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Science and religion

May 10th, 2013

Church in test tube

Conventional ‘wisdom’ says that religion and science are at war, or at least opposed. Certainly you’ll find many atheists and many believers saying that. But there is another side to the story.

Some scientific discoveries seem (to some) to support belief, and many scientists are believers. And in recent times, the scientific study of religion as a social and biological phenomenon has become an active area of research.

Let’s explore.

Darwin changed everything?

Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was a game-breaker for the relationship between religion and science. That’s the opinion of biologist and atheist, Richard Dawkins, who famously said “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist”. Not all christians were opposed to the theory of evolution, either when it first appeared, or since, but popular christianity has seen it as a threat.

Other scientific disciplines (e.g. cosmology, ecology, medical science) have been more benign for religious belief, but some others (e.g. neuroscience, archaeology) have become problematic for some christians.

Do they have to be enemies?

Fundamentalist and evangelical christians have tended to say that evolution in particular is inconsistent with the Bible, and atheists have supported this conclusion – but from a completely different perspective! But there is a vast middle ground of believers and agnostics who see much less to argue over.

Evolutionary biology

Richard Dawkins is a biologist famous for his anti-theism, but other atheist biologists (e.g. Stephen Jay Gould and David Sloan Wilson) have been critical of Dawkins’ views as being unscientific. And there are many evolutionary biologists who are christians – for example Simon Conway Morris, Francis Collins and Ken Miller. Some scientists who are committed christians are now exploring and promoting how evolution and christian belief are compatible – see Biologos and Denis Lamoureux (Professor of Science and Religion at Alberta University) for example.

Cosmology

Most cosmologists I have read appear to be agnostic rather than atheist (e.g. Roger Penrose, Leonard Susskind, Paul Davies & Martin Rees), and the latter two, plus blogger Luke Barnes provide information that christians might find support the Cosmological and Design arguments for the existence of God.

Neuroscience

While neuroscience has not caused the same stir in religious circles as evolution, it may present more of a threat. Neuroscience generally sees the human brain in ‘reductionist’ physical terms which seem to preclude freewill and makes our perceptions about consciousness and ethics more problematic. This threatens some christian views about morality and the value of human life. But neuroscience is also problematic for atheists, because ethics, freewill and consciousness are all things which humans seems to believe in naturally and which atheism tends to question.

History and archaeology

Obviously history is not considered a science, but it utilises scientific disciplines such as archaeology, radiocarbon dating and anthropology. These disciplines have thrown light on Biblical stories, making some harder to believe and supporting others.

Science on religion

One of the most interesting fields (for me) is the scientific study of religion – sociologists, anthropologists, biologists, neuroscientists and others studying how religion affects or explains behaviour. Some christians might feel threatened by this study, because it treats religion as a social and biological phenomenon without any reference to whether God exists or not, but in principle it is no different to studying other parts of God’s creation. Scientists who study religion may be believers or not:

  • David Sloan Wilson is a biologist and a “nice atheist” (his words) whose research has shown that religious believers are more prosocial (i.e. more altruistic towards their surrounding community) than non-believers. He has therefore used church communities as the basis of community development work in depressed neighbourhoods.
  • Justin Barrett is a christian who researches the cognitive science of religion at Oxford University. His research found that it seems that it is natural for children to believe in God, that it remains natural for many adults too, and that hopes that religion will disappear appear to be quite misplaced.
  • Science on Religion is a blog put together by staff and students in the religion and science program at Boston University. It reports on papers, books and conferences in the field, and some of these give fascinating results. Some of the writers appear to be bringing a christian perspective, some do not, but the blog is resolutely scientific rather than dogmatic.
  • Michael Blume researches the “interdisciplinary and comparative study of religion” at several universities in Germany and I have just discovered his blog, The nature of faith. He is part of a Christian-Muslim family, and his research interests include fertility rates and the “reproductive advantages” of religions and the science of atheism.

Be prepared to be surprised

I don’t think believers need to fear these studies – in fact, many of them would be seen by thoughtful believers as helpful. I have found much fascinating material from these sources, and others. I plan to blog about some of them in the next few weeks. I think believers and unbelievers alike may find some research that will interest and challenge them.

If you’re interested in science as I am, then please join in; perhaps make a comment below.

Picture: Flickr Creative Commons and Clipart Heaven.

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