International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Science and Religion: A Critical Survey

by Holmes Rolston

Introductory Essay by William Grassie

Science and Religion: A Critical Survey is Holmes Rolston’s first book to directly engage science and religion and provides one of the most accessible introductory textbooks to the field.  It  was republished by the John Templeton Press in 2006 with a new introduction on “Human Uniqueness and Human Responsibility.” That essay provides important insights into the continuities and changes in Rolston’s own intellectual development.

Rolston opens by arguing that “in generic logical form science and religion, when done well, are more alike than is often supposed”.  He proceeds through a thorough review of the philosophy of science, beginning with the problems of induction and deduction, verification and falsification, models and paradigms, objectivity and involvement. Conflicts emerge between science and religion “because the boundary between causality and meaning is semipermeable” [1].

The next chapters examine the physical sciences, the biological sciences, the psychological sciences, and the social sciences. Along the way, readers are introduced to key philosophical problems, for instance the challenges of relativity theory and quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics and complexification in the evolution of life. Throughout, Rolston presents alternative interpretations of the science and the religious significance thereof. 

In the last two chapters on nature, history, and God, Rolston advocates a “soft naturalism” which “delights in emergence, enjoys the organic sciences, and yearns for holism against reductionism” [254] But, in his always judicious manner, he also provides critiques thereof.  Rolston develops a concept of “cruciform naturalism” in exploring the narrative and sacrificial significance of cosmology, evolution, and human history:

“Every life is chastened and christened, straitened and baptized in struggle.  Everywhere there is vicarious suffering. The global Earth is a land of promise, and yet one that has to be died for. All world progress and directional history is ultimately brought under the shadow of a cross.  The story is a passion play long before it reaches the Christ. Since the beginning, the myriad creatures have been giving up their lives as a ransom of many. In that sense, Jesus is not the exception to the natural order, but a chief exemplification of it.” [291]

In closing, Rolston reviews three religious options – scientific-existentialist theism, process theism, and finally “transscientific theism.” The latter is closest to orthodox Christian theology (his preferred interpretation) but he warns not to expect that “a single, unitary account will handle all the divine mysteries.” [334].  He ends with a discussion of “doing the truth.” “Life is a pathway,” writes Rolston, “on which there can be no knowing without going.” [336].

The book is comparable to Ian Barbour’s encyclopedic review of the field in Religion in an Age of Science (1998) with the advantage that most of the source material has been pushed into footnotes allowing the reader to concentrate on the ideas and not the names. Rolston is a gifted writer with a penchant for many, clever turn of phrases. His orientation is primarily theistic and Christian, but he recognizes that science does not necessarily privilege a Christian interpretation.  He gives brief accounts of other religious traditions and how they might be reconciled with contemporary science.  Non-Christians will still find many useful insights to translate into their own idioms.