Person in lab with DNA helix in background

© Alana Jordan, Pixabay (AI generated)

Academic debates about science and religion centre around aspects of knowledge and how we come to know them. The conversation tends to include topics such as eschatology, cosmology and miracles. Popular debates, on the other hand tend to be grounded in subjects that concern everyday life: how we use medical technology, or whether scientific or religious institutions should have a say about purpose or meaning in society. This distinction informed Nick Spencer and Hannah Waite’s choice of topics in Playing God: Science, Religion and the Future of Humanity (SPCK, 2024).

This new book is the latest outcome of a joint project between The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion and Theos Think Tank. The first was a report about their research into attitudes on science and religion among the general public, with more in-depth interviews with scientists, philosophers, theologians, and journalists. The data coming out of that project shows that people’s views on science and religion are often far more nuanced than we have been led to believe.

Many people believe that there’s a constant battle between science and religion ‘out there’, but don’t experience that conflict very often in their own lives. Spencer and Waite’s book is about the issues where science and faith actually do clash from time to time: what it means to be human. For example, non-religious people tend to assume religious people would be thrown into a crisis of faith if intelligent life was found elsewhere in the universe. Religious people themselves say such a discovery wouldn’t threaten their faith. On deeper analysis, it seems that extra-terrestrial intelligence would threaten secular humanism, with its focus on extraordinary human abilities that set us apart from other animals, but not a view that sees the value of human personhood as a gift from God.

Other chapters cover extending lifespan, vaccination, the meaning of personhood and whether we should attribute it to animals, Artificial Intelligence, mental health and abortion. Drawing on some of the statistics from their report as well as other published studies, the authors address these subjects respectfully but with a lightness of touch that left me feeling informed and challenged but not wrestled into intellectual or emotional submission. As representatives of a Christian think tank they of course put forward Christian views, but without claiming that there is a single ‘Christian view’ on complex and sensitive subjects. They recognise the value of stimulating conversation around the grey areas, rather than assuming everything would be ok if everyone would just agree with them.

At just under 200 pages, Spencer and Waite’s exploration of these topics is in-depth, but not intimidatingly so, and very readable. It would be a good buy for a pastor or church member who wants to get up to date on some current science-faith topics to fuel their ministry. This book could also be an excellent conversation starter for a midweek Church small group or outreach activity. I’m a little biased, being from one of the institutions involved, but I think it’s an excellent addition to the popular-level science and religion literature.


Bonus material

Interview with the authors on Wednesday 8th May 2024, recording during a Faraday Churches network zoom session.