Finding meaning

In his 2015 book “Faith versus Fact,” the biologist Jerry Coyne launched one of his many attacks on religion in the name of science: science and religion, he wrote, are “incompatible in precisely the same way and in the same sense that rationality is incompatible with irrationality”.

These sorts of generalisations have been part of popular perception. Are science and religion inescapably at war with each other?

There are many sciences, many religions. A scientific innovation problematic for one religious tradition may be irrelevant to another. One science may pose a threat to religious beliefs, not another. Arguing for an essential conflict between science and religion fails because, as the English political philosopher John Gray writes, terms such as “religion” and “atheism” have no essence.

The sciences may sometimes provide answers to questions once asked within the faith traditions – but they also leave space for religious enquiry and commitment. But these are not scientific questions, as the historian Noah Yuval Harari identifies in his best-seller “Sapiens.” Only religions seek to answer them: “Scientific research can flourish only in alliance with some religion or ideology.” Because science and religion can complement one another as well as come into conflict, the story of their interrelations is complex, write David N Livingstone,  Queen's University Belfast ,  John Hedley Brooke,  University of Oxford writes in The Conversation  .

Looking back over history, we certainly find many occasions when science and religion have been in conflict. Call these flash points. Among these is the rejection of miracles by those convinced that nature is bound by unbreakable natural laws. Or the denial of human freedom by those who see the human mind as nothing more than the workings of brain chemistry. For biblical literalists, Darwinian evolution routinely provokes an oppositional stance. On the other hand, we can identify many points of conciliation and enrichment. Think of these as trading zones. Take the biblical idea that all humankind is descended from a single source. This belief inspired the search for the beginnings of human language and for the routes by which early humans diffused across the globe.

Or consider the whole matter of design in the world. This idea was fundamental to the development of the science of ecology. Works of natural history which stressed the intimate connections between organisms and their environments were motivated by a belief that God had fitted animals and plants in the proper enviornment.

In our own day, there may well be benefits to be derived from a dialogue between theological anthropology and those advocating transhumanism. New technological possibilities are raising profound questions about what it means to be human, a subject on which theologians have had much to say. At the very least, theology might prove to be a useful conversational partner in articulating values by which to adjudicate among the human capacities that might be prioritised for enhancement.

With their different sources of authority, the potential for tension, divergence, even animosity between scientific and religious communities will always be there, acknowledge Livingstone and Brooke. “But tension, divergence, animosity – even conflict – are not the same as inevitable warfare. Many religious people have been indifferent to science. Many scientists have experienced alienation from religion. Mutual suspicion is not uncommon. But, again, indifference, alienation and suspicion are not the same as warfare,” they add.

What is the role of religion in the world of science? “They confer identity and seek to find meaning in events, to interpret the universe, not primarily to explain it.” As  British literary theorist, Terry Eagleton memorably, opines. “The blunder of believing that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world ? is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.”

(The writer is professor of science and religion and author of Between Before and Beyond!)