Non-Fiction Reviews


Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction

(1995) Thomas Dixon, Oxford University Press, 7.99, pbk, xv +150 pp, ISBN 978-0-192-29551-7

 

Just as the subtitle suggests, this is a rather handy introduction to 'science and religion' except that it is not: rather, it is a handy introduction to the disparities between the scientific and Christian perspectives. This is an important distinction to make as though Islam does get a few brief mentions, this book's focus is very much on the Christian religious belief and how this does not square with a number of now core scientific perceptions of reality.

As such the book examines the early Copernican and Galileo conflicts with the Church, whether God acts in nature, Darwin and evolution, creationism and intelligent design, as well as morality and altruism.

Thomas Dixon has a very readable style and has a daunting task of reducing such a complex issue to coverage in just 150 pages; in fact less than this given that there are a number of illustrations. Nonetheless he provides readers with a useful summary synthesis that at the very least lays the ground for subsequent study should the reader warrant it. It also provides a very handy, compact reference work for those (like me) who do not want their all-too-valuable shelf space clogged up with mythical claptrap. (I prefer my myth honestly packaged as fantasy rather than religion thank you very much.) Yet like many scientists who engage with the public (or in the past policy makers) it is important to have some understanding from whence others come. I should point out at this stage that I am not a total atheist and do recognise the value of religion as well as, of course, the very negative aspects of organised religious belief. So I approached this book with interest.

Given that most who have an opinion of the relationship between science and religion is likely to have firm views that lie either in one camp or the other (though I am personally aware of some scientists who do have strong religious beliefs that they have a foot in both), Thomas Dixon has the unenviable task of informing without causing offence to either party. Though I can't speak for both parties I suspect he has succeeded even if there are some extremists for whom an even-sided approach, or even a neutral one, will be unacceptable.

The content is one largely in the style of straight reporting without opinion. This, again, makes this a useful quick-reference work. It is also largely historical, and deals with science prior to 1990. This is a bit of a drawback until you realise that recent science developments have not had such extensive religious discussion (because they are recent) so that the various religious positions have not sufficiently clarified for them to be included in such a small digest. In fact this size factor is at the heart of the difficulty Thomas Dixon must had had in deciding what could be included in the limited space available and what should be left out. And so it was fairly inevitable that it might miss out on some of the religious issues facing us today arising out of developments such as sequencing the Human genome (and the genomes of other species), genetic modification, genetic screening, sibling saviours and xenotransplantation. However I was a little surprised that the way we relate to the environment and natural resources was not included, especially as (in the course of researching a forthcoming book of my own) I have personally come across some decidedly dodgy websites on global warming created by those purporting to be Christian. Yet, given the lack of space in this summary guide, whatever the author was to have decided should have been included or not was going to be debatable and it would be wrong to criticise the book on these grounds.

Having said that, the title Science and Religion is not really appropriate. As mentioned earlier, Christianity almost exclusively dominates the religious half of this equation. Of course I suspect for obvious reasons neither the publisher nor the author would have wanted to single out a single religion in the title. Even so, notwithstanding my previous paragraph, there were some omissions I felt were serious. It would have been good if the author had defined 'science' (as distinct from 'technology' even if technology was to have been included or not) as well as religion (as distinct from 'theology'). Also other terms, such as 'neo-Darwinism' were not as clearly defined as I would like. Here the book's saving grace is that there is an admirable, if succinct, further reading appendix and similarly there is one of references.

Given that this book could have potentially been very dismaying, I was rather surprised (especially as someone who is easily dismayed at the way science is portrayed) that I was not hugely upset at some stage. In fact there was only one point at which I felt the reporting was a little lacking and that was when an anti-realist argument was presented that science is a graveyard of now-abandoned theories which were once the most successful available. This is of course true, but what was not pointed out as the counter to this is that this is the way science works! Karl R. Popper (the great philosopher on science) put it more extremely (but correctly) that science works through 'falsification': scientists challenge views (hypothesis) through experimentation in an attempt to falsify an old view, supplanting it with a new one. So science will always be a growing graveyard of abandoned theories. This counter is often overlooked. Indeed if I had a penny for every time a non-scientist has told me that 'science cannot be that good because of all the discarded old theories' etc., and I had to explain what science was then by now I would have 17.10p (or alternatively US$32.49 but then there are more religious fundamentalists stateside).

Other than this the book's balance is commendable right through to the very end. And here I feel I must share with you the book's final paragraph which I think aptly illustrates the care it generally has in presenting a balanced view.

"Some people may wish that one half of this essentially modern pairing [science and religion] could be disposed of, or could be persuaded to relinquish its troublesome claims to authority in some or other sphere of knowledge, morality or politics. But such people should be careful what they wish for. Would they really prefer to live in a society where everyone agreed about the questions that this book has been about? What sort of place would that be?"

Finally, this book is one of a series of 'Very Short Introductions' from Oxford University Press. From the list of other titles in this series, there are a number that certainly interest me and you might want to check these out. Meanwhile this title is a very useful starter, or short reference work, for those seeking a brief dip into this particular topic. As such it is very welcome.

Jonathan Cowie


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