Faith and science were once friendlier bedfellows

A lecturer reminds us of the religious ideals of the early Royal Society. Matthew Reisz reports

February 4, 2010

It is often assumed that religion and science have always been locked in a life-and-death struggle.

When Michael Reiss, an ordained Anglican priest, was forced to resign as director of education at the Royal Society in 2008, Sir Harry Kroto said that all religious people "fall at the first hurdle of the main requirement for honest scientific discussion because they accept unfounded dogma as having fundamental significance".

The Nobel laureate added that Professor Reiss, who came under pressure to quit after suggesting that creationism should be discussed in schools, "cannot have his religious cake in church and eat the scientific one in the classroom".

Such views would have startled the scholars, including some of the greatest names in British science, who founded what became the Royal Society 350 years ago.

In a Faraday Institute public lecture, to be delivered in Cambridge this week, Peter Harrison, Andreas Idreos professor of science and religion at the University of Oxford, will challenge such arguments about the impossibility of being both scientific and religious, pointing out that they "obviously didn't apply to the earliest fellows".

"What tends to happen is that current controversies, and particularly anti-evolutionary movements, are seen to typify religion and then read back into history," he said.

"People want to claim the early Royal Society for whatever they stand for, whether religion, 'Enlightenment values' or scientism."

Professor Harrison's lecture will untangle an apparent paradox.

While an early memorandum of the Royal Society declared that fellows would avoid "meddling with divinity, metaphysics, morals", its 1663 charter stated that its activities would be devoted "to the glory of God the creator, and the advantage of the human race".

Officers were even required to swear an oath on "the holy Gospels of God".

In reality, Professor Harrison said, "almost without exception, early modern natural philosophers cherished religious convictions, although these were not invariably orthodox. Some - but by no means all - made the point that they were motivated to pursue scientific inquiry on account of these religious commitments."

Far from being militant atheists, they "believed that the disinterested study of the structures of living things could offer independent support for the truth of the Christian religion, and refute atheism".

But such efforts could be effective only if they were "based on premises that the atheist would accept ... individuals might be motivated by religious considerations to ensure the religious neutrality of their scientific endeavours".

A historian with a first degree in zoology and "an overt religious commitment", Professor Harrison regards the recent spate of anti- religious polemics headed by Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion as "intellectually vacuous, although their popularity is sociologically interesting".

"Religion and science are not single entities that we should essentialise and put in an essential relationship of conflict or congruence," he said.

"That is one of the things history teaches us."

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.