Analysis: Science and religion

Nick Spencer, senior fellow at Theos think tank on religion and society, reviews the ‘secret history’ of science and religion, in a three-part series on BBC Radio 4.  He suggests that at the heart of the tension is a false choice of vewing humanity as an “it”, rather than a “you” – free, moral, dignified, spiritual.


There is a pervasive myth that science and religion are simply in conflict with one another – and when about 40% of Americans reject Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, you can understand why.

And yet, bizarre and depressing as this figure is, the idea that the history of science and religion has been one of relentless conflict is a myth, one whose origins lie in a particular set of circumstances in late 19th-century Britain and America.

For most of their history, science (or the thinking and activities that eventually turned into science) and religion (itself also a concept of modernity) were not only mutually compatible but mutually supportive.

In a new three-part series broadcast on Radio 4 on 21 and 28 June and 5 July (and available on BBC Sounds afterwards) I retell this story in conversation with some of the best – and, I have to say, nicest – scholars it has been my pleasure to meet, alongside the excellent and talented producer, Dan Tierney.

The story encompasses familiar names – Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Einstein – but also some less familiar, if hardly less brilliant ones, such as Robert Grosseteste (c.1175-1253), the Bishop of Lincoln who is credited by some as a founder of the modern English intellectual tradition, and the Jesuit priest Georges Lemaître (1894-1966), a professor of physics who proposed what became known as the Big Bang theory.

It busts a few myths – that heliocentrism (that the Earth rotates around the Sun, not vice versa) downgraded humans, or that evolution drove Darwin to atheism. And it also recounts some of the iconic battles – the trial of Galileo, the Wilberforce-Huxley evolution debate in Oxford, and the Scopes “monkey” trial in Tennessee – in a way that places them in context.

The fact that there have been such battles is important, because it’s essential to avoid dismantling one simplistic metaphor – “warfare” – only to embrace another equally simplistic one from the other end of the spectrum. There were skirmishes and sabre-rattling aplenty in the history. The story of science and religion hasn’t just been a stroll through Eden.

Where the two have fallen out, however – and here we come to the biggest argument in the series – tends less to be about the existence of God, or the age of the Earth, or even the origin of species, though these have all been issues. Rather, it has, at heart, been on the nature of humanity and who gets to dictate it.

By definition, science must treat the human objectively, as an “it”, a something rather than a someone. That is right and proper and very fruitful: we would have no medicine otherwise. But as soon as it states that human are only an “it”, only a “something” rather than also a “someone”, then tensions arise.

Whether through the mechanisation of the human body and mind in the 18th century, phrenology (studying the size and shapes of human heads, then considered a proper science) and biology in the 19th, or Freudianism, behaviourism and neuroscience in the 20th century, science has sometimes claimed that humans are “nothing but . . .” (fill in the gap with “machines”, “monkeys”, “impulses” . . .). And it was the threat of treating the human as an “it”, rather than a “you” – free, moral, dignified, spiritual – that the religious found hard to countenance.

My personal conviction is that this is a false choice. Humans can be both/and rather than compelled to face an unpalatable and problematic either/or. It is when we have been brought to that choice – either phrenology describes your character, or you have free will; either you are an evolved primate or you bear the image of God; either neuroscience shows your thoughts are just electrical impulses, or you are free cognitive person – that problems have kicked off.

Religion traditions – and not just religious ones – have fought fiercely to protect the “someone” in this battle, albeit sometimes going too far and rejecting the “something” in the process. It is a difficult balance to strike, and I doubt whether any thinker – religious, scientific, or both – gets it 100% right. But that, of course, is what makes this such a fascinating history and topic.

Nick Spencer is senior fellow at the Theos think tank

The Secret History of Science and Religion is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 21, 28 June, and 5 July.