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10 December 2020

What science can learn from religion

The New Atheists hardened the idea that the two world-views are locked in opposition – but a new breed of scientists has found fertile ground at the border between fact and faith.  

By Laura Spinney

Over the first half of the 20th century, the Catholic priest and prehistorian Henri Breuil transformed our understanding of early humans. Armed with a pared-down travel kit and a folding umbrella, this diminutive figure in a worn cassock criss-crossed France, then Europe, then the world, in search of painted caves. Having wriggled his way into hundreds of them, he re-emerged bearing his own renditions of the art with which our Stone Age ancestors decorated their interiors.

Nicknamed the Pope of Prehistory, the bright-eyed, sharp-tongued, chain-smoking Breuil was the first to systematically document Palaeolithic cave art: the scenes involving bison, horses and aurochs, tens of thousands of years old, that still take our breath away today. His thinking on the meaning of this ancient art, which he saw as linked to rituals for ensuring the success of the hunt, has since fallen out of favour, but more than any other individual he persuaded the world that humankind’s most distant ancestors were capable of symbolic thought and that they believed in other worlds.

We’re used to those ideas, now that the cave art of Lascaux and Chauvet is so well known. But in 1902, when Breuil first presented the paintings of Spain’s Altamira cave as the work of Stone Age artists, academics were shocked. Prehistorians believed then that if ancient humans produced art it was essentially to satisfy a passing aesthetic urge. Some thought the rock paintings might be relatively modern, and possibly a hoax. Breuil forced them to look at those paintings anew, and as a result to entirely re-evaluate the ancestors they had once regarded as boneheaded brutes. “What we saw plunged us into an inexpressible stupor,” Breuil wrote, years later.

Changing the paradigm wasn’t easy. There were bitter struggles, and Breuil – who was himself accused of forgery – had to call attention to the art of many other caves before his idea was accepted. In doing so, he incurred the disapproval of both the Church – then fighting modernising forces within – and the fiercely anticlerical posse that dominated prehistory at the time, who objected to his suggestion that the paintings held religious significance. For them, religion was an abomination invented only in the past 10,000 years or so.

[See also: The invention of God]

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Breuil saw no conflict between science and religion. He considered himself an empiricist who tested his hypotheses against the facts. His view of Palaeolithic art was undoubtedly coloured by his faith. He was drawn to the caves – which he regarded as Stone Age sanctuaries – by the spiritual charge he felt in them. A number of other priest-prehistorians working in Europe in that period were, too, as the French historian Fanny Defrance-Jublot argues in a forthcoming book, but they did not necessarily share Breuil’s or the anti-clericals’ interpretation of the evidence. Their diverse motives stimulated rather than stifled debate.

You could even make the case, as Breuil’s biographer Arnaud Hurel has, that being a priest equipped Breuil for his scientific work. He was a talented draftsman with a prodigious visual memory. These were skills that were needed in the early 1900s, when hardly any of the caves had been documented, and because the Church exempted him from looking after a parish, Breuil had time to hone them. He was often the first on the scene when new cave paintings were discovered, thanks to his formidable network of informers among the parish priests of Europe and missionaries further afield. And, having no family ties, he could spend long stretches of time on the road.

In the 60 years since Breuil’s death, the divide between science and religion seems only to have deepened. Ultra-religious groups deny the reality of evolution while New Atheists dismiss religion as irrational. Yet even scientists are beginning to ask if the existential threats facing humanity – climate change, the coronavirus pandemic – are beyond the remit of science alone, and require an exploration of the points where science and religion intersect.

That suggestion sounds radical, but it isn’t new. Breuil and his fellow priest-prehistorians were among the last to take it for granted. As Defrance-Jublot puts it, they “felt a connection, rather than a boundary, between their faith and their scientific research”.

Many historians now agree that the notion that science and religion must be in conflict was a Western invention of the 19th century, and yet this idea still distorts popular understanding of scientific history. Most people know about Galileo’s persecution at the hands of the Roman Inquisition in the 17th century, for arguing that the Earth rotated around the sun and not vice versa. But they know little of the legions of earlier scientists, men and women of faith, on whose scholarship he built. For centuries, science and religion were seen as complementary. They were simply two ways of reading the same book: nature.

At the time that Breuil was working, the relationship between science and spirituality was still fluid. Like other prehistorians, religious or not, Breuil was interested in spiritualism – the belief that the living can communicate with the dead – which he may have seen as a way of entering the minds of the Stone Age artists. Other scientists, such as Marie Curie and Thomas Edison, visited mediums too. Boundaries were particularly elastic in the interwar years, when all kinds of former certainties were challenged, but after the Second World War they began to harden. Religion was gradually relegated to the private realm – to be kept separate from a scientist’s day job – and a new narrative took hold, that religion loses legitimacy as science gains it.

That narrative has led us ineluctably to where we are now. New Atheism emerged in this century as a response to the increasingly vocal religious groups who challenge the scientific orthodoxy: the American evangelicals who want creationism taught in schools, the orthodox Muslims who believe God fashioned Adam out of clay. On 16 October this year a French schoolteacher was beheaded by an Islamic fundamentalist for teaching free speech, the bedrock of science. Such violent events strengthen the idea that we live in a polarised world where there is no common ground and one side or the other must win. The reality is somewhat different.

In Secularity and Science (2019), the sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund, of Rice University in Texas, and her colleagues observe that religious belief persists in the group of people you might think would be most resistant to it – scientists themselves. Based on international surveys, they report that not only is religious belief surprisingly common in this group, but religion and science overlap in scientific work, and even atheist scientists may see the pursuit of science as having a spiritual dimension.

One of their most eloquent surveys was conducted in the UK. They wanted to understand how scientists viewed religion in a country that, as the birthplace of the science-infused Industrial Revolution, appears outwardly more secular than the researchers’ native US. Of the 115 British biologists and physicists they interviewed, 63 per cent stated they had no religious affiliation (compared to 47 per cent of the general population), yet even the relatively irreligious scientists did not reject all forms of religion. They rejected religious beliefs that challenge scientific claims, while praising those that support them. The majority of those interviewed were also critical of New Atheism, whose proponents include the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Some described Dawkins’s efforts as “a form of evangelism or extremism, similar to the kind of evangelistic and extreme behaviour they object to in religion”.

For the American rabbi and physicist Jeremy England, the misconception that science and religion have nothing to say to each other arises from a mirrored error whereby each side assumes the other only speaks one language. In fact, there are many languages within each: different scientific disciplines may adopt distinct approaches to the same problem, just as religious scholars may have different readings of the same sacred text. That linguistic multiplicity is a good thing, he thinks – if only it wasn’t so often misconstrued – because it’s at the boundaries between languages, or world-views, that discovery happens.

At Georgia Tech in Atlanta, England tries to understand how life is generated from inanimate matter. He told me that although he was drawn to that question by scientific curiosity, the Book of Genesis guided the approach he takes to it. “When it says in Genesis, ‘And God said let there be light, and there was light,’ one of the points surely being made is that the light by which we see the world comes from the way we talk about it,” he said. His conclusion, which he lays out in a new book called Every Life is on Fire, is that neither biology nor physics alone can explain the origins of life. The solution to the mystery lies somewhere between the two.


Religion shapes how scientists approach science. But as knowledge accumulates, science can’t help but encroach on religious territory, if only because the two ask some of the same questions. Where do we come from? Where are we going? What’s the nature of the universe and are we special in it?

In 2020 many astronomers consider it unlikely that rational, intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, though they do think that relatively simple, microbial extraterrestrial life will be discovered before long. In light of that, the Brazilian-born theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser argues that it is time to move beyond the idea that we are merely average residents of the Milky Way. Gleiser, a self-declared agnostic, said in an interview in 2019 that we must accept that we have a moral duty to preserve this exceptional planet because “we understand how rare this whole game is and that for all practical purposes we are alone”.

Some see this increasingly explicit tendency of scientists to place humans back at the centre of the universe – from where Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo ousted them – as a symptom of Western science’s terminal malaise. They dismiss it as “neo-geocentrism” and worry that it means scientists are running out of ideas. Yet for others, making sense of our age of global crises requires a return to the old fluidity, in which science and religion are free to inspire each other.

Many environmental and social movements have emerged in recent years, in response to fears of climate change-fuelled civilisational collapse. In France, where “collapsology” has grown in popularity since 2015, one of the movement’s leaders, the author and former academic Pablo Servigne, has spoken about how the prospect of calamity has forced humans to consider their place in the world. What is our relationship to the rest of nature, or to the future of this planet? “Science offers no solutions to these questions,” he told an interviewer earlier this year. For Servigne, a collective spiritual reflection is called for: “If we satisfy ourselves with private beliefs, little spiritual hummingbirds flitting here and there, we will not achieve anything.”

Like Greta Thunberg, who has been compared to Joan of Arc, Servigne has been described as a guru with an evangelical message – something that is always suspicious to scientists. But perhaps a mature, confident scientific community should recognise that people ask questions for many reasons, none of them untainted by ideology, and that this is how we muddle towards knowledge. After all, argues the German neuroscientist and agnostic Wolf Singer, there is so much more to know.

“Our reasoning has adapted to the world in which life has evolved, which is a tiny segment of what we know exists,” Singer told me over Zoom from his home in Frankfurt. Even within that segment, our cognition and sense organs have been tuned by natural selection to those features essential to our survival, leaving us oblivious to the rest. We probe the broader universe by extrapolation, using maths to enter worlds we can’t imagine, but the territory of the unknown remains vast. Singer sees no objection to hearing the same question framed differently – as long as the scientific method is respected in answering it – and has never shied away from dialogue with religion.

[See also: As Christmas approaches, we should remember the pagan rituals that came before it]

A member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences since 1992, he remarked on what he considers the academy’s failures – its inability to change the Church’s position on birth control, for example – but also its successes. After the Dutch-born chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen described the dire after-effects of nuclear war at an academy meeting in the early 1980s, the Vatican and its embassies helped introduce the concept of a nuclear winter to global governments, influencing the disarmament debate. And Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, in which he adopted the scientific consensus on climate change, was heavily influenced by the academy’s deliberations.

Singer has debated free will and consciousness with Buddhist monks, and even recruited them to his experiments, exploring how their practice of meditation shapes their awareness of the world. This research is an example of another way in which the two realms have inspired each other. The scientists’ rationale for recruiting religious individuals is clear: in the differences between those individuals and the rest of us, they hope, lie clues to the inner workings of the human mind. But what motivates the participants?


At the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, the Religious Orders Study is approaching its fourth decade. This project tracks the physical and cognitive capacity of more than a thousand ageing nuns, priests and monks across the US, on the grounds that, belonging to religious communities, they tend to stay in one place and to lead similar lifestyles. The study’s architects claim that it has shed light on the neurobiological pathways that both lead to and protect against dementia.

“Death doesn’t worry me,” said 79-year-old Sister Lucille Coughlin of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, speaking to me from her parish home in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Michigan. “I’ll be watching from above.” She told me that the requirement to donate her brain at death did not put her off: she was put here for a purpose and this research may be it. Having taught all her life, the study offers her a way to keep giving in retirement. Then, to my surprise, she quoted the Jesuit palaeontologist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

[See also: The year of the Great Humbling]

Teilhard was a friend of Henri Breuil’s, with whom he worked in the painted caves of Spain and elsewhere. His philosophical ideas are outdated, but he, too, added to knowledge of human prehistory in important ways, and both men played their part in driving the Church towards modernisation. That process involved the Church acknowledging that Genesis could be read in ways that were compatible with the discoveries of science, and that its own legitimacy depended on it recognising the legitimacy of science – an acknowledgement that led to the creation of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1936.

Today, there is still no consensus on the meaning of Stone Age rock art. A kind of taboo exists among researchers against projecting intentions on to such distantly related beings who – like any putative extraterrestrials – inhabit such different worlds. Breuil, in his time, recognised no such taboo. “There’s something moving about slipping beneath this sleeve of rock, shelter to lost generations, witness to their ceremonies and home life, faithful guardian of their disconcerting art,” he wrote of Altamira cave in Spain. Even so, there is today an acceptance that the paintings are in some way religious – that as the prehistorian Jean Clottes puts it, Homo sapiens has always been Homo spiritualis. That’s what links humanity through time and space, and it doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon.

Laura Spinney, a science writer and an agnostic, is the author of “Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World” (Vintage)

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special