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Experiencing Awe at the Wonder of Existence
Sep 1, 2016

A lot of people think religion and science are incompatible. Advances in technology have led famed atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens to claim that there’s no room for faith, or God, in a supposedly “modern” society. Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, religious extremists reject what they view as the unethical, blasphemous reforms of science. They sometimes even resort to acts of heinous, despicable violence. Both sides claim that it’s not religion and science, but religion or science.  

In his book, Religion and Science: The Basics, Philip Clayton, the distinguished professor of Religion and Philosophy, and Dean, at Claremont Lincoln University, looks at both sides of the divide and makes a compelling case for the inherent compatibility between religion and science. In fact, reading Clayton’s book, many readers will conclude that the only way towards a more peaceful, equitable, and just world, is for scientists and faith leaders to work together, through both action and dialogue, to combat extremism of all forms. At their best, Clayton reminds the reader, both science and religion encourage people to experience awe at the wonder of existence and to value the sacredness of all life.

Clayton himself is a living example of how science and religion can be combined in one person – and can be used to advance the causes of social justice and awareness. As a devout Christian and philosopher, he’s used the writings of western philosophical giants, as well as the discoveries of the so-called “hard” sciences, like physics and biology, to support, and even expand, his belief in the harmony of God’s creation. Whereas many devout atheists have used the discoveries of modern science to dispute religious revelation, Clayton believes that science can actually be used to support a believer’s sense of wonder. Through science, a believer can gain a deeper appreciation for the mysteries and complexities of how the world works. Learning can be a form of worship.  

Religion and Science is not a testimonial, though. Clayton isn’t interested in exploring his faith, so much as he is encouraging his readers to explore, and question, what’s in their own hearts. The book is arranged into four sections – Science or religion, or science and religion; Intelligent Design vs. the New Atheists; The role of scientific and religious ethics – designer drugs, AI, and stem cell research; and The future of science and the future of religion. Each section explores some of the supposed divides between religion and science, and then goes on to address some surprising points of intersection. Throughout, the book poses questions to the reader, challenging them to examine their previous beliefs and convictions, and imploring them to further investigate both disciplines so they can draw their own conclusions. Don’t just trust the so-called experts, Clayton is saying; do your own research and form your own judgments.  

One of the best parts about Religion and Science is that Clayton is not an ideologue. In an era when deep partisanship seems to be the new norm, both in the US and around the world, being a voice of “moderation” is not always celebrated. But it should be. Moderates resist the siren song of blind passion, and also the urge to demonize the other. They look at facts objectively and dispassionately, drawing conclusions unaffected by bias. Clayton is a moderate in the best sense of the world: he asks, instead of answers, questions. His curiosity comes across in the book: he shows a deep knowledge of both religious and scientific thinkers, and he is not quick to judge anyone. Instead, he tries to ground his questions in research, which is what any good scientist or person of faith does. His moderation is infectious. Instead of leaping to conclusions, Religion and Science gives the reader an appreciation of the brilliant, sincere minds who’ve chosen either path – and especially those who’ve synthesized both paths, like Francis S. Collins, the founder of the Human Genome Project, and Fethullah Gülen, whose moderate Islamic faith has inspired hundreds of schools – many of them science academies – around the world. Collins and Gülen are two shining examples of what can happen when people of faith encourage scientific study – and of scientific minds finding new depths to their religious beliefs.

Clayton’s moderation is welcome, as one of the forces preventing a wholesale reconciliation between science and religion is that the loudest voices on both sides are also the most extreme and contentious. Just as the new atheists do not speak for most scientists, terrorists and radicals do not speak for most people of faith, either. There are plenty of voices advocating for a healthy belief in both religion and science, but they are often lost beneath the brasher voices.

Clayton acknowledges that there are some seeming incompatibilities between religion and science. There are major questions that devout scientists and devout religionists will probably never be able to fully agree on. Though these differences are important, Clayton believes that the similarities – and especially the shared goals – of scientists and religionists far outweigh any disagreements. Most people of faith, and most people of science, are driven by an inherent curiosity about the world and human nature. Both groups look at the world with awe. Whether that awe comes from a belief in God, or is shaped by a deep appreciation for biology and physics, it can be used to protect our world from forces of exploitation and greed. People of faith and people of science want the world to be peaceful, just, and sustainable. If they can put aside their differences of terminology and definitions, they can achieve the common goals they both desire. 

Science and Religion: The Basics would be an illuminating book for someone who has always thought the two incompatible. But it would also be a worthwhile read for someone who has spent years studying the many places where science and faith overlap. After reading Philip Clayton’s book, most readers will be left with a desire to dig deeper into both fields – and many will be inspired to improve the dialogue between those who claim they can never be reconciled.