Religion vs Science

by Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher Scheitle, oup, 240pp, £20

Is there a tension between science and religious belief? Or can they happily coexist, perhaps even enriching each other? These questions have been debated since the 17th century, and were given a higher profile through the rise of the “New Atheism”, championed by Richard Dawkins. For Dawkins, science is the only reliable form of knowledge. In his influential The God Delusion (2006) he argued that religious belief was little more than pseudo-scientific nonsense.

While the passing of time has seen a fading in both the influence and academic reputation of New Atheism, the question of the relation of science and faith remains important. Recent discussions of this question – such as my own work Inventing the Universe (Hodder, 2015) – have tended to focus on conceptual approaches to the relationship between the natural sciences and religious belief. While this way of dealing with the question undoubtedly has many strengths, it also has obvious weaknesses. It is academic and abstract, focusing on ideas rather than considering how people weave their ideas together into a coherent and workable synthesis.

Ecklund and Scheitle report on the outcomes of a five-year exploration of how religious Americans understand and respond to the natural sciences. Based on detailed conversations, this substantial piece of empirical research makes it clear that the slick slogans of anti-religious scientists and anti-scientific religious believers fail to represent the complexity of the ways in which people integrate the various elements of their worlds of thought.

Religion vs Science is not simply a welcome and highly engaging contribution to contemporary debates about science and religious faith – it is also a powerful illustration of the way in which the social sciences can deepen our appreciation of how human beings hold together ideas originating from quite different sources.

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