Sacred texts are central to many faith traditions, but how do they retain their authority as divine revelation in a supposedly rational age? What happens when the Word of God appears to contradict modern scientific knowledge about the world? And how do individual believers reconcile these potential conflicts?
These are the questions that we are exploring at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge, in a new research project entitled ‘Science and Scripture in Christianity and Islam’. Rather than attempting a direct comparison between these two world religions, our intention is to bring them into fruitful dialogue with one another on a question that is of mutual concern: that of scripture and its relationship to modern science.
How should Scripture be read?
Muslims and Christians have rather different relationships with scripture. Simply put, Muslims believe the Qur’an to be the direct word of God, revealed in Arabic uniquely to the Prophet Muhammad between 610-632 CE, while the Bible is understood by Christians to have been written by multiple authors and in different languages and genres over the course of many centuries.
Despite their differences, both religions teach that scripture is the Word of God; that is to say, Muslims and Christians believe that God communicates with humankind through the medium of revelation, and that this revelation is recorded in the written word of their sacred texts. In neither tradition, however, are believers fully in agreement on exactly how these texts should be interpreted, and there is no clear consensus on where the limits of the knowledge contained within the texts may lie. This question has application in multiple areas of modern life, but is thrown into particularly sharp relief when confronted by some of the findings of modern science.
What, for example, can and should scripture tell us about the origins and development of life in the universe, and specifically about the origins of humankind? Can creation narratives in the Bible and Qur’an compliment the knowledge that science provides us on these questions, or should they be read as purely allegorical accounts? What about the miracle stories that feature in the scriptures of both traditions? Can they be accommodated within a modern scientific world view and if so, how?
The theological and philosophical questions in the field of science and religion receive relatively good coverage, yet sociologically speaking we know very little about the relationship that religious believers have with their sacred texts, and how this relationship impacts on their wider beliefs about the interaction between science and faith. When scripture appears to contradict modern scientific theories, for example, do religious believers necessarily live with a degree of cognitive dissonance, or are there ways in which they reconcile the concept of divine inspiration with the fruits of human knowledge?
Our aim on the ‘Science and Scripture in Christianity and Islam’ project is to explore how Muslims and Christians think about this question by engaging them in conversation in a number of different ways. While there are all kinds of approaches we could adopt, we have chosen to focus our research on religious believers who have a much higher than average level of scientific literacy, in order to maximize our chances of probing the relevant issues in depth. Our research cohort is made up of early career academic research scientists (PhD students and above) at UK Russell Group universities, who identify themselves as either Muslim or Christian. We are beginning by asking participants to complete an anonymous online survey, and will be moving on in the summer of 2016 to facilitate guided discussion groups as well as one to one interviews.
Dr Caroline Tee is a social anthropologist and Research Associate at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge. More details about her research are available here.