This is the text of a talk that I gave to the sisters and their guests at Burnham Abbey on the 10th of August on the relationship between science and religion.
The existence of the role of Science Missioner does raise some questions. The first of these is, “can science and religion really ‘fit’ together?” There are people out there who would say that they can’t. Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists have promoted the idea that anyone who is a rational thinker – and they definitely put professional scientists into this category – can’t possibly believe in God or adhere to religious teachings which they see as being, by default, irrational. The media, which loves a good fight because that sort of thing sells, has taken the idea of science and religion being irreconcilably at odds with one another and really run with it. It’s not all that unusual to see headlines such as: Can religion and science bury the hatchet 1 or Science and faith: the conflict 2. If you’re readers of the Church Times, you’ll probably have seen the recent story that, “the belief that religion and science are incompatible is common among GCSE and A-Level students” in the UK. 3
Now I must admit that there are plenty of scientists in the world who aren’t religious and who would say that they do not believe in the existence of any sort of god. Some of them, like Richard Dawkins, probably would say that to believe in God is irrational. Others would say that people like us, who do believe, are perfectly sane, rational and intelligent and there is nothing wrong with our beliefs, but they themselves have not seen enough evidence to convince them that God exists. The other side of that coin is, of course, that there are some religious believers in the world who reject science or try to. They don’t believe that evolution has been taking place over millions of years and continues to happen today; they reject evidence that our climate is warming and that the burning of fossil fuels is the cause (they don’t even believe in fossils, really, because the earth isn’t as old as the fossils suggest that it is).
But this definitely isn’t the whole story. In a survey that I conducted among people working in the sciences, the majority – both religious and non-religious said that the media portrayal of the relationship between science and religion was inaccurate. In fact, only 25% of non-religious respondents in my survey said that science and religious belief are completely incompatible. I have to admit that the question wasn’t asked of those who stated that they were practicing members of a religious faith, the thinking being that if someone was both a scientist and a religious believer they presumably didn’t find science and religious belief completely incompatible.
So, despite the fact that assumptions about their incompatibility do persist in some quarters, the fact is that science and religion can be brought into conversation with one another. This raises the next question which is, “What do they talk about?” The answer to that is, “Many things.”
Perhaps the most pressing of these various things that science and religion might talk about is climate change and other causes of environmental degradation. Science has helped us to discover many of the vast array of species with whom we share this planet. Science is also showing us just how many of those species are disappearing, and how rapidly, as human beings extend their reach. The data that science gives us help us to understand the causes of climate change and the impact of habitat loss, but science alone can’t solve these problems. Ultimately, they aren’t scientific problems. They are problems of the human spirit the way we think about and relate to the world around us. Understanding our place in the world has always been a part of religious faith. In order, then, to tackle these problems we need to marry up good science with a robust theology and spirituality that takes seriously the intrinsic value of the whole of creation.
In a much cited essay of 1967, 4 Lyn White suggested that the Christian theology of dominion is largely responsible for the lack of environmental care seen in western societies. That was, however, nearly 50 years ago and, I’m pleased to say, things have changed. Possibly because theologians have taken the science seriously, we’ve looked again at what scripture and Christian tradition have to teach us about our responsibilities to the planet, and we’ve discovered or re-discovered things that have turned some previous thinking on its head. Starting from the premise that, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” 5 Christians are more likely these days to think of ourselves, not as masters of the earth but as its caretakers.
Science is also helping us to learn more and more about the other animals that inhabit our world alongside us, and we are learning that they are not as different from us as we once thought. Animals feel emotions; they sometimes act altruistically; they plan ahead and use creative means to solve problems; some have language and some make and use tools. All of these traits were once thought to be exclusively human, and to set us apart from the rest of creation. We mistakenly equated being made in the image of God with being categorically different. Science challenges us to go back to our theology, to look at with fresh eyes and new understanding, to see what in our arrogance we might previously have missed or misunderstood. None of which makes theology or religious belief bad. But it reminds us that we must always approach both science and faith with humility. We don’t know everything and we never will. There will always be more to learn and, as we learn, we’ll need to integrate our newly-acquired knowledge with our previous understanding. Not so that one can completely subsume the other, but so that in dialogue both can help us enlarge our perspective.
Enlarging our perspective, which enables us to see things in a new way, can open up opportunities to experience awe, wonder and delight. Awe and wonder, creativity and imagination these are all intrinsic to both science and the experience of religious faith, and so open up another space in which conversation between the two can take place. Earlier this year I hosted an event on science, art and spirituality, which looked at some of the ways in which science and art both arise from and speak to human spirituality. Naturally, creativity and imagination were mentioned as being central to both art and science, as each discipline asks questions and is always coming up with new ways to explore our world. Creativity and imagination are both central to religion, as well. Not because God is imaginary, but because we are called on to try to see the world from God’s perspective to think ourselves into the mind of God, we might say so as to interact with it, so far as we are able, as God would. But we also employ our creativity and imagination in the ways that we find to describe the indescribable, and in the myriad ways we have come up with over the centuries to engage with God in prayer and worship. It probably goes without saying that an encounter with God engenders feelings of awe and wonder. But perhaps it is also right to say that learning to allow ourselves to experience awe and wonder (which can be pretty overwhelming emotions) is a prerequisite for encountering God. Experiencing the grandeur of nature in our world is without doubt one source of awe and wonder. But science, too, gives us opportunities to cultivate our sense of awe and wonder. For some, it might be marvelling at the perfection of the smallest things – microbes or even atoms. For many, though, I suspect that space, looking up at the night sky, is their first awe-inspiring experience.
I could spend hours looking at the night sky. Sometimes I do – I got a telescope for my last birthday. Now, I’m about as far from an expert as it’s possible to get, but that doesn’t in the least diminish the joy of seeing what’s out there; the incredible sense of peering through that lens and realising that I’m seeing, not just a bright dot in the sky, but detail (admittedly a bit fuzzy), on another world. Astronomy and Christianity have a long history. Matthew’s Gospel tells us of the visit of the magi to the Christ Child. These magi wise men set out on their journey inspired by something new that they had seen in the skies. Just what that something was has been the subject of debate for many years. People like Copernicus and Galileo looked though their telescopes and discovered that the earth wasn’t the centre of the universe. Much has, of course, been made of the ‘controversy’ the caused and the Galileo affair is often cited as the start of the ‘battle’ between religion and science. But, in truth, these early scientists were men of faith. They studied the creation so that they could learn about the creator. Galileo spoke of studying the two books that God has given us, the book of scripture and the book of nature. He also wrote that if the book of nature seemed to contradict that of scripture, it wasn’t that scripture was wrong, but that our interpretation of it was inaccurate. (That, by the way, is what got him into trouble. It wasn’t his science, it was usurping the Church’s place in saying who should interpret scripture and under what circumstance. That and more or less publicly calling the Pope an idiot – never a good move). These early scientists looked out into the heavens and what they saw there was orderly and beautiful. Newton, too, in his equations and the laws that governed the workings of nature found order and beauty in the universe. This, these men felt, were reflections of God imprinted on his handiwork.
The space race of the 1960s is often said to have been a spur to young people deciding to study science and engineering at university, and space exploration still has a real pull today. NASA has 18 million followers on Twitter and the International Space Station has 750 thousand. Space is popular. Just last month we heard the exciting news that NASA’s Juno craft had successfully arrived at Jupiter, and serious consideration is being given to manned missions to Mars. What is it about space that makes it so compelling? Well, for one thing, it’s vast. As Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy so eloquently put it, “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you might think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.” 6 It’s big, but it’s not empty. I suppose that’s one of the reasons that we find space, astronomy and astrophysics so interesting – because we look out there and we see that there are other stars, other worlds and we’re forced to consider the question, what if there’s another world like ours out there? What if there is life, life like us, somewhere else in the universe? Even without the big questions, the beauty of space is entrancing. And we can learn from it. From studying our solar system, we’ve learned things about how our own world came into being; by measuring the distance between our own galaxy and others, we learned that the universe is expanding and we’ve been able to estimate its age. We know that the elements that make up our world and even our own bodies were formed in the hearts of stars. By studying the heavens, we make discoveries about ourselves.
Science is an inherently spiritual activity, in that it makes use of those things we consider to be central to the human spirit: inquisitiveness, imagination, creativity, a thirst for knowledge. It is a spiritual activity also because it forces us to confront questions about ourselves: where did we come from; what is our relationship to the earth and to other creatures; how can we make a difference in the world? And, many areas of science can raise serious ethical questions – we know how to create nuclear fission. Is it right to use that knowledge to make weaponry of vast destructive power? What about to generate electricity? We have created drugs that can help people concentrate for extended periods of time and can, for example, improve performance on exams. Is that cheating? And if it’s not, is it ok that the use of such drugs will inevitably improve the life chances of those who can afford them – in other words, who are already advantaged, thus making society ever more unequal? Even now there are people working to develop techniques that would slow the aging process so that human beings could live healthily for well over a hundred years. That sounds wonderful, but is it? It raises questions, not only about our reluctance to admit to our own mortality, but also questions about resources and the impact of human population on the other life that shares this world with us. These ethical questions are spiritual questions, because ethics is all about values and values are related to beliefs.
Ethics is one area in which religion can make a great contribution. Some people have asked why religion has a privileged voice in this arena. Ethics is, after all, a branch of philosophy. But the religious traditions of the world, not least Christianity, have a long history of developing ethical principles and frameworks. And religion can also bring a perspective that stands out against the prevailing philosophies of the day – such as the philosophy of progress at all costs, or the philosophy of monetization of research and exploration. Often, science and the development of technology can run ahead of the ethical discussions that really should take place about it. Even now, just as we are reshaping the physical environment of our planet, we are also reshaping our social and cultural environment through the development of computer technology, social media and artificial intelligence. These developments raise questions of what it means to be human, how we should be relating to one another, and how to maintain human dignity and promote human flourishing. These are all questions that Christianity and, indeed, other faiths, have grappled with for centuries. Religion has something to contribute to the discussion.
So how do we have these discussions? We can’t exactly march into the headquarters of Facebook and say, “We have a contribution to make to the discussion of the ethics of what you’re doing here. You must listen to us.” What we can do is talk to one another and other people that we know and ask them if they’ve really considered the implications of the ways in which they are using technology. Although different studies have shown different results, there does appear to be a link in children between excessive use of computer gaming and visual media and sleep impairment, decrease in verbal skills, learning and memory. In addition, there is a growing body of evidence to show that teenagers who are exposed to social media such as Facebook suffer from depression and low self-esteem (one possible explanation is that through these media they are constantly exposed to the successes of others, but without any real-life contact they are unaware of the ‘failures’ or the ‘ordinary’ things of others’ lives, and so are continually made to feel inferior). Internet trolling has also become a well-known phenomenon, possibly driven by the perceived anonymity of interactions on the web. Through increased use of technology, we are detaching and distancing ourselves from others. We may feel that we are connected with hundreds, maybe thousands of others, but just how real are those connections? Is the fact that we interact with others via a screen changing our understanding of the reality of people other than ourselves? The centrality of the incarnation in the Christian faith gives us a theology that reinforces the value of face-to-face interaction, of real, flesh-and-blood relationships. In our ever more digital society, that is surely a contribution worth bringing to the table.
Are science and religion in conflict? No. Are they two different world views that address different aspects of human life and therefore don’t have anything to say to one another? No. Can both help us to understand our place in the world, to inspire us to reach beyond ourselves and gain a new perspective on our own existence? Yes. Can science and religion engage with each other to help us find the right balance between what it is possible to do and what is good for us and for our world? Hopefully, if we’re willing to have the conversation.
1. Wyatt, Caroline. (2015) Can science and religion bury the hatchet? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-31965758. 20 March 2015. Accessed 22 June 2016.
2. Gray, Richard (2009). ‘Science and faith: the conflict’ The telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/4999924/Science-and-faith-the-conflict.html. 16 March 2009. Accessed 22 June 2016.
3. Holness, Margaret (2016). Pupils say faith and science do not combine. Church Times 8 July 2016. Issue 7999, p8.
4. White, L., Jr. (1967). The historical roots of our ecologic crisis. Science, 155, 1203–1207.
5. Ps 24.1
6. Adams, D. (1979). The hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy. New York: Simon and Schuster, p76