Tag Archives: Religion and Science

Thomson, “Private Doubt, Public Dilemma”

Last week, Princeton University Press released Private Doubt, Public Dilemma, 9780300203677by Keith Thomson (Oxford). The publisher’s description follows:

Each age has its own crisis—our modern experience of science-religion conflict is not so very different from that experienced by our forebears, Keith Thomson proposes in this thoughtful book. He considers the ideas and writings of Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin, two men who struggled mightily to reconcile their religion and their science, then looks to more recent times when scientific challenges to religion (evolutionary theory, for example) have given rise to powerful political responses from religious believers.

Today as in the eighteenth century, there are pressing reasons for members on each side of the religion-science debates to find common ground, Thomson contends. No precedent exists for shaping a response to issues like cloning or stem cell research, unheard of fifty years ago, and thus the opportunity arises for all sides to cooperate in creating a new ethics for the common good.

Harrison, “The Territories of Science and Religion”

The distinguished cultural historian Professor Peter Harrison’s (Oxford) 2011 HarrisonGifford Lectures concerned the relationship of religion and science. Now comes his new book, The Territories of Science and Religion, (this was the title of his first Gifford Lecture) just published by the University of Chicago Press. The first Gifford Lecture concerned the basic concepts of religion and science and their history, the changes that the concepts have undergone, and the utility (and disutility) of the concepts. The publisher’s description follows.

The conflict between science and religion seems indelible, even eternal. Surely two such divergent views of the universe have always been in fierce opposition? Actually, that’s not the case, says Peter Harrison: our very concepts of science and religion are relatively recent, emerging only in the past three hundred years, and it is those very categories, rather than their underlying concepts, that constrain our understanding of how the formal study of nature relates to the religious life.

In The Territories of Science and Religion, Harrison dismantles what we think we know about the two categories, then puts it all back together again in a provocative, productive new way. By tracing the history of these concepts for the first time in parallel, he illuminates alternative boundaries and little-known relations between them—thereby making it possible for us to learn from their true history, and see other possible ways that scientific study and the religious life might relate to, influence, and mutually enrich each other.

A tour de force by a distinguished scholar working at the height of his powers, The Territories of Science and Religion promises to forever alter the way we think about these fundamental pillars of human life and experience.

Ruse, “Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know”

In December, Oxford University Press will release “Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know”  by Michael Ruse (Florida State University). The publisher’s description follows:

Over the last decade, “New Atheists” such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens have pushed the issue of atheism to the forefront of public discussion. Yet very few of the ensuing debates and discussions have managed to provide a full and objective treatment of the subject.

Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know provides a balanced look at the topic, considering atheism historically, philosophically, theologically, sociologically and psychologically. Written in an easily accessible style, the book uses a question and answer format to examine the history of atheism, arguments for and against atheism, the relationship between religion and science, and the issue of the meaning of life-and whether or not one can be a happy and satisfied atheist. Above all, the author stresses that the atheism controversy is not just a matter of the facts, but a matter of burning moral concern, both about the stand one should take on the issues and the consequences of one’s commitment.

Nadeau, “Rebirth of the Sacred”

I wouldn’t be the first to point out that popular environmentalism has a lot in common with pantheism. But one doesn’t have to make environmentalism a religion in order to see that the movement shares concerns with traditional religious worldviews. For example, the present Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Bartholomew, has earned the nickname “the Green Patriarch” for his efforts in encouraging Christian stewardship of the world’s resources. Oxford has released a new book by Robert Nadeau, Rebirth of the Sacred: Science, Religion, and the New Environmental Ethos (2012), that explores the relationship between spirituality and environmentalism. The publisher’s description follows.

There is also a large and growing consensus in the scientific community that resolving the environmental crisis will require massive changes in our political and economic institutions and new standards for moral and ethical behavior. In this groundbreaking book, Robert Nadeau makes a convincing case that these remarkable developments could occur if sufficient numbers of environmentally concerned people participate in the new dialogue between the truths of science and religion.

Those who enter this dialogue will discover that the most fundamental scientific truths in contemporary physics and biology are analogous to and fully compatible with the most profound spiritual truths in all of the great religious traditions of the world. They will learn that recent scientific Continue reading

Asher, “Evolution and Belief”

Fascinating looking book by the paleontologist Robert Asher (Cambridge), Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist (CUP 2012).  The publisher’s description follows.

Can a scientist believe in God? Does the ongoing debate between some evolutionists and evangelicals show that the two sides are irreconcilable? As a paleontologist and a religious believer, Robert Asher constantly confronts the perceived conflict between his occupation and his faith. In the course of his scientific work, he has found that no other theory comes close to Darwin’s as an explanation for our world’s incredible biodiversity. Recounting discoveries in molecular biology, paleontology and development, Asher reveals the remarkable evidence in favor of Darwinian evolution. In outlining the scope of Darwin’s idea, Asher shows how evolution describes the cause of biodiversity, rather than the agency behind it. He draws a line between superstition and religion, recognizing that atheism is not the inevitable conclusion of evolutionary theory. By liberating evolution from its misappropriated religious implications, Asher promotes a balanced awareness that contributes to our understanding of biology and Earth history.

Ahmad Dallal on Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History

This year, Ahmad Dallal, Provost and Professor of History at the American University of Beirut, has published Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History (Yale, 2012).  An ambitious project, Prof. Dallal’s volume traces the rich tradition of scientific thought in the Muslim world, a history of confluence; conflict; and mutual religious, political, and cultural stimulus.  See further reflections on Dallal’s new text here.  Likewise, please see the publisher’s description after the jump. Continue reading

Classic Revisited: Whitehead, “Science and the Modern World”

Alfred North Whitehead was an important philosopher of science and metaphysics writing primarily in the early twentieth century.  Here is an interesting section from his book, Science and the Modern World (1925), dealing with the conflict between religion and science.  We are sometimes deceived into believing that these disputes are only quite recent, but of course they are not.  They are old tensions, and many writers have had provocative things to say about them.  Here is a bit of Whitehead:

The conflict between religion and science is what naturally occurs to our minds when we think of this subject.  It seems as though, during the last half-century, the results of science and the beliefs of religion had come into a position of frank disagreement, from which there can be no escape, except by abandoning either the clear teaching of science, or the clear teaching of religion.  This conclusion has been urged by controversialists on either side . . . .

When we consider what religion is for mankind, and what science is, it is no exaggeration to say that the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between them.  We have here the two strongest general forces (apart from the mere impulse of the various senses) which influence men, and they seem to be set one against the other — the force of our religious intuitions, and the force of our impulse to accurate observation and logical deduction.

A great English statesman once advised his countrymen to use large-scale maps, as a preservative against alarms, panics, and general misunderstanding of the true relations between nations.  In the same way in dealing with the clash between permanent elements of human nature, it is well to map our history on a large scale, and to disengage ourselves from our immediate absorption in the present conflicts.  When we do this, we immediately discover two great facts.  In the first place, there has always been a conflict between religion and science; and in the second place, both religion and science have always been in a state of continual development . . . .

[A]ll our ideas will be in a wrong perspective if we think that this recurring perplexity was confined to contradictions between religion and science; and that in these controversies religion was always wrong, and that science was always right.  The true facts of the case are very much more complex, and refuse to be summarised in these simple terms.

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Plantinga, “Where the Conflict Really Lies”

The famous philosopher Alvin Plantinga (emeritus at Notre Dame, also at Calvin College) has published Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (OUP 2011).  There was a fair story in the NY Times about Plantinga (and this book) a couple of days ago. 

I also have always thought that this on-line paper of Plantinga’s, “On Christian Scholarship,” was very interesting. 

The publisher’s description of the book follows.

This book is a long-awaited major statement by a pre-eminent analytic philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, on one of our biggest debates — the compatibility of science and religion. The last twenty years has seen a cottage industry of books on this divide, but with little consensus emerging. Plantinga, as a top philosopher but also a proponent of the rationality of religious belief, has a unique contribution to make. His theme in this short book is that the conflict between science and theistic religion is actually superficial, and that at a deeper level they are in concord.

Plantinga examines where this conflict is supposed to exist — evolution, evolutionary psychology, analysis of scripture, scientific study of religion — as well as claims by Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Philip Kitcher that evolution and theistic belief cannot co-exist. Plantinga makes a case that their arguments are not only inconclusive but that the supposed conflicts themselves are superficial, due to the methodological naturalism used by science. On the other hand, science can actually offer support to theistic doctrines, and Plantinga uses the notion of biological and cosmological “fine-tuning” in support of this idea. Plantinga argues that we might think about arguments in science and religion in a new way — as different forms of discourse that try to persuade people to look at questions from a perspective such that they can see that something is true. In this way, there is a deep and massive consonance between theism and the scientific enterprise.

Buchanan on Human Enhancement

In coming years, government and religion will have to come to terms with new biomedical technologies that greatly enhance human capacity. The state will need to address the potential for vastly increased life spans – a nice problem, but an issue for entitlements, if nothing else — as well as possible distributive inequalities. Religions will face questions about traditional ethics, particularly in respect of human reproduction, and may even face deeper doubts about theologies that teach the need for transcending the human condition. Why would we need divine grace if we could correct our flaws ourselves?

I’m skeptical that we are on the brink of a “post-humanity,” myself, or that religion is about to become obsolete. Utopians always promise that we are only a breakthrough or two away from a Bright Tomorrow in which we will control our own destiny, and the “Singularity” sounds like another futurist fantasy to me. Still, it’s worth thinking about technologies that do seem likely. Allen Buchanan (Duke) has written a new book, Better Than Human (Oxford), that addresses the subject. The publisher’s description follows.

Is it right to use biomedical technologies to make us better than well or even perhaps better than human? Should we view our biology as fixed or should we try to improve on it? College students are already taking cognitive enhancement drugs. The U.S. army is already working to develop drugs and technologies to produce “super soldiers.” Scientists already know how to use genetic engineering techniques to enhance the strength and memories of mice and the application of such technologies to humans is on the horizon.

In Better Than Human, philosopher-bioethicist Allen Buchanan grapples with the ethical dilemmas of the biomedical enhancement revolution. Biomedical enhancements can make us smarter, have better memories, be stronger, quicker, have more stamina, live much longer, avoid the frailties of aging, and enjoy richer emotional lives. In spite of the benefits that biomedical enhancements may bring, many people instinctively reject them. Some worry that we will lose something important-our appreciation Continue reading

European Court of Justice on Human Dignity and the Patentability of Human Embryos

An interesting judgment from the European Court of Justice this week relating to work with human embryonic stem cells: In response to a certification from the German Federal Court of Justice, the ECJ held that the European Directive on the Legal Protection of Biotechnological Inventions (1998) forbids the patenting of human embryos, or techniques that require the destruction of human embryos, for industrial or commercial purposes, including purposes of scientific research. The Directive prohibits patents for “uses of human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes,” and indicates that this prohibition extends to all processes that “offend against” the fundamental principle of “human dignity.” The ECJ concluded that the Directive’s reference to “human dignity” required that the phrase “human embryo” be “understood in a wide sense” to include not only fertilized human eggs, but also unfertilized eggs and stem cells, if they are “capable of commencing the process of development of a human being.”

The concept of human dignity is a fundamental one in European law; many religious-freedom cases in the ECtHR employ it, for example. The concept is not so prominent in American jurisprudence, which tends to be more libertarian. Some scholars argue that roots of the principle in European law lie in Catholic Social Theory, and the principle is certainly consistent with Christian ethics. I assume that, like most concepts in European jurisprudence, the principle has roots in Enlightenment thought as well. The judgment is Brüstle v. Greenpeace (Grand Chamber) (18 Oct. 2011). – MLM