International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Religion, Science and Naturalism

by Willem B. Drees

Introductory Essay by Chistopher Southgate

This is an extremely important survey of the interface between science and religion, as viewed from a very particular perspective, that of Drees’ rigorous naturalism. From the very beginning he states that ‘I do not see religiously relevant gaps in the natural and human world where the divine could somehow interfere with natural reality.’ (xi). Much of the value of the book rests on the consistency with which Drees pursues his starting assumptions: of ontological naturalism and constitutive reductionism. He takes a very positive view of science, understood within a suitably tempered realism, and insists that religion can be approached from a non-religionist perspective, and must indeed properly be subject to scientific investigation. He therefore generates a matrix of challenges to religion, mapping onto religions’ cognitive, experiential and traditional aspects a complex typology going far beyond the better-known scheme of Ian Barbour.

In Part 2 Drees summarises the two classic historical loci of conflict between science and Christianity – the Galileo and Darwin controversies, and considers the thesis that Christianity was the matrix of thought necessary for the rise of science. Again Drees provides a thoroughly nuanced view, pointing out how misleading it is to talk of ‘science’ and ‘Christianity’ as though they were monolithic entities.

In Part 3, ‘Theology and knowledge of the world’, Drees provides a most helpful survey of the main lines of the debate on God’s action in the world. He is sceptical of the proposals of Polkinghorne, Peacocke and Russell (for a survey of the debate at the time see Russell et al, 1995 – also Saunders 2002), preferring an atemporal understanding of divine action. This section also includes a defence of scientific realism, but a rejection of moves to develop a theological realism along parallel lines (e.g. that of Murphy, 1990).

Part 4 of the book considers ‘Theology and Knowledge of Human Nature’. As one would predict, Drees examines sceptically the claims that religious experience argues for the reality of God. He also considers evolutionary explanations for the existence of religion. Striking here is that although his approach is scientific and sceptical, it is not gratuitously reductionistic. He does not concede that sociobiological explanations explain away religion, nor does he regard religious claims as pathological. There is also a valuable survey of theories on consciousness, and of the relation between evolution and morality.

In the final section Drees concludes that although science is a social activity influenced by all sorts of factors, it nevertheless ‘deserves pre-eminence as our major cognitive enterprise’ (242). His overall approach is therefore that science should be taken with the greatest seriousness - then (the few) theological conclusions that survive encounter with science will be correspondingly robust. It is most helpful in his view to stress the transcendence and atemporality of God. Some limit questions transcend naturalism - in particular the classic question as to why there is something not nothing. (Inferences from the anthropic principles are however rejected.)

This remains an outstanding volume in the field, exemplary as to what clear, theologically sceptical thought can deliver.