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A Science and Religion Primer

Heidi A. Campbell and Heather Looy
Published by Baker Academic in 2009

In Quest of Freedom: The Emergence of Spirit in the Natural World

Philip Clayton
Published by Vendenhoeck & Ruprecht, in 2009

Science vs. Religion: What Do Scientists Really Think?

Elaine Howard Ecklund
Published by Oxford University Press in 2010

The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate

Adam Frank
Published by University of California Press in 2009

A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology.

Alister E. McGrath
Published by Westminster John Knox Press in 2009

Evangelicals and Science

Michael Roberts
Published by Greenwood in 2008

Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science

Michael Ruse
Published by Cambridge University Press in 2010

Religion and Science: An Introduction

Brendan Sweetman
Published by Bloomsbury in 2009


What is occurring at the interface between religion and science is more important than ever before.1 There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which are the ever-escalating culture wars pitting creationists on the one hand against evolutionists on the other. Evangelicals often find themselves caught in the middle, albeit many are increasingly feeling forced toward one or the other side of the fray. While many are uncomfortable with either the “science” of creationism or the theological or moral implications of evolution, those resisting the polarizing positions across the spectrum often feel the pressure of remaining noncommittal. With knowledge multiplying at a dizzying rate, it seems almost impossible to make up one’s mind definitively about matters in this arena. This difficulty of clearly seeing the way forward is problematic given evangelical theological commitments, especially so for those who believe that the deliverances of science will have at least some implications for theological beliefs. And since science and its advances and applications are even more interwoven with human life than before, like it or not, attempts to compartmentalize religion and science are being increasingly challenged.

This essay looks at eight recently published books at the religion and science intersection from a perspective informed by teaching at an evangelical seminary situated within a liberal arts university.2 The questions I bring to this review are the following. First, what are the trends in religion and science publishing in the wider academy that have implications for evangelicals teaching in the areas of science education or about the dialogue between religion and science? Second, what might be some helpful ways for introducing the topic of science to students at evangelical institutions, and how might these texts facilitate student engagement with the issues? Third, what are some of the prominent trajectories at the vanguard of the religion and science dialogue, especially those which may be particularly promising for evangelicals who take their faith seriously and do not wish to jettison such in their work as scientists or in their engagements with science?

The two parts of this essay each discuss four books: the first focuses on introductory texts on religion and science and the second engages with constructive proposals at the vanguard of the religion and science encounter. My approach throughout will be primarily descriptive, explicating how these volumes provide windows into the shifting dynamics of the science and religion interface as illuminated by my guiding questions. I will conclude with some reflections on the implications of these texts for evangelical thinking on these matters.3

Introducing the Issues

I begin this section with Brendan Sweetman’s book since it is one of the most expansive and even-handed introductory textbooks I have read that I believe will be amenable for evangelicals and their classrooms. Written in very accessible style, the seven chapters that constitute the main body of the volume discuss, in order, the history of the religion and science encounter; science and naturalism in the last century; evolution; scientific perspectives on the human person; design, especially in cosmology (albeit including a section on intelligent design); God in relationship to the world; and science, religion and ethics (especially with regard to the human genome, stem cells and cloning). Each chapter is divided into various sections that allow for transitions and breaks in what might otherwise be an overwhelming amount of information. The structure of the volume means that it will work well also as a supplementary text in worldview or religion/theology courses.

Sweetman is a philosopher who teaches at a Jesuit university (Rockhurst, in Kansas City). However, his Religion and Science fits well in an evangelical environment for at least the following reasons. First, it invites evangelical students to look into the issues through a pair of eyes informed by the wider Christian context, one that is not embroiled with the conflicts that often characterize evangelicalism on this issue. Yet Sweetman’s overall perspective is compatible with that of the evangelical spectrum, broadly understood, and in that sense, theologically orthodox.4 Hence his theological inclinations are, by and large, consistent with the classical theological tradition, even while he gently urges his readers toward a more historically informed engagement with the issues. Further, one finds none of the polemic that often exists on various sides of the issues. For example, intelligent design arguments, quite prevalent in evangelical institutions of higher education, are not dismissed but treated fairly.5 The topic of evolution is also handled sensitively, with the hard questions confronted especially with regard to macro-evolution (for example, on the fossil evidence, on the lack of transitional species, on the “mechanism” of natural selection, on the genetic and DNA evidence).6 The various sides to the discussion are presented respectfully, and the implications of an evolutionary worldview are also explored. Evangelical students will learn what is at stake and see how they can engage the issues without dispensing with theological convictions. The discussion is probably not enough to convince readers in either direction, but if they follow Sweetman methodologically, they will be off on their own journey to explore the issues further – precisely what a liberal arts education should inspire them to do.

Michael Roberts’ Evangelicals and Science is a fascinating and engaging overview of the history going back to Edwards and Wesley in the eighteenth century. With degrees in geology and theology and work stretching over three decades both in exploring geology and as a parish vicar in the evangelical wing of the Church of England, Roberts is eminently equipped to handle this topic. Thus this story is told from an evangelical insider ’s perspective, one that covers evangelical engagements with science in the age of revolution,7 during and after the emergence of Darwin’s origins hypothesis, and around the Scopes trial as well.

What will undoubtedly concern some evangelicals is the discussion regarding the rise of creation science since 1961 (the publication date of Henry Morris andJohn Whitcomb’s The Genesis Flood).8 This includes discussions of young earth creationism (YEC) – especially the resurgence of YEC as a global phenomenon – and of the intelligent design movement. Roberts carefully unpacks the appeal of YEC among evangelicals, its roots and scientific projects, its rhetorical and pedagogical strategies (agreeing with YEC critics that more often than not, YEC arguments are made by taking evolutionary claims out of context) and the debates it has fostered within its own camp. Roberts does not shy away from presenting the criticisms of YEC, but his discussion is helpful for those who realize that YEC is an undeniable phenomenon that will not be soon disappearing (especially given its perpetuation through private Christian school curriculum and home school networks) and who want to understand its attractiveness.

As primarily a historical portrait, Roberts’ Evangelicals and Science will probably not command use except as a supplementary text. However, this is an important book. Evangelical students will learn that the supposed “warfare” between religion and science prior to the twentieth century did not actually exist for most evangelicals (although Roberts is careful to recognize that the “evangelical” label is not easily applied before the last century). And while students will be confronted, in all likelihood, with their own presuppositions as mirrored in the YEC phenomenon, they will also see that there is much more to the evangelical encounter with science than what YECs allow or deem possible. Finally, because of the adeptness with which Roberts tells the story, students will be sensitized to the different ways in which theology and science interact across the scientific disciplines and will be alerted to how expertise in one area (geology, for example) is not directly helpful for dealing with difficult questions in other areas (biology, for instance). In short, evangelicals can learn much by studying their own history about how to posture themselves vis-à-vis the sciences, and from there, more effectively train themselves to better engage the issues.9

The next two books, Campbell and Looy’s Primer and Ecklund’s Science vs. Religion, are unique as introductory texts. As befitting a “primer,” Campbell and Looy’s book is divided into two sections.10 Section 1 includes four short (4- or 5-page) introductory essays by experts in the field on the history of the encounter, the role of philosophy, that of theology and technology in light of religion. The second section is constituted by approximately two-page discussions of 88 important key terms, chosen in consultation with an advisory board, each written by an expert in the field (69 different contributors). These entries summarize the terms, highlight the debated issues, and provide a short “Further Reading” list. Included are important figures in the history of religion and science (from Bacon and Boyleto Einstein and Polanyi), overarching philosophical, theological and historical categories (like metaphysics, soteriology and fundamentalism, respectively), schools of thought or positions relevant to the religion and science interface (such as process philosophy, fideism), some of the major scientific fields (cosmology, quantum theory, biotechnology and environmentalism, for instance), and issues under present adjudication (the anthropic principle and intelligent design, for example), among many others. 

As primers go, this volume will serve its purpose. It provides orientation for beginners to the field and a handy overview of the important matters. Given the brevity of the entries, of course, much is left out, important resources are missing from the reading lists, and some discussions do no more than touch on the past and present debates. In general, the entries remain at a very descriptive level, even when discussing the contested issues. On the one hand, the cumulative effect of the volume impresses on the uninitiated the explanatory power of the scientific paradigm, broadly understood. On the other hand, however, in some cases students may be misled into thinking that there is more consensus in specific fields of inquiry than actually exists. Overall, however, the Primer covers an impressive range of topics, and students who use it will be well informed about the scope of what is occurring at the intersection where religion encounters science.11

If Campbell and Looy’s Primer introduces the names and concepts at the religion and science interface, Ecklund’s book presents the religious views of contemporary scientists. While there have been a number of social scientific studies of the religious ideas and practices of scientists in the last century (many of the results are recorded in journal articles and are referenced in Science vs. Religion), Ecklund’s is, amazingly, the first monograph devoted to the topic. Her book presents the findings of a four-year study (2005-2008), Religion among Academic Scientists, involving quantitative research with over 1,600 natural and social scientists – representing the disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, economics, political science and psychology – from twenty-one elite research universities. The number of scientists involved, totaling almost 75% of those initially approached, makes this the most comprehensive study of the religious beliefs of scientists ever undertaken. The appendices describe the study, the online and web survey, and the interview. Two hundred seventy-five scientists were interviewed by phone or in person, and the qualitative results of much of what was discussed are preserved in Ecklund’s narrative.12

While approximately one third of the surveyed scientists were non-religious, many of these were not antagonistic toward religion and some even believed that,“ there are basic truths in many religions.”13 But the untold story is that almost 50% of scientists at these elite research universities identified with religion in some way, while another almost 20% considered themselves spiritual in some respect. Of those with religious faith, doctrinal or theological beliefs varied widely and unpredictably, religious practices were idiosyncratic and generally periodic, most did not publicize their faith, and only a small percentage dared to engage with religion publicly at any level (personal, ecclesial, in the classroom, or in their research). Of those who were spiritual and/or spiritual and religious variously, there were some atheists (a small number), but many more who saw spirituality as distinct from organized religion (that they may not have embraced) but yet as congruent with and even deeply intertwined with their scientific work, and were willing to explore and develop their own forms of “engaged spirituality” (such as involving meditation, yoga, reading of sacred texts, and active community activism).14 Needless to say, the scientific community is deeply divided about the role of religion in the classroom or in their vocation, about the prospects for and value of a purely secular university, and about the place of religion on campus and their own roles, as faculty and thereby elite members of their educational communities, in nurturing or legitimating this conversation.

In the last two chapters of her book, Ecklund boldly suggests “what Scientists are doing wrong that they could be doing right” (the title of chapter 8). She urges them to stop avoiding the issues or caricaturing their colleagues who may have different views than they do about matters pertaining to religion. Instead, scientists should be more aware of the diversity of positions even within the scientific guild, be more philosophically astute with regard to the limits of science, be more open to interacting honestly with the media about their own religious views, and be more intentional about addressing issues of religion and science. After all, these are the experts and their own honest engagements with things religious will go along way in helping the general population see that science is not the threat to religion that the “new atheism” says it is.15

Science vs. Reason is informative because the author’s prose captures the wide range of what scientists really think about religion. Yes, there are some who are hostile to religion, but these are a small minority. In these elite research institutions, there are potentially more mentors for evangelical students interested in studying the sciences than we might have been led to believe, although identifying them may require persistence. In sum, Ecklund has portrayed a much more diverse and complex set of scientific attitudes and postures toward religion than the media has let on.

Resolving the Debates?

In this section, we turn to explore four recent proposals that have attempted to push the discussion forward in the field of religion and science. My suggestion is that these offerings are representative of various trajectories across the spectrum of views mapped by Ecklund. We begin with the ruminations of an astrophysicist (Frank) and then move to examine two different types of philosophical reflections (Ruse and Clayton respectively) before concluding with the work of a former scientist and now theologian (McGrath).

Adam Frank teaches at the University of Rochester.16 Although not included among the elite institutions that Ecklund researched, he would fit in the spiritual-but-not-religious category, as is evidenced by his drawing widely in The Constant Fire on the great religious, mythological, and mystical traditions of human kind.Frank’s thesis, in brief, is that we can best get “beyond the science vs. religion debate” (the subtitle of his book) by understanding them as myths. Rather than providing a technical definition of myth to prove his thesis, however, Frank narrates his thesis (story) in three acts.

Part I compares the emergence of religion and science as complementary myths that map our modern consciousness of the sacred. Just as religion has once provided a metanarrative – a myth – that helped us understand our place in the world,so also has science emerged from out of that worldview, providing hierophanic glimpses into the sacred – such as through Galileo’s telescopes, Pasteur’s microscopes, Maxwell’s or Einstein’s equations, or William James’ psychological accounts of the varieties of religious experience. Even the scientifically constructed history of the world, of this planet and its life forms, amounts to a sacred narrative. Part II expands on this narrative by focusing on modern cosmology and the science of climatology. The suggestion is that the Big Bang cosmology and the various competing explanatory models it has spawned (such as inflation theories, multiverse, string cosmology) parallel the plurality of creation myths found across the world’s religious traditions, even as scientific climate change models, particularly those related to glaciations in the last ice age and the greenhouse effect and related predictive models on the contemporary horizon, parallel ancient flood myths about global devastation. The third part then weaves into the story the cultural dimensions of science as that interfaces with the explanatory power of mathematics and with the mysterious but irrepressible notion of archetypes; both endeavors open up to, Frank suggests, the depth dimension of the world and of our place in it.

In Frank’s terms,

The constant fire is the aspiration to know what is essential, what is real, what is true. It emerges from the elemental experience of the world as sacred. Mythic narratives are one expression of that aspiration. Scientific narratives are another. Throughout this book we have explored the parallels between science and myth and seen that science retains living roots in myth.17

As such, science not only provides windows into the sacred dimension of the human experience of the world, but it helps us to see that there is a mystical or sacred aspect to our inhabitation that goes beyond religious doctrine, scientific rationality, or technology taken on their own.18 In short, scientific work is spiritual work, and the “constant fire” is that which burns not only in the equations of science but also in our hearts.19

Michael Ruse, the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University since his retirement in 2000 after thirty-six years teaching in the history and philosophy of science at the University of Guelph (Ontario, Canada), is one of the most prolific writers in philosophy of science, philosophy of biology, and Darwinian evolution. After literally dozens of books in these fields in the last four decades, Ruse’s Science and Spirituality attempts to carve out via media between the new atheists on the one side and the creationists of all stripes (although most focused on intelligent design ideas) on the other.20 In brief, Ruse’s thesis is that, “although the central claims of Christianity are still constrained by reason, and although there is still certainly the need… to make sure that one’s religion-based claims harmonize with modern science, these central claims by their very nature go beyond the reach of science”; so, “I do not say that you must be a Christian, but I do say that in the light of modern science you can be a Christian. We have seen no sound arguments to the contrary.”21

As can be seen from this summary of the thesis at the end of the book, Ruse’s strategy, reflected also in the subtitle of his book, is a very Kantian one. While some may object to the constraints that Ruse retains vis-à-vis the claims of religion, he, along with Kant, can also be read as acknowledging the limits of science and the validity of faith. Thus Ruse’s arguments proceed to assess how scientific metaphors of the world as machine or as organism function, noting yet that neither approach asks at least the following types of questions, which remain valid: Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the basis for morality? What is the nature of consciousness? And what is the meaning of human life and existence?22 These are questions that open up to religious responses. On the other side, religion– in this case, Ruse limits himself to the Christian tradition – also asks its own questions or makes its own set of assertions, for example about God as creator, human moral responsibility, about Christ as the way to God, and about eternal life.These are, properly speaking, beyond the limits of scientific inquiry as well. The result, Ruse concludes, is the compatibility of science and religion.

Is Ruse’s Kantian strategy successful today? This demarcationist approach has had advocates on both sides of the religion-science divide.23 But simultaneously, such a position is also criticized from both angles – for drawing rigid boundaries where none are really establishable or for being overly cautious either about the explanatory power and reach of science or about the metaphysical scope and domain of religion. Ruse, however, does wonder whether the types of questions that we Homo sapiens might ask are limited by the kind of neurological hardware we have, and whether whatever “answers” we might suggest to our questions might be similarly constrained.24 In the end, however, Ruse may be an exemplary public intellectual when measured by Ecklund’s criteria, especially in terms of his teaching at a major research university but doing the hard work of at least opening up space for considering the relationship between religion and science.

The last two books I will consider are written by Christians, albeit of different persuasions. Clayton is a philosopher of religion and philosophical theologian from an evangelical background who more recently traverses more ecumenical and progressive Christian paths, while McGrath is an evangelical theologian with background in the biological sciences and in historical theology. Both are very well published and have even written multiple recent books on religion and science that could have been included in this review. The volumes on which I have chosen to focus, however, provide us with some perspective on the different strategies that may be taken to engage with the hard issues at the religion and science interface. If Clayton proceeds empirically and philosophically toward theological conclusions, McGrath moves from theology toward an interpretation of the empirical data. Let us see this contrast.

Clayton’s In Quest for Freedom is arguably a work in philosophical and theological anthropology, concerned ultimately with what philosophers of mind and neuroscientists have called the “hard problem of consciousness.”25 From a reductionistic, naturalistic, and cognitive scientific perspective, consciousness is no more than an epiphenomenon that supervenes upon or correlates with certain brain or neural states. Because Clayton embraces the position that the burden of proof rests upon those who resist such reductionist accounts, he works hard to show that a strictly naturalist or physicalist account of consciousness is incapable, finally, of explaining agency, freedom, responsibility, and self-conscious human life. He thus proposes an emergentist account of consciousness such that this phenomenon is dependent on an underlying material and neural substrate but, once so constituted, manifests novel and unpredictable properties that cannot be reduced to the sum of the primordial parts.

Clayton’s argument proceeds in five steps.26 1) There is a growing form of complexity, spontaneity, and sociality in biological evolution, each level of which exhibits novel emergent qualities that are irreducible to their constitutive parts. 2) Human mentality reflects a co-evolution of mentality and sociality resulting in unpredictable (freely enacted) cultural forms and behaviors so that there is “top down” causal influence resulting in the transformation of the various lower-level parts. 3) Human freedom assessed from a neuroscientific point of view must be at least partially undetermined or under-determined; Clayton proposes an asymptotic model of freedom – understood philosophically in terms of an asymptotic equation in which a curve approximates toward a given axis on a graph without ever reaching it, and then translated existentially in terms of our experience of freedom for all intents and purposes (the curve) even if we are only conditionally free (the axis) – which justifies our talking about human freedom while we are also at liberty to explore various scientific explanations of such freedoms.27 4) Such a view of freedom presumes or is best supported by a religious worldview that resists a mechanistic and deterministic materialism or naturalism. 5) Freedom is one manifestation, with moral responsibility being another, of the self-transcending character of what it means to be human, and this can also be understood as reflecting the image of God, to use Christian terminology. Throughout, Clayton proceeds carefully, even deferentially, vis-à-vis the latest scientific advances, while being respectful of naturalistic explanations.28 He is not presumptive about his religious or philosophical commitments, while yet being meticulous about moving from empirical data toward the emergentist worldview that he is recommending.29

Alister McGrath’s book presents a very different kind of engagement with the sciences. If Clayton is a Christian philosopher, McGrath turns here from being a historical theologian to making an effort in constructive theological reflection. Representing the Gifford Lectures of 2009, A Fine-Tuned Universe engages with discussions regarding the anthropic cosmological principle, chemical and biological complexity, and the directionality of evolution, but does so from an explicitly theological vantage point.30 In other words, whereas Clayton argues from the empirical sciences toward philosophical conclusions, McGrath reads the empirical data from a theological perspective.

Part I of these lectures presents the argument for such a theological approach, which McGrath calls a trinitarian natural theology. Clearly, McGrath is not wanting to argue for any generic theological strategy; rather, in keeping with his evangelical and classically orthodox commitments, this is a specifically trinitarian the-logical hermeneutic that allows us to “read” the natural world utilizing an overtly Christian lens.31 So if the fortunes of modern theology have resulted in part in a crisis of confidence in modern natural theology (following the failure of modernism and in the wake of Barth’s legacy), McGrath calls for a renewal of the natural theological enterprise, one based not on the universalistic rationality of the Enlightenment but on the historic Christian commitments informed by the book of Scripture to read the world – the book of nature, as the medieval theologians called it, following Augustine – in a Christian way.32 Thus, St. Augustine’s rationes seminales (the principles of order embedded in creation) becomes a prototype for revitalizing natural theology in the contemporary landscape in terms of enabling appreciation for the apparent ordering of the world and its intelligibility, nurturing sensitivity toward the interconnectedness of life and the universe, fostering recognition of the fine balance between order and disorder in the world, and increasing perception of the transcendent (or windows into the sacred, in Frank’s terms).

Part II, titled “Fine-Tuning: Observations and Interpretations,” turns to the sciences. The various chapters adopt this Augustinian-trinitarian strategy of understanding the constants of nature and the physical universe, the sensitive conditions necessary for the origins of life, the curious chemistry of water that is essential to life as we know it, the mechanisms of and constraints on biological evolution and, the apparent directionality or teleological convergences discernible out of the evolutionary process. When understood theologically, none of these scientific observations are all too surprising, McGrath suggests. Two conclusions are drawn. First, from a theological standpoint, a natural theology opens up toward a theology of creation: the world is not just natural, but a creation of the triune God. Second, a fine-tuned universe is an emergent world of increasing levels of complexity – a stratified reality, McGrath proposes – each level of which therefore needs to be examined and investigated on its own terms, deploying specific methods and inviting distinct disciplinary approaches. A theological worldview – better: atrinitarian natural theology or theology of creation – is what holds all of the various parts together, while simultaneously respecting the work and findings that are delivered at each of these levels.

The methods and approaches of the four authors in this part of our essay are partly reflective of Ecklund’s classification. Frank is clearly the spiritual entrepreneur, neither guided nor hampered by any specific religious tradition, and freely making connections as he sees fit in order to re-enchant (my term) the world and work of the sciences. Ruse and Clayton are both sensitive to the explanatory power of the scientific establishment. But the former, a non-religious philosopher (rather than scientist), adopts what may be called a more apophatic approach, simply desiring to clear away objections to religion and to make room for faith, while the latter, a committed theist,33 is a bit more constructive, suggesting that the limits of science not only allow for religion but in effect imply that a scientific worldview can be completed by religious perspectives and commitments. McGrath works more resolutely as a theologian, less concerned about what scientists might think about the theological task and more focused on opening up theological space for other believers to consider the work of the sciences. All, however, are doing the “right thing,” in terms of what Ecklund recommends, for they are the ones with the credentials to address this conflicted crossroads of religion and science.

Concluding Reflections

We have covered a good deal of ground in the preceding pages. At one level, there is little that holds together the eight books reviewed in these pages other than our guiding questions regarding trends in religion and science publishing which have implications for evangelicals teaching in science education or the religion and science dialogue and reflect prominent trajectories at the vanguard of the religion and science. I will make three concluding observations about evangelical engagement with the sciences from the preceding.

First, this very non-systematic review of recent publications reflects just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the diversity that exists at the juncture of religion and science. From this minimal overview, I observed the following: different disciplinary perspectives; different methodological approaches; different types and levels of religious commitments; different genres of religion and science books (primers, introductions, social scientific analyses, philosophical and theological studies) and so on. Expanding on McGrath’s call for multi- and inter-disciplinarity, I would go further to suggest that not only are a variety of methodological approaches important because of the different levels of emergent realities that need to be studied, but any type or level of reality is also open to a multiplicity of disciplinary analyses. And the importance of such multi- and inter-disciplinarity applies also to the religion and science dialogue.34

Second, with regard to adjudicating the tensions between religion and science, the foregoing discussion shows that there are a variety of mediating frameworks through which the issues can be negotiated. This not only presumes the multi- and inter-disciplinarity that exists in the field, but also insists on going beyond acknowledging such as a description of what is, to urging that each discipline may provide some angle on the whole that can illuminate the many relationships. Even more, I am suggesting that many different types of mediations are helpful, from Frank’s reliance of the category of myth to rethink religion and science, to Clayton’s philosophy of emergence. Even explicit theological thinking –such as McGrath’s trinitarianism – is valuable for those working from such perspectives. In short, the complexity of the religion and science encounter invites a plurality of mediating categories and proposals, each of which can be understood to shed light on the whole in some respect.

Last but not least, my overview reflects that there is probably no one evangelical stance to take vis-à-vis the religion and science dialogue. The question rather is: how can those of us who teach in liberal arts contexts inspire and empower our students to work in this arena and to contribute to an often confusing but still rich conversation? How can we equip our students to get beyond the fears typically engendered in conservative evangelical circles and to discern the issues and to engage imaginatively and creatively with the challenges? The books I have reviewed indicate that there are multiple avenues to the conversation, and thus the field is wide open for evangelicals to enter and make a contribution.35 As these volumes do their part in opening up space for our own reflections, perhaps we also can create forums for our students to flourish so that the next generation’s questions will reflect advances from those we are asking today.36

Cite this article
Amos Yong, “Science and Religion: Introducing the Issues, Entering the Debates—A Review Essay”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:2 , 189-203


  1. As a theologian and religious studies scholar, I note that most of my colleagues have notbeen thrilled about treating “religion” as a noun, at least not since the publication of WilfredCantwell Smith’s The Meaning and End of Religion (1963; reprint, Minneapolis: Fortress Press,1999), almost fifty years ago. Smith’s work showed how the term inevitably was reified andessentialized in ways that neglected registration of the dynamic features of religious life, buthis own constructive proposals to discuss instead “faith” and its “cumulative traditions” hasnot caught on. I retain the concept of “religion” in this essay in large part because it has persisted so far in the discourse vis-à-vis science, although I hope that readers will at least keep in the back of their minds Smith’s still very valid concerns about the illegitimate reification and essentialization of this aspect of human activity.
  2. Consider this an update on a similar review I published a few years ago: “God and theEvangelical Laboratory: Recent Conservative Protestant Thinking about Theology and Science,” Theology & Science 5.2 (2007): 203-221.
  3. A few caveats need to be registered since my background is in theology and religious studies and not the sciences. The choice of books under discussion is in some respects arbitrary. It is impossible to keep up with all that is being published in the field, and I reviewed a much larger number of new titles in this area than what is being discussed here. I eventually settled on these volumes primarily because I thought they were most relevant to the guiding questions that I had. For more of my own views about the relationship between religion and science, informed by these volumes and many other works, see Yong, The Spirit of Creation: Modern Science and Divine Action in the Pentecostal-Charismatic Imagination [working title] (GrandRapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), ch. 2 (forthcoming).
  4. Sweetman’s evangelical credentials can be discerned at least in part through his affiliationwith other evangelical philosophers, such as in his co-edited book with R. Douglas Geivett, Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) and his publication within an evangelical venue, Why Politics Needs Religion: The Place of Religious Arguments in the Public Square (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006).Among his six other books are works on modernism, truth, the philosophy of religion, GabrielMarcel, and an edited volume on Roman Catholic philosophers.
  5. See Sweetman, Religion and Science, 163-170. I have not conducted any surveys to find out how prevalent intelligent design is in science and theology/religion departments in evangelical institutions of higher education, but my guess, based on anecdotal evidence, is that it has generated widespread interest, with the chief reservations being related to its validity asa scientific research program.
  6. Sweetman, Religion and Science, 93-117. Another very helpful book devoted to the scientificand theological issues involved with evolution is by a population geneticist at Eastern University, David L. Wilcox, God and Evolution: A Faith-Based Understanding (Valley Forge, PA:Judson Press, 2004).
  7. This aspect of evangelical engagement with science fills in what is left out in Ronald Num-bers’ otherwise magisterial history: Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Cre-ationism to Intelligent Design (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).8See Henry M. Morris and John C. Whitcomb, The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and ItsScientific Implications (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1961).
  8. See Henry M. Morris and John C. Whitcomb, The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and ItsScientific Implications (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1961).
  9. Thus does Roberts’ single narrative fill in the blanks – expected of volumes featuring essays by different authors – left in the otherwise excellent book by David Livingstone, D. G. Hart,and Mark A. Noll, eds., Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective (New York and Ox-ford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
  10. Campbell is an expert on religion and the new media (with at least two books on the topic)and teaches communications at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas. Looy’s back-ground is in biopsychology, and she teaches at The King’s University College in Edmonton,Alberta.
  11. The Primer fills a need as there really is not even a “dictionary of science and religion” that is available to beginners in the field; the 2-volume. Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, J. Wentzel Van Huyssteen, ed. (Macmillan, 2003), is simply too massive except for the mostmotivated students.
  12. While still a relative newcomer to the sociology of religion guild, Ecklund’s methods are sound, her analyses usually insightful and her writing accessible – all indications that we will be hearing a lot more from her on a wide range of areas. Science vs. Religion is her second book, following an acclaimed study on a very different topic: Elaine Howard Ecklund, Korean American Evangelicals: New Models for Civic Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
  13. Ecklund, Science vs. Religion, 35.
  14. Ecklund, Science vs. Religion, 64-66.
  15. The most prominent of the “new atheists” have been the philosopher Daniel Dennett, the scientist Richard Dawkins, the neuroscientist Sam Harris, and the controversialist Christopher Hitchens. More recently, the physicist Victor J. Stenger has added to the salvo with hisThe New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books,2009). Reponses have been published by Alister McGrath, John Haught and, most recently,Gregory E. Ganssle (A Reasonable God: Engaging the New Face of Atheism [Waco, TX: BaylorUniversity Press, 2009].)
  16. He received his PhD from the University of Washington for a thesis on “The RadiationGasdynamics of Planetary Nebulae” (1992).
  17. Frank, The Constant Fire, 224.
  18. Thus Frank writes: “Transcendent realities may or may not exist but are not necessary for science to be recognized as a means to apprehend the sacred” (The Constant Fire, 259). Here indoes Frank clearly manifest Ecklund’s entrepreneurial scientific spirituality.
  19. I am reminded here of two books that have had similar titles and argued parallel theses toFrank’s: Kitty Ferguson, The Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion, and the Search for God (GrandRapids: Eerdmans, 1994), and George Johnson, Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith, and the Searchfor Order (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995).
  20. This is not Ruse’s first effort in this direction; see also his previous Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? The Relationship between Science and Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 2001); The Evolution-Creation Struggle (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2005); Evolution and Religion: A Dialogue (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). In each of these cases (and in other published works), Ruse clearly lands on the side of saying that evolutionary science and religion are compatible. The difference in the volume under review is that Ruse is stepping back from an in-depth focus on Darwinism and evolution to deal with the broader questions relating science and religion as a whole.
  21. Ruse, Science and Spirituality, 233, italics added.
  22. Ruse recognizes there are other important questions, such as those regarding the nature and origin of life and of complexity, or the nature of free will; however he limits himself to the four identified above since he wants to focus “on those who do at least make a moderate effort to stay within the bounds of science before they look elsewhere” (Science and Spirituality, 147).
  23. For example, scientists like Stephen Jay Gould have defended science and religion as being“normed” by non-overlapping magisteria (see Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria: Scienceand Religion are Not in Conflict, for Their Teachings Occupy Distinctly Different Domains,”Natural History 106.2 [1997]: 16-22 and 60-62), while Christian philosophers like Jean Pondhave urged also the view of science as concerning the natural and material world, and reli-gion as concerning the moral and spiritual domains (see Pond, “Independence: Mutual Hu-mility in the Relationship between Science and Theology,” in Richard F. Carlson, ed., Scienceand Christianity: Four Views [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000], 67-103).
  24. Ruse, Science and Spirituality, 179.
  25. See David Chalmers’ essay and the responses and discussion in Jonathan Shear, ed., Explaining Consciousness – The “Hard Problem” (London and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997).
  26. This is the basic thrust of the five main chapters of the book; note that this book was anEnglish version of what was originally given in German as the Frankfurt Templeton Lectures in 2006, and published as Philip Clayton, Die Frage nach der Freiheit: Biologie, Kultur und die Emergenz des Geistes in der Welt, Religion, Theologie und Naturwissenschaft 10 (Göttingen:Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007).
  27. It is here that Clayton seeks to go around the Kantian solution, which divides dualisticallybetween predetermined phenomena and undetermined noumena. Clayton’s emergentistproposal is thus finally an incompatibilist but yet not libertarian view of freedom:incompatibilist since the compatibilist position is insufficient to account for our sense offreedom, but yet not libertarian since then freedom risks being reduced to arbitrariness. SeeClayton, In Quest of Freedom, 102-103, and passim.
  28. This has marked Clayton’s work from the beginning of his sojourn into the field of religion and science – for example, see Explanation From Physics to Theology: An Essay in Rationality and Religion (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), and God and Contemporary Science (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998).
  29. Note, Clayton does not argue that divinity emerges from the material substrates of the world; in that regard, he is a theological dualist – see also Clayton, Adventures in the Spirit:God, World, Divine Action (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008).
  30. McGrath is also an amazingly productive writer. The books that most recently anticipatethe arguments in his Gifford Lectures are The Order of Things: Explorations in Scientific Theol-ogy (Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), and The Open Secret: A New Vi-sion for Natural Theology (Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008)
  31. My one gripe about McGrath’s efforts concerns his severely deficient pneumatology; ananemic pneumatology will undermine efforts to develop a robustly trinitarian theology, andMcGrath needs to address this before his trinitarianism will be convincing. For my own pneumatological assists to the theology and science dialogue, see my articles, in order of publication: “Discerning the Spirit(s) in the Natural World: Toward a Typology of ‘Spirit’ in the Theology and Science Conversation,” Theology & Science 3.3 (2005): 315-329; “Christianand Buddhist Perspectives on Neuropsychology and the Human Person: Pneuma and Pratityasamutpada,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 40.1 (2005): 143-165; and “The Spirit at Work in the World: A Pentecostal-Charismatic Perspective on the Divine Action Project,”Theology & Science 7.2 (2009): 123-140.
  32. The most complete discussion of the books of nature and of Scripture is the four-volume work edited by Jitse M. van der Meer and Scott Mandelbrote, Nature and Scripture in theAbrahamic Religions: Up to 1700, 2 vols., Brill’s Series in Church History 36 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2008), and Nature and Scripture in the Abrahamic Religions: 1700- Present, 2 vols., Brill’s Series in Church History 37 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2008).
  33. Clayton’s Christian commitments have been forcibly registered more recently in his new book, Transforming Christian Theology: For Church and Society (Minneapolis: Fortress Press,2010).
  34. I have previously described such pluralism in religion and science theologically in term ofthe metaphor of many tongues drawn from the Day of Pentecost narrative in the book ofActs; see Yong, “Academic Glossolalia? Pentecostal Scholarship, Multi-disciplinarity, and the Science-Religion Conversation,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 14.1 (2005): 63-82.
  35. In light of the explosion of creation science in the broader global conservative evangelicalmovement, Mark Noll’s challenge over fifteen years ago is even more urgent: we need to bemore intentional about training our students to think rigorously about the sciences, muchless with regard to other matters pertaining to the intellectual life. See Mark A. Noll, TheScandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,1995), esp. ch. 7.
  36. Thanks to Todd Ream (especially) and Perry Glanzer, the book review editors for CSR, forgiving me the space to write this essay and for their critical comments on a previous draft. Ialso appreciate helpful comments from Tim Lim (my GA). All errors of fact and interpretation remain my own responsibility.

Amos Yong

Fuller Theological Seminary
Amos Yong is Dean of the School of Theology and the School of Intercultural Studies, as well as Professor of Theology and Missions at Fuller Theological Seminary.