Teasing the nuts from the bolts

Science and Wonders: Conversations about Science and Belief by Russell Stannard, Faber, pounds 8.99; Science and religion continue to bicker over who owns what, says Colin Tudge
The great religions seek to provide a complete and coherent account of the Universe that explains how everything came into and reveals why we are here. We survive by telling ourselves stories about how the world is, and an all-embracing narrative should put all the components into perspective.

For more than 1500 years after Christ, the all-embracing narrative seemed to grow ever more robust, especially when, in the Middle Ages, it enfolded Plato and the proto-science of Aristotle. Then, it seemed, the elevated emotional responses that we call "spiritual" had been married to irrefutably straight thinking and a smattering of observation. The monolith seemed complete.

But in the 1540s Copernicus suggested that the Sun and not the Earth is the centre of our planetary system - and 80 years or so later came Galileo, who advanced this idea and made it public and thus challenged the cosmological notions that at the time seemed important to the Catholic canon. Even so, as Russell Stannard describes in conversation with the astronomer Ron Naylor, the Catholic church did not object to Galileo's hypotheses any more than they apparently had to Copernicus's. It was Galileo they objected to. He was one of nature's satirists and a mite too provoking. I won't say you cannot blame the Jesuits for threatening him with torture, but when you read his comments you can certainly see their point of view. As Naylor says, if Galileo had been a little diplomatic - or indeed, halfway polite - the entire debate between science and religion this past 350 years would have been completely different.

It would also have been more interesting. For in Science and Wonders, the physicist-turned-theologian Stannard has done a workmanlike job of interviewing scientists, priests, and theologians who in recent years have joined the science-religion debate. There is much that is intriguing, but the views that are aired are mostly old-fashioned. We seem to be stuck with Galileo vs the Jesuits - or with its 19th-century sequel, Charles Darwin vs the Anglican Church.

Richard Dawkins, for example, one of the outstanding theoretical biologists of his generation, has squandered hundreds of hours re-running the debate that TH Huxley had with Bishop Wilberforce in 1860. He is of the view that "the theory of evolution by natural selection is of its own sufficient to explain life", and invocations of a "creator god'' are merely "explanatory overkill''. Well, if Dawkins means that explanations should not be elaborated gratuitously then he is merely citing William of Ockham, a 14th-century friar whose dictum is summarised as "Occam's razor" (the spelling is flexible). But if Dawkins means what he seems to mean - that no one phenomenon merits more than one explanation - then he is obviously talking nonsense. We might as well say that paintings can be explained simply by describing the distribution of pigments. I am not saying that there is a literal Creator; simply that you cannot argue in such a fashion that there is not. It's like people in woolly hats attacking science for being all atom bombs and doctored foetuses. Such discussion is unworthy.

In contrast, the physicist Paul Davies finds the mind of God within the order that he is discovering in the Universe. But then, so did Isaac Newton. Davies's physics is more advanced than Newton's, for the giants on whose shoulders he is able to stand have grown even taller than those who supported Newton. But he has not advanced on Newton's theology.

The really interesting arguments begin where those in Science and Wonders leave off. These discussions are not between bishops and scientists, but between radical theologians and priests on one hand, and humanists on the other. The task now is to render unto science that which belongs to science, and then to ask if anything is left, and whether it is worthwhile, and whether it should properly be called "religion", and if that religion differs from "humanism".

If the great religions are to survive our times they must embrace all science; yet they would surely add ways of refining emotional responses, and of reaching insights, at least of an ethical nature, that are outside science and in practice are in the special province of religion. The religion- science discussion will be as pressing in the 21st century as in the 17th, not least because of the rise of Islam. But it needs to be conducted in 21st-century terms.