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Book review: Playing God: Science, religion and the future of humanity by Nick Spencer and Hannah Waite

by
22 March 2024

Keith Ward welcomes a balanced approach to pressing questions

ARE humans special? If so, what makes them special? And how far might they be changed or improved by new advances in science? There are few questions more important, and more controversial, than these in the present world.

Both authors are Christians, and they seek to present a Christian view that supports the uniqueness and dignity of human persons. They do not, however, pretend that there are simple answers that can ignore the problems and possibilities that are opened up by modern science. They are both eminent scholars with a close familiarity with both religious doctrines and scientific discoveries. In a world filled with simplistic slogans and misleading claims, they provide authoritative and trustworthy accounts of the issues that they discuss.

Besides being very attractively written, the book is an invaluable resource for anyone considering these matters.

The authors have chosen to write on eight main areas. On the scientific quest for extended life or even immortality, which is pursued by some scientists, they point out that for immortality to be desirable, human nature would have to change considerably. Technology is not enough. The possibility of encountering extra-terrestrial life raises questions about the uniqueness of the incarnation, but can suggest a broader notion of God’s grace as truly universe-wide. Problems about the ethics of mass vaccination and government actions to safeguard public safety illustrate the need for careful thought about the responsibilities of states and the limits of individual freedom.

We need to consider the relations between humans and other species, and develop the need to respect all life, and not just humans. We need to consider whether artificial intelligences can ever be conscious, and if so, how they should be treated. We need to consider how far drugs could be used to alleviate depression, whether abortion could be permitted, and the limits, if any, of genetic engineering — for instance, to improve human abilities and intelligence.

These topics cover a wide range of issues, but they are all live ones, relevant to the central question of the nature and status of human beings.

These are all important areas of debate, and there are hotly contested beliefs both among scientists and among religious believers — and, of course, many people are both. In each case, the approach is not simply to argue for one particular belief. It is, rather, to tease out the underlying reasons for coming to reasoned and ethically acceptable opinions.

These reasons are very clearly and helpfully spelled out, and it is argued that both ethico-religious factors and scientifically grounded factors need to be taken into account; so it is not a general “science-versus-religion” debate. All relevant facts need to be considered, but neither facts alone nor religious and moral beliefs alone can determine decisions about the nature and status of human persons.

Their general conclusion is that humans are essentially materially embodied, social, responsible, and fragile beings, deserving of dignity and respect not simply for their intelligence, but because they “find their purpose and fulfilment in love”. This is an excellent book, and essential reading for anyone thinking about the nature and destiny of humanity.


Canon Keith Ward is Emeritus Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford.

 

Playing God: Science, religion and the future of humanity
Nick Spencer and Hannah Waite
SPCK £19.99
(978-0-281-09003-7)
Church Times Bookshop £15.99

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