Religion and Science

The Basics, 2nd Ed.

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Philip Clayton
The Basics
  • New York, NY: 
    , October
     210 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What could be more difficult than untangling the contemporary controversy over “science and religion”—and for a popular audience? Well, Philip Clayton seems to have achieved just that in a second-edition to Religion and Science: The Basics. 

I came to this book—as well as God and Gravity: A Philip Clayton Reader—with some background in the area of “science and religion,” but without much familiarity with the author or his work. Unexpectedly, I quickly became “a fan.” Clayton frequently strikes that delicate balance of relevance, scholarship, and critical thinking throughout his writings. His background is in Christianity, but with more contemporary interests in interfaith dialogue, pluralism, and of course the intersection of science(s) with religious thought and experience. Religion and Science reflects some of this orientation, serving as an excellent introduction to the topic that can be appreciated by a wide audience.

The book begins by examining the various paths in which readers come to the book. It then launches into an intriguing theoretical debate between “A Naturalist and a Theist” (3), engaging readers in all the hazards of these kinds of conversations. His goal is for mutual understanding and erecting the necessary scaffolding for intelligent discourse. For that reason, Clayton spends considerable energy challenging readers to recognize common stereotypes, fallacies, and misrepresentations. For example, there is a difference between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist religion, and between religions and their understandings of science (19-23). Sometimes, the situation can be discouraging. Clayton opines that, “One can only be sad when the atheist[s] throw names at God and the theists threaten eternal punishment in return” (22). At other points, he makes it clear that there are considerable areas of overlap and mutual contribution; there arefunctional, hopeful models out there, and they need more attention.

The chapters quickly focus, with an introduction to world religions’ different responses to modern science(s), followed by chapters on physics, biology, neuroscience, history and philosophy, science-tech-ethics, and concluding with reflections on the future. It’s amazing how much is covered in this small volume, but Clayton does so efficiently and carefully. 

There were several interesting or important points that piqued my interests. First, we read that “Th[e] social sciences do not need to be reducible to neuroscience, genetics, or physics in order to be bona fide sciences. They of course still presuppose that no laws of physics or biology are broken when a person decides whether to confide in another person or to distrust her. But distinctly human actions require human-level explanations” (119). This is an extremely important point; all of us living today continue to wash the smell of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s quote out of our clothes, “After the laws of physics, everything else is opinion.” (Ernest Rutherford said something similar decades earlier: “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”) The social sciences and human sciences (“humanities”) are sciences, with their own internal logic, rules of validation/testing, and so on. The natural sciences do not have a monopoly on truth, and it would be harmful to the cause of human understanding to attempt to reduce everything to a single type of science (as if this were even possible to begin with). 

Another interesting observation that Clayton brings to our attention is the idea that, regarding science, “nothing is new under the sun.” He argues, “Many of the basic ideas about science can be traced back to the ‘big 4’ of Greek philosophy.” This includes the logos concept of Parmenides, concepts of change and natural law by Heraclitus, the forms of Plato, and “Aristotle, finally, was the quintessential empiricist; he carefully studied the data in each field and then inferred the principles that would best explain them. For him the forms or principles are in the objects, expressed in their functions and behaviors, rather than in some pure realm of Platonic forms” (129). In fact, “Aristotle is credited with founding more than a dozen sciences (physics, biology, psychology, political science, and numerous others)” (129). 

Therefore, “… some of the core commitments of modern science were already present among the Greeks. These proto-scientists rejected the idea of human-like gods who could intervene in the natural order whenever they wanted” (130). This is old news for those familiar with classic/ancient philosophy. The trouble is few are encouraged to study such fields in today’s venerated world of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

Another connected point is the religious basis for modern science. “Almost all the necessary components for modern science were now present [in the Medieval period]: the late medieval thinkers valued the details of the world around them (since it was created by God); they knew it was ordered in a rational and comprehensible way (since that is the nature of God); and they knew that behind the appearances must lie more fundamental laws and principles (which are manifestations of the divine nature)” (131). This is strange for us to acknowledge as “Gradually the theological scaffolding fell away (that is, the phrases in parentheses in the previous sentence), leaving the research program that we now call modern science” (131). We see no historical connection between theology and contemporary science, even though it has always been there.

In Religion and Science, Clayton also raises serious ethical questions, such as germline modifications. “Do we really have the wisdom that [the decision to permanently alter the human genome] requires? What are enhancements in one kind of society might be deficits in another.” He suggests that, “Here if anywhere, it seems to me, we would have overstepped the boundaries of what we can know and control, threatening the rights of future generations through decisions made by the present one” (153).

Similarly, Clayton brings fresh attention to issues that some might think are stale and irrelevant to the topic at hand: “… it is wrong to initiate violent actions against others” (163). But this dovetails with his broader interreligious concerns; “I would point out that the principle ‘the end justifies the means’ is challenged by many religious traditions. If one cannot use a gun to convert a person to their religion, one shouldn’t use immoral means to bring about peace” (163). Because violence has become acceptable today—from minor coercions enacted by democratic governments to the mass killing of “just-wars”—violence becomes invisible. And with the reigning powers of both religion and science still calling the shots, this is deeply concerning. 

This reviewer cannot make judgments comparing this 2nd edition to its predecessor, as I have not read the first. However, I can say that there were some issues. Clayton points out the unfortunate spread of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement despite not having any major peer-review publications since 2004 (19). Although I have similar reservations and concerns, it is 2019 and the ID movement has since published a number of such articles. Also, there is also a typographical error on page 133—“White’s thesis” should read “Draper’s thesis”—that somehow survived. But these are quite minor issues that might be expected of any volume.

Science and Religion truly is a home-run. It corrects so many misunderstandings and avoids so many pitfalls in such a small space that it is difficult to really appreciate. Highly recommended. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jamin A. Hübner is Professor and Research Fellow at several insitutions and resides in Rapid City, SD.

Date of Review: 
March 4, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philip Clayton is Ingraham Professor and Director of the Center for Spirituality and Sustainability at Claremont School of Theology, and affiliated faculty at Claremont Graduate University, USA. Author or editor of several dozen books, he is widely recognized internationally as a leading figure in the field of religion and science.



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