Lies, damned lies, science and theology

Why everyone needs to learn the truth about science and religion
(Article for “Update”, the Newsletter of the British Regional Committee of St George’s College, Jerusalem, November 2013

The Holy Land contains an extraordinary mixture of religions and worldviews in a dynamic melting pot.  Jews, Christians, Muslims, Secularists and others live cheek-by-jowl.  They often argue with one another, and also have fascinating conversations which lead to deep insights into the most ultimate things of life.  Most people who regard themselves as religious like to think that their beliefs are ‘true’ – that they tell us something about the way the world really is, about the deepest realities of life and existence.  The problem in a plural world with such a variety of religions and worldviews is to know what to believe in the midst of all the seemingly contradictory approaches.  How do we discover what is really true?

One very powerful line of thought suggests that we can only gain true knowledge about the world via modern science and its method of empirical observation and the use of reason.  All the religions are then seen as subjective opinion based on an unquestioning approach to the traditions of faith.  They may guide you along in life, but the cognitive content of religious belief is seen as negligible.

The popular image of science as providing reliable, useful and objective knowledge, whilst theology offers only speculative and subjective opinion is remarkably widespread and persistent.  These pervasive caricatures of both science and theology have a profound effect on the way many people view the Christian faith and its credibility.  This remains so despite a large and growing body of academic literature which presents a very different and much more nuanced view.   One of the most important apologetic tasks today is to find ways of making this deeper understanding more widely known both in the Church and the wider world.  If we do not engage actively in this then the field is left wide open for either the Creationists or the new atheist brigade (both of whom do take communication seriously) – with the result that many are put off any serious consideration of Christian faith.

In our churches there are several very good study courses on science and religion available, but this is still a minority interest, usually led when a minister gets enthusiastic about the science and religion issues.  All too often we hear very little or nothing in sermons about the interface between science and religion despite the pervasiveness and importance of science to our way of thinking.  Just take a look at the index of a typical theology book and count the number of references to science or scientists.

Fortunately there has been an explosion in the amount of academic study of science and religion issues in the last 30 or 40 years.  There are mountains of books and scholarly articles available – and of a very high quality.  A number of Science and Theology centres now exist around the world, such as the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, California, and the Faraday Institute in Cambridge.  They have achieved a great deal in advancing the scholarly understanding of the issues.  There have been some excellent attempts at communicating this material more widely, but they are still fairly limited.  The emphasis to date has been on the academic side, not on the communication side.  The academic work is the vital foundation.  Without this there would be nothing to communicate.  But we now need a much bigger push on the communication of this material – into schools, colleges, churches, the media and elsewhere.

So what can we do to build that bridge of communication?

Firstly, use and support the existing organisations and networks in science and religion.  Around the world there are a number of distinguished centres of study including CTNS, the Ian Ramsey Centre in Oxford, the Faraday Institute in Cambridge, the Science for Ministry initiative at Princeton, and so on.  Many of these have received substantial funding from the Templeton Foundation which is increasingly turning its attention to the communications questions.  The existence of centres of excellence with trusted and knowledgeable scholars is vital, and needs to be further nurtured.  And this includes networks such as Christians in Science, the Science and Religion Forum, and the Society of Ordained Scientists.  All of these have websites with links to a mass of helpful, easily digestible material.

We need the integrity and the deep scholarship to create soundbites that genuinely point to a better understanding of science and religion issues – difficult, but by no means impossible.  Nor should we be afraid to make use of combative phrases like ‘The Dawkins’ Delusion’ to counter the barrage of material coming from the ‘New Atheists’.   Every Christian needs a quick, informed response to the frequent charge that science has disproved or discredited religion.

Good quality science education and religious education is another vital part of communicating a well-balanced understanding of the science-religion relationship.  This needs to include study about the nature of scientific enquiry.  There is already much good material around such as that produced by the Faraday Institute in Cambridge.  But teachers need to be aware of it and ready to use it creatively and enthusiastically – that depends in part on how curricula are framed which is why that debate matters.  We cannot have scientifically or religiously illiterate children in today’s world.

We also need confidence among clergy and other church leaders to deal with these issues.  This year an imaginative series of conferences is being run at St John’s College, Durham with the explicit aim of equipping religious leaders in an age of science.  There are some good courses and material available – for example in the Science for Ministry initiative at Princeton, but they are hardly mainstream in theological education.  So we need to find ways of getting this material into systematic theology and other seminary courses.

I have been very impressed with the idea of the Scientists in Congregations initiative funded by the Templeton Foundation and resourced by Princeton.  It involves identifying a pastor or church leader plus one working scientist in a congregation, giving them some training and ideas for activities in their church which would make the whole congregation better informed.

We need to get more scientific imagery and ideas into our liturgy.  This means encouraging liturgists, musicians and hymn-writers to do just that – and to have a liturgical season, possibly linked to Harvest time, which would look more closely at questions of creation and providence.

And last, but perhaps most important of all will be material for children – just look at the creationist Answers in Genesis website to see how seriously they take this.

Ultimately all this matters because both science and theology make important truth claims about the way things really are, and what we believe about this shapes the way we live.  A better, wider understanding of this really does matter to us all.  The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, California, has used the Golden Gate Bridge as an image for the need to build the conversation between science and theology.  The last 30 or more years of academic study in this field has built a pretty good bridge.  What is missing, however, is the communication of that literature in a much more popular manner.  In that exercise we have only just begun to build the foundations.

St George’s College in Jerusalem is uniquely placed to be the locus of such communication and conversation.  Jerusalem is a place where East meets West, Religions meet one another, and Secularism meets Religion.  It is a place where scientists from a variety of backgrounds – Christian, Jewish, Muslim or secular could explore the fascinating question of how we can discover ultimate truths about our world.