Science and Religion, Faith and Reason – These Are Not the Same, Dr. Hannam!

Ophelia Benson, over at Butterflies and Wheels, put me onto an interesting post by James Hannam. Hannam “has a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge and is the author of The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (published in the UK as God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science).”

The post makes me feel my own Cambridge degree is worth a little less.

In short, Hannam argues that Christianity and Science have long coexisted and even worked together, and therefore there is no tension between faith and reason. This simply doesn’t follow. Hannam here commits a classic error of conflating the relationship between “science” and “religion” with the relationship between “reason” and “faith”. These, as I responded to the post, are seperable issues and should not be confused.

Here’s my response:

Hannam says:

The award of the Templeton Prize to the retired president of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, has reawakened the controversy over science and religion.

He then immediately claims:

Few topics are as open to misunderstanding as the relationship between faith and reason.

I agree with both statements. But in this situation it is clearly Hannam who is misunderstanding the issues. He begisn by promising to tackle the “controversy over science and religion”, but immediately shifts to talking about “the relationship between faith and reason”. These are separable questions – they are not at all the same. That Hannam conflates them at the start of the article and veers between the two throughout demonstrates his confusion regarding this issue (this is a common failing of those who wish to maintain a cosy relationship between religion and science).

The rotten fruits of this confusion are evident in the following statement:

“The ongoing clash of creationism with evolution obscures the fact that Christianity has actually had a far more positive role to play in the history of science than commonly believed. “

The “clash of creationism with evolution” is best seen as a clash between faith and reason: the creationist position rejects reason and evidence and essentially assumes creationism must be true and seeks to find “evidence” to support that a priori commitment. The relationship of Christianity (a broad institution, including much more than simply the Christian faith) to the “history of science” is really the other question, about the relationship between the human institutions and practice of science and the institutions and practice of religion. Here, of course it is possible to paint a rosy picture.

But the fact that scientific and religious practice can coexist does not disprove (or even speak to) the notion that faith and reason are fundamentally antagonistic. By tangling these issues in a messy skein Hannam has shown that he misunderstands the central concerns of those opposed to the encroachment of faith upon reason.

If this is the sort of sloppy thinking we can expect from his book, it certainly won’t be on my shortlist.


About James Croft

Dr. James Croft is the Outreach Director of the Ethical Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and completed his Ed.D at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.