Conflicting or complementary? The Boar interviews science students of faith
Science and faith have a long and intertwined history, with much of the foundations of modern science built by those who actively practised religion. There is no doubt that religious belief had an impact on the impressive careers of Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, and many other scientists of faith. However, this historical link between science and religion may not be as strong as it has previously been, with research from 2016 published in the journal Socius finding that only 27% of UK scientists claim to be “at least slightly religious” (based on a sample of 1531 scientists). This contrasts with the results of the 2021 census which found approximately 57% of people in England and Wales to be religious. Further to these statistics, research published in 2021 in the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations found that “atheist participants perceived religious scientists as being more counter-stereotypical than atheist scientists”.
“A fascination with God is inherently a fascination with his creation” – Mohammed Sultan
Despite these conclusions, for many students across Warwick’s multicultural campus, both religion and science play an integral part of day-to-day life. In the interest of shining a spotlight on this large community within Warwick’s STEM population, The Boar Science & Tech spoke to students of faith about their own experience of the intersection between science and religion, and why it’s important that they are not pitted against each other.
Mohammed Sultan, a second-year Physics student and member of Warwick’s Islamic Society, explains that “looking at the physical world, and the natural world, is very much in the Quran and Islam. It’s a very big part of recognising the divine or God himself. You see him in the science in the created world, so a fascination with God is inherently a fascination with his creation.” Expanding on how religion informs his interest in science, Mohammed adds: “I think it motivates it in the fact that I want to understand what’s going on in the created world and how we can model it and use those models to predict the future about the physical world.”
It is no understatement that the development of science and religion form two major pillars of human history, so it is not surprising that this interwoven past is also present in Islamic history. As Mohammed describes: “There was this place called the House of Wisdom, where all of the scientists, wise people, mathematicians, and philosophers came together. They came together and they talked, and it was encouraged. So, for us, science is not a pursuit that takes us away from religion – rather it’s like our religion promotes that we go out to the world and try and understand how everything works so that we can get a better understanding and appreciation for God.”
“STEM is very factual and objective, and then religion is subjective” – Jay Masani
Concepts such as repeatability and objectivity are enshrined in the scientific method, leading to the common perception that there is a natural conflict between STEM fields and the subjective nature of religious belief. Jay Masani, a first-year Maths and Physics student and freshers’ representative for Warwick’s Hindu Society, acknowledges these differences: “There’s definitely a clash of thinking. One is more based on opinion and on what someone’s telling you, but it may not be true. The other one can be proven and is very much true.” On the varying ethos of the two subjects, Jay also comments: “STEM is very factual and objective, and then religion is subjective. You don’t have to be completely into [religion]. For example, instead of believing in all of it, you can believe some of it.”
Mohammed, on the other hand, explains that “you can’t really keep them in conflict” because science describes physical phenomena while religion focuses on abstract concepts. “You have to go back to the philosophy of science to understand that science is a methodology, and I think what gets conflated sometimes is philosophical naturalism and methodological naturalism. Naturalism is the belief that only natural physical forces are at play in the universe. And science as an endeavour is methodological naturalism. You start with the assumption that there is no supernatural, there’s only physical, so you can’t really use science as an investigation of metaphysical things like God or anything of that nature.”
“Warwick does very well with the faiths and similar things for all students” – Jay Masani
As Jay points out, it is important to keep in mind that “religion is very broad” and that there is no single approach to understanding the overlap of science and faith. He describes how “some religions could possibly be more fact-based” but that “older religions, like Hinduism for example, are based off of stories that have been passed down”. Mohammed is also keen to make this clear, explaining that “as a religious person, you have to come to your own answers for this for yourself”.
Given the secular nature of science, The Boar Science & Tech were interested to discuss whether the university meets the needs of its religious STEM students. In general, Mohammed says that “the university has been really helpful” with regard to accommodating schedule changes. “As a Muslim, I have to pray five times a day and obviously, that can clash with lectures or seminars and labs.” He goes on to describe a particular example from last term, where two prayers clashed with a four-hour lab, explaining that “they did allow me to take breaks in the hardware room to go to pray privately”. Jay echoes this point: “Warwick does very well with the faiths and similar things for all students. Whether under STEM or not, they try and connect them.”
“It’s very important to see that there are ways in which science and religion don’t really conflict” – Mohammed Sultan
While Mohammed feels that science and faith intersect smoothly on campus, he is also wary of the dangers that can arise when this isn’t the case for the wider populace. “I think it’s very important to realise that in the public consciousness, religion and science can be put into conflict,” he explains, having noted previously that “creating this conflict between the two could push away religious people from doing science in the first place, which is not for the greater good”. On this basis, Mohammed states that “it is very important that we do battle this narrative of religion and science not going together”.
“It shouldn’t be a point of mental dissonance for people with faith that they do science and religion” – Mohammed Sultan
Mohammed ends the interview on a crucial point: “It’s very important to see that there are ways in which science and religion don’t really conflict with each other. It shouldn’t be a point of mental dissonance for people with faith that they do science and religion, and it doesn’t go together. It can very well actually boost their faith and then boost their scientific motivation.”