Negotiating Science and Religion in America

Past, Present, and Future

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Greg Cootsona
  • London: 
    Routledge
    , December
     2019.
     240 pages.
     $44.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781138068537.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Those interested in religion and science and familiar with its literature will welcome Greg Cootsona’s most recent contribution, Negotiating Science and Religion in America. While his book is devoted to the relationship between religion and science in the United States, the breadth of sources Cootsona employs serves as a refresher course in the field more broadly. Focusing primarily on ways science contributed to cultural and religious history, he describes how Americans have negotiated these two important “cultural forces” (i.e., religion and science, 5). Drawing on his solid grasp of an extensive corpus, the book opens with a substantive introduction and helpful definitions (chapters 1 and 2). He then charts how representative figures construed religion, science, and their relationship during three periods: past (1687–1966), present (1966 until roughly 2000), and future (early 21st century and beyond), using Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) as an important midpoint between Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica (1687) and Ian Barbour’s Issues in Science and Religion (Prentice-Hall, 1966), when “Barbour set the agenda for the contemporary study of science and religion” (9, cf. 17, 106).

A statement by Alfred North Whitehead, referred to by Cootsona as “Whitehead’s Challenge,” provides a call to which this book responds: “the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between . . . the two strongest forces . . . which influence [humans] . . . the force of our religious institutions, and the force of our impulse to accurate observation and logical deduction” (i.e., science, 4). Cootsona’s “rubric” for answering this challenge is to “focus on the thought leaders, events, and ideas that set up the story of science and religion in the present with an ongoing cultural impact,” (8, italics original) and it is noteworthy that his efforts to seek and discern “the contours of the future of the interaction of science and religion [are] based on the views of emerging adults (age 18–30) because they will increasingly define this discussion” (5).

Another key feature of Cootsona’s approach comes from Alasdair MacIntryre’s description of a living tradition: “an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition” (3). Significantly, in some places Cootsona substitutes “common good” for “goods which constitute that tradition” (3), and reframes a central question as “how are science and religion involved in an argument over the common good of America yesterday, today, and tomorrow?” (7).

Cootsona thinks it is better for America when religion and science are not at odds, noting he became “convinced that we have done best as a culture when we have held both religion and science together” (23) and proposing that “for the sake of our souls individually and as a nation . . . we will do best when we learn to bring together science and religion into the integrated whole, or at least into a détente” (169).

The book has many strengths that contribute to Cootsona successfully carrying out his intentions. Drawing on John H. Evan’s Morals Not Knowledge (University of California Press, 2018), Cootsona stresses that “most problems between science and religion consist more often in morality than a ‘systemic knowledge conflict’” (5, cf. 17), an instructive point, and distinguishes between scientific findings and the ways they influence culture, society, and religion through “the larger story of ourselves and our world” (21). He helpfully draws on recent work by social scientists and “the findings of [his] qualitative interviews and quantitative surveys with emerging adults” (9). His attention to connections between eugenics and different events, movements, and technologies is valuable, as is the weight he places on technology and inclusion of non-Christian religions. Looking ahead, Cootsona considers several key topics of the future for religion and science discussions, from enduring ones (evolution), to recent topics (sex and sexuality, climate change), and the unexpected (Big Data) (144–149).

A main aspect of Cootsona’s approach, however, may be premised on an error. As noted, he substitutes “common good” for MacIntyre’s “goods which constitute that tradition” (3). MacIntyre’s description of a “living tradition,” though, refers to “the goods which constitute that tradition” (emphasis added) and it is not clear such goods are the same as “the common good.” Similarly, some may view the goods that constitute their tradition(s) as being opposed to aspects of America and its “common good.” Moreover, it is not self-evident that the various ways persons and groups understand and construe religion, science, and the relationships between them are necessarily part of Americans’ search for the common good (134, 135, 144, 175).

Also, at times the author overplays his hand. A clear example is this claim: “If we understand how our country has negotiated [science and religion], then we grasp American culture as a whole” (116). While better comprehending the ways various persons and groups in the US have dealt with science and religion may well yield significant insights into many facets of American culture, it seems an overstatement to claim we thereby “grasp American culture as a whole.”

Additionally, several errors detract, including these: “the conquests of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado” are incorrectly described as “a century and a half later” than Columbus’s voyages (31); Cootsona states his discussion of Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, and Francis Collins is done “according to date of birth. (Dawkins was born in March, and Gould in September of the same year),” yet a few lines later the “Stephen Jay Gould” section appears first, followed by “Richard Dawkins” (129); and Gould’s book, Rocks of Ages (Ballantine, 1999), is repeatedly identified as Rock of Ages (26n46, 129, 132n7, 133). Finally, it is unclear why Appendix B: “2020 Notes on Topics Today and for the Future” is included as written, given the amount of material in it similar or identical to text on pages 145–149.

Nevertheless, Cootsona’s book fills a gap in religion and science literature and is a welcome addition to the field.

About the Reviewer(s): 

E. Harold Breitenberg, Jr., is associate professor of religious studies at Randolph-Macon College.

Date of Review: 
August 9, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Greg Cootsona is lecturer in comparative religion and humanities at California State University, Chico, USA. He is the author of Mere Science and Christian Faith: Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults (2018) and C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian (2014).

Keywords: 

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