Peter Harrison: A new understanding of evolution and faith relationship

Could you describe us the history, the reasons and the targets of the Ian Ramsey Center ?

The Centre was founded in 1985 for the study of religious beliefs in relation to the sciences and medicine. It is a centre of the Theology Faculty in the University of Oxford. The Centre was named after Ian Ramsey, an Oxford Professor of the Philosophy of Religion and later Bishop of Durham, and who had interest in science, religion and medicine. The Centre runs a seminar programme, hosts an annual international conference, and is home to a number of research projects on science and religion.

Which have been more relevant activities, related to a more clear definition of science and faith relationship ?

One of the key annual events is the Centre’s international conference that brings together scientists, theologians, historians and philosophers to discuss key issues in the field. Our 2009 conference, for example, was devoted to the theme of religious responses to Darwin. We had many lively and thought-provoking exchanges on the religious implications of Darwinian thinking. While the conferences tend to be oriented towards academics, our public seminar series seeks to bring to the wider public some of the distilled conclusions of the academic discussion.

Could you talk us about next activities, particularly next Conference God and Physics ?

Contemporary physics and cosmology have been particularly fruitful areas for the contemporary dialogue between science and religion. One interesting area, for example, is the so-called fine tuning of the universe for the emergence of intelligent life. The remarkable features of the universe we inhabit have suggested to some that the laws of physics must be the result of design. Other contest this. So this will be one of the items on the agenda at the conference. Attending will be a number of prominent physicists, philosophers and theologians will offer presentations of their views about the possible intersection of physics and theology. There will also be the opportunity for contributed papers from other participants. The presentations of the major speakers will be published as a book.

You’ve dedicated this event to prof. John Polkinghorne

In a sense, Prof. John Polkinghorne embodies the possibilities for fruitful dialogue between theology and physics. As a distinguished physicist, who later in life become a Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne demonstrates how physics and religious faith can coexist. He has also published many important books on the interaction of science and religion, and has been a major contributor to the positive engagement between faith and science.

From your point of view, are there, in United Kingdom and generally in anglosaxon countries, specific keys to interpretate Science and Faith relationship ?

Historically speaking, in England science and religion had a very positive relationship, certainly from the seventeenth century onwards. However, things began to change in the late nineteenth century, with the growing professionalisation and specialisation of science. It was around this time that the ‘conflict myth’ arose, according to which science and religion were necessarily in conflict. This is still a quite common view, and is vocally promoted by people such as Richard Dawkins. So it is sometimes difficult to promote the contrary view, which points to the possibility of peaceful co-existence between science and religion. The situation is much more polarised in North America, of course, partly due to the prevalence of strong anti-evolutionary movements there. These tend to promote a polarisation between science and religion.

If philosophy has a mediation role between science and religion, which should be a possible role for communication, and information too ?

Philosophy has a very important role to play, as a way of mediating central issues in the science-religion discussione. Equally important is communication. There are many myths and misconceptions about science and religion and their relationship. While many in academia are aware of the currency of these mistaken ideas, it is important that this message is communicated more broadly.

It is also important, as in all areas of academic research, that the results of considered reflection on these key issues be communicated to the public. This can be difficult, but it is an important part of our work to keep the public informed.

An important role that media sometime seem to misunderstand, or refuse, due to economic and audience reasons …

The media often like short ‘sound bites’, and because science and religion issues tend to be quite complex, it can be difficult to comunicate the issues in an approachable and understandable way. The media also tend to favour stories about conflict and controversy, and so the idea that science and religion can co-exist peacefully is more difficult to get across.

Your most recent book is The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion

The collection is an attempt to provide a comprehensive introduction to the relations between science and religion, with contributions from historians, philosophers, scientists and theologians. It explores the impact of religion on the origins and development of science, religious reactions to Darwinism, and the link between science and secularization. It also offers in-depth discussions of contemporary issues, with perspectives from cosmology, evolutionary biology, psychology, and bioethics. The volume is rounded out with philosophical reflections on the connections between atheism and science, the nature of scientific and religious knowledge, and divine action and human freedom.

After Charles Darwin’s Year is it possibile to think to a “reconciliation” and a dialogue between evolution and faith in a Creator God ?

I would like to say that we are seeing a greater understanding of how evolutionary theory might be consistent with traditional religious belief. However, while this is true in some quarters, there seems to be a growth in both religiously inspired anti-evolutionary movements, and in the use of evolution as a kind of atheistic ideology. So while the Darwin year saw some very positive discussions about reconciling faith with evolutionary thinking, my sense is that more generally there is growing polarisation of views on this question. This disturbing polarisation is promoted both by aggressive atheists who attempt to implicate evolutionary thinking in their atheism, and by fundamentalist Christians and Muslims, who believe similarly that evolution must be linked to atheism. Of course, both groups are mistaken.

Interview by Paolo Centofanti, SRM

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