Are ‘Science’ and ‘Religion’ conflicting world views?

Sergio Graziosi speaks for many when he articulates his bemusement that I continue in maintaining that the ‘conflict thesis’ represents a category error. He says that they are two ‘world views’ that cannot coexist.  But science is not, of itself, a ‘world view’. It is, as he rightly says, an evidence-based methodology by which the thinking and acting emergent blobs of person-forming matter called humans reconstruct and understand the material workings and structures of the universe.  The two competing world views are not ‘religion’ and ‘science’, they are ‘atheism’ and ‘theism’ – together with the multiple branchings of narrative that belong below both headings.

Whether one’s world view is theistic or atheistic (or agnostic) does not affect in broad terms what science is and how we do it.  In either case what we now call science is the current chapter in a long long human story of curiosity and exploration of the material world.  It is true that the information arising from science can inform one’s worldview.  An example of a change in the light of such evidence is philosopher Anthony Flew’s change from an atheist to theist worldview, largely in the light of new evidence from modern physics (and some latterly perceived weaknesses in arguments for atheism).

What science is not able to do is provide its own narrative of purpose. What I argue in Faith and Wisdom in Science is that we urgently need to discover a teleological story for science – what is it really for in human terms.  The commonly enshrined statements by governments, that we do science (and so fund it) purely for economic benefit just won’t do.  This is also why I want to situate science together with music, art, literature (only in the sense that these are all activities deeply at the heart of what it means to be human, not that they all provide evidence for worldviews in the same way, or that they share methodologies).

Theology is is one human activity very well suited to discussions of purpose – the ‘what are we here for’ sort of questions.  Such a discussion naturally feeds into choices about ethical decisions in science and technology.  Of course the outcomes of a discussion on what is science for, in the light of a thestic worldview, might well contradict those from an atheist one, but they cannot possibly contradict science itself, as Graziosi claims, as science doesn’t discuss its own purpose at all, any more than music discusses why we make music.

The question of consistency of natural law is, of course, an issue of faith in any world view.  Yes we believe as scientists that the laws of physics as far as we know them apply at all times and places, but they might not.  Evidence might grow, for example, that the gravitational constant, well.., isn’t.  In the early universe we know (we believe…) that ‘the laws of physics break down’ and we have no idea what replaces them at the Plank scale.  So there is plenty of precedent within science for a discussion of how ‘regular’ laws of physics are.  Nor, on the other hand, does a theistic worldview necessarily hang on a capricious deity that suspends law at will.  But there is, of course, a long history of discussion about the way that the very existence of comprehensible physical law points to the existence of a mind behind that law, and the universe itself.  Again, whether God changes the laws of physics in ‘miracles’ or not is a discussion within a theological community of different views. It is not an ‘incompatibility’ between science and religion.

Finally, it isn’t true to say that there are no methodological links between religion and science. My own approach to Christian belief, for example, has been a decision to explore the ‘hypothesis of living life in the light of God’ in the light of evidence. Of course there is no knock-down proof of either the existence, or the non-existence of God. But then not being able to prove things is a very familiar predicament for a scientist! This is not the time or place to expand on this approach to belief, but if I did I would identify three strands of evidence: (1) The connection of the Judeo-Christian story with the human experience of evil; (2) The historical events around Jesus; (3) The experience of transformation in quiet humble lives that I witness all the time. Note I am not saying that this is a scientific methodology, but that in following it I do not think that I am being inconsistent as a scientist in my approach to a wider framing of where persons, purpose, hurt, healing and hope come from.

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