Readers buying books online are very dependent on the description given out by the publishers. The blurb that Cambridge UP have provided suggest that this is a comprehensive introduction to the issues relating to religion and science. Of course, the vast majority of scientists would probably argue that religion has nothing to do with science - at least until a religious group challenges a research programme of theirs! One would certainly expect this view to be represented here and some study of the grounds on which religious groups challenge scientific research, on embryos, for instance. So one would expect some discussion of science and ethics and the degree to which the ethics of religious groups should be given a privileged place in formulating research in science. Then again, one needs to consider religious movements, both Christian and non-Christian, that insist on beliefs which are clearly not supported by science (creationism, for instance). Many religious believers claim that the findings of science do not conflict with their beliefs. This is tricky ground as science is moving so fast that such a view may quickly become dated in individual instances. This does bring us to the heart of the problem. Science has ways of asserting and defending its `truths' which are public and subject to challenge by other scientists. Many hypotheses fail and can be shown clearly to fail, others gather strength from further research and so slowly a greater understanding of the natural world evolves. It is hard to see theology doing anything compatible. What theological truths, accepted by the mainstream theological community, have been achieved over the past fifty years and how do these compare with the achievements of science? How might this reflect the necessarily changing relationship between the two? Is there any scientific evidence for the existence of any kind of force outside the universe as we know it and if not is there any other kind of evidence to support the idea?
I raise these questions as they would seem among those that the blurb promises and anyone with a general philosophical interest in the subject might expect to find covered. Then the book actually arrives. The first surprise is that the essays are almost all on Christianity. This can be justified one the grounds that `religion' covers so many diverse forms of human behaviour and belief that `religion' is too broad a topic, but why is there no mention of this in the blurb? It means too that many perspectives are excluded. There is virtually nothing on the foundations of scientific thinking in the Greek world or Arab science. (Praising Christians for accepting classical learning in the sciences, as David Lindberg does here, implies that there was something special about science in the classical period and it is a pity that its achievements are not covered here. The Greeks showed that one could think scientifically without a religious perspective and so deserve a place in the debate. )
The next problem is that the book largely deals with the issues from a `Christianity is not in conflict with science' angle. This is an issue that deserves space and must be tackled in a comprehensive book of this nature but surely not as exclusively as it is here. The editor, Peter Harrison, sets out the approach of the book in the Introduction. `In so far as there is any general trend [in the historical relations between science and religion], it is that for much of the time religion has facilitated scientific endeavour . . .Thus religious ideas inform and underpin scientific investigation, those pursuing sciences were often motivated by religious impulses, religious institutions frequently turn out to have been the chef sources of support for the scientific enterprise and, in it enterprise science established itself by appealing to religious values'. Could we apply this to the foundations of scientific thinking in the Greek world, Darwinism and particle physics?
This does not mean that the essays in support of Harrison's hypothesis are not often interesting. John Evans does provide an interesting sociological discussion of the relationship between science, religion and bioethics. Ronald Numbers provides a workmanlike account of the rise of creationism, Jonathan Topham is stimulating on natural theology and the sciences, as is Jon Roberts on `Religious reactions to Darwin'. It is useful to have a summary of Simon Conway Morris' thesis that intelligent life may be programmed to emerge. If one wants a theological defence that the universe has a purpose then John Haught provides it - bringing Teilhard de Chardin (read by many of us in the 1960s!) back into the limelight. Yet here is the problem. If, as Haught argues, the universe is evolving towards more beautiful minds and a `more intense beauty' (p. 274), then how can one approach this as a scientific claim? Overall the improvements in the human condition do not seem to be as a result of human minds evolving, so much as scientific knowledge being applied to everyday problems. So a `comprehensive' discussion should surely include the objections to Haught's views. Steven Weinberg is mentioned in the essay and he has argued his case for a purposeless universe eloquently - it is a pity that he was not given room to respond. This is true of many of the essays which provide traditional religious views but are not countered by the objections to them.
The more I read this book, the more I felt that it belonged in `Theology', not even as a `Companion to Religion', as here advertised given its narrow perspectives on religion. The real problem is that the blurb is so misleading and it is hard to understand how it could have been written by anyone who had read the book. I cannot believe that anyone who has read in this field would be unaware of the many cogent and well supported objections to the views expressed here which makes the description 'comprehensive' completely inadequate. So this is a problem for Cambridge University Press to address. My two stars are mainly aimed at the publisher! As the book stands it will be of little use to students of the relationships between science and religion in general because they will be only provided with very limited perspectives, most of which are from one angle, that Christianity is necessarily supportive of science.