Last Friday in Greenbank lecture theatre, a small crowd gathered to listen to a talk by Dr Andrew Pyle, a professor of Early Modern Philosophy at Bristol University. The subject of the talk was ‘Science and Religion,’ addressing the supposed warfare between the two subjects. But is there really an antagony between science and religion?
Are they, as scientist Stephen J. Gould says “non-overlapping magisteria” in which science deals with observable facts and religion offers guidance on ethics and values? Or do the two overlap, making claims about each others supposed territory and fostering hostility between scientists and believers?
In response to the maturing scientific movement, the Catholics famously said “you can have the body as long as we can keep the soul,” and when we look to history we see that there was for a long time a harmonious agreement between scientists and theologians. It was generally agreed that the scientists would deal with matters of observable fact, like the things we study with microscopes and telescopes, whilst the theologians would deliver us advice on the best ways of getting to Heaven.
The first origins of tension can be traced back to 1277, when Bishop Tempier of France ordered a mass censor of Aristotle’s books because they contained ideas that conflicted with the teachings of the church. More recent historical examples include Galileo, who in 1633 was charged with ‘disobedience’ and forbidden by the church to teach the Copernican theory of an earth that revolved around the sun.
But what about today? We’re no longer at risk of being burned at the stake if we express a dissenting opinion, but should we nonetheless worry about an increasingly popular trend of censoring unfavorable opinions? We need only to look to the countries that enforce blasphemy laws to see that certain texts are safeguarded from any criticism. What about the campaigns of certain US political figures campaigning against the teaching of evolution in schools?
There have been attempts to reconcile such disagreements: for instance, many people will admit the scientific truth of evolution whilst retaining their religious beliefs by saying that the mechanism of evolution requires certain pre-conditions put in place by God. But sometimes there seems to be too many inconsistencies for the religious to successfully defend their intellectual positions and retain their belief in god. How, for example, are we to account for the lost child who returns home to one family, while another family never see the return of their lost child? The burden of proof, Dr Pyle thinks, is with the believer. He asks: “When is the absence of evidence evidence of absence?”
But it must also be admitted that many great scientists have also been devout believers. Isaac Newton conducted his scientific experiments with a passionate dedication to belief in God. Francis Collins, former leader of the Human Genome Project writes in his book The Language of God that there is “a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony” between twenty first century science and Christianity.
So, is there a conflict between science and religion? Dr Pyle seemed to think that the evidence is too vague and inconclusive to say with any certainty. Certainly, we can point to examples of obvious conflict between the two subjects, but there are also times when science and religion harmoniously co-exist.
What do you think? Are you a student of science who is also a member of faith? Comment below and tell us what you think.