Spencer’s book is based on deep historical insight and research, it is written with elegance and energy, and it achieves the rare feat of being scholarly and serious as well as accessible and engaging. It will be an important resource for anyone who wishes to understand the scientific and religious entanglements that have shaped, and continue to frame, our views of God, humanity, and the cosmos.
Reading Nicholas Spencer’s Magisteria: The Entangled Histories of Science and Religion, I was reminded of T. S. Eliot’s words: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” For all the intense debates about how best to navigate the territories of science and religion, this is a journey that points back to its origin: the human person. As Spencer convincingly demonstrates, what we think about science and religion often says more about us—our views on what it means to be human and who gets to decide—than it does about science and religion.
The book’s title refers to the biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s model of science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria,” or two distinct activities that need not interact. Others have variously defined the relationship in terms of conflict, dialogue, or collaboration. Spencer rejects such approaches as too simplistic. In line with the emerging scholarly consensus that there isn’t a single narrative for the history of science and religion, he offers alternative histories. After all, the two enterprises turn out to be “indistinct, sprawling, untidy, and endlessly and fascinatingly entangled.”
But Spencer’s goal isn’t just to emphasize complexity. In his telling, the histories of science and religion tend to converge on two issues: human nature (our origins, purpose, and uniqueness) and authority (who has the right to adjudicate these questions?). Perhaps this is why the topic of science and religion can be so polarizing: if Spencer is correct, we’re dealing not with sterile abstractions about “conflict” or “harmony,” but with profoundly human concerns about who we are, how we relate to each other, and what we might be.
While the story of science and religion is not so easy to track, Spencer’s own career trajectory has been heading toward an ambitious study of the subject for some time. As a senior fellow of the Christian think-tank Theos, he has already written a book about Charles Darwin’s religious beliefs, another on The Evolution of the West, and presented a BBC radio series on the relationship between science and religion. With Magisteria, he has now produced one of the most comprehensive and compelling popular accounts of the entanglements between these contested human activities.
The book’s historical scope is vast, with the first section alone tracing 1,600 years of (general) cooperation and (occasional) combat between science and religion. Spencer shows that, to a considerable degree, ancient and medieval religious believers supported, legitimized, and helped advance scientific inquiry. Augustine warned that it is “disgraceful and dangerous” for Christians to ignore facts about the physical world. Islamic scholars made original contributions to astronomy, chemistry, and medicine. Christian ideas about the order and rationality of the natural world informed the assumptions that continue to underpin science today. Medieval universities functioned primarily as scientific institutions.
Of course, the terms “science” and “religion” (as well as “science and religion”) are modern inventions, and Spencer acknowledges the risk of anachronism when using them in relation to the ancient and medieval worlds. His point is that, for large parts of human history, what we would now compartmentalize as scientific and religious outlooks were fully integrated in the lives of important figures. The twelfth-century scholastic philosopher Robert Grosseteste combined scientific work with an ecclesiastical career. The fifteenth-century philosopher Nicholas of Cusa was a Catholic cardinal as well as a mathematician and astronomer. Both men believed that God’s creation was subject to quantification and experimentation, and both engaged with ideas (such as the concept of infinity) that would sit easily with developments in twenty-first-century physics.
The book’s other three sections are framed by three major incidents in the history of science and religion, which Spencer sees as central to sustaining the popular myth of endless conflict: the Galileo affair, which seemed to pit Copernicus’s heliocentrism against the Catholic Church; the Huxley–Wilberforce debate, which seemed to pit Darwin’s new theory of evolution against Christian belief in Victorian England; and the Scopes Monkey trial, which seemed to perform a similar role in Tennessee sixty-five years later.