As the scientific community argues over the controversial decision by Astronomer Royal Lord Rees’s to accept a £1m pound religious prize, we look at a series of books from Yale that continue the debate between science and religion.
The debate over how to reconcile scientific reason with religious faith is seldom out of the news, usually revolving around the scientific community’s fear that creationism will creep into classrooms. Recently, the debate has resurfaced due to the eminent scientist Lord Martin Rees‘s decision to accept a £1m pound prize from the Templeton Foundation for his ‘exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension’. This has a created an uproar within the scientific community, with numerous top scientists arguing publicly over whether Lord Rees, who is an atheist, should have accepted the prize at all. Richard Dawkins, a outspoken critic of Lord Rees and the Templeton Foundation, was quick to add fuel to the fire, stating that the prize ‘will look great on Templeton’s CV. Not so good on Martin’s’. On Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, professors Lewis Wolpert and Peter Atkins continued the debate, discussing faith’s role in undermining rationality and whether its possible to reconcile religion and science.
As the scientific and religious communities lock horns (no religious pun intended) we look at some books from Yale University Press that offer distinct, informed opinions from both sides of the argument.
Terry Eagleton’s witty and polemical Reason, Faith, and Revolution is bound to cause a stir among scientists, theologians, people of faith and people of no faith, as well as general readers eager to understand the God Debate. On the one hand, Eagleton demolishes what he calls the ‘superstitious’ view of God held by most atheists and agnostics, and offers in its place a revolutionary account of the Christian Gospel. On the other hand, he launches a stinging assault on the betrayal of this revolution by institutional Christianity. There is little joy here, then, either for the anti-God brigade – Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens in particular – nor for many conventional believers. Instead, Eagleton offers his own vibrant account of religion and politics in a book that ranges from the Holy Spirit to the recent history of the Middle East, from Thomas Aquinas to the Twin Towers.
Offering a more partisan view, David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies argues that contemporary antireligious polemics are based not only upon profound conceptual confusions but upon facile simplifications of history or even outright historical ignorance. One of the most brilliant scholars of religion of our time, Hart provides a powerful antidote to the New Atheists’ misrepresentations of the Christian past, bringing into focus the truth about the most radical revolution in Western history. In his interesting, and confrontational book, Hart outlines how Christianity transformed the ancient world in ways we may have forgotten: bringing liberation from fatalism, conferring great dignity on human beings, subverting the cruelest aspects of pagan society, and elevating charity above all virtues. He then argues that what we term the ‘Age of Reason’ was in fact the beginning of the eclipse of reason’s authority as a cultural value. Hart closes the book in the present, delineating the consequences of the decline of Christendom in a culture that is built upon its moral and spiritual values.
Acclaimed writer Marilynne Robinson applies her astute intellect to the debate in her ambitious book Absence of Mind. Crafted with the same care and insight as her award-winning novels, Absence of Mind challenges postmodern atheists who crusade against religion under the banner of science. In Robinson’s view, scientific reasoning does not denote a sense of logical infallibility, as thinkers like Richard Dawkins might suggest. Instead, in its purest form, science represents a search for answers. It engages the problem of knowledge, an aspect of the mystery of consciousness, rather than providing a simple and final model of reality. By defending the importance of individual reflection, Robinson celebrates the power and variety of human consciousness in the tradition of William James. She explores the nature of subjectivity and considers the culture in which Sigmund Freud was situated and its influence on his model of self and civilization. Through keen interpretations of language, emotion, science, and poetry, Absence of Mind restores human consciousness to its central place in the religion-science debate.
Rather than arguing for or against, Christopher Lane’s The Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty looks at the history of the debate itself, focusing on the ‘Age of Doubt’ of the Victorian era. During this critical moment in the history of Western ideas, leading nineteenth-century intellectuals battled the Church and struggled to absorb radical scientific discoveries that upended everything the Bible had taught them about the world. In The Age of Doubt Lane tells the fascinating story of a society under strain as virtually all aspects of life changed abruptly. In deft portraits of scientific, literary, and intellectual icons who challenged the prevailing religious orthodoxy, from Robert Chambers and Anne Bronte to Charles Darwin and Thomas H. Huxley, Lane demonstrates how they and other Victorians succeeded in turning doubt from a religious sin into an ethical necessity.
Lane argues that the Victorians’ crisis of faith generated a far more searching engagement with religious belief than the ‘new atheism’ that has evolved today. For Lane, the modern debate highlights our inability to embrace doubt, and by giving credence to uncertainty, we permit free thought to flourish in the place of dogma and blind faith. ‘The Victorians have the answers for us, if we but heed them’, Lane argues, making the case that a well-placed faith in doubt can give us the existential courage to meet the challenges of the world’s most urgent questions.
These books are available now from Yale University Press.