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date: 21 May 2019

Introduction

Abstract and Keywords

Any discussion of the possibility of ‘science and religion’ as a distinct field of study represented a clear step forward from the dominant prejudice of an earlier age. By contrast, it seems hard to deny that a new area of study has emerged, one devoted to the study of the complex and multifaceted relationships between science and religion. The text in this book testifies to the existence of a distinct field of inquiry. One can hope that carefully studying how differently the various religions conceive their relationship with the sciences will help to overcome the tendency, until recently dominant in Western scholarship, to equate ‘religion and science’ with ‘Christianity and science’.

Keywords: Christianity, science, religion, theology, metaphysics

There was a time when scholars disputed whether the discussion of science and religion could ever be viewed as a specialized Weld on its own. Admittedly, some attention was always devoted to the relations—and especially the tensions—between these two key areas of human experience, and educated persons generally held strong opinions about whether they could be harmonized. Still, attempts to make progress on questions of science and religion, much less to resolve them fully, were viewed as exercises in futility. Devoting good scholarship to such questions would at best create an impression of rigour and rationality where none could be had.

Of course, from another perspective, any discussion of the possibility of ‘science and religion’ as a distinct Weld of study represented a clear step forward from the dominant prejudice of an earlier age. After all, prior to such discussions it was common knowledge that science and religion were at war with one another—a warfare so bloody and of such great import that no Geneva Convention could ever regulate its battles.

Today, by contrast, it seems hard to deny that a new area of study has emerged, one devoted to the study of the complex and multifaceted relationships between science and religion. The chapters in this Handbook, and the thousands of references provided here to other bodies of literature, surely testify to the existence of a distinct Weld of inquiry. Scores of monographs and hundreds of articles appear each year; dozens of conferences are being convened annually on specialized research topics; and refereed journals are springing up to publish important results in the Weld. Not only scholars of religion, but now more and more scientists are finding that they wish to explore the lines of relationship between the two domains.

The Oxford Handbook of Science and Religion seeks to provide both an introduction to this burgeoning Weld and a snapshot of the state of the art across its various sub‐fields. Detailed typologies of religion—science relations exist, and (p. 2) sophisticated methodological proposals offer rigorous means for comparing them (Part IV). A specialized literature exists for relating each of the major scientific disciplines to religious questions and concerns (Part II). Like other Welds of study, Religion / Science is divided into specific sub‐fields of study, each of which employs its own methods and relies on established work within religious studies, theology, comparative philosophy, the social scientific study of religion, and other disciplines (Part III). Perhaps most exciting, new discussions are now under way to reinterpret the science—religion relationship from the perspective of each of the major world religions (Part I). One can hope that carefully studying how differently the various religions conceive their relationship with the sciences will help to overcome the tendency, until recently dominant in Western scholarship, to equate ‘religion and science’ with ‘Christianity and science’.

Nine central questions underlie the Handbook project and emerge as leading themes in many of the chapters:

  • In what ways are the goals, methods, and results of religious practice and reflection similar to science, and in what ways are they different? If different, are they compatible or incompatible? If compatible, are the two complementary, and if so, exactly how and in what respects?

  • How does the relationship between science and religion appear differently when one views it from the perspective of the various religious traditions?

  • How does this relationship appear differently when one views it from the perspective of the various particular sciences?

  • Which methodologies or standpoints are most helpful in comprehending the relationship between religion and science, and which offer too limited a perspective or distort the subject‐matter?

  • What light is shed on the core questions of ‘science and religion’ by the various specific disciplines that study it: history, philosophy of science, religious studies, theology, metaphysics, ethics, and spirituality? In particular, can the often diverging conclusions of the social scientific study of religion and faith‐based perspectives be reconciled?

  • What is the ‘naturalism’ with which science is often associated? Does science presuppose the truth of naturalism, or merely the usefulness of naturalistic methodologies for making progress in empirical research? If methodological naturalism is indeed essential to the practice of science, what does this say about naturalism as a metaphysical position? For example, does the success of science provide evidence that naturalistic explanations are ultimately truer than non‐naturalistic explanations?

  • To what extent (if at all) is the practice of science, or at least the interpretation of its results, affected by one's culture, one's gender, or one's religious presuppositions? To what extent are religious beliefs and practices affected by historical and cultural location, and by scientific beliefs? In the face of so great a diversity on both sides, what shared results can we achieve, and on what basis can we come to such agreement?

  • (p. 3)
  • Do science and religion represent massively different ways of knowing, or is there a common definition of knowledge that both share, and perhaps even some common criteria? Are these two spheres of activity necessarily competitors in the human quest for knowledge, or can they function as partners in a multilateral quest?

  • What are the implications of the Weld of science‐and‐religion studies? How can the debates covered in this Handbook shed new light on the fundamental values issues that confront humankind and our planet today?

Just as genetic diversity is crucial for the survival of a community of organisms, and biodiversity is indispensable for the flourishing of an ecosystem, so also a diversity of approaches is crucial if ‘religion and science’ is to flourish and to progress as a distinct Weld of study. The careful reader of this Handbook will discern recurring themes and questions. There is consensus that certain theories are inconsistent or have proved less useful, just as there is widespread agreement that other topics, debates, and approaches are particularly important within the contemporary scientific and religious context. Readers will nonetheless also discern crucial differences on key questions. If progress is to be made, the differences will be as critical as the agreements; we have thus sought to foreground them rather than to hide them from sight.

No one person can define a Weld—if this is true of standard disciplines within the academy, it is all the more true of a massively interdisciplinary Weld such as the study of science and religion. For this reason, the policy of the Editorial Committee has been emphatically and boldly pluralistic. To the extent that readers find that we have emphasized physics to the exclusion of other sciences, or theism to the exclusion of other world‐views, or supernaturalism to the exclusion of naturalism, or Christianity to the exclusion of other religious perspectives, we will have failed at actualizing our central editorial policy. The Handbook does not presuppose that there is a single right relationship between ‘religion’ and ‘science’, nor even that religion is necessarily a good thing—as the chapters by a number of the authors will make clear. Most fundamentally, we have sought to represent the Weld of science and religion not as a series of conclusions that students are to learn and memorize, but as a series of questions and topics that scholars are researching and debating. The goal of the Handbook is to invite readers to join in this debate, to add to its rigour, and to help it advance toward more sustainable conclusions.

This goal should be most clear in Part V. The twenty chapters of this part have been gathered together not as individual presentations of the right answers on each topic, but rather as paired debates between experts focusing on the most hotly contested issues in each Weld. Although these ‘hot topics’ chapters are research‐based and written by leading scholars, the authors were asked not to pretend to the neutrality and objectivity of an encyclopaedia article. However much the natural sciences may consist of dispassionate theories grounded in objective facts and data (the degree to which this occurs in science being a matter of heated contention among the Handbook authors), any pretence to encyclopaedic objectivity must surely flounder (p. 4) given the interpretative intricacies of religion—science debate. Instead, the authors have made their standpoints and ‘locations’ explicit—not in order to force readers to adopt the same standpoint, but in order to encourage each one to formulate, and to argue for, his or her own positions on the burning questions of the Weld. The authors having defended their responses to the most contentious issues, readers are now encouraged to evaluate for themselves the merits of each individual standpoint, interpretation, and argument.

In short, we have aimed not to push a programme but to model a form of dialogue. Underlying the Handbook's editorial policy is at least one value commitment that should be stated as clearly as possible. We have assumed that the scientific and the religious quests are likely to be permanent features of human existence, and that humanity will be much better positioned successfully to navigate the threats that it faces if it draws constructively on both dimensions. If ways can be found for science and religion to work together in a complementary and productive fashion, perhaps humankind will have a better chance of overcoming the momentous challenges of the twenty‐first century than otherwise.