I was pleased to see an article on science and religion by Tom McLeish in The Conversation.
McLeish is one of the most exciting people currently working in science and religion in the UK. He is a physicist who is well known for his work on soft matter, but has also taken a close interest in the relationship between science and religion, and a very innovative approach. He moves this month from Durham where he was Pro Vice Chancellor for Research to take up a new appointment at York as Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Department of Physics. McLeish is a star.
He rightly makes the point that the history of science and religion are historically very closely intertwined. Science only began to diverge from religion towards the end of the nineteenth century, which is when the idea arose that they were in conflict. The idea of conflict between them is linked with the idea that science is a very modern invention, which it is not.
It is widely recognised that there was a ‘scientific revolution’ in the seventeenth century, though McLeish would emphasise that science goes back even further. No one doubts that Isaac Newton (1642-1726) was a major scientist. His discovery of gravity was path-breaking. But he also devoted a lot of time and energy to studying religion, and his interests in science and religion were closely linked. Newton alone is enough to give the lie to the idea that scientific advance is necessarily independent of religion, or antagonistic to it. That idea depends on ignoring people like Newton.
McLeish writes about how the scientific enterprise tries to get behind the surface of things of things. As McLeish says, Newton was science as “seeing further than others”. In a different way, religion also sees below the surface of things. Neither science nor religion buy into the idea that things are just what they seem. The world looks as though it is composed of bits of hard matter. Neither science nor religion accept that. Science thinks that what seems to be matter is actually elegantly transformed energy. Religion thinks it arises from a God who is spirit. These ideas are not identical, but they are related attempts to get below the surface of things.
McLeish is a powerful advocate of the idea that science and religion are closely linked, and that modern science, far from being necessarily antagonistic to religion, is actually very indebted to it.