Magda S,
© Magda S,

Last week the Faraday Institute’s annual summer course was held in Cambridge, and we played host to sixteen lecturers and forty-six delegates from all over the world. The lectures will be posted on the Faraday website in the coming weeks, but here is a taster.

The first lecture was from Professor Tom McLeish, a physicist whose work I have described here before, and who is no stranger to posing interesting questions. McLeish’s task was to set the scene for the week, exploring the relationship between science and religion. He spent much of the time looking at two questions: ‘What is science?’ and ‘What is religion?’

The main point of his talk was that the problem with the science and religion dialogue can be found in the word ‘and’. When we use the phrase ‘science and religion’, are we setting up a separation between the two that is not necessary? What do we mean when we relate the two together?

McLeish then outlined a whole range of ways in which science and religion might relate together.

science and religion models 4

In the science and religion world, Ian Barbour is famous for his four models of conflict, interdependence, dialogue and integration. I am also familiar with Denis Alexander’s models of conflict, separation, fusion and complementarity. It was interesting to hear a physicist’s views, including parallel universes (the different planes on the diagram), and mixed solutions that can be distinguished on a molecular scale.

McLeish didn’t say what his own model of choice might be (it turns out that he was saving that up for his lecture the following day), but I can share my own. If God is really there and the Bible is true, then Christian faith affects the whole of life, and science is an activity that a Christian can do wholeheartedly. So that leads to model number two – one inside the other.

Science is one of the activities that happen within the circle of my faith, and it is bounded by its own smaller circle of methods and assumptions. The background of belief is still there, but some things are excluded from scientific practice. For example, when I was in the lab I might have prayed for a colleague’s health, or that I would do an experiment well, but I definitely wouldn’t pray for a certain result – that wouldn’t make any sense if I was trying to find out how the world actually works. Neither would I have included poems in a scientific paper. I like poetry, but words are limited in scientific journals and they need to be saved for describing data.

The boundaries around science go both ways. So in the same way that certain activities are excluded from experiments, a scientist will leave some attitudes behind when they go home at night. We don’t analyse our relationships scientifically, or at least not if they’re to remain healthy. And being interested in a rare form of cancer is appropriate in the lab, but not at the bedside. The explanation that cancer helps us to understand the way normal cells work is of little comfort to a person undergoing radiotherapy.

To me, science and faith overlap, but there are some ways of thinking and acting that are appropriate only to science or faith specifically. The benefit of this approach is that anyone can do science, regardless of his or her beliefs, and I think that is a very good thing. We should all be able enjoy the amazing things science reveals about the world we live in.

You can find Tom McLeish’s book here.

2 thoughts on “Models

  1. Chris Knight July 22, 2014 / 6:08 pm

    Thanks for this Ruth. I agree with pretty much all of what you say, but I just wanted to comment on one phrase you used “I definitely wouldn’t pray for a certain result”. I think I know what you mean but I baulked a little at the phrase and wondered why. Because if we pray for a colleague’s health (especially if it’s about an ‘incurable’ disease), we are often effectively praying for something different to “how the world actually works”. If our experiments relate to “a cure for cancer”, we might pray that this week’s experiment might get the answer, or at least closer to it! It set me wondering where might be the limit of what we pray for and how we would decide. And I wonder whether actually the circle of science might really include more than you implied here?


    • Ruth Bancewicz July 23, 2014 / 9:54 am

      Hi Chris, I see what you mean, but I think I just wasn’t clear enough. What I was trying to point out – which was quite an extreme case – can be illustrated by a story.

      I met a scientist who had a Christian student. They had had some success, and as far as I can remember they got to a point where they were going to do an experiment – I forget the details – but it was as if they were going to find out if the biological system they were studying was involved in something very significant, say a common disease process. So the student said he had to go home to pray for the ‘right result’. The supervisor was aghast that his student would pray for such a thing. if you are studying a protein that is involved only in toenail growth, you don’t pray that God suddenly makes it a very key part of heart development, just so you can get on with your career. The ramifications are on a comedic proportion – the very fabric of every living thing would have to be altered! I suspect the student just hadn’t thought it through…

      Rather, if I was still in the lab I would pray that I would have clarity in my work and do my experiments well, and get onto the right path if I’m on the wrong one, and somehow manage to focus on useful and interesting things.

      The ‘cure for cancer’ argument doesn’t work because that work is about finding out how cells work. I want to find out about the workings of our bodies, publish it, and help others to further their work in cancer biology so that others can develop treatments. So a scientist needs to publish their whole method, and others will copy that and come to conclusions about the way the world is based on that. I would simply need to do my work precisely, cleanly, carefully, have good ideas, not make too many mistakes, listen to others, be humble, patient, etc. That’s already a lot to pray for :)

      Is that any clearer? It’s not about limiting, God, it’s just that what is helpful in the lab is different to what is helpful in the hospital ward.



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