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‘Science and religion’ is not a zero-sum game

29 April 2022

New research into the views of the public suggests that tired, simple binaries should be resisted, argues Nick Spencer

THE conversation was over. I was about to press “Stop recording.” But the interviewee had one more thing to say: “I want it on record, don’t just list me as an atheist in the Richard Dawkins type. Because I am not an atheist like him at all.”

The interviewee in question was an atheist. Indeed, not only an atheist, but a highly intelligent, articulate, and prominent public atheist. But they also wanted me to be absolutely clear: they were not that kind of atheist.

The interview was one of more than 100 that we conducted with leading scientists, philosophers, and communicators, which, together with a YouGov public opinion survey of more than 5000 UK adults, formed the backbone of a massive project exploring science and religion today.

Hence the fear of being mistaken for Professor Dawkins. The objective was to introduce a bit of depth into the whole conversation. People — in particular, certain kinds of atheist — do claim that science and religion are in complete tension. But it is not always clear where this alleged tension lies. To put it another way, there is a great deal of smoke hanging about the science and religion debate, the fog of an allegedly ancient war. But, beneath the smoke, where exactly is the fire?

OUR interviewee’s clarification was far from unique; others distanced themselves similarly from the extremes. Moreover, public opinion has also shifted, our survey suggests. When the think tank Theos, which conducted the project, was launched in 2006, we found that 42 per cent (!) of UK adults who were surveyed agreed that “faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.”

When we repeated the question this time round, the figure had dropped to 20 per cent. More generally, nearly half of those surveyed agreed that “all religions have some element of truth in them”; the same proportion agreed that “humans are at heart spiritual beings”; and nearly two-thirds agreed that “there are some things that science will never be able to explain.”

If this paints an altogether friendlier picture for science and religion than was evident in 2006, we should not get too excited. The baseline opposition remains. When asked how they saw the relationship between science and religion, the respondents to the latest survey were clear: 57 per cent said “incompatible”; 30 per cent said “compatible”. Some of the aggression may have gone, but, if the war is over, nobody has told the public.

And yet, when we began to probe on where the fighting actually was, the whole battlefield began to fragment. In the first instance, people are more likely to think that 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, whereas there clearly is perceived incompatibility between religion and generic “science”, it shrinks when it comes to religion and particular sciences. When you ask people whether neuroscience, medical science, chemistry, psychology, geology, or cosmology makes it hard to be religious, the answer, on balance, is “No.” The one exception — only marginally — is the Big Bang.

THIS is more a war of words than of worlds — and therein lies the issue. Neither science nor religion is a single entity. Historically, each has been shown to be a messy, shifting, capacious term, which makes the idea of a longstanding war between them anachronistic and nonsensical. But they remain messy, baggy categories. Trying to define either of them precisely, even today, is a fool’s errand.

This naturally means that the true relationship between them is similarly complex and variegated. Our research — particularly among the experts, who included Professor Brian Cox, Lord Rees, Dr A. C. Grayling, and Baroness Greenfield — showed that the true science-and-religion conversation covers huge ground, which includes epistemology (how do we know what know?), metaphysics (what is the fundamental nature of reality?), hermeneutics (how do we read “authoritative” texts?), anthropology (what is the nature and value of the human?), ethics (what is good and what constitutes progress?), and politics (who gets to decide on shared issues of moral significance?)

It is not a list that naturally comes to mind when we hear the phrase “science and religion”, largely because that complexity has repeatedly been reduced into narrow, zero-sum debates about Darwinism (“evolution or creationism?”), cosmology (“Big Bang or God?”), or neuroscience (“brain activity or religious experience?”). Adapting the old media adage: if you want a war, first simplify, then exaggerate, and finally weaponise.

“Science and religion” need not be a war — but it need not be peace, either. After all, as many interviewees emphasised, science progresses precisely because it isn’t harmonious, preferring, instead, a path of ongoing scepticism and dispute (at least, in theory). There is no reason that science and religion should be any different. Premature or unwarranted harmony is almost as bad as staged and exaggerated conflict. We should be as wary of pronouncing “peace” as we are of declaring war.

Ultimately, the real joy should come not from settling the debate, but in having the conversation.

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos.

Science and Religion: Moving away from the shallow end is available here.

Listen to an interview with Nick Spencer on the Church Times Podcast.

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