Peter Harrison & John Milbank (Eds.), After Science and Religion: Fresh Perspectives from Philosophy and Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022, xii + 355 pp., ISBN 978-1-316-51792-5, £90,00 (Hdbk).
Plenty of books have been written about the interaction between science and religion, and many of them assume the usual starting point: science and religion are two completely distinct and different enterprises that somehow need to be brought into dialogue. The volume under review, ‘After Science and Religion’, edited by Peter Harrison and John Milbank, is different. It is based on the idea that, from the point of view of history, the alleged separation of and tension between ‘science’ and ‘religion’ is very strange. Building, to some extent, on ideas presented in Harrison’s 2015 book The Territories of Science and Religion and in his other works, the contributors highlight the historically contingent nature of the categories ‘science’ and ‘religion’. Neither ‘science’ nor ‘religion’ has been a fixed concept and many of the characteristics we attach to them today are relatively new.
This is not just a book about the historical development of the two categories or past interactions between them, however. Although historical analysis is crucial for understanding the complex and multifaceted evolution of ‘religion’ and ‘science’ and the relationship between them, it can also encourage us to perceive the future of the science-and-religion dialogue in novel ways. We have not necessarily, or even probably, reached the saturation point in how the frame the discussion on science and religion. This, precisely, is the main message of the book: just as there was a time before ‘science and religion’—as we understand the two disciplines and the dialogue between them today—there might well be a time after ‘science and religion’.
Of particular concern to the authors is the unbalanced nature of the current interaction between science and religion. None of the current mainstream models for relating science and religion—dialogue, independence, and conflict—is seen as very useful in this regard. Even the dialogue model, advocated by most of the participants in the science-and-religion field, tends to lead to conversations where science dominates with its social prestige, whereas religion (or theology) is obliged to adjust its claims in order to be compatible with the newest discoveries of science. Often, it is dialogue in name only, not in practice. As Harrison points out, ‘there are few, if any, instances that we can point to in which the content or conduct of science has changed significantly as a consequence of this kind of interaction’.
The book is divided into four main sections. Part I offers a historical over-view of the theme. Harrison reminds readers that, without knowing how categories ‘science’ and ‘religion’ emerged during the early modern period, it is not possible to fully understand the present state of the conversation. He suggests that both science and religion are best viewed as historical traditions reflecting different aspects of human rationality and are thus not as incommensurable as often has been though. Bernard Lightman raises the problem of naturalistic metaphysics being so tightly associated with science and traces back the roots of this development to the Darwinian revolution of the nineteenth century. He points out that it was not the theory of evolution itself that lead to the marginalization of traditional religious views in metaphysics but the successful project of many scientific naturalists of extending the authority of science beyond its proper territory.
Part II, featuring essays by, among others, David Bentley Hart and Rowan Williams, follows on from the first one, dealing with philosophical and metaphysical assumptions that are linked with doing science and the possibilities of thinking the relationship between science and religion more imaginatively than many of us commonly do. In the book’s longest chapter by far, at 69 pages, titled ‘Religion, Science, and Magic’, John Milbank sets the scene for the new ‘After Science and Religion’ project, defending an approach he la-bels as ‘enchanted transcendence’. He encourages everyone to see the reality as ‘a great poem, composed under the lure of a transcendent end which it further glimpses through the process of composition itself’. Criticising the dominant model of ‘disenchanted immanence’ embraced by many scientists where all essential features of nature are thought to be captured by the scien-tific method and God is regarded either not to exist or as irrelevant for our understanding the world, Milbank calls for a revival of a richer philosophy of nature.
Part III focuses on two ever-present philosophical issues the science-and-religion discussion: teleology and scientism. In line with contributors to the previous section, Simon Oliver argues that categorically denying all purposefulness in nature inevitably paints an incomplete picture of reality. David C. Schindler proposes that science could perhaps adopt a whole new strategy in confronting scientism: because phenomena observed in nature cannot be fully described by empirical analysis, science should expand (and not narrow) its scope to include some of the fruitful elements of natural philosophy of the past centuries. In Part IV, further considerations on how science and religion have coexisted in harmony in the past, along with future perspectives, are provided. The strict demarcation between science and religion and the disciplinary fragmentation in academia is seen as both historically unwarranted and philosophically problematic for our attempts to construct a unified picture of reality.
In its subtitle, the book promises to offer ‘fresh perspectives’ to science and religion. In my view, the promise is delivered. The authors offer a persuasive case for rethinking the way we see the science-and-religion dialogue and for reimagining the possibilities for future interaction. In a way, it is a call to return back to the “good old days” of natural philosophy. The contributors point out that the historical metaphysical alternatives to naturalistic metaphysics are still available today, they just need to be activated. As Harrison emphasizes in his concluding remarks, the book is not meant to be the last word on how the discussion on science and religion should be framed but a starting point for a new kind of discourse. Especially for those of us who are not that well trained in the history of science, it will serve as an eye-opener. After Science and Religion is a very welcome and refreshing addition to the science-and-religion literature and is likely to be considered as one of the most thought-inspiring books of 2022.
University of East Finland
Reprinted from Reviews in Science, Religion and Theology, 1(3) September 2022, pp. 16-18.