Harris Wiseman of ISSR was kind enough to ask us to write a few words about our new book, On Faith and Science, published last month by Yale University Press. Both of us, Michael Ruse and Ed Larson, were founding members or fellows of ISSR and have greatly enjoyed our relationship with the organization over the years. We are honored by your consideration of our latest joint effort. Rather than describe the book ourselves, though, I wanted to share with you one review of it that was contributed by a reader to the website of Amazon.com. We think the reader got it about right, and will defer to him. Neither of us know the reviewer, whose identifies himself as Perry Marshall.

“It was refreshing to read a book where, despite one of the authors being a famous atheist, that none of the usual straw-man arguments show up. The authors clearly know their history and are interested in the “interplay” of faith and science rather than the battle and the conflict thesis.

“Particularly helpful to me was that, despite Judaism and Christianity being the focus, that Islam and Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism were generally brought into view. In many cases I wasn’t quite sure what positions those faiths held.

“One of the difficulties is the plurality of positions one finds within a particular religion, making it hard to generalize. It is here that the authors do an especially good job, because I think they make a reasonable effort at painting with a broad brush.

“An aspect that was particularly interesting was the observation that Darwinian evolution grew out of a very specifically Christian culture and not elsewhere, because Christians asked questions that people in other religions generally did not. According to the authors, Buddhism, for example, doesn’t really ask how the world came to exist; it simply takes it as a given that it is here and that it is in a long series of many cycles.

“I think Christianity and Judaism have a particular feature that makes them “the creature that eats its own tail.” Both possess an assiduous appetite for pursuing the truth at all costs. So as society progresses, each religion raises questions that then produce more inquiry that then threatens previous theological assumptions. It strikes me that this makes these religions particularly evolutionary and as we all know, evolution is painful. What the best theologians seem to realize is that this creative destruction is ultimately best for all. I think it’s quite significant that the only information we have about Jesus’ childhood is that when he was lost they found him in the temple – debating Torah with the best thinkers in the country.”

This reader captures our goal with this book, and gives us some hope that we have achieved it. Now, more than ever, such an approach to this topic is needed. Only last month, we learned that Turkey’s ever-more despotic leader has imposed new restrictions on the teaching of evolution. And the United States now has an anti-evolutionist as its Secretary of Education and climate-change deniers as the director of its Environmental Protection Agency and Secretary of Energy. Indeed, as we note in the book’s preface, given the shrill tone of the ongoing controversy over creation and evolution in the United States, Africa, and elsewhere, and the ongoing worldwide influence of both secular scientism and sectarian religion as reflected in the popularity of Richard Dawkins’s books, we cannot wholly dismiss the conflict metaphor as an antiquated relic. To some partisans on both sides of these controversies, conflict remains how they see the relationship between science and religion.

Yet conflict provides a limited lens to view this relationship: a lens that can dangerously warp our interpretation of it. We can readily cite devoutly religious evolutionary biologists, such as geneticist Francis Collins, the discoverer of the cystic fibrosis gene and head of the U.S. National Institutes of Health who characterizes himself as an evangelical Protestant and theistic evolutionist. Some recent cases suggest even closer complementarity between science and religion than shown by Collins, such as the example of noted American physicist Charles Townes, who received the Nobel Prize for his role in inventing the laser. “Religion is aimed at understanding the purpose and meaning of our universe, including our own lives,” Townes said in receiving the 2005 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. “If the universe has a purpose or meaning, this must be reflected in its structure and functioning, and hence in science.” A host of earlier scientists and theologians – including some of the founders of modern European and American science – took much the same view. Hence, while we can see conflict in the relationship between science and religion, we can also see complementarity and complexity.

Given the diversity of views on the topic, and the seriousness of their impact on society and culture, much remains to be explored and examined. Global responses to climate change alone illustrate the importance of this topic, but other issues are almost as consequential. More than most people realized even a generation ago, we are living in an age of science and religion. Neither seems likely to go away anytime soon. As joint authors of On Faith and Science, we hope this book serves as a primer for students and scholars alike – fully accessible to general readers – as they consider the relationship between science and religion in the past, present, and future – and in various cultural setting. We do not offer our words as the final answer about anything. At most, they are just the beginning. Taking a historical perspective and moving field by field in the book, we hope to raise the questions that continue to occupy scientists, philosophers, theologians, historians, and the general public. To us, it is the story of science and religion, not science or religion. With each of us taking the lead in writing alternative chapters, and both of us contributing to each chapter, we invite you to read this book as something of a dialogue between a historian of science and a philosopher of science, and by joining our dialogue, make it into a conversation.

  • Ed Larson and Michael Ruse