Can Science and Faith Coexist? – The Times Debate for the Cheltenham Science Festival

This year’s Cheltenham Science Festival is running, sponsored as usual by The Times newspaper, a festival debate.  The topic will be ‘Can Science and Faith Coexist?‘.  Chaired by journalist Oliver Kamm, there are three speakers – Robert Winston, the celebrated reproductive surgeon and public communicator of science, Mohamed El-Gomati, professor of electronics at York University, and Tom McLeish, professor of physics at Durham University (that would be me).

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A casual observer might be a little surprised at the lineup.  For Winston is a practicing Jew, El-Gomati likewise a Muslim, and I a Christian.  All are working scientists.  Where are the atheists necessary to knock some sense into these faith-heads and supply the resounding answer, ‘NO!’ to the question of the debate that the current conflictual model of science and religion demands at every turn? I dare say that we will meet a few on Tuesday June 8th in Cheltenham, but I think that the organisers of the Festival have made an interesting move.

For, by implication in those they have invited to discuss the topic, the real question of the debate is much more interesting – it is how science and faith do co-exist in the lives and thought of three scientists like us.  And underlying that question is a deeper one still, and one that we might end up answering in different ways: what place does science have in our lives of faith, what, after all, is science for in the service of God?  For a believer, X and faith never just ‘co-exist’, whatever X might be.  As Paul wrote of the work of Christ in creation (Colossians 1:17),

He is before all things, and in him all things hold together

This is the question I took as primary in the book Faith and Wisdom in Science, that started this blog off.  Answering it, even for someone who  had tried to live the question for a long time, was a long but fascinating journey through history, science itself and theology.  And the answer (so far – I don’t expect that sort of journey ever to finish), has a great deal to say about how we can do science better, with more human connectivity, and a much better community engagement into what science does for humanity and how we can all engage with it.

It turns out that, even in a ‘confrontation’ with a scientist who holds and atheist position, this approach is much more constructive than the usual oppositional one.  For one thing, a Christian who see science as God’s gift, and a mark of the extraordinary way in which we are made in the creator’s image, is by virtue of that theological understanding, the strongest possible supporter of science.

A debate last year at Keele University illustrates the idea (the link is a YouTube video of the evening).  Exoplanet hunter and astronomer Coel Hellier and I were pitted against each other in a ‘Science vs. Religion’ public setting.  But we were able to explore the nuanced reasons for our differences as well as just stating them, and we engaged in thinking through ways in which science could be more celebrated and contemplated by anyone.

I’m looking forward to Cheltenham 2016!