Science would be well advised to avoid picking fights with religion

Promoting science to replace religion often has the opposite effect, and scientists would be well-advised to stop picking futile fights

It has long been predicted that religion will wither away as science spreads globally. This prediction has failed to come true, however, as outlined by Peter Harrison, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities at the University of Queensland, in Aeon (December 7th, 2017). Also, the popular conflict model describing the relationship between science and religion is unsustainable and promoting science in order to replace religion often has the opposite effect.

The fact that Christianity is sharply declining in its European heartland (53 per cent of British adults have no religious affiliation) tends to obscure the fact that religious practice is growing and thriving globally. In 2017, the Pew Research Centre reported the following global religious affiliations (numbers in brackets are percentages of the global population): Christians (31.2 per cent); Muslims (24.1 per cent); Unaffiliated (16 per cent); Hindus (15.1 per cent); Buddhists (6.9 per cent); Folk Religions (5.7 per cent); Other Religions (0.8 per cent); Jews (0.2 per cent).

Islam is the fastest growing religion, followed by Christianity. It is estimated that Islam will overtake Christianity by 2070 as the world’s largest religion and Muslims will constitute 10 per cent of Europe’s population. The estimated increase in the global Muslim population over the period 2015-2060 is 70 per cent. The corresponding figure for Christianity is 34 per cent, Hindus 27 per cent and Jews 15 per cent. On the other hand, non-religious people will decline from their current 16 per cent of global population to 13.2 per cent by 2050.

A conflict model to describe the relationship between science and religion was developed in the 19th century and it was proposed that societies naturally evolve away from religious ways of thinking towards scientific thinking. The French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857), father of sociology, was particularly influential in this regard.


Harrison outlines how this thinking prompted several countries, such as India and Turkey, to enlist science in an attempt to secularise their societies. India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), said: "The future belongs to science and those who make friends with science." The founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938) believed science would replace religion and strongly promoted science in schools, particularly the teaching of evolution.

But Nehru and Ataturk were wrong, as demonstrated by the subsequent rise of Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism. Turkish Islamist parties, opposed to moral values accompanying secularism, recently removed the teaching of evolution from the classroom because they associated it with secularism.

Collateral damage

Associating science with secularism exposes science to collateral damage when secularism is resisted and Harrison summarises: “The thesis that science causes secularisation simply fails the empirical test and enlisting science as an instrument of secularisation turns out to be poor strategy.”

Why then do prominent scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris ("Science must destroy religion"), and the late Stephen Hawking ("Science will win because it works") still campaign to replace religion with science? Firstly, it seems to me that if these scientists knew their history they would realise that they are supporting a failed strategy. Secondly, the specific factors that motivate these scientists, and understandably so, such as fundamentalist terrorism and creationism, are also vigorously opposed by mainstream religion. Yet they campaign against all religion, the mainstream as well as the extreme fringes.

And, of course, there is no fundamental reason why science and religion should be at loggerheads because, properly understood, they operate in non-overlapping spheres. The function of science is to explain the natural mechanisms that underpin the natural world. The function of religion is to help people to live good moral lives. Neither science nor religion has any competence in the other’s sphere.

Historically, religion has been very helpful to science. For example, modern science, probably the most successful ever venture of the human spirit, uniquely arose in 16th-century Christian Europe. It can be argued credibly that this flowering owed much to the Christian concept of a universe created by a rational creator, a world operating according to laws, worthy of investigation and understandable by patient study.

Today, while religion is thriving globally, science is coming under increasing pressure both internal (much published scientific work cannot be replicated) and external (influential critics deny mainline scientific conclusions, for instance on genetically modified food, climate change, etc). Science would be well advised to avoid picking fights with a friendly and powerful potential ally.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC