Science versus Religion: The debate continues as top scientist accepts £1m religious prize

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.

Related Links:

Independent Article: Scientists and humanists fear creationist teaching is set to creep into more classrooms

BBC Radio 4: The Today programme on whether ‘faith undermines rationality’

Guardian Article: Martin Rees’s Templeton prize may mark a turning point in the ‘God wars’

Templeton Foundation Website

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6 Comments

  • I don’t think science and religion have to be at loggerheads – they are talking about completely different questions. Science covers the how in the world – faith or religions deal with the why.

    Science itself is becoming a belief system – the followers choose to adopt scientific principles just as religious followers adopt those of their chosen faith. Science doesn’t have all the answers, but their followers believe that one day they will. Why is this any different to any person of faith believing that their particular belief system will ultimately be proven?

    Humanity currently believe that the more answers they get, the less they need to believe in a God or Power or Source – we can help ourselves, thank you very much. But that is not the point of spirituality at all, and probably why they cannot see the significance a religion or spirituality plays. The point is that the answers give us proof of how things came into being, but not Why – and that is a question that science and all its belief system will never be able to answer. The common response at the moment seems to be ‘it just happens’. Are we really here on the planet to just learn all about our creation but then not do anything with that, other than pat ourselves on the back for being so clever?

    I am spiritual and I am passionate about science – for me, they co-exist. Science is proving that all these amazing, wonderful, completely statistical improbable things are happening through the universe – and it is my proof that there is a greater picture to piece together once we have all of these component parts.

  • April 8, 2011

    Charles Freeman

    We would all like to have grants to support our work and the Templeton Foundation has millions of dollars of them. I have been working on the issues surrounding science and religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and am uneasy about the amount of work, much of it supported by Templeton, suggesting that Christianity supported the development of science. You only have to consider the different forms of Christianity in these two centuries to see how no such generalizations can be made. Christopher Black’s excellent study The Italian Inquisition (Yale, 2010), for instance, shows just how much book burning went on in Catholic Italy in this period. Other studies show how chaotic the whole system of censorship in Italy was, especially in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. There was a profound fear of new ideas and certainly no coherent policy towards ‘science’. As the Galileo case showed this was certainly an area the Church felt it had a right to control but but could only produce a muddled response. This was not supporting scientific work which demands an open approach to what can be proved by empirical evidence.
    The religious and political context in,say, seventeenth century England was very different and Christianity took a variety of forms ( note Newton’s deism and his rejection of Trinitarianism). One of the weakest points in much of the ‘Christianity supported science’ circles is the failure to show that it was specifically Christianity, of whatever form, that formed the catalyst which turned an individual towards the study of the natural world, rather than, say, towards theology. I am uneasy about the extent to which Templeton money seems to be targeted towards those who are prepared to make generalizations about ‘Christianity’ as if it was a coherent set of beliefs and that it related in a direct and positive way to the study of the natural world. Charles Freeman, author of Holy Bones, Holy Dust, How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe (Yale,forthcoming , 21st April).

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  • September 14, 2011

    Jass Brown

    Hi sir,
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