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Science & Religion in the 21st Century

John Bryant


The Boyle Lectures
Russell Re Manning and Michael Byrne (eds)
SCM Press,

Robert Boyle (1627-1691) was one of those gentleman-scientists of the 17th century who had the time and the financial means to carry out scientific investigations, or, in the language of the times, to pursue his practical interest in 'natural philosophy'. He was especially interested in the properties of gases and his work gave rise to Boyle's Law (although he did not give it that name), namely that for a fixed amount of gas at a constant temperature, the volume occupied by the gas is inversely proportional to the pressure applied to it. Boyle was also active in the wider community of natural philosophers and was one of the founding fellows of the Royal Society in 1660. Further, like many other scientists of his era, he was a devout Christian believer. Thus, in his will he left an endowment to pay for a 'learned divine or preaching minister to be elected ...  to preach eight times a year for proving the Christian religion against notorious Infidels viz. Atheists, Theists, Pagans, Jews and Mahometans, not descending lower to any controversies, that are among Christians themselves'. We might raise an eyebrow at the list of 'notorious infidels' but more to the point is Boyle's use of the word 'proving' and his belief that the findings of science had a major role to play in that. He was thus very much part of the tradition of natural theology that was prevalent in those days.

Boyle also named a group of trustees whose job was to ensure that his wishes were carried out and so the Boyle Lectures were established. These ran in unbroken succession from 1692 to 1731 but from the latter date onwards became very intermittent and eventually ceased altogether. This brings us to the early 21st century when a group of people, including one of Robert Boyle's descendants, Jonathan Boyle, 15th Earl of Cork and Orrery, had the vision to re-establish the Boyle Lectures as an annual series that would examine the relationship between Christian theology and various scientific disciplines - slightly different from the aims of the original series! The social, scientific and religious 'climates' are very different now from what they were in Boyle's day. Quite rightly, we would not now rely nearly so heavily on natural theology. Thus, we would not try to use the findings of science to prove the existence of God, even though things like the very fine tuning of the natural laws and the 'anthropic principle' (both discussed in the book) might (and should) make us ask questions.

Written versions of the first ten lectures form the bulk of this book. However, before dealing with the lecture-chapters themselves, I must mention the foreword and the introduction which occupy a significant proportion of the text. The foreword, by Michael Byrne, is entitled 'The Boyle Lectureship and its trustees, then and now'. It certainly 'does what it says on the tin' - at great length and in great detail. I found it rather tedious and suggest that the relevant information could have been presented more economically. Indeed, John Hedley-Brooke's chapter (see below) is a much more useful and readable contribution in this area. The introduction, 'Science and Religion in the 21st century', by Russell Re Manning is obviously useful that the scene is set and the context for the new series is described but again I think that this has been done at far too great a length. While it is entirely appropriate for editors to contribute to the volume, their contribution should be briefer and less obtrusive than we have here.

And what of the main chapters themselves? The trustees wished the lectures to be given by 'distinguished scholars' and they have certainly succeeded in that. Many of the 'usual suspects' are there (I am glad to say); it is indeed a glittering array. The list of authors and chapter titles gives a clear indication of this: John Haught, 'Darwin, Design and the Promise of Nature'; Simon Conway Morris, 'Darwin's Compass: How evolution discovers the song of creation'; Philip Clayton, 'The Emergence of Spirit: From complexity to anthropology to theology?'; John Barrow, 'Cosmology of Ultimate Concern'; Malcolm Jeeves, 'Psychologising and Neurologising about Religion: Facts, fallacies, and the future'; Keith Ward, 'Misusing Darwin: The materialist conspiracy in evolutionary biology'; John Hedley Brooke, 'The Legacy of Robert Boyle: Then and now'; J├╝rgen Moltmann, 'Is the World Unfinished? On interactions between science and theology in the concepts of nature, time and the future'; Celia Deane-Drummond, 'Christ and Evolution: A drama of wisdom?'; John Polkinghorne, 'Science and Religion in Dialogue'. There is perhaps a preponderance of chapters dealing with aspects of evolution but this is a reflection of where some of the science-religion debate is at its most active (and in some circles, most aggressive).

Obviously each lecture was designed to stand alone and the same is true of the written versions. Each chapter is self-contained (albeit with a useful degree of cross-referencing between chapters) and can thus be read on its own (although in the interest of getting this review done, I read them in batches). I enjoyed every single chapter (which does not mean that I agreed with everything that I read). I was informed, challenged, provoked to thought and from time to time encouraged as I read the book. I was very impressed with the level of scholarship and with the literary skills of the authors. I do quite a lot of writing myself and yet for some of these chapters I felt like a lower league footballer gazing with awe and admiration at the expertise, skills and tactical awareness of Premier League players. I need to emphasise that this is serious writing. It merits our attention and is not a book for reading on the beach. It is a major contribution to the literature on what John Polkinghorne called the 'long frontier between science and religion', a frontier which in places is very open but in others suffers cross-border sniping and even warfare.

As befits a scholarly volume, the book is extensively referenced. The bibliography in itself is useful but I would have much preferred it if the references for each chapter had been presented at the end of the chapter, rather than gathering them all together after the final chapter. However, this is a minor gripe and detracts little from the value of this important text.