Blue Flower

Must science and religion inevitably be in conflict, or is there ground where they can nourish each other. An Australian social scientist looks into this question and into the role of religion and spirituality in modern society.


by Richard Eckersley

In The Decline of the West, published in 1918, Oswald Spengler predicted that the demise of science and the resurgence of irrationality would begin at the end of the millennium. As scientists became more arrogant and less tolerant of other belief systems, notably religions, he believed society would rebel against science and embrace religious fundamentalism and other irrational beliefs.

Spengler’s prediction has proved to be at least partly right. The new millennium has seen a dramatic political resurgence of fundamentalist beliefs; science is under attack, from within the West and without. Old-time religion and talk of God flourish in the richest, most powerful and technologically sophisticated society in the world, the United States.

Scientists are joining the battle, as are atheists. My local paper, The Canberra Times, has recently published reviews of at least four books attacking religion: Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, Michel Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto, Tamas Pataki’s Against Religion, and Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great. Richard Dawkins’ tirade against religion, Root of All Evil, was broadcast on ABC TV (there is also a book).

As is often the case these days, it seems to be a battle waged between extremes. Dawkins is feisty, but comes across as fundamentalist in his thinking as those he attacks, pitting the best of science against the worst of religion. However, science is as vulnerable as religion to cooption and corruption by the human hunger for power and riches.

The picture Dawkins painted would have been very different if he had compared the worst of science (for example, its development of weapons of mass destruction, its sometimes brutal and inhumane treatment of experimental subjects, or its contributions to corporate greed and consumer excess) with the best of religion (for example, its role in social justice and human welfare, and in giving deeper meaning to our lives).

Is there another way, an alternative to science and religion once again slugging it out for social domination? Several of the recent critiques dismiss any notion of reconciling scientific and religious worldviews. Yet, as a scientist, I have no trouble doing this (although I am not myself religious).

For the scientist, this means accepting there are other ways of seeing or interpreting the world. Science often struggles with those aspects of life that are subtle, intangible, tenuous, abstract, subjective. These qualities make up a big part of the human condition. The Australian biologist Charles Birch has written that there is an enormous gap between what science describes and what we experience, between the mechanisms of life and what it is to be alive.

In my own work, I often feel that the complex effects of social change on health and wellbeing are better expressed through literary metaphor and allusion than in the precise, objective language of science: the effects are so hard to pin down, and to try doing so risks losing their essence.

Being human and human wellbeing have multiple dimensions or sources: material, social, cultural and spiritual. We are material beings with needs for nutritious food, clean air and water, and adequate shelter, as well as physical activity and sleep. We are also social beings who need families, friends and communities to flourish. We are cultural beings: of all species, we alone require stories, beliefs, myths to make life worth living. And we are spiritual beings, psychically connected to our world.

So science must accept that, whatever else we humans are, we are creatures who feel a deep, but not always consciously expressed, spiritual bond to the natural world in which we live. Religion, an institutionalised system of belief and ritual worship that usually centres on a supernatural God or gods, is the most common cultural representation of the spiritual.

Religious belief and practice enhance health and wellbeing, although aspects of this relationship remain contested. The scientific literature suggests that the benefits to wellbeing flow from the social support, existential meaning, sense of purpose, coherent belief system and moral code that religion provides. All these things can be found in other ways, although perhaps less easily; religions ‘package’ many of the ingredients of health and wellbeing to make them accessible to people. This, historically, has been their social role.

For the religious, the challenge is to abandon notions of God as a supernatural being, somewhere ‘out there’ controlling the universe and our lives. It means accepting that our ideas of who or what ‘God’ is are metaphors for something we grasp only very imperfectly. This is not to suggest God is not real, just a phantom of our imagination, but that the way we think of God or gods - as our Father in Heaven, superhuman beings or animal spirits - is figurative. Even concepts of God as a Universal Consciousness or Creator remain figurative, metaphorical. We are naming, giving external form or shape, to something we do not fully understand.

My own metaphor for the spiritual experience, inspired by a stint of living in a cave in Crete in my youth and a scientific background, is that it is like tapping into a sort of ‘genetic memory’, which reaches back forever and connects me to everything that has come before me. But this description of the spiritual as an intuitive awareness of our evolution is also inadequate and incomplete; it still doesn’t capture the depth and power of the spiritual.

The American physicist Freeman Dyson, who describes himself as a practising Christian, not a believing Christian, has said. ‘To me, to worship God means to recognise that mind and intelligence are woven into the fabric of our universe in a way that altogether surpasses our comprehension.’ Former Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong, who visited Australia recently, argues in his new book, Jesus for the Non-religious, that God is an internal presence, not an external one. God is the source of life and love that permeates the whole universe.

Similarly, the Australian writer David Tacey says in The Spirituality Revolution that the new spirituality is ‘existential rather than creedal’. ‘It grows out of the individual person from an inward source, is intensely intimate and transformative, and is not imposed upon the person from an outside authority or source’.

Maybe it is okay to think of God, and to relate to God, as if ‘He’ is our Father in Heaven (or any other image you like), as long as we always remember the ‘as if’.

I recognise this is a massive shift for many religious people, and anathema to the fundamentalist; it may be a long time coming. However, both Western and Eastern theologies acknowledge that God is unknowable, and beyond images and thoughts.

Accepting this would remove the great danger of religious extremism and fundamentalism: mistaking the religious ‘metaphor’ for the spiritual ‘truth’, and so giving too much power to those who claim to speak for God. The consequences are made plain in other recently reviewed books, such as Alan Dershowitz’s Blasphemy and Michael White’s Galileo Antichrist.

The religious need always to be aware of how vulnerable to distortion and corruption is the spiritual impulse. Societies and cultures can ‘hollow out’ the spiritual content of religion and fill it, instead, with other things, including materialism, nationalism and fanaticism. Another metaphor is of religion as a vessel or jug, the spiritual contents of which can become spoiled or adulterated by other belief systems. At worst, religions can be transformed into potent ideologies of oppression and abuse.

This corruption may help to explain a puzzling feature of the association between religion and health and wellbeing: when we shift perspective from the personal to the social, the association seems to change from positive to negative. In other words, research shows individuals benefit from their faith, as I’ve already noted, but at a population or national level, religion seems to be a health burden. It is the more secular nations that tend to be more civil, just, safe, humane and healthy.

Now it might be that this outcome is due to qualities other than secularism – for example, greater wealth, better education, more democracy and so on. But it could also be the case that religion, especially fundamentalist religion, influences these other qualities, so it could be at least partly responsible for poorer social conditions.

Furthermore, the negative relationship between religion and wellbeing emerges even among otherwise similar nations. For example, Americans stand out from the people of other developed nations in the strength of their religious belief and observance. While, generally speaking, the importance of religion declines with increasing income, the United States is the exception – an island of religiosity in a sea of secularism. And yet the United States compares poorly on many social indicators, including life expectancy, crime, poverty and inequality.

One interpretation of the results of these international comparisons is that they reflect a difference, not so much between religious and secular nations, but between more rigid and authoritarian fundamentalist religions and the more personal, liberal expressions of religious faith and spirituality that characterise so-called secular societies.

This question of the cultural form of religious belief and practice extends beyond fundamentalism to other influences. Cultural qualities such as individualism or materialism can lead to change and compromise within religions. This includes a greater tolerance of consumerism and self-gratification, so removing any need to choose between ‘God and Mammon’. Or perhaps these cultural qualities create tension, conflict and confusion when their messages run counter to religious beliefs and teachings, making it harder to integrate religion into our lives.

To take the example of the United States once again, Americans’ religiosity has not protected them from the rise in youth suicide, one of the most dramatic adverse health trends of the past 50 years in many Western nations (now, thankfully, being reversed). At least part of the explanation can be found in an analysis a colleague and I carried out a few years ago of the cultural correlates of youth suicide in developed nations: there was no statistical association between suicide and the importance young people attached to God in their lives, but strong, positive associations with several different measures of individual freedom and independence. The more individualistic the society, the more suicide there was among young people.

In other words, when we look at religion’s social role, we have to take into account the entire cultural context, notably the effects of other belief and value systems.

It seems to me that religion serves humanity best when it embodies and expresses the spiritual as purely as possible, with only a limited influence of institutional and political agendas. The Jewish prayer book Gates of Prayer captures well this essence: ‘Religion is not merely a belief in an ultimate reality or in an ultimate ideal’, it says. ‘Religion is a momentous possibility…that what is highest in spirit is also deepest in nature... (and) that the things that matter most are not at the mercy of the things that matter least.’

We need science and religion to work together if we are to ensure our future. But this outcome requires both to show humility. There are things we mere humans cannot know, and it is hubris to think we can; and when we think we can, it becomes ultimately self-destructive. This is the real danger of fundamentalism – whether scientific or religious.

Richard Eckersley is a founding director of Australia 21, a non-profit, public-interest, research company and a visiting fellow at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the ANU.

This article is a transcript of a radio programme on ABC (Australia):


Eckersley, R. Science and religion Ockham’s Razor, ABC Radio National, 23 December 2007 ( )


Eckersley, R. 2007. Culture, spirituality, religion and health: Looking at the big picture. Medical Journal of Australia, vol. 186, no.10, pp. S54-S56.

Eckersley, R. 2005 Well & Good: Morality, meaning and happiness. Text, Melbourne.