Science and God: is there a Conflict?
by David Glass
There is a popular perception that there is an inevitable conflict between science and belief in God. This idea is often assumed in discussions about science in the media and is promoted by some prominent scientists who are also atheists such as Peter Atkins, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking. Nobel prize winner Peter Higgs, who famously predicted the existence of what became known as the Higgs boson, which was discovered in 2012, is also an atheist, but he claims that this has more to do with his family background than any conflict with science; in fact, he criticizes Dawkins for taking a fundamentalist approach. Other prominent scientists such as William Phillips (another Nobel prize winner), Don Page and Simon Conway Morris are religious believers. Clearly, there are different views and the issue can’t be settled by a vote anyway. So is there a conflict or not?
The answer turns out to be ‘no’. Well, a slightly qualified ‘no’ because particular religious beliefs can, of course, come into conflict with particular scientific beliefs. But the idea that there is an ongoing and inevitable conflict between the two simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s interesting to note that in the most rigorous defences of atheism by atheist philosophers, they rarely place much weight on an alleged conflict between science and religion (contrary to the popular approach of the new atheism where nearly all the weight is put on this kind of argument, which is generally recognized by atheist philosophers to be very weak). On the historical side of things, scholars have shown decisively that the conflict thesis is much too naïve. As the late historian of science, Colin Russell, put it:
The common belief that…the actual relations between religion and science over the last few centuries have been marked by deep and enduring hostility…is not only historically inaccurate, but actually a caricature so grotesque that what needs to be explained is how it could possibly have achieved any degree of respectability.
So why might people think there is a conflict? I think there are probably four main reasons for this…
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