D. Gareth Jones

Nicholas Spencer: “Magisteria: The Entangled Histories of Science and Religion”

Book Reviewed by D. Gareth Jones, March 2024

Magisteria: The Entangled Histories of Science and Religion
by Nicholas Spencer
London: Oneworld Publications, 2023; 467 pages
ISBN 9780861544615, 1st edition, hardcover

Magisteria is a tour de force; an academic treatment of a vast array of issues at the interface of science and religion, written in a remarkably accessible manner. The reader, no matter what their background, will get much out of it if they are prepared to commit themselves to a tome of around 400 pages. And yet it is the very detail that makes it what it is, as author Nicholas Spencer, a Senior Fellow at Theos (a Christian think-tank in the UK), untangles the many entangled currents at the intersection of science and religion. True, there are assumptions here, such as what constitutes science, let alone religion, his preference being the science with which we are familiar in the Western world and the Christian religion more than other religions (although Islamic science is seriously considered at various junctures).

Whatever anyone takes from this book, the one crucial message is summed up by the word “entangled.” As someone who writes repeatedly on bioethical matters, I have to remind people of the messiness of ethics at the intersections of scientific advances and Christian belief. It is no different in the broader reaches of the science–religion debates that Spencer deals with. Those seeking simple answers will be disappointed, but those looking for enlightenment will be largely satisfied.

There are four major sections: Part 1: Science and religion before science or religion; Part 2: Genesis; Part 3: Exodus; Part 4: The ongoing, entangled histories of science and religion. Some of the subtitles are fascinating, for example: “1543 and all that”; “How one goes to heaven and not how heaven goes”; “A barren Golgotha: the case of the brain”; “Breathtaking inanity: anti-evolutionism 2.0.” Part 1 encompasses the story from the classical world to 1600, when neither science nor religion had acquired their modern identities. Part 2 looks at the period in which modern science developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, during which European religion helped conceive and nurture the new philosophy. Part 3 deals with the nineteenth century, the time when science began to drift away from its religious roots and saw the emergence of the conflict myth. It was during this period that some believers baulked at the increasing authority of science, while various scientists for their part overstepped their legitimate authority.

Part 4 brings us to the world of today with its ongoing debates centering on Freud, evolutionary biologists and genetic contributions to human nature, neuroscientists exploring brain-mind interactions, and techno-utopians with their visions of possible future trajectories for human beings. Unfortunately, this last part is the least satisfactory since the detail that characterises the earlier parts is missing. The book is long enough without more detail, but it does mean that the contribution of religious thinking to current debates is largely missing. This is a shame since it would have demonstrated the way applied theological thinking is needed to restrain extremely powerful technologies with the potential to alter human function and undermine human relationships.

Underlying the relationship between science and religion is the question of authority, namely, who has the right to pronounce on nature, the cosmos, and reality? Is it self-proclaimed representatives of the church, or is it those with scientific expertise over aspects of the natural world? Illustrations emerge in one era after another: Baconian and Aristotelian scientists in the early modern period, creationist Protestants and eugenicist Darwinians in the Deep South, Galileo‘s view of the natural world over against the Vatican’s theological assertions, professional scientists like Huxley and old-school natural philosophers like Wilberforce. And yet, as Spencer carefully points out in case after case, the well-known take-home messages are rarely as clear-cut as regularly portrayed. Frequently, there are subtleties and murky complexities that do not fit into neat science versus religion messaging.

The title Magisteria comes from the American palaeontologist, Stephen Jay Gould, who claimed that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria.” For him, they are distinct fields that are to be accepted on their own merits. He was seeking to provide space for religion within a culture where religion in the form of anti-evolutionary fundamentalism was pitted against science expressed as evolutionary humanism. This was conflict at its most bitter, something that disturbed a scientific humanist like Gould. While appreciating Gould’s intentions as a description of how science and religion should interact, Spencer concludes that when it comes to history, “the magisteria of science and religion are indistinct, sprawling, untidy and endlessly and fascinatingly entangled” (p. 11). This comes through repeatedly over the years, as the following examples indicate. The riches of this book cannot be covered in a review like this. Hence, some highlights follow.

Spencer is at pains to argue that the Middle Ages (AD 500–1500) were not simply a time between the glories of antiquity and their resurrection at the Renaissance. To make his point he references Robert Grosseteste who combined scientific work with his ecclesiastical career. Interestingly, in recent years, the late Tom McLeish established the “Ordered Universe” project based on an interdisciplinary study of Grosseteste’s scientific papers. Back in the latter part of the thirteenth century Roger Bacon was one of Grosseteste’s disciples and made tentative steps towards experimental science in his work on optics.

The year 1543 stands out as a pivotal year for the emergence of science. Spencer does not agree that it signifies the birth of modern science, even though he does admit that it marked a paradigm shift in two areas. These were cosmology and anatomy, the domains of Nicolaus Copernicus and Andreas Vesalius, respectively. Neither, however, shook religious belief to its core. For some, heliocentrism was not of great concern, even if other theologians thought differently by attempting to side-step controversy with the suggestion that heliocentrism was simply a theory with no claim to reality. This was a way of avoiding a hostile literalism reaction, one that Spencer has no sympathy with. But these were dangerous times for heretics, and Giordano Bruno, who came after Copernicus, went much further with his speculations, entering dubious theological territory. His end was martyrdom, although he was probably a martyr for magic rather than for science.

As an anatomist I am fascinated by the lack of Christian interest in Vesalius, who revolutionised our understanding of human anatomical structure by dissecting dead human bodies rather than relying on concepts popularised by Galen of Pergamum (who had not dissected human bodies) in the second century. Somehow this does not seem to be regarded as an issue for science and faith, even as it raised the hackles of theologians and church authorities at the time. Spencer does not take up this issue. This surprises me because Vesalius and others in the sixteenth century demonstrated a true scientific approach with their insistence on actual dissection and direct observation of the human body, over against concepts emanating from Aristotle and Galen.

As a neuroanatomist I have long been fascinated by phrenology, considered a means of detecting important elements of an individual’s personality and cognitive capacities by examining the surface of their skull. This approach, now recognised as quackery, gained great popularity in the nineteenth century, when it was seen as a new scientific breakthrough. Spencer is helpful in following the influence of phrenology as a “scientifically” based approach to personal and social flourishing, which could help shed light on wider social and global issues. Phrenology, not religion, was thought to provide the true scientific picture of human character, intelligence, and morality. Religion was simply to affirm the moral lessons discerned from nature. Discussions of phrenology today rarely point to its materialistic associations or its grand vistas, nor to the religious antipathy to it in the nineteenth century. This was a science–faith conflict in which the science was seriously misleading, and the Christian concerns were entirely justified.

Spencer’s analyses of globalisation are revealing because they paint a picture of early Protestant missionary activity and its relationship to science. For those missionaries, the more the mind is enlarged and strengthened by scientific pursuits, the better they were equipped to defend the truths of the Bible. The idea of a division, let alone a war, between science and missionary religion was anathema. For instance, William Carey the Baptist missionary to India, was a keen botanist and, when threatened with having funds withheld unless he focused solely on saving souls, responded indignantly that he had never heard anything “more illiberal.” In the same vein, the many medical missionaries displayed this close relationship between their religious and scientific vocations. One danger with this, as Spencer points out, is that science could be displayed as a badge of European intellectual and moral superiority. Science could also be used as a means of undermining indigenous religious beliefs. In other words, as in so many other instances throughout history, the relationship between science and religion must be treated with care and circumspection.

The conflict hypothesis of the latter part of the nineteenth century has assumed enormous prominence in the science–religion debates, owing much to Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. However, as Spencer delves into a litany of other figures involved in these debates, it emerges that it was an Irish physicist, John Tyndall, who was instrumental in establishing the conflict metaphor by pillorying religion’s historic involvement in science. T. H. Huxley, long known as Darwin’s bulldog, was not actually known by this epithet during his lifetime and may not have been as rabidly anti-religious as frequently thought. What he did object to was unremitting theological dogma, dogmatic authoritarianism and papal authority, and their opposition to the notion of methodological naturalism. For Spencer, the last years of the nineteenth century have been reduced to a single narrative of uniform conflict rather than what they were: “the complex, colourful, ambiguous and hopelessly entangled histories of science and religion” (p. 313).

Spencer is a noted Christian communicator and yet he does not push his Christian stance in these pages. It is there if the reader knows what to look for. The notable feature of the book, however, is his even-handed way of covering the tensions as they come into sight throughout the centuries. He has not set out to fly any particular flag, but he has, in my estimation, attempted something more important, namely, a fair examination of the numerous forces at work around each of the science–faith debates. By approaching them in this manner he has been able to quash many of the simplistic messages touting an ingrained conflict between science and faith—an interpretation urgently needed in some of our churches. Science is a God-ordained means of understanding our world and it is the privilege and responsibility of Christians to use it for his glory and the betterment of his creation.