Science and Scripture in Christianity and Islam

Published August 06, 2018 by Dr Caroline Tee

Dr Caroline Tee reflects on the close of a three-year research project at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.

What role do religious scriptures play in discussions on modern science and its relationship to religion? How do the ways that different faith communities read their sacred texts shape their perceptions of the relationship between science and belief? What practical resources can help Christian or Muslim scientists reconcile modern scientific knowledge with their ancient traditions and scriptures?

These questions have been the focus of a three-year research project at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, staffed by Dr Hilary Marlow (PI) and Dr Caroline Tee (RA). The project utilised social scientific fieldwork methods, both quantitative and qualitative, to explore the views of Christian and Muslim scientists in the UK. The researchers began by designing and administering an anonymous online survey on the subject of modern science and religious scripture, which was distributed to early career research scientists of Muslim or Christian faith working in one of the UK's Russell Group universities. The survey yielded some interesting data, showing for example that while 57% accepted biological evolution as 'the best explanation we have for the development of all life on earth', 28% of respondents considered the theory to be 'not applicable to homo sapiens' and 15% rejected it outright. Furthermore, 63% of respondents considered scriptural miracle stories to have all been 'literal historical events', while only 9% saw them as 'literary devices that convey spiritual truths'. Nonetheless, 70% of respondents subscribed to the view that 'scripture is sacred but has multiple layers of meaning and its contents are sometimes meant to be interpreted metaphorically'.[1]

Extract from public engagement poster

The survey served as a tool for recruiting 22 individual scientists for extended, one-to-one interviews on the subject of science and scripture, during which these snapshot findings were explored in more depth. Interviewees came from across the spectrum of biological and physical sciences, and from a range of different nationalities and traditions within Islam and Christianity. A variety of religious and scientific subjects were discussed, including evolution and human origins, ethics, translation and interpretation of scriptural texts, epistemology, and religious identity. One of the most interesting areas of discussion with participants from both Christian and Muslim traditions was the subject of scriptural miracle stories and their various interpretations. The majority of respondents articulated a belief in the literal truth of both Biblical and Qur'anic miracles, although the strategies they employed to reconcile this belief with their work in science differed widely.

The project culminated with a two-day colloquium held in Cambridge in March 2018, entitled 'Reading is Believing? Sacred Texts in a Scientific Age'. Seventeen papers from scholars of both traditions were discussed, and proceedings will be published in early 2020 as a special issue of the Journal of Qur'anic Studies.

Colloquium dinner at Clare College, March 2018

Other dissemination activities focus on the practice of Scriptural Reasoning whereby religious believers gather to discuss their scriptures in small groups. A series of text bundles have been developed, comprising selected portions of scripture from the Bible and Qur'an that potentially speak to scientific concerns. Over the past few weeks, Muslim and Christian participants have been meeting to discuss these and to explore questions of ethics, epistemology, origins of life and other issues that are of mutual concern within the two traditions. The text bundles are now available on the Scriptural Reasoning website.

Dr Caroline Tee is an Affiliated Researcher at the Woolf Institute. She recently left the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge, and will take up a position as Senior Lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Chester in September 2018.

[1] The total number of respondents was 46. The very specialised criteria for respondents (affiliation at a Russell Group university, scientific specialism, Muslim or Christian faith) made the figure too low for the data to be statistically significant. The survey provided an indicative snapshot of opinion, which was later explored in the in-depth semi-structured interviews.

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