Keynote address: Science, Religion and Values

IAP Programmes

Keynote address: Science, Religion and Values

A paper given at the IAP Symposium held in Trieste on Friday 7th March 2003
by Fraser Watts
Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Science,
University of Cambridge;
Secretary, International Society for Science and Religion

The relationship between science and religion is sometimes seen as one of conflict. It is a view that can be found among proponents of both science and religion. There are those who see the revelation of their own religion as absolute, and science as something that cannot be accommodated alongside it. There are also those who see science as the modern path to truth, and religion as irrational and obsolete.

I do not share the view that there is conflict between science and religion. On the contrary, there are various reasons for assuming that there is a positive relationship between them.

1. Historically, the conflict thesis is a recent one. Science flourished in the golden age of Islam. It also flourished within Christendom in the so-called scientific revolution. Many of the great scientists of the world, Newton for example, were deeply religious. As far as Christianity is concerned, it was only in the 19th century that a sense of conflict with science developed.

2. The assumptions of the religious traditions have helped to give rise to science. There is an assumption that the world is orderly and lawful, reflecting its creator, and so amenable to systematic investigation. There is also an assumption that the world is contingent and reflects the absolute free will of its creator. These two assumptions, lawfulness and contingency, make science likely to be fruitful.

3. Science serves a religious purpose. The world that scientists investigate reflects its creator. They find his imprint there. The lawfulness and fruitfulness of the created world are what one would expect from a religious standpoint. It would be too much to say that one can prove the existence of a divine creator from the scientific study of the natural world. The arguments from scientific evidence to theological conclusions are not that secure, and any attempt to travel this path is to misunderstand the nature of faith.

What kind of fruitful relationship can there be between science and religion?

One solution, which I reject, is the "apartheid" solution of separate, independent development. Sometimes people imagine that science and religion each have their own territory, and that if each stays within its proper territory, there can be a harmonious relationship between them. However, neither can be content with this approach. Both science and religion, in their different ways, have something to say about everything.

A better solution is to see science and religion as complementary perspectives, looking at things from different perspectives, answering different kinds of questions, but nevertheless looking at the same reality.

The relationship between science and religion needs to be based on mutual respect. Science is not a religion, and shouldn't be turned into one. Certainly, there are elements of faith, in science itself, and perhaps in particular theories, but it is not a religion. Equally, religion is not science. However high a view we take of the scriptures, it is not their purpose to be a scientific textbook. As Galileo quipped, the scriptures "teach us how to go to heaven, and not how the heavens go". A fruitful and harmonious relationship between science and religion needs to be based on recognising the distinctness of each.

It also needs to be based on a humble view of both science and religion. The grandiose view of science associated with logical positivism has been progressively abandoned. It is now agreed that there are no raw facts, and that everything is selected and interpreted within a theoretical context. It is also recognised that there is no linear, inexorable progress in science, but a complex historical development including paradigm shifts. There is agreement, too, that there is no dependable logic by which scientific conclusions are reached but, as Karl Popper put it, a series of "conjectures and refutations".

Religion is also at its best, most true to itself, when it is humble. Religious truth takes us into the realm of mystery where we need to tread softly out of respect for the spiritual realm we are approaching. It is arrogant for humans to imagine that they can grasp spiritual truths completely. Also, when approached with arrogance, religion does no good. It no longer provides people with the space they need to move and grow towards divine truth and fulfilment. Instead, religion makes them closed and stunted.

So far, the exploration of the relationship between science and religion has been pursued most vigorously in the context of Christianity. However, those who have approached it within that context have much to learn from people of other faith traditions. Last year, a new society was formed, the International Society for Science and Religion, with the explicit purpose of bringing together those concerned with the relationship between science and religion from all the major faith traditions of the world.

This is a time when there is growing and understandable concern about the peace and stability of the world order. It is important to think about science and religion in this context. There are two propositions that I would like to consider:
1. Science is the most genuinely international movement in the world order, and therefore a force for peace and stability.
2. Religion is closely associated with national, racial and cultural identity, and therefore with is a source of tension and instability in the world.

There is obviously much plausibility in these propositions. But things are not quite so simple, and it is worth considering both science and religion more closely from this point of view.


Science is not as culturally neutral and value free as is sometimes supposed. Contemporary science is dominated by America and other Western countries. This alone is enough to ensure that science is not always perceived as culturally neutral. But there is more at stake here than global politics, and how science is perceived outside the first world.

Science has arisen out of what is sometimes called modernity. Modernity is often seen as going back to the 17th century (early modernity), and has continued in a slightly different form in the more secular post-Darwinian world of late modernity. A key feature of modernity has been the search for objectivity, for a neutral, value-free vantage point that shakes off all particular cultural contexts. If it is objective in that sense, the nature of science should be invariant and unchanging. Third-world science should be no different from American science, and there should be no difference between the science of Islamic and Christian countries.

Philosophers of science, like historians of science, have become sceptical of these claims to scientific objectivity. Indeed philosophers have become sceptical about the very idea of being free of any particular vantage point. As Thomas Natal famously put it, "there is no view from nowhere". Background assumptions always creep in. Let me mention two brief examples of how that works.

First, science often proceeds by models and analogies. How we understand the world depends on the analogies we have to hand. Science gives rise to technological innovations, which in turn provide models that are used in further scientific inquiry. For example, clockwork mechanisms were important as models in early modern science, and the world was seen as a mechanism. Similarly, computers are important in contemporary science.

Secondly, science is driven by the needs of the wider society. Notoriously, warfare drives scientific advance, channelling it in certain directions. If the world had been peaceful in the 20th century, science would almost certainly have proceeded differently.

Sometimes, these kinds of points about science are pushed too far, or further at least then I would want to go. I continue to believe that science is a supreme achievement of human rationality. True, that rationality is not a matter of cold logic, but of human judgment. True, it can get distorted by the career-building needs of individual scientists and other non-rational factors, but I still believe that science remains a paradigm of human rationality. I also continue to believe that there is scientific progress. True, this progress is not inexorable, and what may look like secure findings at one point in time may need to be rethought in the context of future paradigm shifts. But progress in science, of a kind, there undoubtedly is.

Nevertheless, I believe that science has in some ways been unnecessarily narrow in its approach so far. In no way do I want to set aside the struggle for objectivity that has been so fruitful, even if that objectivity has not been as complete as is sometimes claimed, but I believe that there could usefully be some broadening of science, in both method and theory.

Methodologically, I would like to see the human element in science receive greater recognition. There should be more respect for what an imaginative enterprise science is. Scientific enterprise can never be purely mechanical; it depends on human judgment and imagination. Too little attention has been given to how scientific discoveries are made, as opposed to how they are demonstrated.

Theoretically, I want to see an emancipation of the range of entities and processes that science is prepared to postulate. Physical science has already moved a long way, from assuming that all scientific explanations need to be framed in terms of micro- particles, to postulating fields and forces, and then the strange world of quantum mechanics. Another broadening that is urgently needed is to give proper weight to top-down explanations in biology, alongside bottom-up explanations. Science needs to move beyond the reductionist mindset which, if pushed too far, becomes inhuman and distasteful.

It will also be important to have a humble view of science. My own intuition is that we are at present merely at the foothills of scientific enquiry, and that the scientific world view in a few centuries time will be radically different from our own. The fact that we have no idea how to put together relativity theory and quantum mechanics is one pointer to that, and the lack of any viable neural theory of consciousness is another

A further emancipation of science is needed, both methodologically and theoretically. Such emancipated science will facilitate scientific progress; it will also lead to a more humane science that will be more congenial to the faith traditions of the world.


What of the apparently divisive impact of religion on the world order? The present impact of religion in the world gives the lie to the idea that the world is becoming more secular. Secularisation may be occurring in parts of Europe, but they are the exception not the rule. Most of the world remains deeply religious.

It should be noted that there are important differences between so-called "religions". Of course, there are common elements in the teaching of the world's religions, but that does not mean that all religions are fundamentally the same. Nor should they be. It would be a mistake to try to imitate in religion the objectivity and internationalism associated with science. People adhere to religious traditions in part because they are their religions, not someone else's. There would be no more enthusiasm for a neutral world religion than there is for speaking Esperanto.

Indeed, it may be misleading to talk about "religions" at all. It is not just that the faith traditions of the world differ from one another in important ways; they are not even the same kind of thing. For example, some are more elective than others, in the sense that people choose to join them (Christianity and Western Buddhism for example). Others are more intertwined with cultural identity. To ask a Hindu or a Jew what is his "religion" is a strange question. Such faith traditions are concerned with cultural identity as much as the private experience, morality, and salvation that have become the focus of Western religion.

A key question here is exactly what is the relationship between faith traditions and cultural values and identity. Certainly, religions arise from, and give expression to, and cultural identity. But at their best, I believe they help people to transcend their cultural identity, and to reach out to those beyond their own faith traditions. At their best, religions help the body of humanity to move beyond cultural specificity.

As one example, we could take the teaching of Jesus, who is widely revered as a prophet, even in the Islamic world. The Jewish people had a strong tradition of neighbourliness to their own people but Jesus challenged them to extend their concept of neighbourliness to non-Jews. The Jewish people also had a strong sense of being a chosen people, but Jesus taught them that God's salvation was now for Samaritans and others, not only for themselves. They are lessons that Christians have been slow to learn. They have often seen the Church as a new kind of chosen people. I suspect that Jesus would say to the Christian Church, as he said to his own people, that they should look beyond their own community.

We increasingly need a distinction between healthy and unhealthy forms of religion. In some ways, what form a person's religion takes may be more important than which faith tradition they belong to. Unhealthy religion, I suggest, is socially exclusive, with in-groups and out-groups. It is also closed and dogmatic in its thought forms, and leaves people with no space in which to grow spiritually.

I am not arguing here for an abandonment of particular religious traditions. That would be both futile and inappropriate. But I am pleading that each faith tradition should be open and flexible, both socially and cognitively.

Here science may help. Though the objectivity of science can be exaggerated, it remains one of the greatest achievements of humanity. It is a spiritual achievement, as much as a technological or theoretical one. It is one of the pinnacles of humanity's search for truth, for humility, for open-mindedness, and for tolerance. The spiritual achievement of humanity that science represents now poses a challenge to the world's religions. The challenge is whether, without abandoning their distinct identities, they can embrace a comparable search for truth, humility, open-mindedness and tolerance.

I care deeply about the dialogue between science and religion, firstly because I hope it will lead to a less arrogant, more religiously sympathetic science, but secondly because I hope that science can help religion to become more open and humble