At the crossroads of religion and science

A renewed dialogue between science and religion has the potential to clarify our thinking on the most important of subjects.

Astrological signs on an ancient clock in Venice. Credit: Vyacheslav Lopatin / Alamy Stock Photo

Playing God: Science, Religion and the Future of Humanity, Nick Spencer and Hannah Waite, SPCK Publishing, 2024

For all its enormous popularity, something feels a little dated about Netflix’s hit science fiction series 3 Body Problem. Whenever the conversation among its cast of super-smart young physicists turns to life’s big questions, the dominant theme is: ‘We don’t believe in God – we’re scientists!’ The closest one of them comes to finding solace in the face of death is the multiverse theory: many more of him will be living on, elsewhere.

It is a testament to the work of writers such Nick Spencer, and those upon whom he builds, that the idea is steadily filtering through into popular consciousness that science and religion are not the implacable enemies they were once claimed to be, in 19th-century polemics and then in the New Atheism of the early 21st century. Spencer’s previous book, Magisteria: the Entangled Histories of Science and Religion (2023), does a fine job of demolishing the old notion of ‘science vs religion’, replacing it with an account of rich, fascinating entanglement.

And yet, as Spencer and his co-author Hannah Waite point out in their introduction to Playing God, there remains a tendency for conversations about science and religion to revolve around the same old ‘neuralgic issues’: the Big Bang and evolution. In this new book they set out to go beyond that, suggesting that the most intriguing areas of overlap between science and religion lie not so much in human origins as in human nature:

The history of science and religion shows that the heart of the issue, the core area of concern and contention, has long been the nature and the status of the human. This is where science and religion have become most entangled, most antagonistic and sometimes most fruitful.

We sense this overlap, and with it a potential for constructive conversation, more and more as science promises – or threatens – innovations that go to the core of what it is to be human: ‘uniqueness, freedom, personhood, communication, the body, agency, autonomy, dependence and perfection’. Written in the spirit of drawing out questions on which various sciences and religious traditions might profitably engage one another, Playing God offers a series of essays covering themes, including life-extension technologies, artificial intelligence, gene editing, the search for extra-terrestrial life, personhood and sadness.

The essays are crafted in brisk, bracing prose, and one of the clearest threads to emerge over the course of them is that dialogue between science and religion has the potential to clarify our thinking on very big subjects. Take, for example, attempts in recent years to see how human life might be extended, whether that be slowing or even reversing the ageing process or uploading a person’s consciousness into some new and less vulnerable medium. Spencer and Waite point out that the latter approach in particular reveals a long-popular view in the West that the essence of a person is their cognitive activity or some other sort of ghost in the machine. The body is a mere fleshly vehicle, even a prison, of comparatively little concern. Writing primarily with Christianity in mind, as the tradition they know best, Spencer and Waite note that Christians have often ‘slipped into [this] kind of implicit dualism in which the soul or spirit plays pretty much the same role as the uploaded mind of transhumanism’. They may struggle, too, to make sense of death when their tradition teaches that life and death are God’s prerogative rather than theirs while at the same time depicting death as ‘the enemy, a dehumanising, alien and invasive force, a foe to be fought rather than an ally to be embraced’.

One of the contributions of science-religion dialogue here may be to encourage people, whether Christians or not, to reflect more deeply on what they regard as being essential to their humanity – what it is that they might hope to see extended, or transformed at death. Orthodox Christianity, the authors remind us, insists on a collective bodily resurrection rather than the persistence of the same old individuals, which is how transhumanism tends to frame the challenge. Spencer and Waite invoke the novelist Julian Barnes to cast doubt on the desirability of this latter aim. Barnes has suggested that heaven as merely an extension of earthly life would pale after a few hundred years. Then again, Barnes found the prospect of a transformed existence equally unappealing: ‘You can’t become someone else without stopping being who you are [and] nobody can bear that.’ Spencer and Waite caution us, at multiple points in the book, that religious traditions like Christianity offer no easy answers to problems like these – all the more reason to engage in dialogue.

What is this human personhood that we value so deeply? Spencer and Waite tackle this question across essays on whether animals have personhood, how we understand and deal with sadness, artificial intelligence and what it would mean if we were to one day encounter extraterrestrial life. They identify two broad approaches. The first approach imagines personhood in terms of certain capacities, from making and using tools to possessing self-consciousness and moral intelligence. On this reading, it might be possible in some instances to make a case for animal personhood. The second approach is inspired by Christian teachings on God speaking the world into existence, the authority with which Jesus Christ used language, and the mystery of the three ‘persons’ of the Trinity. The result is a social model of personhood that hinges on love and intimate relationship, made possible by language empowering people to build and share worlds of meaning with one another.

Religious traditions such as Christianity also stress that dependence is an important part of being human: ‘We have a particular and fragile presence in the material world, which is the grounds and basis of all our thought, knowledge and intelligence.’ This is one of the things which, at the moment at least, distinguishes us from AI, say Spencer and Waites. It is also the reason why they welcome moves in recent years to broaden medical perspectives on sadness, from imagining and treating it in terms of brain chemistry to looking at the bigger picture – not least the social determinants of mental health and illness, and the role that religious practice and belonging might play in protecting against or alleviating distress. As with other chapters in their book, Spencer and Waite are arguing here not for a particular set of religious solutions but rather for forms dialogue that help us to take a less siloed and more encompassing approach to some of the major challenges of our time.

The final chapter of Playing God explores the potential of gene editing: a prospect, you might think, from which many religious people would naturally recoil. Instead, Spencer and Waite suggest that technologies like these raise the question of what human beings are for, and encourage us to ask whether science might be able to deal not just in causes and consequences but in purpose, too. They point out that until the 17th century the purpose of something was often described as its ‘final cause’. As science emerged out of natural philosophy, pioneers such as Francis Bacon insisted on jettisoning talk of final causes in favour of what he called ‘real and physical causes’. For Spencer and Waite, gene editing is one of those areas where purpose has to be taken into account – what is our reason for seeking to make this or that modification? With purpose missing for so long from the vocabulary of science, here is another instance of dialogue with religion holding out significant promise.

Playing God succeeds marvellously in offering readers a highly-readable taster of the sorts of conversations in which science and religion might profitably engage (and in some cases already do). Some readers will find the footnotes useful as a means of pursuing particular ideas further. This relatively brief book by itself offers more than enough food for thought, showing us what can happen when we move beyond the old conflict model of science vs religion and instead invite them into intimate, mutually probing dialogue.


Christopher Harding