I wrote on science and religion on May 16th and today I will comment on the significant reaction elicited by that article.
First let me summarise my position. I believe science and religion occupy separate and non-overlapping spheres. Science investigates and explains the natural mechanisms that underpin the natural world. Religion deals with morals, values and the meaning of life. Neither science nor religion has competence in the other’s sphere although they can, of course, talk to each other.
I realise that some religions/religious people contradict science and also that some scientists claim that only science can answer all questions that are worth asking. I believe such religions/religious people and such scientists are wrong.
I believe both science and religion are necessary for one to appreciate the full nature of reality (I acknowledge that some non-religious philosophies can substitute for religion here). This is how I interpret Einstein’s saying “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”.
My column of May 16th described the failed hypothesis that religion will fade away worldwide as science spreads, citing in evidence the 2017 Pew Research Center statistics on religious belief. I also said that promoting science in schools as a political tactic to advance secularism has failed and can cause collateral damage to science and I cited the historical examples of India and Turkey. I further said that the idea that science and religion are inevitably at loggerheads (the conflict model) is wrong because they occupy separate non-overlapping spheres. I criticised attacks on mainstream religion by Richard Dawkins and other scientists and I said that historically religion has been friendly to science in significant respects.
On July 11th, Prof David McConnell of TCD published an article in The Irish Times answering my May 16th column. McConnell challneged what I said and misinterpreted my intentions. For example, he said “Reville believes science intended to undermine religion”. And “Reville cites statistics that believers are growing in numbers and suggests this represents a failure of science”. I said nothing about science intending to undermine religion and failing. Indeed my “non-overlapping spheres “model of science and religion would specifically preclude my saying this.
My message was simply that the hypothesis that the spread of science would cause religion to fade away has foundered. Indeed, the percentage of the world’s population that is agnostic/atheistic is predicted to decline over the next 30 years (Pew 2017 statistics). This does not mean science is failing but simply that the connection between science and religion predicted by the hypothesis does not exist. McConnell made no comment on these statistics.
I write about science and religion because I believe that a healthy respectful relationship between the two is important
He continued: “As part of his attempt to take science down a peg or two Reville refers to the canard that some specific scientific studies are not reproducible.” The canard I refer to here, as McConnell must know, is the widely acknowledged high volume of unreliable papers now being published in scientific journals.
McConnell is honorary president of the Irish Humanist Association and he emphasises the esteem in which humanism holds science. But humanism has no exclusive contract with science. I hold science in the same esteem as humanism does and I believe all Christians should do likewise.
McConnell also claimed: "Reville writes that science flowered in Europe because of the Christian concept of a universe created by a rational God." But I made no such bald statement. I said "it can be argued credibly" (not proved) that the rise of "modern science" in Christian Europe "owed much" to the Christian concept of a rational creator. Other illustrations of Christianity's significant historical support for science are itemised in Conor McDonough's July 15th letter to The Irish Times.
I have promoted science publicly for the past 30 years and have always unreservedly acknowledged its great value, again describing it as “probably the most successful-ever venture of the human spirit” in my article of May 16th.
McConnell’s accusation that I am attempting to “take science down a peg or two” is simply wrong and also unfair.
I write about science and religion because I believe that a healthy respectful relationship between the two is important. I know David McConnell believes that too and I look forward to shaking hands with him on this over a pint some time soon.
William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC