Science - Believe it or not

9th November 2012 at 00:00
Are religion and science destined to clash in the classroom?

Faith and science can be an explosive mix - creationism and the battle over evolution come to mind. The national Inter Faith Week is a great opportunity to explore the idea of belief and to promote knowledge, understanding and tolerance of the many faiths and the position of no faith represented in British society.

But how should we deal with faith versus science in our teaching? A number of topics in science will touch on religious ideas and faith positions. From contraception and abortion to stem cell science, different religions have varying stances. Moral and ethical questions impact on science and scientific research but religion does not corner the market on such questions. Ethical working practices apply regardless of religious belief.

The palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould came up with the idea of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) in 1997. His position was that religion and science have their own teaching "domains" and that the authority of one domain cannot be imposed on the other. So science cannot rule on aspects of religion and faith, and likewise religion should not impose its authority on science. For example, the question "Does God exist?" is not a scientific question, so science cannot answer it. Similarly, religion cannot answer complex scientific questions. Some people see NOMA simply as a diplomatic way of avoiding confrontations between science and religion. But for Gould it was a principled position adopted on moral and intellectual grounds.

An easier way to look at the differences between science and religion is to look at purpose. Science is about explanations of natural phenomena. Science may explain how gravity operates, but religion addresses the question "Why are we here?"

A good approach for addressing religious matters is to look at the issue from the perspectives of acceptance and belief. A common question is whether or not you believe in evolution. But evolution, like all other concepts in science, is not about belief. Science works on evidence and the evidence is either accepted or rejected. Evolution, gravity, atoms and even the Higgs boson are not matters of belief in a religious sense. They are about the acceptance of evidence. For some concepts, such as evolution and gravity, the evidence is overwhelming. For others, such as the Higgs boson, only now is physical evidence coming to light.

Religions should not fear that science is simply a way of destroying faith. The two exist in their own domains and both can make positive contributions to society. And for those with no faith, their contributions to moral, ethical and societal issues carry just as much weight as the scientist or religious believer.

James Williams is a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex's School of Education and Social Work

What else?

Explore the creationism debate from religious and scientific perspectives in rebeccanstothers' lesson.


BBSRC has shared a booklet on the science and ethics of stem cell research.


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