’t necessarily a problem, however, as what our discussions did expose was how several themes (or what we have called ‘dimensions’) repeatedly emerged within the debate. It is along these dimensions that the fullest (and richest) science and religion discussion occurs. We identified six:

·       Epistemology: how do we know what (we think) we know?

·       Metaphysics: what is the fundamental nature of reality?

·       Hermeneutics: how do we read texts, particularly authoritative religious ones?

·       Anthropology: what does it mean to be human?

·       Ethics: what is good and how do we progress as a society?

·       Politics: who gets to decide on shared issues of moral significance?

Your answer to these questions will invariably shape, indeed dictate your answer to the more familiar questions about evolution or the Big Bang.

So, are you ‘Science vs Religion’, ‘Science or Religion’, ‘Science & Religion’, or something else altogether? Given what I said earlier, I do think a more compatibilist position is more satisfying and reasonable. But increasingly I also think that the real divide here is not between ‘vs’, ‘or’, ‘&’ or whatever else, so much as between those who come to their view having thought their way there, along the various dimensions we identified, and those who simply assume the categories and meanings, who have (in the words of one interviewee) “just picked up the cultural zeitgeist.”

Or, to pick up the title of the report, between a conversation that is complex, contentious, messy, but deep, and one that is happy to thrash around in the shallow end.

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos

‘Science and Religion’: Moving away from the shallow end is available to download here. 


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Image by Emily Downe

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently ‘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).

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Posted 25 April 2022

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