Madeleine Davies

Has science buried religion?

In Uncategorized on March 16, 2014 at 8:26 pm

This was the motion debated at Union of the University of Exeter in January. I opposed the motion. Here’s what I said…

On one, very literal, level, it is easy to disprove this motion. Science has not buried religion, because religion still exists. In most parts of the world it does more than exist. It flourishes.

Sometimes, when I’m in the press room with colleagues on the national newspapers I have to remind myself of this fact. Much mainstream coverage of religion in this country is wedded to a narrative of irrelevance and decline, what Matthew Arnold called the “long, withdrawing roar” of the Sea of Faith.

In Europe, we have a strong tradition of public intellectuals equating modernity with the extinction of religion. In 1860, T. H. Huxley, known as Darwin’s bulldog, bragged, “Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules”.

But today, more than 80% of the world’s population identifies with a religious group. About a third is Christian, the same proportion as a century ago. There are more Christians in China than there are members of the Communist party. Ninety-nine percent of Indonesians and  98% of Egyptians say that religion plays an important role in their every day lives.

There are many reasons why religion thrives. It’s partly a question of demographics. In a book entitled Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Eric Kaufmann, a professor of politics, showed that the more religious poeple are, the more children they have. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have three or four times as many children as their secular counterparts.

It’s also about politics, with which religion is tightly bound in many parts of the world. Religion has been a means of asserting a nationalist identity in the face of perceived Western imperialism. It can be used to stir up sectarian strife. Theocracies exist. So too do protest movements, informed by religions which preach against corruption, poverty and injustice. Religion connects people to tradition, nation and community.

On another night, we might argue about whether religion’s resilience has been for good or for ill. But that’s not what the motion asks. It simply asks whether science has buried religion.

What lies behind it, I think, is the suggestion that the tenets of religion are no longer tenable in a world where so much of what was once a mystery has been explained by science. “The more the fruits of knowledge become accessible to men,” argued Freud, “the more widespread is the decline of religious belief.”

It’s a perception I frequently come across online, most notably on the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog, where the country’s foremost public intellectuals naturally spend much of their time. Sky fairies appear with depressing frequency, as do flying spaghetti monsters. These posts tend to conclude with sign-offs like “QUIET PLEASE, SANE PEOPLE TALKING”. It’s very important that caps lock is deployed at this point.

Behind this attitude lies a multitude of encounters with religion. Despite warnings against biblical literalism dating back to St Augustine in 415AD, I suspect that many people’s first brush with religion entails being told a story. A man squeezed two of every species onto a boat. Another man survived inside a fish for three days.

In the opening of “God is not great”, Christopher Hitchens describes his encounters, aged nine with Mrs Watts. He remembers his little ankle-strap sandles curling with embarrassment as this “pious old trout” explains that God made the grass green because it was restful to the eyes.

Religion, he implies, means never exploring chlorophyll.

The subtitle to The Magic of Reality, a science book for children written by Richard Dawkins, is “How we know what’s really true”. In it, he contrasts the scientific explanation for the world around us, with the stories told by various religions.

“Next to the true beauty and magic of the real world, supernatural spells and stage tricks seem cheap and tawdry by comparison,” he writes. “The magic of reality is neither supernatural nor a trick, but – quite simply – wonderful. Wonderful, and real. Wonderful because real.”

Which begs the question, what is real?

For Dawkins, reality “always come back to our senses, one way or another”. So while he acknowledges that things like happiness and love are real, for him the important thing to remember is that “they depend for their existence on brains” – something else that can be subjected to scientific study.

Dawkins argues that myths, fairytales and magic “can never offer us a true explanation of the things we see in the world”.

I’d like to conclude my talk tonight by suggesting that truth, and reality, are more complicated than this. That while science can explain the phenomena around us, there are limits to what it can tell us.

Dawkins suggests that, when the reader looks in the mirror, she thinks: “I’m looking at a survival machine for genes”.

But this cannot tell her why she is here at all. Or whether she is valued regardless of her genetic make-up. Science cannot, in and of itself, given an account of human dignity, writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in The Great Partnership. “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. Science is the search for explanation. Religion is the search for meaning.”

Science has not buried religion for all sorts of reasons. For the most part, it has not sought to. “The pre-eminent mystery is why anything exists at all. What breathes life into the equations, and actualised them in a real cosmos. Such questions lie beyond science, however; they are the province of philosophers and theologians” said Professor Martin Rees, President of Britain’s Royal Society, in 2006.

We have lots of obituaries on file at our newspaper. Including some for the eminent scientists who have written about their faith. But none yet for religion, which is not buried, or even ailing, but alive and kicking, decades, even centuries after its predicted demise.

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