This book’s author, my friend Dr Ruth Bancewitz, confesses that as a teenager she rather geekily enjoyed those books that showed giant cutaway models of things and explained how they work.
This book, though for adults, would be perfect fodder for teenagers who think the same way. Taking the work of six scientists, helped by some elegant writing and classy illustrations, it surveys some lovely science, slowly cranking up the view from the molecular all the way to the large trends and patterns that appear across species in evolutionary theory.
Then it does something that’s relatively rare in popular science: it turns the camera back onto the scientists themselves, what their discoveries mean to them, and how they integrate what they’re finding in the microscope with what they believe about God and the universe.
So as well as being popular science itself, the book offers correctives to two perhaps lazy assumptions that pervade quite a lot of popular science writing — that atheism is the only basis to do science from (it isn’t); and that the scientific process is somehow divorced from the humanity of the scientists themselves. (It isn’t: science is social construct, a tribal religion, just better than most tribal religions–we hope–at coping with the width and depth of reality).
I particularly like this book because it’s slow (in my terms): not strident, not argumentative, challenging popular assumptions just by being elegant, rigorous, beautifully illustrated and out there, inconvenient, like an unexpected piece of rogue data.
Fascinating, longish quote. Perhaps this article will help lift a finger or two off the weighing scale and bring things back to balance.
Most historians of science [do not] support the idea of an enduring conflict between science and religion. Renowned collisions, such as the Galileo affair, turned on politics and personalities, not just science and religion. Darwin had significant religious supporters and scientific detractors, as well as vice versa. Many other alleged instances of science-religion conflict have now been exposed as pure inventions. In fact, contrary to conflict, the historical norm has more often been one of mutual support between science and religion. In its formative years in the 17th century, modern science relied on religious legitimation. During the 18th and 19th centuries, natural theology helped to popularise science.
The conflict model of science and religion offered a mistaken view of the past and, when combined with expectations of secularisation, led to a flawed vision of the future. Secularisation theory failed at both description and prediction. The real question is why we continue to encounter proponents of science-religion conflict. Many are prominent scientists. It would be superfluous to rehearse Richard Dawkins’s musings on this topic, but he is by no means a solitary voice. Stephen Hawking thinks that ‘science will win because it works’; Sam Harris has declared that ‘science must destroy religion’; Stephen Weinberg thinks that science has weakened religious certitude; Colin Blakemore predicts that science will eventually make religion unnecessary. Historical evidence simply does not support such contentions. Indeed, it suggests that they are misguided.
So why do they persist? The answers are political. Leaving aside any lingering fondness for quaint 19th-century understandings of history, we must look to the fear of Islamic fundamentalism, exasperation with creationism, an aversion to alliances between the religious Right and climate-change denial, and worries about the erosion of scientific authority. While we might be sympathetic to these concerns, there is no disguising the fact that they arise out of an unhelpful intrusion of normative commitments into the discussion. Wishful thinking – hoping that science will vanquish religion – is no substitute for a sober assessment of present realities. Continuing with this advocacy is likely to have an effect opposite to that intended.
Religion is not going away any time soon, and science will not destroy it. If anything, it is science that is subject to increasing threats to its authority and social legitimacy. Given this, science needs all the friends it can get. Its advocates would be well advised to stop fabricating an enemy out of religion, or insisting that the only path to a secure future lies in a marriage of science and secularism.
Science and theology both explore different slices of truth. Putting them together yields a more nutritious sandwich.
Put them together for a surprising result
We’re still looking out over the ocean of truth, all undiscovered around us. But hand in hand, science and theology help humans see better. Here are some ways science can prod theology out of stagnation and torpor (which can be true when people endlessly recycle old theological models instead of thinking) and make it (or arguably keep it), fit, lean, hungry and relevant.
Origins. Scientific discoveries about the origin of the universe oblige us to re-read and re-think the first 10 chapters or so of Genesis. These Biblical accounts of the origin of language, or of human families, of history and pre-history, contradict the story told by those who’ve dug up the past and thought about it. The best theology does not fear this, but looks to the early chapters of Genesis to do something else, to teach theology through story, to reveal ‘who we are and what we are to do’.
Creation by delegation. Evolutionary theory points to a mustard-seed Creator, who sets up small things brimming with potential and superintends their development through a billion creative steps. This was so of life, of the Universe, of the Kingdom of God and of everything. This is fantastic. For one thing, it gives significance and meaning to every single human action – each of our acts can be preparatory for the Kingdom of God. For another, it makes us ask, what is the connection between human development and New Creation? I have no idea, but it is fun to explore.
The people history never saw. Ancient anthropology tell us most humans died long before Jesus lived or even Abraham was born. They have not known the story we have all heard — told again this Christmas. What does this mean? What does it say about the nearness, or otherwise, of God to those who have not known the Word incarnate? This is a big question, one I puzzle over.
What is the Universe? The Bible is a universal book. But back in the the Bible’s day, the visible Universe was the Earth plus fairy lights. What part of the Christian revelation refers to the world, and which to the entire cosmos? What does ”the end of the world’ mean? Astronomy predicts this (for earth) just as much as the Bible does (but perhaps on a different scale); what happens to the rest of the cosmos?
My monthly review of a wonderful book for those of us navigating the space between faith and doubt.
[amazon template=thumbnail right&asin=1847390927]My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The copywriter for the book jacket was definitely drinking caffeinated coffee: this book ‘may be the most important melding of reason and revelation since C S Lewis’s Mere Christianity … [Collins] has heard every argument against faith from scientists, and he can refute them.’
Actually, the sound of big guns blazing is happily missing from this book. Francis Collins, code-breaker of the human genome, is personal, gentle, generous, thoughtful, well-informed and honest. He describes his own conversion to Christian faith from an atheist background; the beautiful intricacies of creation; the problems with atheism, agnosticism, creationism and Intelligent Design; and ends up in a quietly stated but coherent place of theistic evolution.
Far from (that copywriter again) proposing ‘a new synthesis’, Dr Collins arrives at the beliefs of most of the people I know. He does so in an elegant style, wearing lightly a thoroughness of thought, and with a keen eye for the pithy quotation.
Far from slam-dunking his foes he ends the book with an appeal that the ‘battles between the scientific and spiritual worldviews [need] to be resolved–we desperately need both voices to be at the table, and not to be shouting at each other.’
This is one of the first books I would turn to for anyone wrestling with the issues of science and faith. (My own More than Bananas isn’t bad either …)