Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction (2008)

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Jeff D
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Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction (2008)

Post by Jeff D » Sat Dec 18, 2010 9:10 am

This is a review of a book review. Based on the many excerpts I have read from the book (in the title of this thread) and the 2 reviews I have read, I am not likely to buy or read the book itself.

I am sometimes exasperated, or bored, by the ways in which other people argue for some sort of constructive or mutual-aid "relationship" between religion and science, or argue that religion and science are not or need not be in conflict, or argue that as a matter of historical fact, religion was the mother / surrogate mother / midwife / wet nurse / honorary aquarium parent who was present and indispensable at the birth of science . . . Religion is to science what Zeus's brow was to Athena . . . pick your metaphor.

Almost invariably, the people who make these arguments are layperson "people of faith," or theologians, or semi-pro religous apologists. The same people who claim that religion represents or uses "other ways of knowing," thereby confusing "belief" with "knowledge, confusing "finding out" with "making things up." With a very few prominent exceptions such as Dr. Francis Collins, scientists do not make these arguments. Scientists don't claim that science needs religion in order to do its work or to thrive. From the 15th to the early 19th century, what might be called religious feeling or mistaken for it (awe and wonder at the order of nature) often motivated men to study what used to be called "natural philosophy." One of those men was Charles Darwin. But in the modern era, I cannot imagine what constructive contribution religion could make to the actual work of scientists.

Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction, by Thomas Dixon, was published by the prestigious Oxford University Press in 2008. The paperback edition is 144 pages, so I guess that's fairly short.

Dr. Dixon's book is based on the assumption that there is an academic field called "Science and Religion" and that this is a worthwhile area of study or scholarly work. Dixon also contends that there is more than unalloyed conflict in the historical relationship and the current relationship between religion and science. Here is a quotation from Dixon:
Academic work by scientists and theologians seeking to develop a harmonious interdisciplinary dialogue has been supported by a range of institutions, including the Roman Catholic Church, through the work of the Vatican Observatory, and also the John Templeton Foundation in America – a philanthropic organization particularly committed to supporting research that harmonizes science with religion.
Canadian atheist and ex- (30 years) Anglican preacher Eric MacDonald has written a fairly long review of Dixon's book.

Here are four excerpts from MacDonald's review:
The existence of journals or even university departments of ‘Science and Religion’ is not sufficient to establish the existence of academic specialities. No doubt, from the religious point of view, the problem of relating science and religion is pressing, since religion is multiply challenged by science and scientific methodology. However, from the scientific point of view this is not only not a pressing issue, it is not an issue at all. What may be an issue is the continuing attempt by religionists to claim a relationship between science and religion, an attempt to harmonise religion with science, and to accommodate science to religion. But this cultural struggle is not a scientific concern, except insofar as it interferes with the proper function of the sciences; the pretence that it is, and that there are meaningful parallels between science and religion, is the entire burden of this book. In my view the case is simply not made.
. . . .
There is no sound epistemological basis for relating religion and science. If religionists wish to form a bastardised academic speciality it should be called ‘Religion and Science’, not ‘Science and Religion’. But it cannot be a field of knowledge for the simple reason that theology is not one.
. . . .
. . . the whole “field” of Science and Religion is misconceived from the start. It is built on the assumption that there are two different sources of knowledge, each with its own legitimate authority, and the task of the “field” of Science and Religion is to come up with some way of harmonising these authorities. But surely the simple truth is that religion has not been able to provide an authoritative source of knowledge, or a method for distinguishing between what is true or false in the religious account of the world. The multiplicity of religions is alone enough to confirm this.
. . . .
But there is something else that is particularly notable about Dixon’s treatment of the trial and condemnation of Galileo, and the lengths he appears to be willing to go in order to exonerate the church. For, there is not one mention of the Index of Prohibited Books (Index Librorum Prohibitorum) in Dixon’s book – not one. Now, surely this is a remarkable oversight in a book that claims to be providing the tools for thinking reasonably about the relationship of religion and science. The Index was established in 1559, a good 74 years before the trial and condemnation of Galileo. And while Dixon says that the Galileo forced the church to declare Copernicanism heretical, Johannes Kepler’s Epitome astronomiae Copernicianae, was on the Index from 1621 to 1835, and Copernicus’ work was already there, placed on the Index in 1611, and it also remained there until 1835. The last edition of the Index was issued in 1948, and the Index was not abolished until 1966. Surely, not to mention a religious institution that lasted for so long, and which prohibited, in its time, most of the greatest works of science and scholarship of the modern period, is a serious lacuna in a study aimed at exploring the relationship between science and religion. The failure betrays a degree of scholarly bias which leads one to wonder how the book got past the Oxford University Press editors, and alone calls into question the basic premise of the book about the existence of an academic “field” of Science and Religion.
Dixon himself has replied here to the review, saying that the existence of an academic field of science and religion is not a basic premise of his book and was confined to one short chapter. Dixon says (1) he is an agnostic; (2) his objective was to introduce the longer, broader history of the science / religion relationship to readers who may only be familiar with more recent conflicts and debates; and (3) he felt obliged to summarize arguments made by others and should not be misunderstood as endorsing or sharing them.

Still, Dixon is a member of the International Society of Science and Religion (ISSR), which was founded by John Polkinghorne, who pretty obviously does contend that science and religion are compatible or complementary. Polkinghorne and another past president of the ISSR each received the Templeton Prize, whose full name is the "Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities." Is it unfair to evaluate Dr. Dixon's work and his apparent opinions in the context of the company he keeps?

Some proponents or defenders of religion like to make religion seem "sciencey" and modern and compatible with empiricism, in order to burnish the reputation of religion. With above-noted exceptions such as Francis Collins and Frank Tipler, I do not see mainstream scientists attempting to associate science with religion in order to burnish the reputation of science.

Eric MacDonald and the book's author, Thomas Dixon, engaged in a further exchange of detailed comments, starting here. It's worth reading.

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“A long time ago, Science and Religion were friends. After a while, Science began to think that maybe his friend was imaginary.”
Jeff D