It's time that scientists learned to talk amicably to faith groups about research on the origins of the universe
When British Prime Minister Winston Churchill set up a post-war forum for reconciliation in 1946 the Wilton Park meetings I doubt he imagined it would be playing host to peace talks between science and religion.
Sixty-six years on from that first meeting, and after subsequent Wilton Park sessions predicted the fall of the Soviet bloc and helped pave the way for South Africa's transition from apartheid to democracy, the search for a common language for dialogue between cosmology and religion has taken centre stage.
Last week, Wilton Park and the CERN particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, co-organised an attempt at resolving this very modern clash. It was the brainchild of Rolf Heuer, CERN's director general.
CERN's remit includes closing the gap between scientists and the general population. Heuer is troubled by a sense that scientists are perceived as operating outside of human culture. Hence efforts such as the Arts@CERN collaborations, where the laboratory hosts artists whose work is informed and inspired by science.Getting closer to faith
Religion is clearly another big part of culture. Heuer's idea is that science might engage better with culture through a closer relationship with faith communities. It's an interesting strategy, but it has big hurdles to overcome: most scientists aren't all that interested in religion.
In 1998, for instance, a survey of members of the US National Academy of Sciences revealed that only 7 per cent believed in a personal god. It's not that they're against religion; it's just that religion does not inform what they do on a day-to-day basis. For the most part, religion simply does not get scientists' juices flowing.
And these scientists are in increasingly crowded company. In August, a WIN-Gallup survey showed that atheism is on the rise worldwide. Many of the religious representatives at the meeting last week seemed to feel science might be to blame. Some expressed a sense of outrage that scientists have encroached on their turf. Stephen Hawking's declaration that philosophy is redundant, for instance, or that God is a superfluous notion, rankle because of the media attention they receive. The religious religious scientists in particular feel they should not take this lying down.
It's easy to laugh off such attitudes, but Heuer was right to bring these issues to the fore: they should give scientists pause. Few scientists receive much, if any, instruction in philosophy or the history of science during their training, and as a consequence few think much about what they do, how they do it, what it achieves and what it does not. When scientists engage with academics from other disciplines, there is a dangerous tendency to overstate and oversimplify.Big bang, big talk
The focus of Heuer's meeting, held in Nyon, Switzerland, was big bang cosmology and the language scientists use to describe it. For example, the claim "we now know the history of the universe" seems appropriate, given the recent successes of cosmology. But it is a claim that can and should be picked apart. The word "know" is difficult to define in scientific terms.
It is astonishing how reluctant certain scientists can be to compromise over religion. After all, compromise has been shown to be the most fruitful path in some fields. Realising that the goals of nanotechnology might seem threatening, researchers in this area set up forums in which people could express their concerns, learn about the technology and draw their own conclusions about its promise and the potential dangers. The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is holding public consultations about the use of mitochondrial replacement in in-vitro fertilisation and allowing people to express concern over the creation of animals that contain human material.
None of the researchers involved in such exercises dismiss public concerns or deride those who are offended by the research proposals. Nor do they stop their work; what they do is explain their goals and motivations, their limits and their willingness to engage in dialogue about what impact positive and negative their work might have.
Contrast that with the approach to research that intrudes on what has traditionally been the domain of philosophers and theologians. There is frequent open triumphalism open derision as concerns expressed by representatives of entire communities are batted away. When claims about the implications and reach of the science are contested, the complainants are often dismissed as scientifically underqualified, or accused of having a vested interest in dismissing advances in our knowledge.
All this matters because we live in a globalised world. Huxley versus Wilberforce at the University of Oxford on the topic of evolution was another era, and the repercussions of scientists overstepping reasonable boundaries may, before long, be cause for regret. The last thing science needs is a reputation for elitism and for riding roughshod over the concerns of religious communities. No government has ever got away with that for long and there is no reason to think that science will either.
At Heuer's discussion, the issue bubbling away under the surface but rarely mentioned was to do with containing extremism. Just as publishing cartoons featuring the prophet Mohammed might be permissible in countries with a tradition of free speech, but is not always the most helpful of moves, scientists employing inflammatory language, however naively, will eventually create significant problems. It may be only a matter of time before a Muslim cleric declares war on, say, particle physics, outraged by something a devout student says he was told about the discipline at his university.Less attitude
The time has come to address scientists' disinterest in religion, drop the superior, confrontational attitude and make constructive engagement with religious groups a priority.
Though it remains extremely hard to imagine cosmologists agreeing to talk about their discoveries in ways that would avoid challenging religious belief, Winston Churchill's assertion that dialogue can help resolve and avoid conflict is laudable, and its success has been proven. This new search, for commonality that encircles science, philosophy and religion, is clearly important and overdue. It may take as long as the search for the Higgs boson, but it will be worth the effort.
Michael Brooks is a science writer and New Scientist consultant. His latest book is The Secret Anarchy of Science (Profile/Overlook). He is also a past fellow of the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Programme in Science and Religion