6 min read

Dialling down the drama in the science and religion debate

In the first of a new series, biologist and priest Andrew Davison explores the perceived tension between science and religion, and the role identities play.

Andrew works at the intersection of theology, science and philosophy. He is Starbridge Professor of Theology and Natural Sciences at Cambridge University and is currently a visiting fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton.

Vails containing growing plants sit in a lab's fridge.
Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Evolution isn’t just an idea for me; thinking about it has changed the course of my life. I arrived at university in the 1990s having been a member of a house church, full of the kindest people, but fundamentalist when it came to the Bible. I thought that the world was made in six days, six thousand years ago. When I realised that the evidence is stacked against the idea – to say theleast – it almost cost me my faith.  

I got through that crisis because friends introduced me to Christian thinkers from the Middle Ages, especially Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274). Far from representing an age of fear and ignorance (the ‘Dark Ages’), I found there an intellectual world that thrived on questions, with such philosophical sophistication that I was sure any of its chief exponents could have taken evolution in their stride. The struggle between faith and science lifted. Eventually, the sorts of questions that had previously kept me awake at night in worry, kept me awake in wonder. That was almost thirty years ago. Today, contemporary developments in evolutionary theory are one of the main strands of my work as a theologian. 

In two further articles, I will describe some of what’s so interesting, and disputed, in biology and evolution at the moment. In one, I’ll talk about the shift away from the idea that we can reduce everything down to the working of genes. That’s sometimes called an example of ‘nothing-but-ery’: here, the claim that our destiny is ultimately about ‘nothing but’ genes. In the other, I’ll talk about some of the ethical repercussions that those contemporary evolutionary developments might suggest, on such practical matters as good housing.  

In the rest of this piece, however, I will stick with the idea that it’s useful to see the idea of a tension between religion and science, not least over evolution, as being as much personal as intellectual. In particular, tensions over evolution in ‘science vs religion’ are caught up with questions of identity. Seeing oneself as a ‘religious crusader against science’ or a ‘scientific crusader against religion’ is an identity. It’s part of the story you tell about yourself, part of what you take pride in. Since these are also identities that define themselves in opposition to one another, they tend to extremes. Reconciliation involves renegotiating one’s identity.  

Nor is money insignificant. There’s money to be made in writing shrill and divisive books, but in calm and conciliatory books, not so much. Angry books create interest on social media. They find to an already energised readership. Moderate books, and authors who try to dampen the flames of animosity, don’t sell that well; neither do books that are willing to say ‘actually, these questions are more complex, or nuanced’. 

Evolution and economics  

Crucial in these questions of identity is the gulf between those seen as the ‘elite’ and those who don’t see themselves that way (a common theme in politics today). Why is a denial of evolution more common in poorer communities? It’s not only that these are people without educational advantages. It’s also that they feel on the disadvantaged side of an economic and cultural system. In that situation, people are typically all the more invested in what the system can’t take from them, such as their ethnicity, their religion, and its culture. Good on them for that. People in that situation will be all the more unwilling for others – whom they perceive as an elite, who enjoy all sorts of worldly advantages – to tell them what to think about their biological origins, bound up, as they are, with dignity, faith, and self-understanding.  

As an economically disadvantaged Muslim man once put it to me, ‘No one’s telling me that my faith’s stupid, or that I’m just some sort of monkey.’ There’s so much more going on in that statement than ‘being wrong about the science’.  

Moreover, disadvantaged people, and especially the majority who don’t have white skin, have been on the receiving end of prejudice cast in evolutionary terms. Teaching the theory of evolution – glorious though it is as a work of science – has a checkered moral history. That brings us back to monkeys. The ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ (1925) has achieved iconic status, as the triumph of science over superstition in rural Tennessee, but it’s more complex than that. The prosecution, with its anti-evolutionary stance, was wrong to dismiss evolution as a matter of science. They weren’t wrong to be repelled by the science textbook at the heart of the case, which was uncomplicatedly racist, and indeed racist on supposedly evolutionary grounds. Evolution, it claimed, had produced lesser (black) and more advanced (white) races. As historians have also shown in recent decades, evolution was a powerful inspiration, into the early century, for advocates of cut-throat economics and politics: winner-takes-all, survival of the fittest, let the poor go to the wall.  

I’m not saying that every bit of opposition to evolution among poorer communities rests only on the ways that evolutionary theory has been used against them, but it is useful to remember that some of the religious opposition to evolution in the twentieth century came from a principled response to the unpleasant ethical, political, and economic positions to which – they were told – evolution gave support, including full-on advocacy for eugenic programmes of sterilisation of the poor, and contempt for the physically weak: all clothed in evolutionary garb. 

Drama critique 

The spectacle of a ‘science vs religion’ drama turns out to be about more than science, and also about more than theology or religious belief. It’s also about identity, advantage and disadvantage, about some deeply unpalatable economic and social positions, and even about making money out of writing books. There’s everything to be said for teaching biology well, and for arguing about the truth of evolution on scientific terms. I do a fair bit of that myself. There’s everything to be said for teaching theology well, and for arguing that it can take evolution in its stride. That’s even more my aim. But neither offers the full picture, and it’s not helpful to think that anyone who doesn’t believe in evolution is simply stupid or wicked. We won’t get very far, not even as advocates of science, unless are willing to listen. Unexpectedly, my experience is that the flagship scientific societies in the United States (where tension over evolution run so high) are better at this than they are in United Kingdom. 

Getting trapped in one end of some mutually reinforcing antagonism is hard to shake. It’s difficult to get to a nuanced position when you’re dealing with positions that are defined against each other. Whether arguments about evolution are part of your experience or not, there’s a wider message here, which we might all do well to take on board, asking ourselves whether positions of animosity can become unhelpfully baked into our sense of ourselves.  

Accepting evolution does not naturally, or inevitably, lead to brutal social Darwinism, but it’s been used that way in the past, more often than coverage of science today often lets on. We are by no means out of its shadow, even from under the shadow of eugenics. Being aware of that big, historical picture is useful, but it shouldn’t obscure the message from the beginning of this article, that these matters are fundamentally personal, and as much about how we see ourselves, and others, as they are about ideas. Reconciliation and understanding happen person by person, and person-to-person. 

You might think the work I’d most relish as a priest and scientist, or think most useful, would be reassuring religious people that evolution isn’t their enemy. That’s a good thing to do, but I’m actually even more thankful for opportunities to reassure scientists that religion can be thoughtful, unafraid, and even downright passionate about science. Turning up to dinner in my college still in my cassock after evensong, sitting next to visiting scientists, and asking intelligent, enthusiastic questions about their science can do as much good as all the lectures I give in churches or to theology students about the irreplicable value of science. 


6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  


The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.