Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Reconciling Science and Religion: The Debate in Early-Twentieth-Century Britain

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Reconciling Science and Religion: The Debate in Early-Twentieth-Century Britain

Article excerpt

PETER J. BOWLER. Reconciling Science and Religion: The Debate in Early-Twentieth-Century Britain. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2001. Pp. xiii + 479, biographical appendix, bibliography, index. $40.00.

Peter J. Bowler provides in Reconciling Science and Religion a valuable corrective to the still too common assumption that the debate between science and religion had run its course by the beginning of the twentieth century. Utilizing the published writings of scientists, churchmen, and those involved in what he terms the "wider debate" over fundamental values in Western culture, he establishes both the continuity of the debate in Great Britain in the first three decades of the new century and its critical shift from dichotomy and conflict to predictions of cooperation, coexistence and, ultimately, reconciliation. This optimism stemmed from changing perceptions among some scientists of the absolute validity of a strictly materialist, mechanistic approach to their discipline and a growing awareness on the part of some churchmen that the faith might be better served in the modem era by coming to terms with the insights of science. But as straightforward as this appears to be, it produced a complex series of misreadings, over-simplifications, and intellectual deadends.

Bowler is at his best in revealing the fault lines that underlay the optimism of reconciliation. While there were scientists (e.g., the physicist Oliver Lodge, 1851-1940, and the geneticist, R.A. Fisher, 1890-1962) who saw the Victorian "conflict" as both unfortunate and unnecessary in view of later insights in both biology and physics, religious writers often drew faulty conclusions from scientists' critiques of contemporary science. The biochemist J. S. Haldane (1892-1964) indeed took great exception to a mechanistic view of life and conceptualized the universe in terms of a Great Mind. But he was equally adamant in his opposition to any departure from rationalist principles in science-an important aspect of his views largely ignored by religious writers who used his critique of science for their own ends. Bowler also points to a generation gap that left religious writers and popularizes of reconciliation convinced of the validity of critiques that had in fact already been dismissed by a younger generation of scientists increasingly disinterested in either the critique of materialism or the dialogue with religion. …

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