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Religion: a threat to science?

Date:05 April 2013
Onno van Schayck. Photocredit: YouTube.
Onno van Schayck. Photocredit: YouTube.

Over the last few weeks there has been a  heated debate on medical science professor Onno van Schayck, who claimed in an interview that he once witnessed a miracle. In this post, Erik Meinema reflects on the discussion.

In a recent interview on the relations between his religious convictions and work as a professor in medical sciences, prof. dr. Onno van Schayck declared that he once witnessed that a too short leg grew to normal length after prayer. Lacking medical explanations, Van Schayck interpreted this to be ‘a direct action of God’ (1). When his story led to controversy, Van Schayck decided to resign as the director of his research institute, fearing that the research institute would be associated with his personal religious views (2). 

In the debate following Van Schayck’s remarks, Van Schayck was criticized for forwarding a story about a miraculous healing after being introduced as a scientist, thus using his scientific authority, without giving scientific proof that supports the miraculous event (3) . Other critics argue that Van Schayck’s belief in the possibility of miracles cannot be combined with his position as a medical professor. One critic, science journalist Maarten Keulemans, even generalizes this critique by arguing that Christians in general do not take science seriously: ‘Christians like Van Schayck could not care less about science. […] Scientists can do research as much as they like, but when it comes to the crunch, Christians don’t care’ (4).

Besides critiques on the remarks by Van Schayck, there have also been journalists and scientists who stood up for Van Schayck, arguing that scientists should be allowed to forward all sorts of statements on a personal ground, based on their personal experiences and convictions (5). They also argue that scholars are not only scientific experts, but also people, with varying personal convictions that can lead to fruitful hypotheses that can in turn be tested according to strict scientific standards.

Both the critics and defendants of Van Schayck touch on questions about the relations and compatibility between religion and science. What value do religious views have within scientific debates? Are religion and science in any way compatible? Do scientific truth claims allow for any legitimate religious beliefs at all? I do not claim to have any final answers to these questions, but I would like to add a few perspectives to the ongoing debate that allow for a more nuanced understanding of the relations between religion and science than is present within the current debate.

It strikes me that some of Van Schayck’s proponents defend him by arguing that his views on miracles are ‘personal’ and therefore do not influence or threaten his scientific work. Van Schayck himself also argued that his religious beliefs do not directly influence his scholarly work. He also acknowledged that his personal [my emphasis] experience of a miracle does not scientifically prove the existence of miracles. These arguments fit the more commonly accepted idea that religious values and beliefs are only legitimate within the private sphere, and pose a threat beyond it.

Challenging the idea that his religious views are strictly ‘personal’, Van Schayck however does suggest that his religious convictions indirectly influence his work as a scholar. In an interview in July 2012, Van Schayck argues that his religious convictions inspire him to have personal attention for his colleagues and engage himself in social issues (6). Van Schayck also suggests that his scientific curiosity is driven by a fascination for God’s creation (7). Based on these remarks, I don’t think that Van Schayck’s religious convictions can be considered strictly ‘personal’ and ‘private’, as they influence how he cooperates with his colleagues and his selection of research topics. However, I think the question at stake here is whether this is problematic. I acknowledge that tensions between religious convictions and scientific standards may exist, but I think that the scholarly achievements and social engagement of Van Schayck exemplify the possibility that religious convictions make a positive contribution to scientific work that goes beyond strictly private spheres. The present debate does not fully acknowledge this possibility.

Furthermore, the fact that some people criticize Van Schayck’s convictions because they are religious tends to obscure that secular views that influence scientific practice often also imply assumptions, values and views that are not proven by scientific standards. (Sometimes scientific standards do not even meet themselves, such as Popper’s famous falsification-principle.) An example could be the increasing influence of neoliberal thought on medical research and the Dutch healthcare system. Although neoliberalism is mostly a secular thought system, it does propose views in which patients are seen as customers, medical research is seen as a way to develop and improve products and efficiency is a core value. While such views and values influence medical sciences to an extent, they are not ‘proven’ by (all) scientific standards. It can also be questioned whether neoliberal views always have a beneficial influence on the independence of medical sciences or the quality of healthcare. However, I have never heard of directors and managers within research institutes who resign after enduring critiques that their neoliberal views may threaten the quality and independence of the scientific work within the institute.

The present debate also obscures that all scientific research raises moral and ethical questions, whether research is (indirectly) influenced by religious convictions or not. How do we decide what research topics are most interesting and useful to be researched next? What political and economic interests are at stake in research projects? What will be the impact of research results on social and environmental issues? Should research even directly aim at solving social problems? In my opinion, it would be naïve to think that scientists can remain completely independent from personal and collective views, ideals and values when they try to answer the moral and ethical questions related to the research they undertake. The same goes for personal, social, economic and political interests that are directly or indirectly at stake in research projects. I therefore argue that all researchers should critically reflect on the assumptions, views, values and ideals that (indirectly) guide their research, as well as on the ways their research relates to broader social, economic and political realities – whether researchers are religious or not.

Erik Meinema is a recent graduate of the Research Master Religion and Culture in Groningen who did fieldwork on sexuality and youth in Kenya and Uganda and youth peacebuilding initiatives in Ambon, Indonesia.

(1) (my translation).



(4) Volskrant (my translation).





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