Making the science-faith conversation accessible
Book Review: Introducing Science and Religion: A Path Through Polemic by Gillian K. Straine
Many of us avoid the science-faith dialogue because the resources on the topic are too academic. In this book review, ISCAST fellow Dr Edwin El-Mahassni introduces us to a book that makes that conversation more accessible.
The author of Introducing Science and Religion, Gillian Straine, has a physics doctoral degree from Imperial College, London, and has studied theology in order to serve in the priesthood at Oxford University.
The writing is intellectually stimulating and may prove challenging, although not inaccessible to a lay reader
It is worth noting early on that, despite the title, the author only discusses Christianity and not religion in general. This book is aimed at a general readership seeking more knowledge on the interaction between science and Christianity. The writing is intellectually stimulating and may prove challenging, although not inaccessible to a lay reader without any background knowledge of the topic. In terms of positioning this book within a science-faith dialogue, and using it as a springboard to further reading, there are plenty of academic and well-known references that serve to reinforce the points Straine makes.
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The book has seven chapters. Chapters 1 and 2 provide definitions of science and religion, as well as broad philosophical and theological/biblical contexts on what science and religion have meant and currently mean. Chapter 3 provides a historical survey, outlining where science and religion have interacted, clashed or have co-existed in relative peace. Chapter 4 delves into specific past occasions where there have been rifts between science and Christianity, with the imposition of one domain over the other. Chapter 5 examines the different ways science and religion have sought to engage together on topics of contention. Chapter 6 discusses specific issues that science and religion have addressed and the different ways modern thinkers on either side approach them. The final chapter, Chapter 7, provides some concluding remarks.
The history of both science and Christianity is explored in Chapter 3, going back to the period of Ancient Greece and finishing as late as the early 1900s. With informative, yet not overwhelming, detail Straine catalogues different scientific advances throughout the ages and how these were met by church authorities at the time. It would have been interesting if the author had briefly touched on the Golden Age of Islam and how the interactions took place between that monotheistic faith and scientific advances. Also missed, yet worth addressing, is the rather curious historical fact that while scientific advances stalled later in the Middle East, this was the exact opposite in Europe where many discoveries were made with the intent to “understand the mind of God.”
It briefly discusses the “new atheists” (Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris) and, on the other side of the coin, some controversial theories within Christianity: intelligent design (ID) and young earth (YE) creationism.
If Chapter 3 gave a tour of the interaction between science and Christianity throughout history, then Chapter 4 takes a more contemporary and focused look at those occasions of conflict between the two. It briefly discusses the “new atheists” (Dawkins, Dennett and Harris) and, on the other side of the coin, some controversial theories within Christianity: intelligent design (ID) and young earth (YE) creationism. From a reader’s point of view, the one thing that seems to clearly unite these seemingly opposite sides is the view that science and religion do not mix – that their differences are irreconcilable; either religion is essentially false or mainstream scientific theories are in error. Straine seems to agree when she writes, “The new atheists and YE creationism/ID proponents are on a quest to present simplistic views of the world, and do so with other political agendas, whether they are materialistic or religious” (p. 62). It would have been useful if Straine outlined or briefly described what these political agendas are. That is, if truth is not the main driver for their views, then what is the motivation?
Chapter 5 is almost the antithesis of Chapter 4. Here, the emphasis is on the different ways science and religion can coexist with one another. The three models discussed are independence, dialogue and integration. Independence is the view that both science and religion address mutually exclusive issues and exist in separate domains. Dialogue carries the idea that science and religion can coexist with one another and that there’s a level of “kinship” between them. They can learn and appreciate each other’s perspectives and there is even some overlap between both fields. Integration goes deeper than dialogue and claims that both can be merged in order to get a much more holistic worldview, converging into union. Straine is non-committal here, not seeking to make any judgement on which is better or worse. She simply describes them in great detail and notes that the model a person will adopt depends on how one views God and the degree to which science should be open to theological ideas (p. 87).
“In very simple terms, faith and science can be reconciled by pointing out that they both show that the universe was born at a finite moment in time.” – Gillian Straine.
Chapter 6 is the longest chapter of the book by some margin and seeks to consider the themes of previous chapters under particular topics that both science and religion have discussed extensively. These topics are the Big Bang, evolution, quantum mechanics and consciousness. For each topic, Straine examines the different ways science and Christianity interact or have created conflict between both domains. The author examines these topics in light of Chapter 5’s three models – independence, dialogue, integration – and appears to always favour the integration approach. For instance, in discussing the Big Bang, we read “In very simple terms, faith and science can be reconciled by pointing out that they both show that the universe was born at a finite moment in time” (p. 99), while for quantum mechanics Straine writes, “The trick is for us to work out what that [the layers of complexity in quantum mechanics] means for our ideas about a God we call creator” (p. 123).
Finally, chapter 7 provides some concluding remarks. This chapter seems disproportionally short compared to the rest of the book. It would have been worthwhile for Straine to outline some of the specific challenges that remain, and whether the polemic between science and Christianity could ever be “resolved.”
Its level of thoroughness is commendable as it discusses the many and various ways science and religion have interacted – and still interact –with one another.
Overall, the book is very well presented with an appealing, logical structure. It has adequate background for the lay reader, though it may challenge someone who is completely new to the topic. The book does not break new ground, but the topics are well explained, and it offers a variety of solid references the reader can explore. Its level of thoroughness is commendable as it discusses the many and various ways science and religion have interacted – and still interact – with one another.
Introducing Science and Religion is published by SPCK and is available from Koorong.
Dr Edwin El-Mahassni has PhDs in pure mathematics from Macquarie University and philosophical theology from Flinders University where he sought to apply models from the philosophy of science to the development of Christian doctrine. He also holds master’s degrees in theoretical computer science, theology, and project management. He has been in the public service for over 20 years and has a keen interest in the dialogue between faith and science.