Science and Religion in Schools: An Overview to the Guides

Science and Religion in Schools: An Overview to the Guides

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Why is it important for young people to learn about the place of both science and religion in the modern world?  One obvious answer is that, in their different ways, these two cultural forces dominate the political landscape.  Some of the greatest challenges we face arise from our relationship with the natural world.  Debates about the reality of global warming and the steps that might be taken to control it are frequently in the news.  New technologies, such as the genetic modification of crops, and ethical concerns about the use of embryonic stem cells for scientific research have attracted widespread comment and appeals for caution.  References to scientists ‘playing God’ remind us that anxieties are still expressed in language that has religious roots.  This means that the question of how to relate scientific and religious beliefs is both topical and important.  It is also fascinating, to teachers and their pupils alike, because there is no single answer.

Since the European Enlightenment, it has often been claimed that scientific knowledge threatens and supersedes religious belief.  The authority of sacred texts has been challenged and gaps in our understanding of the natural world have been closed.  A very different view is maintained by those who argue that, properly understood, a religious perspective may complement the picture of the world we derive from the sciences.  As Einstein famously put it, “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind”.  Einstein did not believe in a personal God but spoke of a great ‘mystery’ behind the order and beauty of nature.  The very fact that science is possible at all, that nature is ordered and intelligible, invites religious and spiritual reflection.

The teaching materials available on the CD-ROM have been designed to help teachers excite the interest of their pupils in some of the major issues of our time.  What do we mean by ‘religion’ and what do we mean by ‘science’?  How do they differ in their practices and in their ways of knowing?  Are the two spheres of scientific and religious authority best kept apart?

The case for separation can look attractive since it grants freedom to scientists to pursue their research without interference from religious pressure groups and it also respects the claims to moral insight and wisdom deriving from the faith traditions.  Indeed, many would see this preference for independence as the most balanced view.  It certainly deserves to be explored in the classroom where it engenders lively debate.  On the one hand, it is difficult to deny that the great scientific revolutions of the last four hundred years have had a profound bearing on how we see our place in the universe.  For Sigmund Freud, the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions had diminished human significance, first by appearing to dislodge us from the centre of the cosmos, then by affirming our continuity with the animals. The fact that Freud’s own system of psychology meant that we no longer seemed to have control of our own minds delivered a further blow to human dignity.  Conversely, it is important for pupils to learn that some of the greatest scientists have been devout religious believers who have seen in their study an exploration of a divine creation.  For Isaac Newton, the beauty of the solar system testified to the existence of a God “very well skilled in mechanics and geometry”.

A further reason for encouraging young people to study the ways in which the sciences and the main world religions may be relevant to each other is that this is a field often occupied by extremists. Their strongly held opinions can so easily lead to a polarisation in which each extreme feeds off the other.  The battle, particularly in North America, between young-earth ‘creationists’ and dogmatically atheistic proponents of ‘evolution’ would be an obvious example.  The teaching resources developed here should help young people to appreciate distinctions that encourage a more mature understanding of the issues than is often conveyed by the media.  The distinction, for example, between a well-attested scientific theory and a dogmatic world-view, whether sacred or secular, is of great importance when assessing the debates over biological evolution.  Pupils enjoy discussing such questions and relish the opportunity to express their own ideas.

In preparing these teaching resources we have been careful to avoid adopting approaches that might elicit charges of indoctrination.  This is a sensitive issue and one that lies at the heart of concerns in North America about the teaching of ‘religion’ in state schools.  To be aware of debates in the philosophy of science and in the philosophy of religion is, however, one of the best means of protection from doctrinal assertion.  In the United Kingdom, examination syllabuses for Religious Studies require that attention be given to issues at the interface of cosmology and religion.  These are intended to include reference to different concepts of creation and how these might be affected by a scientific cosmology, such as that enshrined in the Big Bang.  They are also intended to include such questions as whether it is possible to infer anything about a creator from the appearance of design in the natural order.  We are confident that the SRSP materials will help teachers to engage their pupils on these and many other topics.  The aim has been to create a wide-ranging resource, respectful of scientific methods and understandings and at the same time sensitive to what religious believers find valuable in their faith traditions.

Lastly it is important to mention the many highly successful living scientists who have either a deep interest in questions about God and faith or a strong personal faith. Francis Collins, Paul Davies, Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne and Russell Stannard are just a few who are mentioned in the materials.