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Summary of a talk given at the Durham Union Society (Durham University) on 27th April 2012

1) The first claim is that science has always been in conflict with religion. But look at the facts.  In the 4th century St. Augustine taught that the Bible should not be interpreted to contradict reason and observation. The Venerable Bede in the 8th century not only wrote on theology and history, but also on astronomy, the phases of the moon and the tides.

Later medieval thinkers correlated their religious beliefs with the science of the time, and many of them took a great interest in it. The friars Roger Bacon and William of Ockham, and Bishop Grossteste of Lincoln, flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries and worked on cosmology, optics, mathematics and scientific method.

The enlightenment did not view science as contradicting belief in God, particularly his role in devising natural laws. Later there were, of course, the well-known debates over Darwinism, but many of those against Darwin were scientists, not religious leaders, and vice versa. Notably, Asa Gray, Darwin’s great supporter in the US, was a devout evangelical Christian.

As the years move on we have Lord Kelvin, Kurt Godel, Sir William Bragg and Max Planck, who all retained belief in God. What about Georges Lemaitre, the Belgian Catholic priest who first proposed the Big Bang theory and worked out the maths? Or key figures in the development of evolutionary theory, people like Ronald Fisher, David Lack and Theodosius Dobzhansky, who all maintained a personal faith.

Science and religion have not always been in conflict – in many ways, monotheistic religion laid the foundation for science. The ‘Draper-White Hypothesis’ (that religion and science normally conflict) is now discredited.

2) It is common to be told that science has destroyed all arguments for the existence of God. For example, it is claimed there is no need for a first cause to explain the universe. It could have come into existence from ‘the void’ through ‘spontaneous symmetry breaking’. We are not told, however, what the void is. Can it really be ‘nothing’ if it can have properties such as symmetry? Evolution from nothing is just as tricky as creation from nothing.

The argument from design is similarly dismissed by those with an anti-religious axe to grind. Yet many reputable scientists like Martin Rees and Paul Davies agree that the chances of us being here – without a designer – are almost infinitely small. We need so many crucial factors to be right, such as the physical and chemical nature of the universe, the size of the earth, its distance from the sun, magnetic field, tectonic plate structure, atmospheric make up and hydration by meteorites.

In evolutionary theory Richard Dawkins has made the whole subject understandable through his brilliant books. However, he draws the conclusion that the evolution of homo sapiens is not that remarkable, given the simple progression of variation, selection and heredity.

For Dawkins, genes are pretty much the whole story. Yet there are many in the field who disagree. Here are some: Ernst Mayr, Lynne Margulis, Carl Woese, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Goldschmidt, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Motoo Kimura, Simon Conway Morris and Niles Eldridge. All are major contributors to evolutionary theory but disagree significantly with Dawkins. They present a more rounded picture, including mass extinctions, macromutations, freak hybrids, genetic drift, convergence, symbiogenesis, lateral gene transfer and so on.

Dawkins also ignores subjects like the initial step from inorganic matter to life, development of the eukaryotic cell (i.e. with a nucleus), DNA maintenance, sexual reproduction, human brain structure, intelligence and consciousness.

It is reasonable to point out, therefore, that although the process of evolution is based on the evidence, it is a vastly unlikely result that we are here as we are. Normally in such situations we look for a cause and/or designer, so this option should not be regarded as irrational.

3) Next up is more of an emotional argument. It is the claim that science now shows our insignificance in the universe, compared to the medieval view that the earth was at its centre.

What is significance? There is in fact no centre of the universe – the Big Bang was an expansion of time-space, not an expansion of matter into an already existing space. Each place in the universe is therefore potentially as significant as any other.

Suppose you were looking over the sea marvelling at the size of the oceans. Suddenly you spot a small speck, and can just make out that it’s a person in distress. You would not ignore that fact on the grounds that there are vast expanses of empty ocean elsewhere. You call out the lifeboat, and the man is saved. Eventually you find he is your brother – even greater significance.

Significance comes from uniqueness and relationship. Incidentally, those medievals knew that the universe was huge, many millions of miles across. On their scale of things, just as impressive as Hubble. But they believed in the uniqueness of mankind, and its relationship with God

4) It is often claimed that science has shown us the true nature of reality, or will soon do so. But whether you look at particle physics, quantum mechanics or string theory, the ultimate nature of reality is not explained. The question of what lies behind it all is philosophical, not scientific. As Stephen Hawking has said, “What breathes fire into the equations?”

Philosophy is a minority pursuit, but its ideas are often used to justify various views. Atheists tend to take the view that the universe is ultimately only material – no possibility of an overarching mind. On the human scale, that means the human mind is just a spin-off of the body and especially of our complex brains. Historically, and among many impartial philosophers today, this is not the view held, but it is the view promoted by atheists.

There is no reason why we cannot believe in one reality that can be experienced as both mind and matter – both are real. This finds support, in my opinion, from quantum theory, with its paradoxes of complementariness, entanglement and observer effects. It appears that in many ways mind and matter are linked into one matrix. This view is perfectly respectable and is known as ‘dual aspect monism’, but you won’t hear it mentioned much by atheists. It implies that the possibilities of free will, morality, prayer and so on are much more real than under the dead hand of materialism.

5) Finally, there is the view that science provides us with the only kind of knowledge there can be – a view sometimes called ‘scientism’.

No one disagrees that science has brought huge benefits through application of the ‘scientific method’. However, there was added onto this in the 17th & 18th centuries the distinctive philosophy called ‘empiricism’. In this view all knowledge is obtained through observation.

The Scottish empiricist David Hume has been enormously influential. He was sceptical about drawing any religious conclusions from the visible universe. The existence of God, morality, prayer, miracles and so on – scepticism rules all. Such ideas were revived in the Victorian era and associated with science and progress – a useful ploy against the establishment.

However, scientific method was well on the agenda by the time of those medieval monks, and Francis Bacon’s foundational work is well-known. Science is not built on empiricist philosophy as such. In some ways Hume’s scepticism undermines science, since he said we should also be sceptical about the regularity of nature. That seems at variance with his ‘disproof’ of miracles.

There are several flaws in empiricism but they are not generally discussed. Most obvious is the fact that there is no empirical proof that empiricism is the only path to knowledge. How could there be? You cannot prove something on the basis that it is true anyway. Christians who claim the Bible is true because it says so are roundly criticised and mocked. The same treatment should be given to those who claim that empiricism is the one and only route to knowledge.

If these five claims were true then religion would indeed be in dire straits. But they are not true. Interestingly, if they were true they would militate just as much against humanism as against religion. Taking refuge in humanism is therefore to build a house of cards. A better refuge is to construct our culture on the basis of the best of religion and the best of science, acknowledging them as partners in the human enterprise, not enemies.