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Collage showing Rev Professor David Wilkinson, an astronomy image and an image of a stained glass window

Reverend Professor David Wilkinson from our Department of Theology and Religion and Principal of St John’s College recently gave a lecture discussing the interplay between religious belief and science, as part of our Global Lecture Series. Here he gives us an insight into this debate and how the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

On the train from Durham once the person beside me introduced themselves and said, ‘What do you do?’   I replied, ‘These days, I teach theology at the University’.  I saw eyes fill with fear as they thought to themselves, ‘Oh no, all the way to London beside a religious fanatic!’  They quickly tried to change the topic of the conversation and asked me what I did before that. ‘I did research in theoretical astrophysics’.  This time their eyes glazed but then the question came ‘How can you be a scientist and a religious believer?’

The narrative of science vs religious belief

I have heard this many times.  Western culture seems to have a dominant narrative of the conflict of science and religious belief and indeed goes further at times.  The new atheists such as Professor Richard Dawkins saw religion as misguided and at times evil, and science would be one of the weapons to bring its downfall.  Proponents of the secularisation hypothesis argued that science and technology inevitably lead to the decline of religion.  In the New York Times in 1968 Peter Berger suggested, due to the pervasive influence of science, that “(in) the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.”

The trouble is that the believed inevitability of the secularisation hypothesis and the agenda of new atheism have not led to the extinction of religious belief.  So much so that Berger and a number of other scholars have shifted to talk of resurgent religion and the ‘desecularization’ of the world. This is not just about survival of religious belief in a scientific world but its growth and flourishing.

From belonging to believing

While religious attendance in the mainline Christian denominations continues to decline in the 21st century this is not the whole story.  As the sociologist Grace Davie has pointed out there may have been a move from belonging to believing, that is non-attendance at church does not immediately correlate with belief in a deity or the practice of prayer.  

Theologian Elaine Graham has further pointed to a ‘post-secular’ culture where alongside scepticism towards religion and its claims of authority, there is a renewed visibility of religion in public life and an acknowledgement of its importance.  

On the global stage faith communities are growing rapidly alongside growth in science and technology in such places as South Korea.   Even amongst scientists themselves, the work of Elaine Howard Ecklund surveying scientists across 8 religions of the world shows that a minority of scientists see religion and science as always in conflict.

From the laws of physics to ‘what does it mean to be human?’

Here at Durham University for over a decade we have pioneered a project Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science.  We have brought together senior Christian leaders such as Bishops with some of our world leading Durham scientists to explore areas where science can inform and enrich theology and theology can inform and enrich science. 

One area is where do the laws of physics come from and why are they intelligible?   Another is whether the world of quantum theory and complex systems means that the world is more subtle and supple to divine action rather than in the simplistic clockwork universe which arose from Newtonian mechanics. 

Perhaps the biggest area is the question of what it means to be human in a world where we search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, build more powerful artificial intelligence and see the working of the brain in neuroscience.

Each of these areas is alive with interest from both scientists and theologians.  Far from the science threatening the survival of religious belief, they have opened the door for new understandings of the divine in a world where religion continues to be a major influence for both good and bad.

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Theology and Religion

The Department of Theology and Religion is ranked 7th globally (QS World University Rankings by Subject 2022) making it Durham University’s highest ranked department.

One of the most varied and dynamic in the UK, our Department is a place where ‘belief’ and ‘beliefs’ are taken seriously, respected, and studied. Together, we form a lively and welcoming community to those of all faiths and to those of none.

Feeling inspired? Visit our Theology and Religion webpages for more information on our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes.