Why Religions Matter

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John Bowker
  • New York, NY: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , March
     362 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Assessing the power and influence of religion is a complicated, far from straightforward matter. John Bowker underscores this point in emphasizing the reality that religions around the globe have had both beneficial and baleful effects. Religion has the capacity to be a powerful force for the spiritual wellbeing and moral improvement of humanity, and has prompted important cultural achievements. At the same time, it can be highly destructive and violent, a reality that is widely observable in the contemporary world, whether it be the Middle East, South Asia, or Northern Ireland. Untangling and explaining the paradox is no easy task. Bowker brings a lifetime of study and reflection to bear on the pertinent issues. The present volume is in many ways a summary and synthesis of his accomplishments.

This sweeping, learned discussion is divided into two essential parts. Following extensive introductory remarks, the next four chapters explore the relationship between religion and the sciences. Physics, genetics, and the neurosciences figure prominently in the analysis. To be sure, the conflict between religion and science has often been intense, but Bowker argues that it need not remain so. The second half of the book—chapters 7 through 10—explores a variety of themes surrounding religion and the human imagination. Here, Bowker addresses the interaction of religion with the social sciences as well as with the humanities. He highlights disciplines such as anthropology, history, and art. The aim throughout is to reassess the role and place of religion in contemporary society. Bowker also wants to reassure us as to the positive effect and value of religion. 

To begin, what are the mythologies associated with the “warfare” between religion and science? How precisely did this unfortunate impasse come to be? Bowker maintains that heated disagreements between theologians and scientists have not proved helpful to either group. Both sides would do well to reflect on their own disciplines and moderate their claims. Religion and the sciences can and should cooperate in constructive and creative ways. In addition, Bowker casts doubt on the common view that religion and science are bound to clash because religions rely upon received truth whereas science turns to empirical evidence. The notion of a dichotomy between dogmatic certainty, on the one hand, and experimental questioning, on the other, is false. From here, Bowker moves to a close analysis of the science of genetics, taking up, in particular, the claim that genes determine both biological and cultural outcomes. He cautions that despite the benefits of genetics, we ought not to assume that there are single causes for complex behaviors. 

The discussion of religions and the sciences impresses by virtue of its bold and comprehensive character. Still, the subject and the author’s approach are decidedly traditional. More importantly, the analysis tends to privilege developments in Western culture, thereby undercutting in some ways the concept of religions in the plural. If judged by the book’s title, a global approach to religious beliefs and practices is meant to be a basic feature throughout. 

The second half of the volume moves in a somewhat different direction. Bowker begins, naturally enough, with religious texts, their translation and interpretation. People’s understandings of sacred texts engenders, in turn, a number of queries relating to the “internalization of constraint” as evidenced in art and ethics. At this point, Bowker hits his stride as he draws upon his longstanding familiarity with a broad range of religious traditions around the world. Equally informative is the subsequent treatment of death and its inevitability. How do religious communities “imagine” death and what are the rituals and symbols that give expression to these understandings? The concluding chapter advances the view that historically religions are affiliations of shared creativity and collective exploration. This emphasis on communities of belief and practice undergirds the entire volume. It serves the author well. 

If the book has a fault, it is that while Bowker displays an impressive command of the literature and offers thought-provoking assessments, he has a strong tendency to be overly discursive. Given the author’s close attention to detail, the material can be overwhelming, especially for non-specialists. As a result, the principal arguments are occasionally obscured. It is perhaps a question of stylistic preference, but the main themes presented in the introduction and conclusion to each chapter would have been better conveyed had they been fully developed and contextualized throughout. Finally, the many extensive quotations only serve to detractfrom the fluency of the prose. Concision and precision would have made the volume more accessible. In the final analysis, Bowker’s project is extremely ambitious, perhaps too much so.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Raymond A. Mentzer holds the Daniel J. Krumm Family Chair in Reformation Studies in the Department of Religion at the University of Iowa.

Date of Review: 
October 2, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Bowker is an Emeritus Professor at Gresham College, London. He has also been a Fellow and Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Professor of Religious Studies at the universities of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina State. He is the author or editor of more than forty books, including Problems of Suffering in Religions of the World; The Meanings of Death (winner of the HarperCollins Book Prize, 1993); Is God a Virus? Genes, Culture and Religion; The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions; God: A Brief History; Beliefs that Changed the World and Knowing the Unknowable: Science and Religions on God and the Universe.


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