The Study of Science and Religion

Sociological, Theological, and Philosophical Perspectives

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Carl Reinhold Bråkenhielm
Church of Sweden Research Series
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , June
     346 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Study of Science and Religion: Sociological, Theological, and Philosophical Perspectives by Carl Reinhold Bråkenhielm contains three sections, each so distinct that they can be read separately with little confusion. The first part analyzes Swedish public opinion data on religion and science. Part 2 summarizes the history of the relationship between science and religion in the work of Swedish theologians and philosophers, while the last part offers constructive theological work on religion and science.

Bråkenhielm frames part 1 around Anders Jeffner’s notion that worldviews contain value systems, metaphysical pictures, and basic moods. He notes that the Swedish public, while it is scientifically-minded, can be sorted into distinct clusters based on surveys taken between 2006 and 2017. The analysis focuses on the concept of “biologism”—a biological and deterministic framework for understanding reality—held by approximately 15% of the Swedish public. In addition to studies of Swedish public opinion, Bråkenhielm addresses analysis on Swedish clergy and scientists, which he then compares to data on US public opinion and opinion among US scientists.

Some startling patterns emerge. In Sweden, the ratio between religious and non-religious scientists is about the same as in the general population, while US scientists are more likely to be non-religious than are US non-scientists. Bråkenhielm suggests that secularization has followed different paths since the US religious marketplace has been more competitive and scientists form an inconsequential constituency within it. In contrast, Swedish religious life has been dominated by the Church of Sweden and shaped by university-produced theology that is relatively palatable to scientifically-educated people. However, there is still disagreement between Swedish clergy and the general population—48% of the Swedish public finds that scientific advances make it more difficult to believe in God while only 2% of Swedish clergy hold that view. Another unexpected finding is that approximately 80% of Swedish clergy endorse an independence model of the science-religion relationship, while the same percentage endorse a contact model of that same relationship. Scholars who discuss those models see them as mutually exclusive, so it is odd to see such overlap. There are also distinct trends over the 2006-2017 time period in Sweden: religious belief has fallen, while environmental pessimism has grown.

Part 2 examines the development of Swedish philosophy and theology in relation to religion and science, showing some broad trends—as well as diversity—in viewpoints and approaches. While Bråkenhielm discusses a wide variety of scholars, he notes the importance of a few in particular: no account of modern Swedish theology can ignore the influence of bishop and theologian Nathan Söderblom; philosopher Axel Hägerström’s critique of metaphysics attracted many responses; and, in 1949, philosopher Ingemar Hedenius leveled a critique of religion in his book Tro och vetande and in newspaper articles that went beyond the universities to influence Swedish society. Theologian Anders Jeffner developed a theory of “fundamental patterns” in worldviews, which acts as a common thread in all three parts of Bråkenhielm’s book.

Bråkenhielm highlights movement between independence models and contact models of science and religion during various phases of modern Swedish theology. Although part 2 is generally informative, Bråkenhielm’s reading of Anders Nygren’s thought, as he admits, is just one possible reading. Given Nygren’s own claim to developing a scientific approach to theological method, one might object to Bråkenhielm’s characterization of Nygren as holding to a strict independence model given his description of religion as atheoretical. Nevertheless, Bråkenhielm offers a helpful and thorough portrait of the role of religion and science in modern Swedish theology.

While parts 1 and 2 emphasize the Swedish context, part 3 addresses the broader conversation on science and religion as well as matters in philosophy of religion that go beyond it. First, Bråkenhielm addresses questions of incompatibility between science and religion, particularly regarding biological evolution. He then discusses models of independence, focusing on the possible role of religious experience as evidence for theological claims. In the concluding chapter, he analyzes contact between science and religion and themes in cosmology and theology such as the Big Bang, fine tuning, creation, and eschatology.

Part 3 constructs a sophisticated and well-informed argument. Bråkenhielm gives nuanced assessments of thinkers such as Robert John Russell, William Alston, and Thomas Nagel, raising legitimate philosophical points against anti-theistic perspectives while not contradicting scientific findings in any way.

While the lack of thematic unity between the three parts of this book is unusual, each part makes a genuine contribution to the area under consideration. The comparison of public opinion, clergy opinion, and scientific opinion in Sweden and the US presented in part 1 offers unique and thought-provoking perspectives. Bråkenhielm’s survey of the treatment of science and religion by Swedish theologians and philosophers in part 2 is comprehensive, and part 3 offers careful analysis of major theological issues related to science and religion. While it could have benefitted from better editing—there are many typographical errors throughout—the book provides essential insights in each of the areas covered.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephen Waldron is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
January 17, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Carl Reinhold Bråkenhielm is Professor Emeritus in the study of worldviews at Uppsala University. His research concerns worldviews and values in contemporary society as well as sociological, theological, and philosophical problems related to the relationship between science and religion. He is the author of Forgiveness (1993). His latest writings in English include “Theology and the Origins of Customized Science” (included in The Customization of Science, 2014).


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