Religion v Science: Crossing the Great Divide

This grand historical survey, running from the classical world to the quantum age, is an impressively erudite and admirably even-handed account of the entanglements of religion and science.

Northern Lights Cathedral
Northern Lights Cathedral, Alta, Norway. Credit: Traveler / Alamy

Nicholas Spencer, Magisteria: the Entangled Histories of Science and Religion (Oneworld Publications, 2023)

A potent feature of ‘New Atheism’, ubiquitous in the 2000s and early 2010s, was the pitting of science against religion. Beyond the potential of religious ideas to inspire or help rationalise acts of extraordinary violence, such as the 9/11 attacks, prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins railed at the broader damage done to the human psyche – collective and individual – by a commitment to accounts of reality that were demonstrably false. ‘Demonstrably’, because, for Dawkins, science and religion made competing claims about some of the essential truths of existence. In his view, science offered the sounder method and the more civilised results.

When Dawkins debated the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, at the Oxford Union – one of the more gentlemanly encounters of the New Atheism era – he revealed his openness to a second popular way of imagining the relationship between religion and science: the former as a cherished source of values and poetry, the latter dealing with facts about the world. He had, Dawkins confessed, found himself singing a hymn that very morning in the shower.

Historians and philosophers have long recognised that neither of these understandings of the interaction of science with religion – which involve downgrading the latter either to doomed proto-science or didactic poetry – stands up to much scrutiny. Both are largely an artefact of the past five hundred years of European intellectual and social life, in particular of what Nicholas Spencer argues, in his Introduction to Magisteria, is a ‘conflict narrative’ that has ebbed and flowed since the late nineteenth century. The Theos think tank, where Spencer is Senior Fellow, found in a survey last year that 57 per cent of people in the UK regard science and religion as incompatible, while only 30 per cent see them as compatible.

Spencer argues, in Magisteria, for the replacement of ‘conflict,’ as our guiding metaphor in thinking about science and religion, with ‘entanglement.’ He builds his case via a grand historical survey, running from the classical world to the quantum age. It is an impressively erudite and admirably even-handed account, featuring lucid thumbnail sketches of important religious and scientific ideas alongside lengthier treatments of key historical flashpoints: Galileo, Darwin, the Scopes trial and more.

A recurring theme in Part One, which takes us up to 1600, is a two-fold conviction among Jewish, Christian and Islamic pioneers in ‘natural philosophy’ (what would later become ‘science’): that the cosmos is rational and regular in its structure – and therefore amenable to exploration – because it is the work, or self-expression of a divine Creator; and that the findings of natural philosophy can never be in conflict with true revelation. The former might indeed be an aid to scriptural interpretation, offering clues as to what God intends for Creation and for human beings.

Part Two of Magisteria leads readers through perhaps the most consequential period of this history: the development of modern science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It opens with the controversy over the Catholic Church’s treatment of Galileo Galilei. The Galileo of popular myth is a swashbuckling scientific hero, standing up to the power and intellectual intransigence of the Catholic Church over the question of whether or not the Earth orbits the Sun. Core elements of that myth are true: the Catholic Church was slow to take seriously the heliocentrism theory proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus; it tried to prevent the theory’s spread; and it punished Galileo in 1633 for continuing to lend the theory his support, after the Inquisition had warned him against doing so in 1616. As Spencer shows, however, there is much that myths like these – heroes vs villains; incompatible truth-claims doing battle – leave out, or obscure.

For a start, heliocentrism threatened Christianity with a theological headache rather than a mortal blow. Certain passages of scripture had, up until this point, been interpreted in terms of an unmoving Earth situated at the centre of the cosmos. This, in turn, was part of a broader description of reality, derived from Aristotle and adapted by theologians like Thomas Aquinas, to which the Catholic Church had only recently recommitted itself in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. As Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine noted in a letter to the Carmelite friar and theologian Paolo Foscarini in 1615, the revisions to Church teachings that heliocentrism would require could only be made if the theory were to be decisively proven – at present, there was too much observational data that it failed to explain.

Such revisions could not, moreover, be made on the say-so of a mere astronomer and his ‘optic tube,’ during a period in which the Church’s teaching authority was already under severe challenge. The politics of the situation required tact and, as Spencer points out, Galileo – ‘no sceptic, let alone a heretic’ – possessed precious little of that vital quality. He was rash in his writings, caused great insult to his long-time friend Pope Urban VIII and, thanks to later mythologisers like Voltaire, ended up as a poster-boy for the idea that religious institutions as a rule prefer to ignore inconvenient findings about the world rather than engage with them.

One great advantage of Spencer’s broad canvas is that readers can see how particular moments in history, or intellectual shifts taking place almost imperceptibly over time, have unintended consequences down the line. The gradual exchange of geocentrism for heliocentrism turned out to be far less momentous for religion in the West than the ‘methodological naturalism’ adopted by natural philosophers in the same era. This was a disciplined focus, in seeking to understand the natural world, on that which could be systematically observed, measured or otherwise quantified. Aristotle’s complex theory of causality, which included a role for ‘final causes’ – the movement of things according to their intended purpose – was thus gradually replaced by an emphasis on brute matter in motion, governed by natural laws.

In a chapter entitled ‘Mechanising the Soul’ Spencer shows how, in the first half of the 1700s, a view of the human person as a composite material mechanism subject to natural laws – in which mental activity could be understood in purely physiological terms – was compatible both with the atheism of Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-51) and with the devout Christianity of David Hartley (1705-57). The latter saw biological mechanics as the means by which the Creator went about his business. In Spencer’s words, ‘sensation begat intelligence and intelligence begat morality and spirituality… [humans] were spiritual because they were material.’

But as we move into the nineteenth century (Part Three) and then the twentieth and twenty-first (Part Four), we find the sophistication, cultural kudos and utility of scientific accounts of the world – yielding extraordinary new technologies – persuading some to seek an ever-more modest role for God. Philosophers and theologians of earlier ages had understood ‘God’ as the utterly mysterious answer to why there was something rather than nothing; the infinite source of all being, transcendent of Creation and sustaining it moment by moment. Some practitioners of ‘natural theology,’ by contrast, now sought to find a place for God within accounts of the natural world. This left the deity with an oddly limited role in Creation: firing the starting pistol and then, as Spencer puts it, ‘retiring to the stands’.

Spencer points out that whereas Christians had once regarded evil, cruelty and injustice within Creation as signs of its fallen state and need of divine remaking, writers like William Paley (1743-1805) took the opposite view: evidence of God’s design could be found precisely in the happiness and order that characterised Creation. When Darwinism came along a few decades later, suggesting enormous suffering and waste of life across the great span of evolution, Paley’s rosy religious view of nature appeared in retrospect to have offered up a massive ‘hostage to fortune’. Spencer concludes that ‘marrying the science of the age would repeatedly leave religion an embittered widow’.

The looming problem in the modern era was hinted at by Charles Darwin’s wife Emma, in a note to her husband: ‘May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved, influence your mind too much in other things which cannot be proved in the same way & which if true are likely to be above our comprehension.’ In other words, a disciplined and highly fruitful way of looking at the world, for specific scientific purposes, threatened to become the default mode of self-understanding for all people, across all areas of life. Methodological naturalism did indeed, in some quarters at least, morph into plain old naturalism: the idea that the natural world represents the full extent of reality.

Part of the value of Spencer’s account lies in showing that there was nothing inevitable about such a change in outlook, which has had as much to do with wider social and political trends – from anti-clericalism to the turning of scientific advance into a proxy for modern Western ‘progress’ – as with the philosophical implications of any particular scientific discovery. And if we are often tempted to smuggle naturalistic assumptions into our consideration of ultimate things, the reverse is also true: critics of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology point out that both appear to make use of metaphors that are either religious or which imply an element of forward-looking purpose in how life evolves.

Spencer’s gift is to tread sufficiently lightly through all of this that readers are equipped and encouraged to consider implications and balance probabilities for themselves. To give just one concluding example of how finely poised our understanding can be: is it meaningful to suggest that a species like ours was in some sense intended? The trend of recent thinking in this area, writes Spencer, drawing on the palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist Simon Conway Morris, is that while evolution may be blind it was still ‘constrained by the chemical and physical conditions on earth… like an elaborate cosmic card trick [there was] lots of shuffling but you still ended up picking the one you were meant to’.


Christopher Harding