When eminent American scientist Edward O. Wilson called recently for science and religion to unite to save the planet, he seemed to be breaking ranks with his peers.

Here was a Pulitzer-prize winning Harvard professor, widely held to be the father of biodiversity, speaking in respectful tones about the power of religion and belief.

Baptist-raised but a non-believer, Wilson is disinclined to claim the intellectual high road. So what if his belief in evolution runs counter to the evangelical's belief in creation? "I may be wrong, you may be wrong," he said in an interview. "We may both be partly right."

We've been more accustomed, in recent times, to scientists being downright rude about religion, dismissing it as superstitious nonsense. As Nobel laureate Herbert A. Hauptman said recently, science and faith "are simply incompatible. There's no getting around it."

But I don't think he's been trying hard enough. "Does there truly exist an insuperable contradiction between religion and science?" Einstein asked in a 1930 article. "Can religion be superseded by science? The answers to these questions have, for centuries, given rise to considerable dispute and, indeed, bitter fighting. Yet, in my own mind there can be no doubt that in both cases a dispassionate consideration can only lead to a negative answer."

Einstein didn't go along with the widely held view of many "advanced minds" that there was an irreconcilable conflict between knowledge and belief.

While it was true that convictions could best be supported with experience and clear thinking, he wrote, "those convictions which are necessary and determinant for our conduct and judgments cannot be found solely along this solid scientific way".

Which was to say, science is all very well, but what of morality, beauty, purpose, art?

Indeed, though Einstein preferred what he called "cosmic religious feeling" to the idea of a personal God, he credited the greatest achievements of science to individuals "imbued with the truly religious conviction that this universe of ours is something perfect and susceptible to the rational striving for knowledge".

When Copernicus hypothesised that the planets went around the sun rather than earth, it wasn't based on empirical evidence but on his conviction that God had made the world mathematically precise, and therefore the mathematically simpler sun-centred system was more logical.

Isaac Newton was a devout Christian who believed that scientific study would lead to God. "This most beautiful system of sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and power Being," he wrote.

Johannes Kepler, who discovered that the orbits of the planets are ellipses rather than circles, was also driven by his religious faith.

This "deep conviction for the rationality of the universe", wrote Einstein, was the strongest and noblest motivation for scientific research.

No wonder then that some scientists display the same religious fervour and dogmatism they despise in evangelicals, arrogantly insisting that science, and only science, has the answers to the universe and the human condition.

Take, for example, the scientific controversy over string theory, which, not so long ago, was considered the answer to that Holy Grail of scientific endeavour: the theory of everything.

Dreamed up by a group of scientists in the 1980s, string theory proposes that matter is made up of very small threads of energy that vibrate, rather than small dot-like entities. How a string vibrates decides whether it becomes a neutron, or something else - a bit like a symphony, the scientists explained, with notes being produced by strings vibrating in different ways.

The trouble was that to make their equations work, scientists had to add another six dimensions to the universe. And they also predicted the existence of an almost infinite number of universes, parallel to our own.

That we can't see these other dimensions; that not one practical observation has been produced to support the theory; and that a few notable physicists are now characterising string theory as "quasi-theology", hasn't dented the enthusiasm of those scientists who have devoted their lives to the theory. They have faith, you see. They believe in their theory despite an inconvenient lack of evidence.

But if science and religion have had a rocky relationship, especially since Darwin's evolutionary theory put the cat among the finches, a few scientists are now trying to call a truce.

One of them is Dr Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Project in the US, a born-again Christian who believes in evolution and the resurrection, and the author of a new book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, which urges both sides to "abandon the battlements".

Collins wants his fellow scientists to get past their arrogant assumption about religion - and he urges the most pious of his fellow believers to stop looking at scientific inquiry as blasphemous.

Two other scientists - Harvard astronomer Owen Gingrich and Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden - are publishing books about God and science. And Harvard has set up a chair for a professor of religion and science, and is mooting plans to require undergraduates to study religion.

The Pope, too, is on the case. His speech at the University of Regensburg in Germany last month, though noted more for inflaming Muslim sensibilities, was more critical of the West for its tendency to separate faith and reason. He argued that faith has a role to play in "the universe of reason".

I'm sure he would have agreed with Einstein when he said that: "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."