New textbook – ‘Philosophy, Science and Religion for Everyone’

Routledge has just published Philosophy, Science and Religion for Everyone, the new textbook for our MOOC in Philosophy, Science, and Religion, edited by myself and Duncan Pritchard, and authored by many of the course tutors and lecturers. It’s available from the Routledge website, or from Amazon, but as a taster, here’s the text of the Introduction: –

Introduction (Mark Harris and Duncan Pritchard)

The science-and-religion discourse is so significant that it’s hardly possible to live in the Western world and not hold an opinion on it. The discourse is, however, almost universally construed in terms of a ‘debate’, and a debate that’s characterised by ‘conflict’ above all. The fact that the discourse underlies some highly-volatile social and political disagreements adds fuel to the fire (and these disagreements are especially live in North America, especially concerning climate change, the place of ‘evolution versus creation’ in high school education, and in bioethics concerning ‘pro-life versus pro-choice’). Arguably, there’s too much heat, and little light in these disagreements. Adding philosophy to the mix (‘Philosophy, Science, and Religion’), this book takes the view that the science-and-religion debate can move beyond hostility, to become a major force behind a new kind of intellectual enlightenment in modern culture.

At present, it’s possible to see the science-and-religion debate as a near-perfect example of C. P. Snow’s famous Two Cultures idea, that there’s an intellectual gulf between the natural sciences and humanities subjects so deep that meaningful dialogue is almost impossible. We are all too-familiar with the many inexpert and over-confident commentators on both sides of the science-and-religion divide who weigh in blithely, with the effect that all too often the misunderstanding and hostility are entrenched due to a poor grasp of the issues at stake. The new atheism debate, and the creation versus evolution debate are good examples of areas dominated by clashes of ideologies rather than the productive exchange of ideas. As a result, the conflict hypothesis—that science and religion are irreconcilably at war with each other—looks set to be perpetuated indefinitely. And yet, the academic discipline of philosophy, science and religion, which brings together thousands of scientists, philosophers, historians, and theologians (among other kinds of scholars), has demonstrated again and again the superficiality of the view that science and religion have to be completely at loggerheads.

Why, then, is the conflict hypothesis so pervasive? Partly it’s because the conflict story ‘sells’ in the popular media, and partly it’s because it suits the agendas of the vocal few on the extreme sides of the debate. More importantly though, it’s because the conflict hypothesis is a ‘social construct’, an idea that seems so obvious that a society will largely believe it without question, because that idea supports (or legitimates) a widespread assumption of that society. In this case, that assumption is what’s known as the ‘secularisation thesis’, the idea that traditional religious beliefs and practices must inevitably decline in the face of modern scepticism and relativism, with a special emphasis on the superiority of modern science and technology for providing essential knowledge and truths.

It’s not our purpose to investigate the rights and wrongs of the secularisation thesis, nor the ways in which it entwines with ideologies and practices at the heart of Western culture, such as neo-liberalism and different forms of democracy and social welfare. All of these are hotly disputed by academics in the social sciences, not to mention public figures such as politicians, journalists, and religious leaders. Instead, we want to point the way to the new kind of intellectual enlightenment that we mentioned above, where the gulf between the ‘Two Cultures’ is bridged by the medium of philosophy. This book sets out some of the main parameters at play in bridging that gulf. The book accompanies the University of Edinburgh’s freely-available MOOC (‘Massive Open Online Course’) in Philosophy, Science, and Religion (available from www.coursera.org), but it can also be read in its own right as a stand-alone introduction to the field.

The philosophy, science and religion field of scholarship has always held questions of ultimate meaning and purpose to its heart; not only does the field embrace all of such big questions asked by science and by religion, but in allowing philosophy to take the lead in showing how the different sciences and religions can come together, the field introduces big questions of its own, concerning the nature of knowing, the nature of seeking, and the nature of enquiry. Clearly, the potential questions that can be asked and tackled here are enormous, both in magnitude and in number, and we’ve needed to be selective in compiling this book. Chapters that address the central philosophical questions of how the sciences and religions relate to the concepts of truth, logic, free will, and reason are centre-stage in the book (Pritchard and Orestis, Collin, Pritchard, Carter, Church, Vierkant), along with the general question of how and why the science-and-religion debate is important in the first place (Fuller). But the book also looks at issues arising from specific sciences. The natural sciences where science-and-religion questions most frequently arise—physics (Harris), biology (Richmond), and the neurosciences (Ritchie)—are mined, especially for their ability to shed light on religious claims. Moreover, chapters covering the formidable debates of our times—especially concerning fundamentalism (Gordon), evolution and creationism (Harris and de Pomerai), creation and cosmology (Fergusson and Snow), and the ethical implications of the science-and-religion debate (Kidwell)—appear. Each chapter includes a set of study questions directly related to the text, which could be used (for instance) in a discussion group, or to provide inspiration for student essays or dissertations in the area. Importantly (since this book is intended merely as a starting point for a rich field of further research), each chapter has a short list of suggested reading if you’re interested in taking things further, which is divided into introductory and more advanced texts (along with some suggestions for internet resources). The book closes with a glossary of key terms throughout, so that you can’t get lost working your way through these issues. The result is a book that we hope offers an enlightening, while also accessible, overview of the Philosophy, Science and Religion debate.

Mark Harris & Duncan Pritchard

Edinburgh, April 2017

 

 

 

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