On Faith and Science

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Edward J. Larson, Michael Ruse
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , August
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


On Faith and Science, despite its anodyne title, is a spirited, informative, and accessible introduction to the field of science and religion. Both authors are distinguished authorities: Edward J. Larson is a historian whose book on the Scopes trial, Summer for the Gods (Basic Books, 1997), won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998, while Michael Ruse is a prolific philosopher specializing in evolution, the topic of his Gifford Lectures in 2001. While their specialties are reflected in the book—there are two chapters on evolution—the approach is generally synthetic and synoptic. Larson and Ruse are not aiming to provide new research, argument, or insight, but to bring the reader into the ongoing conversation about the relationships between religion and science.

After a brief introduction, the book consists of nine chapters, each focusing on a particular area of science: astronomy; physics; the brain, the mind, and the soul; geology; evolution; human evolution in particular; sex and gender; eugenics; and environmentalism, including climate change. These, the authors explain, are “alternating chapters in which our philosopher [Ruse] and our historian [Larson] each took the lead in drafting but for which both fully participated” (15). Thus Ruse was primarily responsible for the odd-numbered chapters and Larson for the even-numbered chapters. Charmingly, the reader is reminded at the end of each chapter that “our philosopher” or “our historian” (as the case may be) will take over for the next chapter.

The selection of these topics is plausible, although the absence of a chapter on medicine—a branch, after all, of applied science, and of the highest relevance to the human condition—is regrettable. (True, medical topics are occasionally addressed piecemeal in the book.) And the treatment of these topics is in general excellent, clearly imbued by Larson’s and Ruse’s decades of thinking, writing, and teaching about science and religion. Each of the chapters is a small miracle of exposition, encapsulating a wealth of information and insight. Throughout, the discussion reflects the view, articulated in the introduction, that religion and science coexist “sometimes in a complementary or conflicting relation but most often in a complex one” (14).

But there are missed opportunities, particularly in the chapter on the brain, the mind, and the soul. There it would have been natural to expect a discussion of the issue of free will versus determinism, a topic of perennial importance in both science and religion, and still relevant today, as shown by recent work in neuroscience (such as Benjamin Libet’s) and theology (such as Nancey Murphy’s) alike. (A book of Murphy’s is recommended in the concluding bibliographical essay, but her work on free will is not mentioned.) In the same chapter, a number of ideas in the philosophy of mind—epiphenomenalism, neutral monism, John Searle’s Chinese Room argument against functionalism—are broached, but unfortunately not handled with the clarity they deserve.

As for the religious traditions considered, the authors clearly intended to be as inclusive as possible, given the areas of science they decided to discuss and the availability of relevant scholarly literature. There is no feasible alternative to focusing on Catholicism when discussing the reception of heliocentrism or Protestantism when discussing the reception of evolution, of course, but Larson and Ruse pay a modicum of attention to Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, and Neo-Pagan traditions as the opportunity presents itself. Fine distinctions within these religious traditions and indigenous religious traditions in general are neglected, which is a limitation but not really a failing, in light of the fact that the book aims to be introductory rather than encyclopedic.

Although On Faith and Science is reliable in its major claims, there are a distressing number of minor errors. Some errors are presumably typographical, such as the claim that as the Scientific Revolution proceeded, “There was a stampede to atheism, deism, or agnosticism but no further compulsion to keep thinking about spiritual (or even final) causation in nature” (44). Surely the intention was to say that there was not such a stampede. Some errors are presumably careless, but of no real significance to the book’s project, such as the claim that Kelvin was knighted for opposing Irish home rule. In fact, he was knighted for his work on the transatlantic telegraph project, and later elevated to the peerage for his contributions to thermodynamics (as well as for his opposition to Irish home rule).

With respect to science, however, there are mistaken, misleading, or mangled claims about—for example—the causes of mass extinctions, the details of Dubois’s paleoanthropological research, and the admittedly difficult minutia of quantum physics. Nobody familiar with Larson’s and Ruse’s previous contributions will regard these errors as reflecting ignorance or ineptitude on their part. But it is not hard to imagine a scientifically trained reader who, perhaps already sympathetic to the idea that science and religion are in irreconcilable conflict, will gleefully seize upon such infelicities as evidence that On Faith and Science is incompetent, tendentious, and disregardable—which is unfortunate, since such a reader particularly stands to benefit from reading it.

These problems (which, it is to be hoped, will be corrected in a later printing) notwithstanding, On Faith and Science stands out in the crowded field of introductions to the field of science and religion. Larson and Ruse manage to compress a vast range of information in a commendably brief space without sacrificing the historical acumen and philosophical insight for which they are known. And, a few unduly frivolous passages aside, the book is elegantly and entertainingly written throughout. At the end of the useful bibliographical essay with which the book concludes, the authors write, “If you have as much fun reading it as we have had writing it, you will be well rewarded and we will be well satisfied” (286). You will.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of the National Center for Science Education.

Date of Review: 
January 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Edward J. Larson is University professor of history and Hugh & Hazel Darling Chair in Law at Pepperdine University.

Michael Ruse is Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor and director of the history and philosophy of science program at Florida State University.

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