The great debate: science, rationality and religion

By Tommy Pallett (SciTech Editor)

On Friday 3rd March, people arrived in their hundreds to watch ‘The Great Debate: Science, Rationality and Religion.’ This is a quite literal statement, and the venue had to be changed last minute to accommodate the audience size!

Speaking to the organiser, Durham professor Tom Shanks, he explained that the motivation behind his involvement was driven by his belief that “the balance has tilted too far toward the idea that religion is irrational and unscientific” and that he hoped the debate if nothing else would reveal that “atheism and humanism also have their fair share of irrationality.”

Fighting the religious corner was the Bishop of Durham and prominent charity worker Paul Butler; for science, the mathematical physicist Prof Stewart Clark, head of condensed matter research at Durham and a renowned undergraduate lecturer in quantum mechanics. Then, a third speaker – Royal Society fellow, author of the book ‘Faith & Wisdom in Science,’ and Durham Physics and Chemistry professor Tom McLeish – was included, to take the ‘middle ground’ and fight for the idea that science and religion are not mutually exclusive.

There was a heavy focus away from the concept of Science versus Religion, especially from the religious camp. The Bishop began his talk by immediately admitting that there is “a great deal of religion [he is] not ‘for’ at all” and pointed to historical events, from the Crusades to ISIS. He was sure-footed however, in concluding that in general religion does make the world a better place.

The Bishop sought to marry science and religion, citing that rather than being in opposition they are “co-protagonists in the search for truth.” It is perhaps undeniable that some of the world’s greatest scientists were hugely religious, and it was argued that not only have the two schools of thought gone hand in hand over time but that religion has even driven science.

rather than being in opposition they [science and religion] are “co-protagonists in the search for truth”

In a more direct and pragmatic statement, the Bishop explained that religious institutions have real-world advantage and are a critical part of maintaining the health of society. He recalled a personal investigation he carried out whilst living in London. A survey was run in a local community and found that more young people had received pastoral care (for things such as mental health issues) from volunteer groups allied with religious institutions than from workers paid by the local authorities. Furthermore, his own work in travelling to countries such as Rwanda and Uganda, and the charity work that goes on there and in other struggling parts of our world speaks for itself in terms of leaving a positive footprint.

The tone of the mathematical physicist was markedly different. An audience member directly asked Clark whether he denies the clear evidence of the benefit of religion in Christian charity groups. He replied swiftly and immutably: “Does the act of charity require the Christian God?”

This exchange somewhat defined his speech, which focussed not on attacking any particular religion nor any of the work carried out by religious groups, but rather on the flawed logic and the misguided rationality of religious thought. He began by giving three examples of poor logic.

The first was the circular argument epitomised in the statement ‘God is good because He says he is good.’ The second is the ‘lack of options’ problem: is the answer to this question some statement A or B? Well, what if it’s neither but some other option which isn’t offered, or isn’t known? And the third is the issue of generalisation, to which Clark gave the humorous example “Spiderman lives in New York, New York exists, [thus Spiderman must exist].” These may seem foolishly obvious to most, but Clark claims them to be prevalent in religious thought.

Like the Bishop, the physicist was not shy to self-deprecate. Science is not without its problems, and its logic is certainly not absolute. The crucial conclusion Clark tried to draw us to was precisely the fact that Science was not based on absolution, but on probability; as we gather data and it continues to confirm an idea, that idea becomes more probable. Science is not an undeniable fact which requires a leap of blind faith but a continually evolving description of the world around us, based on evidence that we gather.

The existence of a God is usually a topic avoided by either side of the religious fence. Clark however, did not shy away. One must however commend this physicist for his truly scientific approach to answering it: hypothesis, evidence, conclusion. One must remember that according to his earlier statement, this needn’t mean it is absolutely correct – it is just the best model at the time of conclusion!


if a God exists, it’s in the ever-decreasing gap [of knowledge]


The debating panel. Photo credit: Rob Hardyman

Instead, he brought forward a niche piece of historical science. A group of people indigenous to the Pacific Islands were first brought into contact with modern technology in the 1930’s when the US Airforce dropped supplies there to aide with the war against Japan. Within 30 years, the indigenous people had formed a cult which believed these drops occurred from a singular divine power. The point of Clark’s argument being that with a sufficient lack of knowledge and understanding, any phenomena can be misattributed to some higher power and this belief can propagate through an entire population within a single generation.

Based on this study, and other similar work, this physicist concludes that “if a God exists, it’s in the ever-decreasing gap [of knowledge]”.

It was apparent that in some ways it is the inconsistent definition, the subjective descriptions, and ignorant judgement of science and religion of each other that leads to the conflict so often seen.

Tom McLeish tried to reconcile this by offering the idea that science is in fact a gift, given to us by God, which allows us to see past the surface of the world around us. In many ways, this echoed the Bishop’s words that religion drives us to try and understand the intricacies of the world God has made for us.

Ultimately, does it matter if you are driven to pursue science by a religious engine or if you do it with the conviction of atheism, if both angles ultimately are endeavouring to achieve the same thing of understanding the natural and social world?

A ‘Great Debate’ such as this of course never truly concludes. But it can conclude on some things, and this one if nothing else cried out for the world to stop pitching science and religion against each other. One unstoppable force against another immovable object, with the net result of achieving nothing.


If you’re interested in hearing more from the speakers Stewart Clark and Tom McLeish you can find an insightful interview here.

If you have an opinion you would like to share, then do please get in touch via Facebook, Twitter, or by submitting a response article to

Please be respectful in all responses.

Photograph: Rob Hardyman

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