Michael Reiss and the science-religion issue


Post details: Michael Reiss and the science-religion issue


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Michael Reiss and the science-religion issue

Professor Michael Reiss is a specialist in science education in the University of London who has been seconded to be the Royal Society’s Director of Education. This latter post has been abruptly terminated because remarks made by Reiss were considered to have “led to damage to the Society’s reputation”. The Royal Society’s Press Release is here. The controversy flared up at the same time as Reiss’ refereed paper on these issues appeared in Studies in Science Education. We will briefly review aspects of that paper and why Reiss’ views were considered outrageous by some senior Fellows of the Royal Society, including three Nobel Laureates.

The most significant aspect of Reiss’ paper is the way he handles science. He presents several perspectives of science and considers the educational benefits of getting students to evaluate them.

“One approach that I have found to be of worth in science classes with undergraduates training to be science teachers is, when teaching about the nature of science, to get them to think about the relationship between scientific knowledge and religious knowledge. What seems to work well is to ask students, either on their own or in pairs, to illustrate this by means of a drawing and then for all of us in the class to discuss the various drawings that result. See, for example, the hypothetical representation in Figure 1. A person producing the representation in Figure 1 sees both religious and scientific knowledge as existing but envisages [. . .] no overlap between the two.” 

NOMA diagram
An alternative rendering of Reiss’ Figure 1: The purported separation of religious knowledge and scientific knowledge (Source

This model is, of course, that popularised by Gould in his NOMA approach and often promoted by scientific societies wanting to reassure the public that science offers no threat to religious views. It is, however, not a consensus perception of the science-religion relationship. Reiss goes on to give 2 more figures (not reproduced here).

“However, there are many for whom scientific knowledge and religious knowledge are not distinct. At one end are those who draw religious knowledge as being much smaller than scientific knowledge and wholly or partly contained within it (Figure 2); at the other are those whose worldview is predominantly religious (Figure 3). Understandings of the relationship(s) between science and religion vary greatly, at least in part because of considerable variation in how people conceptualise both science and religion. The visual metaphor in Figures 1, 2 and 3 can be taken too far but it can serve as a useful heuristic device.” 

Reiss’ view is that these different perceptions of science are very important for the teaching of issues where science and religious thinking addresses the same topics. These different models represent different paradigms about the world. Indeed, he uses the word “worldview” in this context. He writes: “The strongest argument, in my view, for teaching anything about religion in a science class, whether at school, college or university, is if it helps students better to understand science.” This is a simple point, but Reiss has put his finger on the heart of the matter. There is no one “correct” perception of what science is! If the philosophy of science is steam-rollered into any of the above models, it leads to a breakdown of communication and there is no meaningful debate. Thus, those who have adopted a Figure 1 model (or, like Richard Dawkins, deny that religious knowledge even occupies a separate domain) will always treat religious knowledge as, at best, ascientific. They have no option but to say that design-based or creation-based approaches to origins lie outside science.

“Would one want explicitly to teach about creationism in science lessons? Both the knee-jerk and the considered reaction from most scientists and science educators has been ‘no’. Here my interest is not in the legal situation that obtains in any one country [. . .] nor in the undoubted demands that teaching in this area can place on teachers but in whether it would be desirable on educational grounds to teach about creationism in science lessons. Given the preceding paragraph, I would not want any such teaching, were it to occur, to give the impression that creationism and the theory of evolution are equally valid scientifically. They are not (and nor is it appropriate to insist on spending equal amounts of time on evolution and creationism in science lessons).
“However, I do not belong to the camp that argues that creationism is necessarily nonscientific. For all that I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of those who believe in creationism (and intelligent design theory) do so because of their religious beliefs it is logically possible to hold that evolution (sensu major anatomical, physiological, genetic and biochemical changes in organisms over long periods of time) has not happened.” 

Although Reiss writes as one satisfied with the validity of evolutionary theory, he recognises that it is possible for people with alternative worldviews to interpret the data differently. The relatively high proportion of young people entering schools and colleges with these alternative worldviews makes it imperative to bring issues of creation and design into science education. In his long paper, Reiss covers many other points than those reviewed here. From his conclusion:

“I have examined here the nature of the issue both in general terms and with reference to particular topics. I have argued that there are good reasons for students being introduced to aspects of the science/religion issue in science lessons. Such teaching is not easy, but done well it can be respectful of students, motivating and fulfilling for them and help them to learn more about the nature and content of science.” 

Michael Reiss’ arguments are modest and rational. Although he is aware that others take a different view, he has set out, in good faith, his reasons for introducing discussions of creation and intelligent design in science education. The Times reports some of the reaction thus:

His resignation comes after a campaign by senior Royal Society Fellows who were angered by Professor Reiss’s suggestion that science teachers should treat creationist beliefs “not as a misconception but as a world view”. Sir Richard Roberts, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1993, described such views as outrageous, and organised a letter to the society’s president, Lord Rees of Ludlow, demanding that Professor Reiss be sacked. Phil Willis MP, the chairman of the Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, was due to meet Royal Society officers today to demand an explanation of Professor Reiss’s comments.” 

To his credit, Richard Dawkins was prepared to differ from his colleagues: “To call for his resignation on those grounds, as several Nobel-prize-winning Fellows are now doing, comes a little too close to a witch-hunt for my squeamish taste.” The influential Lord Winston was also unable to support the call for Reiss to be sacked:

Reacting to his stepping down, Lord Robert Winston, professor of science and society at Imperial College London, said: “I fear that in this action the Royal Society may have only diminished itself. This is not a good day for the reputation of science or scientists. This individual was arguing that we should engage with and address public misconceptions about science – something that the Royal Society should applaud.” (Source: BBC News)

There are many who have dismissed the documentary Expelled as worthless, but its witness to discrimination within the academic world is of great importance. Now we find another casualty – someone who is a supporter of evolution but who dared to step outside the boundaries set by the self-appointed gatekeepers of modern secular science. When will these people be called to account?

Robert Matthews has a powerful conclusion to his blog:

“The motto of Royal Society is ‘Nullius in verba’ – roughly speaking, take no-one’s word for it. Its treatment of Reiss suggests that when it comes to words of dissent, the attitude of the Royal Society is closer to that of a madrassa than a learned body.” 

Should science educators deal with the science/religion issue?
Michael J. Reiss
Studies in Science Education, 44(2), September 2008, 157 – 186 | DOI: 10.1080/03057260802264214

Abstract: I begin by examining the natures of science and religion before looking at the ways in which they relate to one another. I then look at a number of case studies that centre on the relationships between science and religion, including attempts to find mechanisms for divine action in quantum theory and chaos theory, creationism, genetic engineering and the writings of Richard Dawkins. Finally, I consider some of the pedagogical issues that would need to be considered if the science/religion issue is to be addressed in the classroom. I conclude that there are increasing arguments in favour of science educators teaching about the science/religion issue. The principal reason for this is to help students better to learn science. However, such teaching makes greater demands on science educators than has generally been the case. Certain of these demands are identified and some specific suggestions are made as to how a science educator might deal with the science/religion issue.

See also:

Matthews, R. Royal Society or Rotten Society? (First Post, September 17, 2008)

Reiss, M. Science lessons should tackle creationism and intelligent design, (Guardian Science Blog, September 11 2008)


2 Responses to “Michael Reiss and the science-religion issue”

  1. Ruth Says:

    I think that it’s time that science and religion started to work together, and having open and frank discussions in a classroom setting is a good place to start. There’s a great site I ran across the other day by scientist Leo Kim that also discusses the relationship between science and spirituality. He’s also got a book coming out in October, Healing the Rift, that explores the topic in great detail.

  2. newsman777 Says:


    Thanks for this info. Is it possible for fundamentalist Christians and atheistic scientists (not all are so) to work together? Probably not. My concern would be that they be decent to each other. This story about Michael Reiss illustrates the science side of intolerance. The religious side of intolerance is better known.

    Intolerance hides its true face. It shows up with such statements as “Why should we give any time at all for myths, etc.”

    I suggest that people care primarily about people. If a student expresses “heresy”, or a “mythological worldview”, it is the mind of that student that is important. Teach the facts of science without the abusive rhetoric and we can begin to heal the rift.

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