International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge Studies in the History of Science)

by John Hedley Brooke

Introductory Essay by Geoffrey Cantor

Written in an accessible, personable, and non-dogmatic style, Brooke’s Science and Religion has not only inspired a generation of scholars but has also become a staple text for both graduate and undergraduate courses. Drawing on an extensive range of primary and secondary sources Brooke explores the ways in which scientists and theologians have understood the relations between science and religion. One of the book’s principal aims is to show not only that both science and religion are multifaceted domains of human experience, but also that they have generated interaction in a wide variety of ways. For example, religious beliefs have served both as presuppositions in scientific theorising and as motives for studying nature, while science itself has sometimes been viewed as providing an alternative religion.

Drawing on material from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, Brooke offers a penetrating overview of how science and religion have indeed interacted by focusing on examples that illuminate the diversity of these exchanges. He also repeatedly challenges the reader’s preconceptions. For example, he shows that far from resulting in the secularisation of nature, the view that the world functions like a mechanism allowed seventeenth century scientists to portray God’s role in the universe in a number of different ways. Thus Descartes, who famously drew the distinction between matter and spirit, envisaged God as the creator of a world in which matter and motion are conserved, attributing immortal souls only to humans, whereas Newton portrayed God as omnipresent and necessary for the operation of the gravitational force.

In a later chapter Brooke shows that the argument from design was not the questionable inference so often (and easily) refuted by contemporary opponents of religion, but instead he explores its deployment for a variety of religious purposes and sometimes even as a medium of attack on Christianity. Likewise on the major topic of evolution, Brooke demonstrates that past writers have indeed struggled with Darwin’s theory. While the theory of evolution has often been utilised by secularists to attack religion, others have found ways of aligning it with their religious views.

Not only does Brooke show the fascinating diversity and complexity of science-religion interrelations but in so doing he challenges the simplistic and all too prevalent notion that science and religion have been locked in a deadly conflict from which science has now emerged triumphant. What Brooke’s close study of history demonstrates is that such a view – and equally, the view that science and religion are necessarily in harmony – is untenable. By contrast, history, when pursued in an empathetic manner, can reveal the richness and complexity of situations where thinkers have grappled with the problems of interrelating science and religion. Not only does such richness show the sterility of master narratives like the conflict thesis, but Brooke’s book demonstrates the importance of an historical perspective to the contemporary understanding of the science-religion interface. In crucial ways the subject is constituted by its history.

The book concludes with a ‘bibliographical essay’ spanning some 50 pages that, although now somewhat dated, contains a wealth of further readings on the topics discussed.