Towards a hung parliament of science and religion: science engagement in a diverse and democratic world

As the UK heads to the polls today, with the seeming inevitability of a hung parliament, we are reminded that simple either/or binary choices are not always reflective of public perceptions, attitudes or interests. The British public is currently filing through the polling stations (or not) in what promises to be one of the most indecisive elections in a generation.

As is often the way with the big questions that matter most – about how we view the world, how we understand society and how we would like the world to be – the choices being made don’t fall into simple black and white (or indeed red and blue) categories. They tend to be more complex, so are more nuanced and varied shades of grey. In a world then that has purportedly moved past ideology and dogmatic or polarized positions, why is it that two significant aspects of our collective way of answering these big questions –  ‘science’ and ‘religion’ – are still represented in a starkly divisive and binary way. ‘Science’ and ‘religion’ are arguably two of the most important frames with which to view our world today and each to a greater or lesser degree plays an integral role in our day-to-day lives.

I use the term ‘science’ here to encompass the whole collective endeavor of science, technology, engineering and medicine. And in an unquestionably technological and clinical world the application of ‘science’ forms the fabric of our day-to-day lives in even the most remote corners of the world, in a way that can often seem the stuff of science fiction. Not only that, but scientific thinking has increasingly formed part of the underlying and predominant worldview, in terms of the way in which society is formed, governed and to a degree how we individually or collectively make decisions both large and small.

Religion and personal belief also undeniably play an important role in our lives institutionally, culturally and personally – whether we are believers or not. As a worldview, religion(s) or religious belief can also lay claim to having played a significant role in the way our societies have formed, have historically and contemporarily been governed and in how we make ethical decisions, again both as individuals and collectively.

The difference between the two is that we in academia tend to view science as an institutionalized group practice, not as an individual identity or a way of viewing the world. Conversely, religion or spirituality is increasingly seen as more of a personal choice, which may be culturally or societally situated, but is seen as a personal choice nonetheless.

This approach has to date underpinned the way in which we seek to understand the relationship between science and religion in society today. Although this can take us a step closer to understanding the roles and relationship between these two defining paradigms of our times, it is an approach that is fundamentally entrenched in a rather narrow, and in places overly intellectualized view of how people really engage with either science or religion in their day-to-day lives. Too often, discussion about science and religion in the public space falls into the trap of depicting a pitch battle between two immutable black and white positions. To a degree, we can also see in some analysis of the relationship between science and religion, a form of bias, or indeed at its extremes, prejudice, which perpetuates the idea that being a scientist and a religious believer is mutually incompatible. Even as I type that sentence, I am aware it will no doubt elicit strongly worded comments in response. However, in a truly democratic and diverse world, can we really argue that those with religious or spiritual beliefs cannot effectively engage with science as a worldview and as a tool with which we can better understand and explain natural phenomena? To do so would at one stroke undermine centuries of scientific research and topple some of our best loved and most well known scientific luminaries.

One of the biggest problems we have when trying to gauge what is really going on when people think about science and religion is that surprisingly, outside of the USA, very little research has been done to date into what the public really thinks about the relationship between the two. For all the theoretical and media discussion about these two magisteria of knowledge, we have little understanding of how people perceive, encounter or accommodate (or not) these two apparently potentially competing worldviews in their day-to-day lives. Do people really view the relationship between science and religion in terms of necessary conflict, or is there something much more nuanced and complex going on? Is there more to the evolutionary science versus religion debate, than the oft-depicted battle between young earth creationists and atheistic or agnostic evolutionists? How have public space narratives about the conflict come to be? Why are they perpetuated? And what can this tell us about other cultural or societal factors at play?

If we take a step back from the assumption that there is a black and white, necessary clash between these two worldviews, might it better enable us to develop research that really helps us understand all of the positions on the spectrum? Leaving aside for now the differing claims to knowledge or truth we might encounter under the banner of either science or religion, what might we gain by undertaking research about public perceptions that did not fundamentally assume the relationship is always perceived to be a binary one? This may at the very least not only provide us with a better and clearer understanding of what differing publics think about science, but also help us to create a more meaningful dialogue about science in society in an increasingly diverse, connected and complex world.

Dr Fern Elsdon-Baker is the Principal Investigator on the Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum research project. Over the coming months and years all of the members of this interdisciplinary research project will be using this space to blog about their research and reflect on aspects of the contemporary debate between science and religion.