Why science and religion aren’t as opposed as you might think

  • 2016-06-28
  • The Conversation

The debate about science and religion is usually viewed as a competition between worldviews. Differing opinions on whether the two subjects can comfortably co-exist – even among scientists – are pitted against each other in a battle for supremacy.

For some, like the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, science and religion represent two separate areas of enquiry, asking and answering different questions without overlap. Others, such as the biologist Richard Dawkins – and perhaps the majority of the public – see the two as fundamentally opposed belief systems.

But another way to look at the subject is to consider why people believe what they do. When we do this, we discover that the supposed conflict between science and religion is nowhere near as clear cut as some might assume.

Our beliefs are subject to a range of often hidden influences. Take the belief that science and religion have been in fundamental conflict since humans developed the capacity to think scientifically. This position only became well-known in the late 19th century, when science was characterised by amateurism, aristocratic patronage, minuscule government support and limited employment opportunities. The “conflict thesis” arose in part from the desire to create a separate professional sphere of science, independent of the clerical elites who controlled universities and schools.