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The end of faith: has science made religion redundant?

Tuesday 21 April 2015


Professor Peter Harrison

Christianity was foundational in the birth of the scientific revolution in the 17th century. Even Charles Darwins’ Origin of the Species had a lot of Christian support. What then is the origin of the science vs. religion rebate that our society keeps circling around?

Professor Peter Harrison, an Australian Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland, suggests that, historically, religion was actually a major causal factor in the birth of science. As such, he says it is unlikely that where we see a decline in religion, it is due to science.

These two big cultural shapers have been pitted against one another largely thanks to “new atheists [who] continue to make the case that you can’t accept contemporary science and still think that religion is credible,” says Professor Harrison.

“Science is widely regarded as the most authoritative way of knowing things so it makes sense for someone who has a strong atheistic agenda to marry [it] with that set of activities that bears the most cultural authority and that seems to be the best way of finding out stuff,” says Harrison.

“Actually,” Harrison points out, “there are many different ways of knowing things. Science rightly claims authority in the sphere of facts about the natural world, although it’s important to understand that scientific theories change significantly over time – they always have and they always will.

“But the sphere of religion is much greater than that. It takes in things like values and relationships, and to some extent I don’t think that science can provide answers to deep questions about meaning and value.

“I think there’s a longstanding but mistaken view that science and religion are successive phases,” says Harrison.

That is to say, a belief that science will replace religion is rooted in an argument that says, “Look, religion asks these questions, science asks them too. Religion was all we had for a long time but now that we have science we don’t need religion.”

This is one of several ideas that Harrison will be exploring in this years Richard Johnson lecture, organised by the Centre For Public Christianity, on the topic The end of faith: has science made religion redundant? The lecture will be held on May 7, at Scots Church in Sydney. You can buy tickets here.

Image: Kartik Ramanathan on Flickr, used under CC License.

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