THE conversation was over. I was about to press “Stop recording”. But the interviewee had one more thing to say: “I want this recorded, don’t just call me an atheist in the style of Richard Dawkins. Because I am not at all an atheist like him.
The interviewee in question was an atheist. Indeed, not just an atheist, but a very intelligent, articulate and prominent public atheist. But they also wanted me to be absolutely clear: they weren’t that kind of atheist.
The interview was one of more than 100 we conducted with leading scientists, philosophers and communicators, who, together with a YouGov public opinion survey of over 5,000 UK adults, formed the backbone of a massive project exploring science and religion today.
Hence the fear of being mistaken for Professor Dawkins. The goal was to introduce some depth into the whole conversation. People – especially some types of atheists – claim that science and religion are in total tension. But we do not always know where this alleged tension lies. In other words, there is a lot of smoke hanging over the science-religion debate, the fog of a supposedly ancient war. But, under the smoke, where exactly is the fire?
OUR interviewee’s clarification was far from unique; others have also moved away from the extremes. In addition, public opinion has also changed, according to our survey. When think tank Theos, which spearheaded the project, was launched in 2006, we found that 42% (!) of UK adults surveyed agreed that “faith is one of the great evils of world, comparable to the smallpox virus but more difficult to eradicate.”
When we repeated the question this time, the number had dropped to 20%. More generally, nearly half of those questioned agree that “all religions contain some truth”; the same proportion agreed that “humans are basically spiritual beings”; and nearly two-thirds agreed that “there are things that science can never explain”.
If this paints an altogether more favorable picture for science and religion than was evident in 2006, we shouldn’t be too excited. The basic opposition remains. When asked how they viewed the relationship between science and religion, respondents to the latest survey were clear: 57% said “incompatible”; 30% said “compatible”. Some of the aggression may have disappeared, but if the war is over, no one has told the public.
And yet, when we started to probe where the fighting was actually taking place, the whole battlefield started to fragment. First, people are more likely to think there is a tension between science and religion than between science and Christianity, or science and Islam, despite the fact that the last time I checked, Christianity and Islam were both religions.
Second, while there is clearly a perceived incompatibility between religion and generic ‘science’, it narrows when it comes to particular religion and science. When you ask people if neuroscience, medical science, chemistry, psychology, geology, or cosmology make it hard to be religious, the answer, on balance, is “no.” The only exception – only marginal – is the Big Bang.
THIS is more a war of words than of worlds – and therein lies the problem. Neither science nor religion form a single entity. Historically, each has proven to be a messy, shifting, and voluminous term, making the idea of a long-running war between them anachronistic and absurd. But they remain messy and baggy categories. Trying to define either precisely, even today, is a maddening rush.
This naturally means that the true relationship between them is just as complex and varied. Our research – particularly among experts, who included Professor Brian Cox, Lord Rees, Dr AC Grayling and Baroness Greenfield – showed that the real science-religion conversation covers a huge ground, which includes epistemology (how do we know us what we know?), metaphysics (what is the fundamental nature of reality?), hermeneutics (how do we read “authoritative” texts?), anthropology (what is the nature and human value?), ethics (what is good and what constitutes progress?), and politics (who decides common issues of moral importance?)
It’s not a list that comes naturally to mind when we hear the phrase “science and religion,” largely because this complexity has repeatedly been reduced to narrow, zero-sum debates about Darwinism. (“evolution or creationism?”), cosmology (“Big Bang or God?”) or neuroscience (“brain activity or religious experience?”). Adaptation of the old media adage: if you want a war, first simplify, then exaggerate, and finally militarize.
“Science and religion” doesn’t have to be war – but neither is it peace. After all, as many interviewees pointed out, science advances precisely because it is not harmonious, preferring instead a path of constant skepticism and argument (at least, in theory). There is no reason for science and religion to be different. Premature or unwarranted harmony is almost as bad as staged and exaggerated conflict. We should be as careful in pronouncing “peace” as in declaring war.
In the end, the real joy shouldn’t come from settling the debate, but from having the conversation.
Nick Spencer is a Senior Fellow at Theos.
Science and religion: moving away from the superficial part is available here.
Listen to an interview with Nick Spencer on the Church Times Podcast.