Science, Religion and the Changing Conceptions of Nature – John Hedley Brooke lectures

Very soon we will be hosting Prof John Hedley Brooke, the renowned historian of science, to give three ground-breaking lectures on how science and religion have led to changing conceptions of nature throughout history. These are the dates:

26 Jan, 5pm – Nature as Creation

27 Jan, 5pm – Nature as Historical Process

29 Jan, 5pm – Nature Recreated

To register, go to

This is Prof Brooke’s synopsis of the series –


Science, Religion and Changing Conceptions of Nature

Recent developments in science have recast our relationship to “nature” in exciting new forms and in new light. The question “what does it mean to be human?” is now frequently answered in language drawn from biology and the neurosciences: we are defined by our DNA, the workings of our mind reduced to brain function.  If, as some would claim, this amounts to a dehumanisation of the human subject, it does so paradoxically because the methods, intellectual capacity and creativity of the scientists at work could equally be said to elevate, not objectify, what it means to be human.  New sciences, such as synthetic biology, confer powers on the scientist (eg to “create life”) that were once reserved for a transcendent Creator.  Nature, once understood as a work of Creation, has become susceptible not merely to transformation through human impact, but also to re-creation through human ingenuity.

It is tempting to see in such scientific and technological advances a desacralisation of the natural world.  What we call “nature” has surely been manipulated, exploited and despoiled by human societies in ways that leave any sense of pristine “nature” in a parlous state?  On one level the answer is an obvious “yes”, with Christian theology often implicated in a dangerously anthropocentric view of natural resources.  In all such reflections there is, however, a deeper question, which concerns the meanings of the words “nature” and “natural” and how they have changed over time.  In my three lectures, I propose to examine this deeper question, showing how advances in the sciences have been accompanied by changing images and conceptions of “nature” and how these, in turn, have been reflected in theological discourse and in new theologies of nature.  Although the sciences have facilitated secular interpretations of both physical and human nature, I shall argue that to place them essentially and exclusively in narratives of secularisation amounts to one of the many myths surrounding the historical relations between science and religion.


Lecture 1: Nature as Creation

An ordered “creation” as presupposition of early modern science. The scientist as one who, in studying the book of nature, thinks God’s thoughts after him.

The scientific movement of the 17th century was accompanied by a secularisation of theology – in the sense that lay scientists theologised about nature and reinterpreted theological doctrine in the process.  Accordingly, images and meanings of nature were transformed in 17th-century Europe by figures such as Galileo, Boyle and Newton who were laymen in the study of theology and natural philosophy. Each of the transformations of “nature” was inextricably linked to theological discourse as new ways were found for accommodating both scientific enquiry and belief in divine Providence:

Galileo: nature subverted: With the heliocentric system of Copernicus and Galileo, the universe was enlarged, and humanity diminished?  Tempting but false conclusions about the loss of human significance – the mythology (and in retrospect the paradox), that humanity was actually elevated by the new astronomy.  The need for demythologising extends to Galileo’s trial, still iconic for conflict models of the relations between science and religion. This transformed nature is still a Creation, as in Kepler’s Trinitarian and harmonious universe. With Galileo nature is also atomised, with dangerous connotations and possible implications for the Eucharist?  The book of God’s works is written in a different language (mathematics) from the book of God’s words, but one of the uses of science is to illuminate the meaning of Scripture.

Boyle: Nature still so much a Creation for Boyle that we have nature eliminated, or at least an attempt to eliminate the word.  Nature mechanized in a way that made science possible without sabotaging Creation. Strasbourg clock analogy mediating between experimental science & theology.  (Nature de-deified, Hooykaas). The rules followed by nature are determined by Providence, not by chance. The scientist as priest in the temple of nature. Final causes not to be excluded from the study of nature (pace Descartes); and a natural theology is revitalised (pace Hobbes).

Newton: Nature unified, Nature legalised, Nature mathematized.  Newton’s rich theology of nature, his invisible realm. Fusion of theology and science, as in Newton’s conception of absolute space. Unity, universal laws and divine omnipresence. Controversy with Leibniz and Nature as defective? This controversy shows how theology via philosophy still played a role in shaping acceptable science. Newton’s God according to Leibniz is a second-rate clockmaker. Lecture 1 can end with ref. to the myth of a separation of science from theology as a consequence of the scientific revolution. In natural history, the wisdom of God was still manifest in the works of Creation (John Ray); in Newton’s natural philosophy, the brilliance of a divine mathematician was demonstrable.  Nature was still a creation and a book to be read by the scientist.

Lecture 2: Nature as Historical Process

From nature as designed to nature historicised to nature naturalised, with special ref. to Paley, Darwin and T. H. Huxley.

Paley: nature designed, the theme of unity of nature and natural theology links Paley to Newton as discussed at end of lecture 1. How Paley went beyond caricatures of Paley : eg Paley in Darwin’s earliest models for evolution – as a way of preserving adaptation – and via his two Beings creating space for what Darwin filled with natural selection. Yet in Paley, nature was theologically overburdened and still essentially static.

Two views of nature historicised: Hugh Miller and Charles Darwin. In Miller, nature has a history but is still a work of (progressive) creation. In the young Darwin Paley’s natural theology is not yet extinguished, as evolution is nature’s way of preserving adaptation. But in Darwin’s mature theory, nature becomes usurper of at least one role of the Creator (in the origination of species). With Darwin Nature is also personified and indicted (for its horribly cruel and wasteful works). The possibilities for theodicy and for Nature as art (Tyrrell). Darwin’s dog and the origins of religion (Pleins etc.).  Nature as redefined by Darwin still leaves space for theology, with its reference to ordained laws (R. Richards). The absurdity for Darwin of suggesting that a man cannot be both evolutionist and theist.

Huxley: nature naturalised, as with Tyndall too (a process not complete with Darwin).  Another paradox: the concept of laws of nature, embedded in theism, becomes a primary vehicle, a Trojan horse, for naturalism. Theology’s role as critic: the myth of naturalism’s triumph (Lightman). Even Huxley himself complains that the “much vaunted antagonism between science and religion” is a fabrication.  Examples of theological critiques; eg  HenrySidgwick and Alfred Russel Wallace.  This lecture could end with the caricature involved in presenting naturalistic explanation as incompatible with and excluding theistic interpretation, given the historic range of models for their complementarity.(See Ron Numbers in When Science and Christianity Meet on naturalism as an offspring of Christianity).  How the modern opposition between nature and supernature, such that the latter is swallowed by the former, is more a product of than a cause of secularisation. Nature as all that is?

Lecture 3: Nature Recreated?

In this final lecture, I shall return to the paradox indicated at the outset – that in the reduction of humans to their DNA and their brains, there is a relegation, an objectification, of humankind, even as the scientific endeavour to understand, control and transform nature demonstrates an elevation of human powers that frequently elicits critical, certainly cautionary, references to the scientists “playing God”.  From Francis Bacon to the present, the applied sciences have been seen as a way of improving the human lot, even of improving nature. In the contemporary context of synthetic biology, the presumption to create novel forms of life arguably carries this to a new extreme in which Bacon’s vision of “effecting all things possible” extends the range of the possible into uncharted territory. This simultaneous diminution and elevation of humankind has a certain resonance with the Psalmist’s cry of astonishment that his God could take an interest in so insignificant a creature as man, and yet endow him with a significance only a little lower than the angels. During the preceding two lectures, we will have encountered the different gods of scientists who have theologised about nature. Have the scientists of our own day replaced those former gods with themselves?

I shall begin by identifying various respects in which, through the scientific innovations of the 20th and 21st centuries our relationship to what we still call nature has become more intimate. We insinuate our objectives into nature much as the gods of former ages were supposed to actively influence the course of events.  The evolutionary naturalism of the late-19th century makes it impossible to detach ourselves since there is at least a basic level on which we are nature’s products. One benign aspect of this intimacy is our propensity to find nature intelligible and beautiful, as Einstein did – the beauty discernible at both phenomenological and theoretical levels, even appropriated as a criterion in theory evaluation.  The “first question” Einstein said that he asked of any scientific theory was whether, had he been God, he would have made the world that way. The mystery of nature’s comprehensibility was one of the bases of Einstein’s “cosmic religion”, which, for all its denial of a personal God, spoke of a complementarity between science and religion, which he placed in opposition to atheism.

Taking up the theme of complementarity (perhaps with a brief ref. to quantum physics), I shall then consider two different respects in which theology might contribute to the discussion of biotechnology and its ambitions.  One, very different from an oppositional stance, has been to articulate theologies of nature that accommodate transformative technologies by stressing the incompleteness of creation and by presenting scientific research and its ameliorative applications as a form of collaboration between man and his Maker. (Teilhard de Chardin as an exemplar).  The other has been to support cautionary principles by pointing to the need for wisdom when the drive to effect all things possible is either unrestrained or tendentiously justified by an irresistible promise of unprecedented medical outcomes. There are sensitive scientists aware of the need for a theology of science that places the quest for wisdom above, or at least alongside, the bare quest for technological innovation (McLeish). And there is no shortage of commentators who would echo the fears of the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, who declares that “we are on the way to transforming ourselves into gods” and “we don’t know what we want.” [in A Brief History of Humankind (Harvill Secker, 2014). I shall conclude with reflections on this “playing God” motif, which for all the flippancy with which it has been expressed constitutes a literary trope deserving analysis [Sven Wagner, The Scientist as God, Heidelberg 2012].