In a technological society, can religion survive? It already has

Professor John Hedley Brooke'MA PhD (Cambridge), MA (Oxford), HonFISSR''From 1999-2006 John Hedley Brooke was the first Idreos Professor of Science & Religion at Oxford University
Professor John Hedley Brooke'MA PhD (Cambridge), MA (Oxford), HonFISSR''From 1999-2006 John Hedley Brooke was the first Idreos Professor of Science & Religion at Oxford University

Is war between science and religion inevitable? Professors Brooke and Livingstone debated this question at Queen’s University Belfast on Thursday October 25:

On September 16 2008, Professor Michael Reiss, an evolutionary biologist, resigned as Director of Education for the Royal Society. What brought about his

Professor David Livingstone'OBE, DLitt, FBA, MRIA'David N. Livingstone is Professor of Geography and Intellectual History at Queen's University Belfast

Professor David Livingstone'OBE, DLitt, FBA, MRIA'David N. Livingstone is Professor of Geography and Intellectual History at Queen's University Belfast

removal were observations he’d made about how science teachers should treat questions about origins in schools. Shortly before he turned in his resignation,

the Nobel Prize winner Sir Richard Roberts wrote to Sir Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, demanding “that Professor Reiss step down, or be asked to

step down, as soon as possible”.

“We gather Professor Reiss is a clergyman, which in itself is very worrisome,” the letter went on.

“Who on earth thought that he would be an appropriate Director of Education, who could be expected to answer questions about the differences between science and religion in a scientific, reasoned way?”

Commenting on the whole episode in the New Scientist, Sir Harold Kroto, another Nobel laureate, observed: “There is no way that an ordained minister – for whom unverified dogma must represent a major, if not the major, pillar in their lives can present free-thinking, doubt-based scientific philosophy honestly or disinterestedly.”

Enshrined in these communiqués is the assumption that science and religion are inescapably at war. And yet we must ask whether this assumption can possibly do justice to the great diversity of ways in which the relations between science and religion have been understood. There are many sciences, many

religions.

A scientific innovation problematic for one religious tradition may be irrelevant to another. One science may pose a threat to religious beliefs when

other sciences do not. Arguing for an essential conflict between science and religion fails because, as the philosopher John Gray has written, terms like

“religion” and “atheism” have no essence.

The sciences may sometimes provide answers to questions once asked within the faith traditions; but they also leave space for religious enquiry and commitment for a reason identified by Yuval Harari in his best-seller Sapiens. How do we prioritise competing scientific research projects?

With limited resources we must ask what for humankind is more important? What is good? But these are not scientific questions.

Only religions and ideologies, Harari suggests, seek to answer them: “scientific research can flourish only in alliance with some religion or ideology”.

There can be complementarity and complexity as well as conflict.

Looking back over history we certainly find many occasions when science and religion have been in conflict. Call these flash points. Among these is the

rejection of miracles by those convinced that nature is bound by unbreakable natural laws. Or the denial of human freedom by those who see the human mind

as nothing more than the workings of brain chemistry.

Some Catholics found new theories of matter disturbing because of the challenges they posed to their understanding of the Eucharist. For some Jews the ban on astrology stifled astronomical inquiry.

For biblical literalists Darwinian evolution routinely provokes an oppositional stance.

On the other hand, we can identify many points of conciliation and enrichment. Think of these as trading zones. Take the biblical idea that all humankind is descended from a single source.

This belief inspired the search for the beginnings of human language and for the routes by which early humans diffused across the globe.

In the seventeenth century, scientific instruments such as the telescope and microscope were conceived as ways of reversing the effects of Adam’s fall from grace.

Or consider the whole matter of design in the world. This idea was fundamental to the development of the science of ecology with its emphasis on the close fit between organisms and their environments.

In conclusion we stress the importance of linguistic distinctions. With their different sources of authority, the potential for tension, divergence, even animosity between representatives of scientific and religious communities will always be there. But are tension, divergence, animosity - even conflict - the same as inevitable warfare? Is it possible to slip too easily from perceptions of dissonance into the trope of warfare? Many religious people have been

indifferent to science. Many scientists have experienced alienation from religion.

Mutual suspicion is not uncommon. But, again, indifference, alienation and suspicion are not the same as warfare.

The very words “science” and “religion” have undergone profound changes of meaning. Not until the second half of the nineteenth century did “science” become a convenient umbrella to capture an expanding range of specialised empirical enquiries, supposedly – but not always actually – united by a common “scientific method”.

Can religions survive in technological societies? They already have, and for an important reason. They confer identity and seek to find meaning in events, to interpret the universe, not primarily to explain it.

As Terry Eagleton memorably put it: “the blunder of believing that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world … is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus”.

• John Hedley Brooke, Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford and David N. Livingstone, Professor of Geography and Intellectual History at Queen’s University Belfast. They debated this question at Queen’s University Belfast on Thursday October 25