Book Review: We need to recognise how Christianity underpins Science
Book Review: We need to recognise how Christianity underpins Science
Let There Be Science - Why God Loves Science, and Science Needs God, by Tom McLeish and David Hutchings, Lion Books, 208pp, £9.90
reviewed by Stephen Boyle
A book which promotes the relationship between science and religion to be reviewed by a journal that sees that very much as its field of endeavour will be problematic. Is one to be patronising in what is to be seen as a good attempt but naturally lacking, or does Faith have something to learn in spite of the immense experience it has in this field?
A brilliant exposition
Let There Be Science fulfils some key elements. The large size of the print and the style of writing mean it is an easy read. And there is a tremendous value in religious writers of a clearly Protestant persuasion being so enthusiastic about science: ‘A brief warning: the speed of our journey through the following series of events may make the reader a little giddy’. This is no exaggeration as what follows is a brilliant exposition of the development of the understanding of electricity and magnetism, the results unified by Clerk Maxwell, Einstein’s theory of relativity; and following on from that the development of quantum mechanics and of the strive for the grand unified theory. It is succinct and exhilarating. Through the book there are interesting stories to back up the point being made. It also gives a good explanation of how in the Scriptures, in the Old Testament mostly, we have evidence of a keen interest in science.
It is disappointing that the book nowhere wishes to converse with those of the creationist view. The theory of evolution is not mentioned. Such is the brilliant nature of its science, that I have no doubts that they could have done so to great effect. This is maybe because it is aimed at a British audience, where creationism is not much of an issue. I am surprised that they would not wish to aim such a book at the American market.
It is when we get on to the theology that serious concerns occur. There is a heightened view of scientific endeavour, as can be seen in this quote referring to the parable of the prodigal son: ‘The spiritual love and spiritual hope that Jesus speaks of in this parable are deeply moving when grasped in full. They moved Job and Asaph and Habakuk and Paul and John. They moved Grosseteste and Copernicus and Kepler and Faraday and Maxell.’ We are informed that scientific endeavour is to be seen in the same light as missionary work, and that a blessing in the Church is appropriate for both callings. Scientists, God-approved workers, have as a vocation to reconcile man to God and each other.
This exalted view of science is really odd when, in what is truly more than ever a scientific world, the evidence is of a severe lack of reconciliation to God, and also of a society with deep issues concerning family life and the sanctity of life, and of self-esteem. There is also a real confusion between just normal human endeavour and perseverance, which one is called to in all areas of one’s life, and that directly related to salvation history. The writers are well aware of the Fall, of scientists not always being such good people and of the bad use of science. Yet this exalted vocation motif is pursued throughout the book. In such a light it called to my mind a homily from St. Josemaria Escrivá, given at Narvarre university, where he made it clear that it could be the cleaner who is truly doing the work of God, if the cleaner has the purer intention to do so.
Scientists’ religious backgrounds
The book clearly states the religious backgrounds of many of the major scientists and how it was a foundation to their scientific beliefs. Quoting from The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology: ‘Newton embraced a theory of gravitation involving the then-proscribed notion of action at a distance (short-range repulsion in this case) on the basis of his belief in God’s omnipresence. Faraday’s field theory was connected to his theology of God as creator and sustainer. Maxwell’s field equations modelled his views concerning relationships within the Trinity.’
Beliefs underpinning science
This is fine, but as we can see today, scientists can and do make great strides while holding atheistic or agnostic beliefs. What is missing is a general reference to what Christian beliefs really underpin any scientific endeavour. This article made me run to the articles in Faith magazine by Dr. Peter Hodgson (a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, who died in 2008) to be found on the internet. He makes clear the importance for scientific progress of the following that is found in Christianity: that the world is created out of nothing and in time, and that time is linear; that creation is not an emanation from God; that there no dualism - it is not a battleground between difference spirits; also that the world was freely made - thus it did not have to be created and could have been created otherwise. So to find out about the universe there is no a priori reasoning, but we learn through the experimental method.
Integral to Christian culture
What is also lacking is reference to the great work of Pierre Duhem (1861-1916), acknowledged by Dr.Hodgson, which shows clearly the Christian roots of modern science, thus decisively refuting the alleged incompatibility of science and Christianity still propagated by the secularist establishment. Science is an integral part of Christian culture, a lesson to be learned even within the Christian Church. His work showed that a new civilisation arose in the Middle Ages, a civilisation permeated by Christian beliefs which brought scientific breakthroughs. So the idea of John Buridan concerning motion in creation, derived from Christian theology, is the beginning of modern science, in its discovery and description of intrinsic, ordered inter-relationship.
It is also completely naive concerning the contribution that the Christian religion is called to give to scientific endeavour today. The book feels that the damage science can cause could be remitted by a Christian intervention. There is little recognition of the secular environment in Britain, with a secular press with a bias against institutional religion and also with the Churches damaged in their standing due to the abuse scandals. The Enlightenment values that push society have no room for a religious contribution, classically shown in the case of abortion, where the science clearly indicates when human life begins, at conception, but has scientists willing to promote the killing of the unborn and to experiment on embryos. So we end up with praising the efforts and also much of the content of the book, but paraphrasing from an Agatha Christie story, ‘Why didn’t they read Dr. Hodgson?’ It would have made a vast difference to this book.
Fr Stephen Boyle, MSc, STL, is the parish priest of St Anselm's Dartford, in the Archdiocese of Southwark.