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Questions that have thorny answers

02 October 2008

Both faith and science challenge our thinking, Adam Ford declares


Science and Religion: A very short introduction
Thomas Dixon

Oxford University Press £7.99 (978-0-19-929551-7)
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

reviewed with

Christian Bioethics: A guide for the perplexed
Agneta Sutton

T. & T. Clark £14.99 (978-0-567-03197-6)
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

THOMAS DIXON has made a delightful contribution to this OUP series of very short introductions — small pocket-sized books, well presented, and pleasing to hold. His writing is marked by a neat, focused clarity.

The relationship between science and religion is rich and complex, as revealed here through many separate debates involving issues of intellectual compatibility. Dixon navigates through these with obvious authority, revealing the hidden agendas and fears behind some of the conflicts (putting the record straight, for example, on the Wilberforce/Huxley encounter of 1860 at Oxford).

His survey is balanced and even-handed; and although this is a short book on a vast subject, he manages to be original and thought-provoking, with a non-judgemental and light touch when reviewing the sprinkling of bigotry that can be found on both sides of the divide. It could be described as a gentle guide to how to disagree in a well-informed way.

The science is handled as succinctly as the theology, and the problems faced by each are well exposed. The theologians’ dilemma will not go away: divine inaction (in the face of suffering) is just as hard to explain as divine action (miracles); while the secular scientist’s attempt to explain ethics in term of evolution falls flat.

Christian Bioethics: A guide for the perplexed is a different sort of book. The author is a moral theologian who explores this young discipline of bioethics with passion. She is steeped in her material, and writes informatively for both the interested general reader and the university student.

Galloping medical technology is raising possibilities and ethical questions undreamed of a generation ago. Are there limits beyond which we should not go? Embryo research and abortion; IVF technology; designer babies; organ donation; hybrids, cybrids, and chimeras; euthanasia — the limits on what we can do, if we decide to, expand almost faster than we can think. But how do we decide?

Sutton fears a dehumanising post-Christian agenda. “A new secular and utilitarian school of bioethicists is challenging the old Christian and Hippocratic School,” she writes, taking the view that the sanctity of human life is in danger of being eroded by what she styles as a “new medicine”.

She explores both the new medical technologies and the official Anglican and Roman Catholic responses to the issues raised. The reader must be prepared to find his or her opinions challenged and changing.

The book ends with a brief sur­vey of the obligations humans have to animals and to the planet. Buzz-words are “interconnected­ness”, “interdependence”, and “holistic”.

The Revd Adam Ford is a former Chaplain of St Paul’s School for Girls, in London.

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