International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement of Science and Religion

by John Hedley Brooke , Geoffrey Cantor

Introductory Essay by Thomas Dixon

This extremely important study by two historians of science, John Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor, is based on their Gifford Lectures, delivered in 1995-6. Gifford Lectures, designed to promote the study of natural theology, have been delivered since 1888 in the Scottish universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews and Aberdeen. Reconstructing Nature is just one of many distinguished books about science and religion to result from a series of Gifford Lectures. The metaphor of engagement, invoked in the book’s subtitle, allows the authors to get beyond simple ideas of conflict or harmony. An ‘engagement’ can be a relationship that is cooperative, collaborative, or conflictual; it can bring to mind the mechanical engagement of one part of a machine with another, or the process of engaging an adherent or helper. Brooke and Cantor’s book builds on earlier works by historians of science, especially Brooke’s own Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (1991), and is an important step towards more recent studies, including Cantor’s Quakers, Jews, and Science: Religious Responses to Modernity and the Sciences in Britain, 1650-1900 (2005).

Reconstructing Nature uses a series of case-studies to enlarge on the idea of the historical diversity of modes of engagement between science and religion. There are sections on New Age reconstructions of religion and science, the contemporary relevance of the Galileo affair, Auguste Comte’s Religion of Humanity, the role of Quakers in the Royal Society, and the theological dimensions of the history of chemistry. At the heart of the book are three chapters showing how European natural theology functioned to allow the negotiation of relationships between sacred and secular forms of knowledge, providing a context in which to argue both for the theological respectability of scientific pursuits, and for the scientific respectability of theological ones. These chapters analyse the different images of God deployed by natural theologians – as designer, creator, legislator; mathematician, geometer, chemist; architect, builder, mechanic. Natural theological works also relied on arousing aesthetic sensibilities and affections, which could then be used in support of political programmes, from Joseph Priestley’s radical republicanism to William Whewell’s more conservative Anglicanism.

Brooke and Cantor’s essays themselves provide case studies in how history can be written in the service of both scientific and religious ideas. The aspiration to impartiality and objectivity, shared by many recent historians of science, suggests a commitment to a scientific approach to history, and seems to be inspired by an ideology of toleration and consensus-building, shared by the founders of the Royal Society and, for instance, the Quakers, as Brooke and Cantor’s own chapter on the subject illustrates. And these historical tales have religious morals too. Throughout there are (often implicit) warnings to theologians not to jump on scientific bandwagons, and to scientists not to crow prematurely about the scientific defeat of religion. More specifically, the authors hint at their support for a theology that takes due account of animal welfare and environmentalism; for an improved standard of public science communication; and for some form of process theology that allows for the idea that human beings can be collaborative co-creators.