Paul Vallely: Into a fifth phase of science and faith

24 September 2008

Why is a new war between science and religion starting now

Think on, they say in the part of the world where I grew up. And that is exactly what I have been doing since last week, when I wrote about the witch-hunt against the Revd Professor Michael Reiss, who was thrown out of his job by a pusillanimous Royal Society, bowing to a crowd of baying secularists who were up in arms — not because of what Professor Reiss said, but what people might have thought he said. Orwell should be living at this hour.

It all raises wider questions about the relation­ship between science and religion, which, since the collapse of the medieval consensus that welded faith and the natural sciences together in a cosmic whole, has undergone four distinct phases, and we are now entering a fifth.

The first paradigm was one of conflict. It was symbolised in the row between Galileo and the Church over whether the sun or the earth was the centre of the universe. It was, of course, more nuanced than that, but Galileo now serves as a metaphor for the irreconcilability of scientific materialism and biblical literalism.

Next came Isaac Newton’s mechanistic world-view, which sought to accommodate both science and religion by relegating God to back­ground status as the designer of a clockwork world, which he wound up and then left to its own devices. Newton’s celestial mechanics brought an advance in our scientific understand­ing through his laws of motion. But it left us with a distant deity, and did not have much of the incarnation about it.

Phase three was Darwin. At first, many saw his theory of evolution as a threat to religion, but later, mainstream Christianity came to see evolu­tion as the “how” of creation, leaving the “why” questions of meaning and morality to faith. Science and religion exercised authority over two discrete compartments of life, between which there could be no link.


The fourth stage offered synergy, as both science and theology became more refined in their understanding. Bridges began to appear across the gap. In cosmology, the science of the Big Bang chimed in with a moment of creation. Quantum physics overturned Newton’s mechan­ics with an inherent uncertainty at subatomic levels, which some believers saw as filled by a God of the gaps.

Evolution suggested a continuing creation in which, through process theology, men and women are called to play a part. Advances in neuroscience showed that mental and spiritual processes depend on biological processes, under­mining dualisms about body and soul, and suggest­ing a more holistic understanding of the body-mind-spirit axis.

Given all this insightful dialogue, why are we now entering a new phase of conflict? Why do atheists such as Richard Dawkins consistently refuse to debate with those with a subtle under­standing of faith, and target only extreme fundamentalisms?

How can academics as sophisticated as John Sulston, Richard Roberts, and Harold Kroto make a statement as crass as: “We gather Professor Reiss is a clergyman, which in itself is very worrisome”? This is a “Revds under the beds” paranoia, mirrored, of course, by many in the religious camp. Why are liberals, who once lauded the Voltairean principle of defending to the death their opponents’ right to spout nonsense, now so intolerant and illiberal in their liberalism?

Is it all a reaction to 9/11? Or is there some other reason for the generation of so much heat and so little light? Newspaper columnists are supposed to offer answers, not questions. But on the question of “Why now?” I don’t have any. If you do, let me know.

Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.

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