Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Can Science and Religion Be Friends?

By Peter Harrison

Some scientists would prefer religion to become extinct but it defiantly prospers – peaceful co-existence is the enduring paradigm.

In 1966, anthropologist Anthony Wallace confidently predicted that “belief in supernatural powers is doomed to die out, all over the world, as a result of the increasing adequacy and diffusion of scientific knowledge”.

In the 20th century it was common for social scientists to predict the global demise of religion as a consequence of the growth of science and technology. Support for this position seemed to come from a number of quarters, in particular, the centuries-long conflict between science and religion along with empirical evidence of a precipitous decline in Church attendance in European countries.

It is now clear, for better or worse, that religion is back with a vengeance. We are confronted on a daily basis by discomforting news of militant Islamists hell-bent on establishing a global Caliphate. Young Earth creationism, once a curiosity restricted to North America, has become a worldwide phenomenon. Less threatening, but equally significant, are the global spread of Pentecostalism, the successes of Christianity in Africa and Asia, and religious revival in Russia.

How could we have got the forecast so wrong?

It turns out that premature predictions of the end of religion were based on a number of false assumptions. For a start, as historians of science have consistently demonstrated, Western history was not characterised by an enduring conflict between science and religion. On the contrary, religion was a key factor in the rise and persistence of Western science. If history is anything to go by, science is more likely to be an ally of religion than the instrument of its destruction.

It was also a mistake to think that a secularised Europe provided the model of modernisation that all cultures were destined to follow. The scientifically advanced yet overwhelmingly religious US was often dismissed as an outlier, but a number of sociologists now think that perhaps it is northern Europe that is the genuine exception.

Related to this is the more general failure of secularisation theory. In its crudest versions this theory posited a simple model of progressive modernisation, at the heart of which lay an assumption about the inevitable evolution of societies from a primitive religious stage to a more advanced scientific stage.

These seductive theories were underpinned by a naïve 19th-century belief in progress. The idea that science would displace religion turns out to be more a form of wishful thinking than of well-substantiated social science.

Responses to the predictive failures of the older model have been various. Some have persisted with the discredited conflict model, seeking to rally the forces of science for one final and decisive battle. “Science must destroy religion,” urges neuroscientist and “new atheist” Sam Harris.

Richard Dawkins, who regrettably many regard as science’s most authoritative spokesperson, agrees: “Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. September 11th changed all that.”

It is hard not to be sympathetic to well-intentioned attempts to end religious extremism and violence, but science is the wrong weapon and religion-in-general is the wrong target.

More promising is the avenue explored by renowned Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson. While no religionist himself, Wilson has come to the realisation that mainstream religion is an ally to be courted and not an enemy to be feared. In his view, the values and motivating power of traditional religion are precisely what the world needs if it is to confront the mounting challenges of religious extremism and impending environmental catastrophe.

If history is any guide, religion is not going away any time soon. Dismissing it, or using science as a weapon against it, are unlikely to be productive.

To give the final word to Charles Darwin, a figure so commonly associated with science–religion conflict: “I hardly see how religion & science can be kept distinct. But … there is no reason that the disciples of either school should attack each other with bitterness.”

Peter Harrison is an Australia Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland.