International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction

by Thomas Dixon

Introductory Essay by John Hedley Brooke

Within a category of introductory texts this prize-winning book holds a special place for the way in which it combines succinctness with rigor. For those entering the multi-disciplinary field of “science and religion”, this makes it an excellent place to start. Dixon’s aim is not to dissolve the conflicts that arise when worldviews grounded in the sciences compete with those grounded in religious traditions. Nor is it to stifle disagreement. His hope is rather that his book might help people “to disagree with each other in a well-informed way.”

Beginning with valuable reflections on the plurality and complexity of the terms “science” and “religion”, Dixon stresses that different sciences and different religions have related to each other in different ways. Historical examples, such as the trial of Galileo by the Roman Catholic Church in 1633, are skilfully used to reveal the philosophical assumptions underlying the quest for dependable scientific knowledge – a quest promoted within Islamic cultures in the Middle Ages and greatly expanded in seventeenth-century Europe. Other historical examples invite the reader to consider the political ramifications of much of the discourse about the sciences and their bearing on religion. Questions about authority and how it is constituted in both scientific and religious domains are given welcome prominence. There is, however, much more to the book than an illuminating use of history. Informative chapters devoted to Darwinism, to contemporary debates about “intelligent design”, and to recent developments in the human sciences bring the analysis up to date. A concluding chapter on “Mind and Morality” deserves special mention because, under this heading, Dixon addresses such issues as the soul and immortality, the relation between mind and brain, and the differences between physicalist and dualistic approaches to personal identity. There are helpful pages here on both scientific and religious understandings of altruism and selfishness in human behavior. In particular we are warned to be suspicious of any ethical or political argument that purports to be based on what is deemed “natural”. Despite its brevity, the book covers a remarkable range of topics, from the multiverse hypothesis in cosmology to sexual ethics and deviancy. Without adopting a crude model of secularisation, Dixon acknowledges that, in most modern societies, science and medicine have gradually taken over from traditional religious beliefs as the most acceptable sources of publicly agreed divisions between the “normal” and the “deviant”. But he is careful to add that modern science has been as ideologically malleable as the Bible in arguing for and against such divisions. While the discussion of religion is dominated by the three Abrahamic faiths, it is by no means confined to the Christian traditions. Readers will also note the importance given by the author to the national and local contexts in which particular debates take place – an emphasis that accords with his view that “what is really at stake in science and religion encounters is politics.” Whether the use of the word “really” here is universally applicable makes a nice question.