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].


Lectures from the Faith and Cosmology conference

Now available – the four excellent lectures from our Faith and Cosmology conference (15th November 2014) on YouTube.


Fr Andrew Pinsent – ‘Cosmology and Being’ 

Prof Bernard Carr – ‘Cosmos and creation’

Dr Peter Bussey – ‘Cosmology, how physics and theology meet’

Jamie Boulding – ‘The multiverse and participatory metaphysics’

Science and Religion: The Assumptions We Bring to the Table

This past weekend, I was on a hike in the Highlands with a group that included several people from the Science and Religion program here at the University of Edinburgh. Topics of conversation ranged from the philosophical status of zombies to the educational standards of UK primary schools, but eventually the conversation turned to the reactions we get when explaining to people that we work in the field of Science and Religion. Admittedly, the University of Edinburgh is one of a select few academic institutions with a specific Science and Religion postgraduate program, but I am always a bit surprised at the responses I get when telling people what I’m studying. A great many individuals respond with something along the lines of, “Science and Religion? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?” Others politely offer a “Hmmm, how interesting,” while some excitedly assume that we’re spending our time defending young-earth Creationism.

Fair enough. Popular culture and media representations have a long history of portraying theology and “hard science” as being at odds with one another. A superficial gloss of Galileo’s conflict with the Church, or well-publicized tirades against the evils of evolution are often the first images to come to mind when the words “science” and “religion” are uttered in the same sentence. Obviously, most people actually working in this field do not assume a necessarily mutually exclusive relationship between the natural, empirical processes of the observable world and some sort of religious reality; if we did, we’d likely find better uses of our time! Much has been written about the exact relationship between science and religion, but what I found particularly striking this past weekend was the profound role that our assumptions play in these discussions. More interesting than the actual content of people’s reactions to Science and Religion as a legitimate field of research and discussion is the way that most of us experience our reactions as self-evident – myself included! For example, when we assume that science and religion are inherently at odds with one another, we are likely operating with an understanding that science deals with “cold, hard facts” and religion deals with untestable spiritual realities. What is even more interesting is that both atheists and those who believe in God often hold the very same assumptions. A theist might be assuming that although science deals with the observable world and religion handles theological realities, they are both part of the same reality, while the atheist might assume that what is not scientifically testable cannot be truly “real.” They both assume that science and religion are incompatible with each other, but for different reasons.

Without getting into a discussion of the various typologies delineating approaches to the relationship between science and religion (Ian Barbour’s work being an obvious example), the salient point is that we all come to the Science and Religion table with assumptions about reality, the boundaries of science, and the interaction between God and natural laws. Rather than immediately jumping into a heated debate about the latest provocative television sound bite, what if we started asking altogether different questions? Any impasse in public discussions regarding science and religion will likely be overcome only by first 1) recognizing that we all have assumptions about reality, science, and religion in the first place, and 2) questioning our reasons for holding those assumptions. It certainly can’t hurt, and might start an entirely new conversation about the “big questions” of life, meaning, and reality – questions that are not only of public interest, but personally relevant and compelling as well. And if nothing else, walks in the Highlands become much more interesting.

Many worlds and quantum mechanics

By an amazing coincidence, our MSc class in Science and Religion has just this afternoon been discussing the merits of the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and I came back to my office to find a piece posted on the BBC website describing Brian Cox’s enthusiasm for the same Many-Worlds interpretation –

Brian Cox: ‘Multiverse’ makes sense

It might be a bizarre and extravagant interpretation, but Many Worlds has some definite explanatory strengths over the (more mainstream and more manageable) Copenhagen interpretation. Perhaps more importantly for us here in Edinburgh, while the Copenhagen interpretation has been discussed endlessly in theological and science-religion circles over the past decades, the Many Worlds interpretation is still largely uncharted territory in religious terms. Theologians have been able to respond positively to the Copenhagen interpretation’s suggestion that the physical world is somehow fuzzy and indeterminate at its basis, and that we as observers are inextricably tied into it, and this has provided some fertile models for divine action. But few have thought seriously about a theology of Many Worlds, endlessly branching from each other. If Brian Cox is right to say that physicists are now warming to Many Worlds, then it’s perhaps time for theologians to start warming to it too. If the Many Worlds interpretation isn’t too preposterous for physics, then it can’t be too preposterous for theology either.

Human uniqueness, and are humans the pinnacle of evolution?

Huxley_-_Mans_Place_in_Nature-2-300x179I have been caught up in many conversations over the summer, at science-religion conferences and meetings with theologians, where the future of human evolution has come up. Almost invariably in these conversations, someone expresses the opinion – as though everyone there takes it for granted – that humans are the end point, the goal, or the pinnacle of evolution. A related viewpoint that I’ve heard said is that we humans have managed to extricate ourselves from the evolutionary struggle: our technological prowess has enabled us to raise ourselves above the survival of the fittest; we are, quite simply, the fittest. And another related viewpoint is that we humans were somehow the inevitable outcome of the evolutionary process. The final related viewpoint (the most explicitly theological) says that God directed evolution so that humans would be the end result. All of this is related to a much-debated idea in theology, of ‘human uniqueness’.

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Review of The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity

J. B. Stump and Alan G. Padgett, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

I have lived and taught with this book for a year now, using it extensively in our new MSc programme in Science and Religion.  I can honestly say that it is a superbly useful resource at this level, alongside other similar titles: the even more voluminous Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (2008, ed. Philip Clayton and Zachary Simpson) and the much more compact (but no less insightful) Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion (2010, ed. Peter Harrison).  These three titles cover much of the same material, at a similar depth, and even making use of some of the same authors. At first sight then, there is relatively little to distinguish these three titles, but it is important to note my earlier caveat ‘at this level’. Like the other two books, the Blackwell Companion is heavyweight and scholarly, which means that readers new to science and religion dipping into the book may struggle to find a quick answer to old chestnuts like ‘Has science disproved religion?’, or ‘What does Richard Dawkins think about this?’  On the other hand, those more familiar with the controverted and contorted academic dialogue between science and religion will find that the Blackwell Companion provides new opinions and fresh approaches.

The most obvious point that distinguishes the Blackwell Companion from its older siblings is that it concerns the dialogue between science and Christianity, instead of the more usual generic ‘religion’.  This already illustrates how times have changed in recent years, since scholars have become sensitive to the fact that the ‘science and religion’ dialogue in the past has almost always tacitly meant ‘science and Christianity’, and that when other religions are brought to bear openly, the questions and answers change considerably.  It is not only that different conceptions of God are at stake across the world religions, but different conceptions of reality too.  Hence, the fact that the Blackwell Companion self-consciously focusses on Christianity means that it is able to engage in greater depth with specific issues.  This is an important point, since, as the editors note (p.xix), now that the science-religion field is maturing into the second generation of scholars, it is time for a more ‘fine-grained analysis of the issues’.  Added to which, the scientific fields involved in some of these areas (e.g. cosmology, and the cognitive sciences) are moving very rapidly at present, and an up-to-date and fine-grained approach is by far the most appropriate.  Accordingly, rather than containing mostly single articles on important topics like Big Bang cosmology and fine-tuning, or theology and Darwinism, the Blackwell Companion stands out by presenting a number of different views on each.  Thus, Part IV contains five articles on modern cosmology and physics, while Part V contains seven articles on evolution (including two that argue the case for and against Intelligent Design).  While there is inevitable overlap in content in some of these articles, one gets much more of a sense of the breadth of opinions at play than in the usual handbook approach, where crucial topics are often covered by one general-purpose article.

In addition to its fine-grained approach in crucial areas, the Blackwell Companion has also tried to broaden the boundaries of the traditional science-religion field.  In a still male-dominated field (p.xix), it is very welcome to see a number of chapters on feminist angles, and on the role of women in science.  ‘Science’ is also broadened beyond the natural sciences, so that human sciences (principally psychology, sociology, and economics) are included.  Finally, I was delighted by Part XI, which devotes chapters to six of the most important contributors to dialogue between science and Christianity from the last fifty years (Teilhard, T. F. Torrance, Peacocke, Barbour, Pannenberg, Polkinghorne).  Not just ‘key issues’, these chapters give one the chance to begin to get inside the minds (and different approaches) of ‘key thinkers’.

But for all its strengths, there are inevitably some areas of weakness in a volume like this, which seeks to cover an immense sweep of thought and practice.  ‘Practice’ is at least as important to Christianity as is thought, but apart from the section on bioethics (Part VII) – and a very rich article on transcendence by Alexei Nesteruk – Christianity comes across in this book largely as an intellectual exercise.  Of course, to some extent this reflects the scope of the scholarly field at present, which is far more interested in investigating religion in its encounter with science as a cerebral, rather than a spiritual and practical, discipline.  And the editors, relying on the traditional ‘philosophical and historical approach to the topic’ of science and religion (p.xix), have by and large not challenged this paradigm.  So we find little evidence in the Blackwell Companion, for instance, of the many and varied explorations in the visual and literary arts of the encounter between Christianity and science/modernity.  More noticeably though, the focus on philosophy and history has meant that Christianity in its explicitly confessional dimension has suffered disproportionately in this volume.  Christian Scripture (and especially Genesis) is mentioned here and there, but is rarely engaged with at any length, despite its significance in the history (past and present) of science and Christianity.  And while Part X is devoted to ‘Theology’ (with a short section on the Trinity by Polkinghorne in a longer chapter, and a very helpful chapter on miracles such as the resurrection of Jesus, by Padgett), it is not until we come to chapters on specific individuals – particularly Teilhard, Torrance, and Pannenberg – that we find extensive confessional discussion of important Christian doctrines, where the roles of Christ, and of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, feature intensively.

Partly, these reservations illustrate the point that, while this second-generation field is actively focussing on specifics raised by the previous generation, the boundaries of the field are still wide open – still ‘up for grabs’ to a large degree – and very much dependent on the particular mediating discourses brought to bear to allow science to converse with religion.  The first generation has been very much caught up with history and philosophy, but there is every reason to suppose that other solutions will bear fruit in time. As I said at the outset, this Blackwell Companion has proved itself to be an indispensable companion to me as I try to set out the current shape of the field for the third generation, but I cannot help but wonder how different such a volume will look in their time.

This review was published in Modern Believing 55 (2014) 78-81.

Creation in the Bible and Science

Feeling rather guilty because I’ve posted so little on the blog this summer. In my defence, I’ve been working flat out on various publications, and have given quite a number of talks on science, the Bible, and creation, and especially on my new book, The Nature of CreationOne particularly enjoyable visit was to the Faraday Institute’s summer school in Cambridge, where I gave a talk entitled “Creation in the Bible and Science”. You can see the whole talk here.

It was also good to spend some time with the BioLogos conferences in Oxford, especially the Configuring Adam and Eve meeting on human origins. This was an excellent opportunity to engage the latest scientific findings on human evolution with the age-old theological problems of evil, sin, and the Fall. I first set out some thoughts on this in The Nature of Creation, but now look forward to developing them further through this project.

Edinburgh Science Festival sermon

Science Festival Service at St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, 30th March 2014, 11.30am

Reading: Gen.1:24-31; Col.1:11-20

The theme for this year’s Science Festival makes a bold claim, that ‘science lies at the heart of everything’. Bold, because many religious believers today, and many of the philosophers, scientists and theologians of yesterday would dispute that claim, or at least want to tone it down a bit. For sure, these people might say, natural science tells us a lot about the world around us, and a lot about the human condition, but there’s a fundamental mystery at the heart of existence that can only be seen by the eye of faith. Hence, the important and very ancient distinction between physics and metaphysics, and between natural science and theology (or, the Queen of the sciences as theology used to be known). So goes the traditional way of thinking: natural science can’t possibly tell us everything, because in its commitment to naturalism (the idea that the natural world can be explained on its own terms) science is simply not competent to tell us about everything. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy’, says Hamlet to his friend Horatio. Of course, Hamlet isn’t about naturalism and the limits of science, but this is a famous line that’s often quoted in this context of where does science stop and theology start. However, against Hamlet, and against all those who might want to set reactionary limits on science, there’s been something of a revolution going on over the last decade which has drawn science into the heart of everything, and in doing so has consistently challenged some of our most ingrained beliefs, some of them religious, but many of them to do with who we are as humans. And it’s that revolution I want to speak about here. Continue reading

Science and Religion dissertations – the topics

Every year around this time our masters students in Science and Religion give a talk outlining their intended research over the coming months, as they work towards their dissertations which are the keystone to our MSc, due for submission in August. For me, as the programme manager of the MSc, this is one of the high points of the year, as I get to see how the students are developing their own thoughts way beyond the past 6 months’ classes, interaction and debate. I am always deeply impressed (and also rather humbled) by the breadth of interests and expertise.

Students are encouraged to explore any topic which falls broadly within the ‘Science-Religion’ field. The ‘classical’ field of Science and Religion, defined by the work of scholars such as Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne from the 1960s to the early 2000s, is being rapidly superseded these days, as we discover more and more crucial areas of engagement between the two disciplines. Our students have uncovered a number of new areas themselves, and we were all impressed by the degree of novelty and ingenuity on display. Topics included: intercessory prayer and divine action; Teilhard de Chardin and systems biology; natural theology in McGrath and Gould; dark matter/energy and Christian mysticism; T F Torrance, Polanyi and a new theology of science; creationism is UK schools; Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Nietzsche; Neanderthals and the ‘image of God’ theology; creationism and the evolution of inerrancy; critical realism and the potential influence of Polanyi; divine action in the human brain and religious belief; Sam Harris and Buddhism; the deep future, human evolution, and the ‘image of God’ theology

We look forward to seeing how these very fertile and imaginative projects emerge in the coming months.



Thera, Egypt, and the Exodus

I wrote about this topic last summer here and here, when I gave a conference paper on the much-hypothesised effect of the Bronze Age volcano Thera (now called Santorini) on ancient Egypt and the Exodus. The reason I’m returning to it again is because of some challenges I received recently, which prompted me to return to the evidence. I was accused of promoting a religious agenda over science. My response is that quite the opposite is true. Some of the mythology surrounding Thera has taken on the status of a near-religious belief, a belief that is, by and large, not borne out by the scientific evidence, as I try to explain here.

Many books, scientific articles, TV documentaries, etc, have appeared over the last few decades claiming that the C17 BCE eruption of this volcano created all of the conditions necessary to explain the miraculous events of the Exodus naturalistically. For instance, the ash cloud from the eruption is said to have completely engulfed Egypt, and provided the sequence of events that we know as the Plagues of Egypt (e.g. the Plague of Darkness). Most spectacular of all, a gigantic tsunami from the eruption is said to have been what enabled the Israelites to cross a lagoon on the Mediterranean coast (the “Sea of Reeds”), while it drowned the pursuing Egyptians. That’s the well-known idea, which has been recycled many times with variations to take account of changing attitudes towards the date of the eruption (which has been refined from the C15 BCE back to the late C17). I call these ideas the “Thera theories”.

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