Richard Dawkins is one of the more prominent voices against religionFronteiros do Pensamento

God is dead, and it was science that killed him. Or at least, that’s the message you may well take away from some of the more prominent atheists in the public eye – particularly those who can be loosely clustered around the category of New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris.

And it is in fact a claim that has a fair amount of merit, although probably not in the manner the New Atheists intend. It is in the enforced humility with which many religious thinkers today have responded to the ‘Death of God’ that we can see a model for how science, religion, and other schools of thought can come together to address some of the most pressing issues we face.

Whenever someone talks about God dying, they are almost always (consciously or not) referring to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in The Gay Science and, just as frequently, they are entirely missing the point. Nietzsche wasn’t talking about a literal death of God, nor was he claiming that it was now apparent that God did not exist.

Instead, he was simply noting that religion could no longer be relied upon as a moral compass and a source of meaning in people’s lives. While Nietzsche predicted that the death of God would lead to widespread nihilism, he didn’t predict that science might come to fill the role religion once held in Western society.

Sometimes the evidence for this change is obvious – I point you towards Sam Harris’ attempts to ground ethics in the practice of science in The Moral Landscape – but sometimes it is more subtle. One of the best ways to reveal how science has superseded religion in the general public discourse is to look at how we respond to ideas that challenge our deeply held assumptions.

When Judith Butler claims that there is no biological basis for sex, she is decried for ignoring science, not for ignoring the Biblical account of sexual origins. Debates over what diet we should eat are often grounded in scientific analysis of nutritional value and effects on health outcomes, not in Biblical rules concerning food. As far as public discourse is concerned, God really is dead.

What is really quite interesting is how this has forced religious thinkers to respond. It is worth just pausing to recognise that there are some religious thinkers who have doubled down and continue to speak as if religion can speak meaningfully about the age of the Earth or the evolutionary history of humans. I think in merely mentioning them I have given them more attention than they deserve.

However, the more interesting response from religious thinkers has been to take seriously the work of secular scholars and to propose religious thought as one voice in the discussion, not the only voice. Examples of this work abound – from this very university I can think of Sarah Coakely and Rowan Williams as two excellent examples of religious scholars who take secular work very seriously.

Certainly this humility, for want of a better word, is sorely needed at times among some of the more prominent members of the scientific community. Notable examples of scientists overstepping their bounds might be Stephen Hawking’s assertion last year that philosophy is dead (which, rather amusingly, is an inherently philosophical statement), or Richard Dawkins ‘summary’ of Aquinas’ Five Ways in The God Delusion.

This assumption that expertise in science gives one credentials to speak authoritatively in other fields is part of the ‘scientism’ that is gaining grounds in certain circles. Not only is it bad science, but it represents a very unhelpful model for science's interaction with other fields – particularly religious thought.

Indeed, there are several prominent scientists who still hold to the conflict thesis of scientific-religion interaction. This theory holds that there is an irreconcilable conflict between science and religion, and is widely considered false by most historians of science. Instead, alternative theories seek to understand not only how science and religion interacted historically, but also provide models for how they should interact now.

One of the more popular is Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of non-overlapping magisterial authorities. In short, there are some questions for which we should turn to science (‘how old is the Earth?’ and ‘how did humans evolve?’) and other questions for which religious thought is more appropriate (‘what is the meaning of life?’).

Increasingly, though, some of the most pressing questions of the day are not ones that can be easily described as the sole purview of science or religion. One example could be the questions of personhood that surround foetal life. A purely biological account of the development of the foetus would be inadequate to explain how personhood is assigned to the developing life. At the same time, a theological account devoid of any scientific input could easily become quickly untethered from the physical reality of foetal development.

This is simply one example of where dogmatic insistence that science or religion is the only applicable analytical tool in any situation materialises (an insistence one finds spouted by the fundamentalist wing of both sides of the theism-atheism divide). Instead, we need to consider the whole range of voices that can make contributions to a discussion – scientific, literary, religious, philosophical, historical – if we are to avoid a studied deafness to voices that might be different from our own