Science and Religion, A Very Short Re-Introduction

By Adam R. Shapiro

When Thomas Dixon first asked me to work with him to revise and update his excellent 2008 book Science and Religion, A Very Short Introduction, my first thought was to ask why such a text might need a new edition. On the face of it, many of the issues we typically associate with the study of “science and religion” seem timeless, or at the very least long-lasting. Has so much changed in little more than a decade?

The question might be answered in two different ways. One might ask what great developments have been made in science and religion as an academic field. It’s been over half a century since Ian Barbour’s description of four different models of science-religion relationship, and over a quarter century since historians of the subject started using the phrase “complexity thesis” to rebut the either/or simplicity of pure conflict or pure harmony narratives. And yet these remain foundational concepts that for many people still come across as surprising and transformative. To students, whose first point of entry into the subject are some of the most rehearsed and rehashed debates in the field – evolution versus Genesis, the oppression of Galileo, or the question of free will and determinism – acknowledging that the relationship between religion and science could be more than a caricature comes as an important eye-opening discovery. These are stories that still need to be retold, and there have been new facts and interpretations that can make those stories more accurate and nuanced.

A second way to consider what has changed is not to ask about the academic field, but to look at how different the world of today is to that of 2008. When we began work on this 2nd edition, the world had not yet been plunged into a global pandemic. But we saw in real time how the ideas of science and religion shaped so many responses to COVID-19. We saw religious groups make new accommodations to ritual practices, such as Passover Seders moving online, sanitized communion practices, and limitations on the Hajj. We also saw some people use the privileged status that some states afford to religion to contest public health measures, including lockdowns and vaccine mandates. Religious NGOs have also played a major role in the implementation of health measures across the globe. We saw both religious and secular arguments concerning individuals getting vaccinated, and both religious and secular arguments concerning global vaccine equity. To simply call all of this an example of “complexity” hardly seems to do justice to everything the pandemic revealed about the way scientific and religious concepts function in our world.

But even before covid, we saw many ways in which the dynamics of science and religion were reshaping the world. The increasing urgency of the global climate crisis, and the scientific and ethical issues many local communities face in discussing issues of ecological wellbeing and environmental racism and inequity, require responses that are well-informed about matters both scientific and religious. The historical role that both science and religion have assumed in creating and maintaining cultural and political authority continues to affect how indigenous populations and other minoritized groups have their own forms of knowledge debased. Questions about the roles that biology and culture both play in how race and gender identities are formed, defined, and expressed—and the increasingly contentious social policies formulated in response to those questions—require us to acknowledge that both science and religion have politics that are integral to the issues they pronounce upon. 

With the possible exception of issues specific to COVID-19, these are mostly not new circumstances. But for too long these issues were rarely seen as ones associated with “science and religion.” In part, that’s because of who identified as part of that academic field and what their priorities and interests were. These social and political issues may benefit from more nuanced fluency with religious and scientific thought. Moreover the field of science and religion must engage with these kinds of questions and issues if it is to continue a relevant and growing field of interdisciplinary study.

In final analysis, the need for a new edition—one that both renews the classic issues and episodes of the field and also points to new and emerging areas of inquiry—is found less by looking at what has happened in the past dozen years and more by setting out a vision for the days ahead.

The second edition of Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction by Thomas Dixon and Adam Shapiro was published by Oxford University Press in March 2022.

A photo of the historian Adam Shapiro

Adam R. Shapiro is a historian of science and religion, with interests in the influence of science and religion on public policy, who currently is an AAAS science policy fellow with the U.S. State Department. For more see Adam’s research profile.