Science and Religion

A Historical Introduction, 2nd Edition

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Gary B. Ferngren
  • Baltimore, MD: 
    Johns Hopkins University Press
    , January
     504 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the crowded field of introductory books on the topic of science and religion, it is hard to find ways for one title to set itself apart. Gary Ferngren’s Science and Religion did that back in 2002 when it first came out. The first edition was conceived of as an abbreviated classroom-appropriate version of the longer The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia (2000). Excellent contributions from Ronald Numbers, John Hedley Brooke, James Moore, Mark Noll, and Nicolaas A. Rupke, among others, helped make it one of the most popular choices for undergraduate classrooms. Updated and new entries designed with the intention of ensuring the book continues to reflect the best available is an enticing prospect for those teaching undergraduate courses on “science and religion.” Despite its popularity, the first edition had its flaws, and while Science and Religion: An Introduction, 2nd Ed. solves some of these issues, it exacerbates others.

Attempting to move away from the focus on the Western—largely Christian—tradition inherited from the original encyclopedia’s focus, the second edition adds chapters on Judaism, Asian Traditions, and Atheism. Even with the retained and updated chapter on premodern Islam, more than three quarters of the volume continues to focus on Christianity. This is not before counting the pervasiveness of Christianity within the chapters on other traditions.

Although dropping the contribution from the prominent “Intelligent Design” activist William Dembski was a welcome change, strong pieces from Margaret Osler on mechanical philosophy and Numbers on creationism are somewhat regrettable. This is all indicative of the revamped focus which seems centered first-and-foremost on the expansion of the theological component of the volume. Separated into six parts, dropping the first editions final section on historiographical topics, this book is somewhat longer than the original. Unfortunately, much of that extra length comes through the expansion of the final, and weakest, section on “The Theological Implications of Modern Science.” Some of the topics added to this final section, such as neuroscience and “the modern evolutionary synthesis,” are welcome in theory, but in practice come across as muddled religious apologetics.

The contributors to this volume are primarily scholars engaged in the history and philosophy of science with a few theologians and other historians mixed in. Unlike historians of religion, historians of science do not have the same complicated professional and institutional history with theology, thus leaving them largely more willing to work together. For many scholars in the academic study of religion, myself included, this will cause some discomfort. Adding to this discomfort is the prominent language of myth-busting throughout the volume, which seems to be unified by an apparent recognition that instances of conflict between science and religion “have proven to be the exceptions rather than the rule” (xi). These regular reassurances of religion’s continued viability are tempered by instances of great depth of theoretical insight. Stephen P. Weldon’s introductory essay does a masterful job of synthesizing the current theoretical scholarship in the field of science and religion in an accessible manner. The theoretical components of this volume may sometimes come across as less than they could be, however, there is little interaction with the rich body of theoretical scholarship within the academic study of religion that has been developed in recent decades.

Although this volume remains one of the better introductory texts, there are better options out there, especially since this book is useful as a whole to almost nobody. Even so, there are plenty of quality contributions here to justify purchase by those looking for an overview of the field or as use within an undergraduate classroom—so long as chapters are assigned selectively. For all its flaws, the second edition is undoubtedly an improvement over its popular predecessor, making it likely to find its way into numerous classrooms, although for how long is uncertain, as the sheer number of contributors who are now emeritus or retired fifteen years after the first edition ,and seventeen years after the Encyclopedia, the still-impressive and current scholarship may quickly become indicative of an “old guard” of science and religion scholars, to borrow a phrase from historians of Victorian science.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Neil George is a doctoral candidate in humanities at York University.

Date of Review: 
August 30, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gary B. Ferngren is a professor of history at Oregon State University and a professor of the history of medicine at First Moscow State Medical University. He is the author of Medicine and Religion: A Historical Introduction and Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity.


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