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The Warfare Between Science and Religion, edited by Jeff Hardin, Ronald Numbers, and Ronald Binzley

26 July 2019

Peter Forster surveys the highways and byways of ‘science v. religion’

THE questions whether, why, and to what extent science and religion are in conflict has been one of the abiding motifs of Western culture. This collection by an international group of scholars covers the subject from a rich variety of angles.

Although there are brief references to the Galileo affair, and earlier authoritarian rejections of scientific endeavour, the main perspectives are post-Enlightenment. A recurrent theme is whether those rejecting religious belief in favour of science have subtly risked turning scientific thought into a substitute religion.

A particular battleground erupted in America, with its empirical instincts. Snippets of biblical texts could easily be regarded as akin to specimens of nature, the propositions of scripture as a counterpart to the phenomena of the created world. The problems arose when these worlds collided, as with the account of creation in Genesis and geological knowledge. Darwin twisted the knife of this debate, calling into question the unique and special creation of human beings.

Although the conflictual issues made the headlines, the authors here emphasise that, throughout, there were many theologians who welcomed the advance of scientific knowledge, and were content to review and restate Christian belief in ways which would harmonise with it. Was Darwin’s theory of human origins more than a modern account of what it was to be taken from the dust of the earth?

Different assessments of science could prove as proxy for arguments between different strands of religious belief. This was especially true in America, where Protestant fundamentalism confronted Protestant liberalism, and issued in a guerilla war that continues.

In Europe, the influential Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant had proposed a radical separation of the realms of science and religion, and reduced the potential hostilities by placing strict limits on both. Religion, now a moral concern, could not dictate scientific truth, while science was denied any right to draw metaphysical implications from its discoveries about how nature worked. This undergirded the later attempts by liberal theology to embrace scientific discoveries in principle, if often at a distance.

The Kantian approach has proved quite durable, a series of writers claiming that, while science reveals the “how” of things, religion reveals the “why”. More recent writers have questioned this unduly neat division, given that so much of our cultural and linguistic experience is shared.

There are interesting chapters on the neglected Muslim, Jewish, and Orthodox Christian engagement in these debates. For Muslim thinkers, the issues are social and political rather than philosophical. The concern is with a covert use of science to promote the cultural superiority of the Christian West, with its accompanying lifestyle, interests, and loyalties. Muslims have tended to see Christianity, with its more prominent place for miracles, as in greater tension with science than could be the case with Islam.

American Jewish authors, in contrast, have been keen to avoid association with the conservative Christian critique of science. The desire of American Jews to be accepted as equal citizens helped to shape their understandings of science. For Orthodoxy, there could, in principle, be no fundamental conflict between scientific and religious truth, despite anti-modernist strands in some Orthodox countries, such as Russia.

The more historically minded contributors emphasise the complexity of the debate, and warn against simplistic narratives, such as those provided by the so-called New Atheists. It is pointed out, rather tersely, that none of the most prominent New Atheists is a historian. They have much in common with ahistorical fundamentalism, demanding from ancient texts a body of contemporary scientific information. New Atheism is regarded as a rather Promethean mythological, or even religious, quest.

An interesting chapter discusses the religious beliefs of modern scientists, revealing that, whereas scientists in Europe and America tend to be less religious than the general population, the opposite is true in nations such as India.

Finally, what does Homo sapiens on the Clapham omnibus make of all this? The conflict motif is influential still, but science itself can easily be seen as a dehumanising venture, and a threat to the environment. Those who are interested in the science-and-religion debate, and the impact of science as a cultural force, will find this book a fascinating, if at times slightly recondite, read.

Dr Peter Forster is Bishop of Chester.

The Warfare Between Science and Religion: The idea that wouldn’t die
Jeff Hardin, Ronald Numbers and Ronald Binzley, editors
John Hopkins £29.50
Church Times Bookshop £26.55

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