Thursday, September 25, 2008

Thought For The Day: real religion is not at war with science

The Rev. Angela Tilby on BBC Radio 4

It was announced recently that Michael Reiss would step down from his post of Director of Education at the Royal Society. This was after the row that followed his suggestion that biology teachers should try to engage with pupils who held creationist views. Those who attacked him seem to have been insisting that science teaching must be 'pure'; as though there was danger of infection from religious ideas. It probably didn't help that as well as being a distinguished scientist Michael Reiss is an Anglican priest. We do so like things to be simple: pro-God or anti-God. Pro science or pro-faith. But perhaps this is where the debate about what is taught in school has all gone wrong. We are not teaching children to engage with complexity.

A Greek Orthodox scholar once said to me that he thought the great problem facing humanity is that we are gripped by two kinds of fundamentalism; the religious kind and the secular kind, and though they appeared to be on opposite sides they are in fact both on the same side. They agree exactly about who God is and what God does - they only differ on whether the God they agree about exists. So they can cheerfully shout at each other till kingdom come from a position that can never be challenged.

Real life though presents us all the time with contradictory stories. I have grown up believing in evolution. I accept that the mechanics of natural selection are blind; that they reveal no God given purpose in nature. It is the sheer blindness that produces the paradox in which we live: where astonishing variety and potential is matched by dead ends and catastrophic extinctions.

At the same time I am a Christian believer and its natural for me to want to echo the 19th Psalm when it says: 'the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth his handywork'. So I live with two stories. One is awesome but inhuman; in the other the universe is an intimate expression of God's wisdom and beauty. At times the difference troubles me. I feel the clash. But I also know that both are true; and one of the things I have to do is to live and think and pray in such a way that the two stories bounce off each other, like all those whizzing particles at CERN where the clash reveals ever deeper structures and poses new questions.

Real religion is not at war with science. The Vatican is hosting a conference on Darwin this year. In July the Pope said that there is no conflict between evolution and faith. Yet there is I think a spiritual challenge to accepting the Darwinian view of nature; and it is surely this that our schools should attend to: helping us all to live with nature's blindness while responding to both its wonders and constraints.

Comment: Do we do this through the teaching of Science or Religious Studies?