Magisteria: The Entangled Histories of Science and Religion by Nicholas Spencer - review by Daniel Rey

Daniel Rey

The God in the Machine

Magisteria: The Entangled Histories of Science and Religion


Oneworld 480pp £25

In 1997, evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion as ‘non-overlapping magisteria’. Gould maintained that as long as each kept to its own domain, conflict between science and religion was unnecessary.

Gould’s view was fair-minded but, as Nicholas Spencer writes in Magisteria, it is at odds with the historical record. Science and religion may have deployed different methodologies but, until the latter half of the 19th century, they were usually accomplices. Aristotle’s Metaphysics is a work not only of theology but also of philosophy, mathematics and cosmology. In the medieval era, after Islamic scholars had recovered the works of Aristotle, there was a flowering of scientific enterprise among theologians. Later, science developed in parallel with the Reformation, which encouraged lay people to study both God’s word and his world. The Royal Society, while it promised to avoid ‘meddling with Divinity, Metaphysics, Moralls’, stated that its duty was to work for ‘the glory of God the Creator’.

The distinction between scientific and religious disciplines grew amid the secularisation of the 19th century. Even then, the conflict has largely been exaggerated. In Britain, the most serious challenge to faith was not On the Origin of Species (1859), but Essays and Reviews (1860), a collection mainly written by

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