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Science and Belief

John Bryant

The big issues
Russell Stannard
Lion Hudson, 176pp

The 'new atheists' are at it again. Every time a major scientific discovery is made we hear that it spells the end for religion. This time it was Professor Peter Atkins at Cambridge, announcing on BBC radio that the 'Higgs Boson was another nail in the coffin of religion'. I wonder whether these people really know what religion is. Do they actually think that our faith is based on those aspects of the material world for which we do not yet have a scientific understanding? It would seem so. Those of us who are believers need to make it very clear that science and religion are seeking for truth at different levels. Those two levels do not cancel each out, rather they complement each other.

Both Galileo and Francis Bacon spoke about God's two books - the book of his words and the book of his works - and Bacon encouraged us to be diligent in reading both of them. Similar sentiments have been expressed by scientist-believers down the centuries, which leads us conveniently to a present-day scientist-believer, Professor Russell Stannard.

Russell Stannard is a very distinguished particle physicist who, amongst other scientific achievements, was part of the team which demonstrated that quarks have charm. He is also a Christian and has long been concerned that the media seem to love promoting the idea that science and religion are in conflict, while the view that they are in fundamental accord is hardly represented. It was thus a challenge to promote alternative views in a way that would be accessible to young people, to RE teachers, to Christian speakers and so on, many of whom would have little knowledge of the science itself. This led him to team up with a former BBC producer, Tony Coe (who is actually an atheist) to produce a series of videos  with the same title as the book under review here. It has been widely used in schools and churches and is available for download via YouTube.

The book Science and Belief thus came from the video series but allows for a more in-depth and reflective treatment of the issues. Each chapter starts with a series of quotations from people who were interviewed about the particular topic. This is followed by a description of our current scientific understanding of the topic and a discussion of how (or whether) this is compatible with a religious understanding. Each chapter then finishes with a few discussion starters for group- work.

One of the aims of the book, as it was for the video series, is 'to present, as impartially as I could manage, the relevant background information and the arguments both for and against belief ... to allow each individual to make up their own mind on the issues.' Stannard has indeed worked very hard on being neutral. Several religions are mentioned, alongside Christianity and the reader is challenged to think about each issue. However, although the book is certainly not an all-out apologetics text, the author's own sympathies are discernible. I do not think that this detracts from the value of the book. It is very hard to write from a completely neutral position and I think that the reader still has the 'space' to react thoughtfully to the material in their own way.

So, what of the text itself? The first thing to say is that Russell Stannard is a clear and articulate writer who has produced a book that I found eminently readable and which 'grew on me' as I got into it. The contents cover all those areas where science and religion have been said to be in conflict: Evolution and Genesis, Creation (meaning here, creation from a cosmological perspective), The Anthropic Principle, Intelligent Design, Psychology and Miracles. I like the inclusion of a chapter on Morality but was not sure of the usefulness of the chapter on Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. The book ends with a more general chapter entitled The Relationships Between Science and Belief. As for the specific contents, I did raise an eyebrow at a couple of misleading statements in the area of biology. I also think that, despite the clarity of the writing, readers who are not scientists will find some of the physics quite hard to follow.

Nevertheless, this is a useful text, not least for scientist-believers who want to get up to speed with areas other their own. Overall then, Science and Belief: The big issues is a worthwhile contribution to the science-religion debate and to the literature that is growing up around that debate.

John Bryant