International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Big Questions in Science and Religion

by Keith Ward

Introductory Essay by Wesley Wildman

The Big Questions presents Oxford University philosopher-theologian Keith Ward working comfortably across a vast loom of disciplines, selecting threads of insight with a keen eye for salience and economy, and weaving them with the sensibilities of a master tapestry maker. It is safe to say that Ward is one of a small handful of science-religion authors worldwide who can manage this many disciplines with apparent effortlessness.

The book is well titled, promising to answer (or at least discuss) the big questions in science and religion. Ten such questions are tackled, in one chapter apiece. These include: Is there an ultimate explanation for the universe? Does science allow for a non-physical soul or life after the death? Is science the only or best path to reliable knowledge? Does science support or undermine the hypothesis of God’s existence?

In each chapter, Ward registers not one but several important religious, philosophical, theological, humanistic, and scientific perspectives on the way to introducing competing answers to the chapter’s question. He does this in a nuanced and fair way, in the manner of the high-quality encyclopedia. And he also argues for his own take on the matter, which is an impressive critical synthesis of all the views he considers.

Ward routinely demonstrates the art of judiciously estimating the mode and strength of conceptual contact between the sciences and religious thought. For example, in the third chapter on the prospects for reconciling creation and evolution, Ward artfully draws a series of lines indicating where conceptual traction holds strong and where it starts to slip. One example of this delicate analysis is his approach to the assertion that, if God creates the universe, it should mean that there are signs in the universe that indicate this all-important fact. And yet we have nothing to which this universe, created or not, can be compared, so it is difficult to decide what signs of creation would count as evidence for creation by a good God. A careless approach to this question quickly allows one side to consume the other. Ward keeps both insights alive precisely to the degree that the strength of possible conceptual traction requires. This appreciation for the complexity of conceptual relations among sciences and religions is less common than it should be even in the best science-religion writing.

The most desperate field-wide weakness in science-religion books is religious insularity and corresponding theological parochialism. Ward is one of the few experts in world religions currently writing in science and religion, and this makes The Big Questions a particularly interesting and important contribution to the literature of the field. The book focuses on philosophical varieties of theism, and works comfortably across Western and South Asian religious traditions in doing so. The non-theistic traditions of South Asia and East Asia do not receive much attention, and this delivers Ward’s sophisticated form of philosophical theism from having to face serious challenges from a very different point of view. But we can only hope that more science-religion writers will follow Ward’s example and make a point of engaging multiple religious traditions in their publications.