Published online 14 May 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.476
Corrected online: 20 May 2009

Column: Muse

How much reason do you want?

The 'war' between science and religion is stuck in a rut. Can we change the record now, asks Philip Ball?

The 50th anniversary of C. P. Snow's famous 'Two Cultures' lecture has elicited mixed views. Some feel that the divide between the sciences and the humanities is as broad and uncomfortable as it was in 1959; others say the world has moved on. But perhaps we need instead to acknowledge that today's divisions exist between two quite different cultures.

To my mind, the most problematic of these is the distinction between those who believe in the value of knowledge and learning, whether artists, scientists, historians or politicians, and those who reject, even denigrate, intellectualism in world affairs.

But others feel that the most serious disparity is now between those who trust in science and Enlightenment rationalism, and those who are guided by religious dogma. This feeling has apparently motivated the recent launch of the Reason Project, an initiative organized by neuroscientist and writer Sam Harris, which boasts a stellar advisory board that includes Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Steven Weinberg, Harry Kroto, Craig Venter and Steven Pinker, along with Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ian McEwan.

The project is aimed at "spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society" and seeks "to encourage critical thinking and erode the influence of dogmatism, superstition, and bigotry in our world".

War and peace

It's easy to agree that the use (or generally, abuse) of religion to justify suppression of human rights, maltreatment and murder is abhorrent. To the extent that this is in the project's sights, it should be applauded. But with Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) on board, one can't help suspecting that the Almighty Himself is the prime target.

Darwin (left); God (right)Is this town big enough for the both of them?Wikimedia Commons / US Library of Congress

This debate now tends to cluster into two camps. One, exemplified by the Reason Project, insists that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible, and that the world ain't big enough for the both of them. The other side is exemplified by another recently launched project, the BioLogos Foundation, established by the former leader of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins. In this view, science and religion can and should make their peace: there is no reason why they cannot coexist. The mission statement of BioLogos speaks of "America's escalating culture war between science and faith", and explains that the foundation "emphasizes the compatibility of Christian faith with what science has discovered about the origins of the universe and life".

BioLogos is funded by the Templeton Foundation, which similarly seeks to identify common ground between science and religion. To the militant atheists, this is sheer appeasement.

That is what evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, a board member of the Reason Project, laments in an essay called tothefaithfulaspoonfulofjesushelpsdarwingo_down/">Truckling to the faithful: A spoonful of Jesus helps Darwin go down. Coyne accuses the US National Academy of Sciences, and especially its National Center for Science Education, of pandering to the religious masses.

An atheist's heaven

What the Reason Project has in its favour is philosophical rigour. That may also be its failing, because it looks unlikely to venture beyond those walls. Like most Utopian ideas, atheistic absolutism works as long as it ignores what people are like and remains in a cultural and historical vacuum. Logical neatness and self-consistency are, unfortunately, not enough.

I'm glad people make it their business to expose bigotry and oppression. If some choose to focus on instances where those things are religiously motivated — well, why not? But it seems important to acknowledge that the supposed conflict between science and faith is actually not that big a deal.


What is a big deal is the relatively recent strength of fundamentalist opposition to selected aspects of scientific thought, which has made the United States and Turkey (see 'Turkey censors evolution') the two Western countries with the lowest proportion of population who believe in evolution.

In other words, this is not a matter of science versus faith, but of the rejection of scientific ideas that challenge power structures. After all, fundamentalism rarely objects to technology per se, and indeed is often disturbingly keen to acquire it. That's not to minimize the problem, but recognizing it for what it is will avoid false dichotomies, and perhaps make it easier to find solutions.

So there is little to be gained from trying to topple the temple — it's the false priests who are the menace. If we can recognize that religion, like any ideology, is a social construct — with benefits, dangers, arbitrary inventions and, most of all, roots in human nature – then we might forgo a lot of empty argument and get back to the worldly wonders of the lab bench. 


The title of Christopher Hitchens' book is _God Is Not Great_ not _God Is Not Good_ as we stated in an earlier version of this article.
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