[asa] review of Dick Olson's new book on science and religion

From: Ted Davis <TDavis@messiah.edu>
Date: Wed Jan 30 2008 - 10:27:52 EST

I reviewed this book for Isis a few months ago, but my review is not available online. This one is, as follows.

Published by H-Ideas@h-net.msu.edu (January, 2008)

Olson, Richard G. _Science and Religion, 1450-1900_. Greenwood Guides to
Science and Religion. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2004. 320 pp.
Illustrations, notes, bibliography, primary sources, index. $67.95
(cloth), ISBN 978-0-313-32694-3.

Reviewed for H-Ideas by Anna Marie Roos, Wellcome Unit, Oxford University

Professor Olson is no stranger to the topic, having published widely on
the interactions between science and religion, including his work
_Science Deified and Science Defied_ (1982). The excellence of his
present volume reviewed in this article is evidenced by its 2006 reprint
in paperback by Johns Hopkins University Press.

In his analysis, Olson takes a middle way between Kantians who claim
science and religion are completely separate disciplines with no
authentic interactions, and modern liberal Protestant theologians
influenced by Alfred Whitehead who "insist that God is part of the
natural world and co-evolves with it; so any change in scientific
knowledge of nature constitutes a change in our understanding of God"
(p. 2). Instead, Olson posits that both disciplines have interacted and
even cooperated. Even acknowledging the precept of biblical
accommodation, the complete separation of theology--"the queen of the
sciences"--from the natural sciences throughout most of the early modern
period was inconceivable. Olson also convincingly claims that
science?�?s descriptive knowledge and religion?�?s prescriptive
knowledge do not necessarily conflict; in an applied case study, he
demonstrates that seemingly obvious cases of "war" between science and
religion such as Galileo?�?s trial often are about other cases of
struggle entirely. For instance, Galileo could be a jerk about priority
of discovery, and he was often a jerk to Jesuit astronomers who could
have been powerful patrons and who instead, became powerful enemies.

With this conceptual basis established, comes a rapid presentation in
accessible prose of Christian humanism, science and Catholicism
(1550-1700), science and religion in England (1590-1740), Newtonian
religion, Kant and post-Kantian reactions, mosaic and secular geology,
and Darwinism. I was particularly impressed with the clarity of the
description of hermeticism and the Yates thesis, a topic which is often
impenetrable to undergraduates.

In a survey such as this, where the author has to pick and choose his
topics, particular areas must be omitted. That said, while the section
on nineteenth-century life sciences (focusing on natural theology and
Darwinism) is excellent, there is little about the chemical or
astronomical sciences in the nineteenth centuries.[1] For instance, the
"interpenetration" of scientific and religious ideas in Faraday?�?s work
was briefly mentioned in a sentence introduction, but nothing follows.
Faraday was a devout member of the Sandemanian denomination, a branch of
the Church of Scotland. As Geoffrey Cantor has demonstrated, Faraday?�?s
concept of a divine unity in nature was key to his understanding of the
relationship between forces of nature such as electricity, light, and
magnetism.[2] The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St.
Edmund?�?s College, University of Cambridge also recognizes his
combination of a "deep religious faith with an outstanding scientific

I also noticed a certain bias towards Anglo-American sources in the
bibliography.[4] That said, I was thus surprised that Rob Iliffe?�?s
online Newton Project, which was created to scan, transcribe, and
analyze Newton?�?s theological manuscripts
(http://www.newtonproject.sussex.ac.uk/) was not listed. It is possible
that the book?�?s remit did not allow for internet sources to be
included. But the online apparatus surrounding the Newton Project is
quite accessible to advanced undergraduates, David Haycock?�?s work on
William Stukeley being particularly noteworthy.

Olson however has written a book that will become an indispensable
reference for undergraduate research and pedagogy for this rich and
interesting topic. As his volume ends with Charles Darwin, I hope that
Professor Olson will soon delight the scholarly community with his
treatment of scientific and religious interactions in the twentieth
century. The book is highly recommended.


[1]. This was also a point noted by Helge Kraugh in her review of this
work in _Centaurus_ 49, no. 2 (2007): 181-182.

[2]. Geoffrey Cantor, _Michael Faraday: Scientist and Sandemanian_ (New
York: St. Martin's Press, 1991).

[3]. "Who was Michael Faraday?" Faraday Institute for Science and
Religion, St. Edmund's College, Cambridge,
http://www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/faraday/Faraday.php, accessed July 1,

[4]. Again I must agree with Kraugh in this point.

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Received on Wed Jan 30 10:29:27 2008

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