Religion's reality rests on a wing and a prayer

When Science Meets Religion
December 8, 2000

The pusillanimous will find great comfort in this book. With the clarity and learning that marks all his writing, Ian Barbour takes his readers through a range of largely 20th-century thought inspired by the incoming tide of science on the beaches that edge the lands once claimed by religion. This is essential reading for anyone interested in the overlapping of science and religion, for it surveys the range of recent theological thought motivated by the rise of science.

The book is a model of organisation. Each of its principal themes - the problem of cosmogenesis, the apparent indeterminism exposed by quantum theory, the awesome power of natural selection, the genetic groundwork of human nature and the origin of free will - is subjected to analysis according to Barbour's previously established typology, which considers the overlap of science and religion to fall into four categories. First, "conflict", in which the proponents of science are at war with those of religion. (This is where I nail my colours.) Second, "independence", in which the parties agree to carve up the world of understanding and not to invade each other's domain. Third, "dialogue", where the parties recognise that they share similarities of approach. Finally, "integration", in which the proponents join hands in celebration and through joyful collaboration mutually enrich each other's understanding. Barbour favours the niceness of "integration". He thereby sides with, and gives support to, the pusillanimous, who cannot see that religion has had its day as a mode of understanding the world and prefer their comprehension to be guided by sentiment and that most unreliable of maps, faith.

At one level I consider the book to be the best of the elucidations that I have read in this field. At another level, though, it is a monument to the extraordinary waste of effort that characterises this corner of philosophy. As I read it, I imagined my ear pressed against the keyhole of an asylum for learned lunatics, listening to the superficially erudite babble of those within. Their discourse is clever and consistent, but when viewed dispassionately, is simply out of touch with reality. I was overwhelmed by sadness that bright people could waste their brains by grappling with problems of their own making and confuse them with questions of cosmic significance. That anyone should consider that remarks such as "God is the transcendent, the wholly other, unknowable except as self-disclosed" or that "the primary sphere of God's action is history, not nature" add to the sum of human knowledge, ought perhaps take to heart Pope John Paul II's remark that "science can purify religion from error and superstition". (Unfortunately, he went on to say that "religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes".) Although a relatively sane voice amid this babble of wasted intellect, Barbour is not always as clear as he might be. But wallowing in this feather bed of the intellect, who can be clear? Thus, he is out of his depth when discussing that joyful romping ground of under-informed philosophers, quantum theory, and its presumed indeterminism. Barbour considers that there may be some truth in the view that "God is the determiner of indeterminism", whatever that means, in part because he misunderstands the implications of complementarity. In short, the uncertainty principle does not limit our knowledge of the world: it merely reveals that classical physics unwittingly tried to be over-complete.

This book is a testament to the delusion of theologians that they are contributing something useful to our understanding of the world and that they have something useful to say about: its origin (they do not, that is the job of cosmologists); its sometimes painful unfolding (ditto, that is for evolutionary biologists); and its purpose (there isn't one). How much easier it is to accept the stark, clear-sighted view of right-thinking individuals who see that there is neither evidence nor need for God and that all the suggested answers in this book are but vacuous musings.

Peter Atkins is professor of chemistry, University of Oxford.

When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers or Partners?

Author - Ian Barbour
ISBN - 0 281 05364 2
Publisher - SPCK
Price - £12.99
Pages - 205

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