Magisteria: Interview with author Nick Spencer

 Judith Harbinson

ECLAS Programme Associate Judith Harbinson speaks to Nick Spencer, Senior Fellow at Theos Think Tank, about his new book, Magisteria: The Entangled Histories of Science and Religion (Oneworld Publications, 2023).

Judith Harbinson: What was your primary motivation behind writing Magisteria? And what fresh insights are you hoping it will bring to the science-faith conversation?

Nick Spencer: My introduction was back in the 2009 Darwin double anniversary [200 years since Darwin’s birth and 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species]. We did a big project on that. I wrote a short spiritual biography of Charles Darwin; spiritual in the sense of charting his own trajectory of belief over his lifetime, which was fascinating and absorbing. Darwin is used as the pin-up boy for intellectual atheism, and he wasn’t an atheist. He was quite clear about that. He denied the fact that his theory necessitated atheism quite vociferously. He did lose his own Christian faith—it was only ever quite tepid. In other words, there were lots of details that got missed from the bigger story, and the more I read, and the more I spoke to some of the eminent scholars in this field, the more I realized that that applied across the board to science and religion. In particular the popular idea of the history of science and religion is still stuck in what I now know are myths that emerged in the late 19th century of relentless hostility and conflict, but scholarship in this area has moved on massively in the last 40 years or so. That isn’t a view that any serious scholars in this area hold, so, what I was effectively trying to do is to bring this shift in the Academy to a wider public notice.

Judith Harbinson:  There’s a lot of overlap there with ECLAS’s goals, so I think it’s going to be of great interest to our audience. Who was your intended audience for the book and who would you most like to read it?

Nick Spencer: I think the phrase is ‘intelligent layperson’: this isn’t a tabloid book – it’s hopefully got some good scholarly underpinning to it – but it’s not for scholars. It’s for anyone who’s interested in science and religion, and I do think, having researched in this area for quite a few years now, that’s a lot of people. An awful lot of people have an opinion on these subjects, and a number of them have an opinion on how they interact. So, it’s really anybody with a lively interest in either or both of the topics.

Judith Harbinson: So, what are the most common misconceptions that arise in the “entangled histories of science and religion?”

Nick Spencer: There is one common one, and it’s an overarching myth or misconception, which is that the appropriate controlling metaphor for the relationship between science and religion is warfare or conflict. That emerged from the 1870s, really, and for various reasons, it was passed into the popular bloodstream and it has remained there ever since. It emerged for quite specific reasons at the time. Effectively, there were certain circumstances that led people to believe that this conflict that apparently existed between science and religion in the late 19th century (and there certainly were signs of conflict there) typified the entirety of the history of science and religion.

So, effectively, people at that time used a telescope or a lens that was forged in their particular moment to survey all the history that went before them, and not surprisingly when they viewed history through that lens, they saw, as it were, the present reflected back to them historically. They were able to reinterpret events through the history of science and religion, and indeed some characters as well, as if they confirmed what they thought was going on at the time. 

Now, it’s important to emphasize that there were historic examples of severe tension at times between science and religion (although it’s also important to emphasize that those terms ‘science’ and ‘religion’ are quite anachronistic themselves). So, it wasn’t completely made up. There were elements of truth in it without a doubt. It’s just that in the old juror’s phrase, it was the truth, but not the whole truth, or there were elements of truth in it but it was a very partial picture in the full scheme of things.

Judith Harbinson: Just to touch on that, was it hard to pin down the terms you were going to use, for example ‘science-theology’, ‘science and religion’? Was there a process that you came to in choosing terms?

Nick Spencer: This is a classic Catch-22 situation. One of my intellectual heroes and huge influences in all this is Australian scholar Peter Harrison who wrote a brilliant book, The Territories of Science and Religion, that came out about five years ago. He makes the point very clearly that the categories that we understand today as ‘science’ and ‘religion’ only emerged in the late 19th century, and before then there were different categories pertaining to different activities, underlining the fact that each of these two things, science and religion, were, in fact, a disparate collection of different activities and beliefs which, for various reasons, coalesced under these identities in the 19th century. So, properly speaking, you shouldn’t really use ‘science’ and ‘religion’ (at least in the way we use it today) for anything much before 1800. But that becomes very hard work because a lot of the terms aren’t familiar to contemporary readers and you’re not  always entirely sure whether you should be using ‘natural philosophy’ or ‘natural theology’ or ‘mathematics’ or ‘medicine’. So, in the end, I simply had to bow to the inevitable pressure and just use the terms that people are familiar with, but put the caveat early on saying, “Look, these terms aren’t ideal, at best they are approximations to the historical reality of what was going on. We’re primarily using them as a convenience.”

Judith Harbinson: Yes, we come upon this a lot in terms of interchangeability of terms. And should we use ‘science-engaged theology’, and do we know what we’re talking about when we use that term?

Nick Spencer: I bet. As an aside, it’s almost worth using these terms, because this is where the problem is at its most acute. The research we’ve been doing at Theos over recent years points to the fact that more people see there as being hostility between ‘science and religion’ than between ‘science and faith’ or between ‘science and Christianity’, or ‘science and Islam’ and indeed, far more people see there as being a tension between ‘science and religion’ than between specific scientific disciplines and religion. So, it’s almost like we have this kind of Pavlovian reaction to the phrase: ‘science and religion’ which brings out our most antagonistic understanding of the relationship. So, really, if you want to argue that the relationship is not that antagonistic, you might as well go for the hardest case and talk about ‘science and religion’ as opposed to ‘science and faith’ for example.

Judith Harbinson: Yes, that’s really interesting. Obviously, we’re zeroing in on Christianity, but the scope of the book goes beyond that. You suggest in the book that, historically speaking, much of the antagonism between scientists and church leaders resulted from the Church gatekeeping the right to publish on theological questions. So, there’s an argument there about authority, but also a point about where disciplinary boundaries lie and how they are enforced. How do you think these questions play out in the more democratic modern world and in the modern academy?

Nick Spencer: Let me answer in three historical sections. Up to 1900, the tensions, such as they existed, between ‘science and religion’ were often around intellectual authority, not just the right to adjudicate on theological issues, actually the right to adjudicate on all sorts of issues: on the nature of reality, and in particular (and this is the second theme in the book) the nature of humanity.

This goes  right the way back to Baghdad in the eighth century, when we’re talking about the golden age of Islamic science, it goes through the famous battle in the University of Paris in the 13th century when Aristotelianism sweeps all before it. It’s at the core of the Galileo conflict in the early 17th century and it’s very significant indeed in the 19th century, when the word ‘scientist’ is coined, when science is professionalized and when old school clerical naturalists are side-lined: people like Samuel Wilberforce in favour of professional scientists like Thomas Huxley. That element of the conflict, broadly speaking, dies down by the time you get to 1900. It’s not completely over at all, but it’s less of an issue because science exists: it’s professional, it’s got its own institutions, its own structures, its own patterns of funding, its own public legitimacy. And religion has its own. So, whilst there are still entanglements – the last section of the book is called “the ongoing entanglement of science and religion”, and there is still entanglement, there’s still some points of tension, some points of complementarity – that battle over authority is less acute in the twentieth century. That’s the second stage of my answer.

I have a sense – I only just gesture towards this at the very end of the book – but I have a sense it’s going to grow in the 21st century for the reason that many of the scientific disciplines that are seeing most exciting progress now are in the process of putting acute questions next to the idea of the human. In other words, we are increasingly able to extend, manipulate, change the human, or indeed to elevate other things to the status of the human. At the moment, I’m co-writing a book with Hannah [Waite], looking at the future, and it’s got chapters in it such as Will AI become human? What are the proper limits of genetic engineering? What should we think about extreme scientific life extension/ immortality? Should non-human animals ever be granted legal personhood? What would we do if we finally encountered intelligent life on other planets? These are all questions that impinge on our idea of what it means to be human, and that has been an absolute core dimension to religious thought (certainly in the West) basically forever.

So whereas I think that the old battles of authority aren’t going to be resurrected because science is a hugely successful, autonomous enterprise at the moment, there are going to be questions around, “Well, okay, science is able to genetically do this now or to create artificial life, or whatever else: should it? And if it should, who says it should?” And ultimately, they’re authority questions. So, I think we’re nudging slowly back into this area of contested authority.

Judith Harbinson: And do you see an appetite where the Church’s opinion is sought out on matters where ‘science’ no longer knows where the boundaries are?

Nick Spencer: What I would say is that this is, properly speaking, not simply a question of science and religion. It’s a question of science and philosophical ethics if I can put it that way. So, any secular ethicist listening to this might say, “Well, hang on a second, why am I not involved in this?” and the answer is, “You absolutely should be.” In as far as the Church or religious groups have a coherent, well-thought-through conception of the human (which they do, I think) and therefore conception of ‘the good’, they are to be participants in this conversation. As it happens, it’s also worth emphasizing that the 21st century will be as, if not more, religious than the 20th. We have a pretty blinkered and myopic view of this in the West, at least where I sit in this little bit of Western Europe where the Church is seen to be emptying, and so on and so forth. Actually, globally, that isn’t going to be the case in the 21st century, and I think that’s an additional reason why the Church will be involved in this question; not only because it has a cogent theological anthropology and set of ethical tools to engage with these issues, but because if you want to connect with 80-90% of the global population about these issues in the 21st century, you’re going to be doing so through a set of religious belief systems.

Judith Harbinson: Has your work on the book highlighted the need for greater interdisciplinary working in the Church and in the Academy?

Nick Spencer: Yes, undoubtedly. I have to be slightly cautious here in that I naturally, personally, gravitate towards interdisciplinary areas: it’s what interests me. And, therefore, it’s very easy for me to say, “Well, everybody should do what I do, really.” To take the two Magisteria of the title, I can’t see why, if you are interested in religion, you wouldn’t also have an interest in science, because basically science is how the world works, what it’s made up of. And similarly, I know lots of people who are interested in science who dismiss religion altogether, but some of them would dismiss philosophy and ethical reflection. And I think science, when it is not grounded in these wider philosophical, ethical, ultimately metaphysical and spiritual concerns, is a real danger. I interviewed the Harvard Professor Sheila Jasanoff for my own podcast recently, and she wrote a book a couple of years ago called Can Science Make Sense of Life?, and her argument is (specifically with regards to genetics) that if you’re making pronouncements on life, you are implicitly also making pronouncements on what life is for, and that is hugely important, particularly if we’re going to be dealing with genetics.

Judith Harbinson:  At ECLAS, our primary audience is senior Christian leaders, and that includes Church of England bishops who sit in the House of Lords. Why do you think it’s important that church leaders in particular engage with the complex and contested history of science and theology?

Nick Spencer: Because leaders influence their flocks, very simplistically. You can’t overestimate the significance of, for example, various Papal statements on the acceptance of evolution, from Pope Pius XII, in about 1950, to Pope John Paul II on the fact that evolution really is not an issue for Catholics. Similarly, you can’t overestimate the impact of certain fundamentalist leaders seizing on evolution as the problem in the 1910s and 1920s on the subsequent history of 20th century American fundamentalist rejection of evolution. Interestingly, some of the original fundamentalists, who wrote The Fundamentals in 1910 or so, were evolutionists. For fundamentalists (before they were called fundamentalists at the end of the 19th century in America), evolution was an irritant, but it wasn’t the ultimate cause it became in the 20th century. 

Now, I’m not suggesting, for example, the Church of England needs to have quite the same influence as William Jennings Bryan did for fundamentalists in twentieth-century America, or Pope John Paul II did for Catholics, but nonetheless they’re important, they’re influential, and therefore I think it’s significant that they have thought clearly and carefully about both science and religion.

Judith Harbinson: It’s often said that opinions are becoming increasingly polarized in many areas. But thinking of science and religion, what do you think that church leaders can do to help mitigate this? Are there things that they can do in particular or in general?

Nick Spencer: That’s a question that feels a bit beyond my pay grade, really, and I guess the only answer I have is almost platitudinous. Really, they need to be confident themselves, or at least (let’s be fair to them because they’ve got a lot on their plate!) be connected with people who are confident. They need to foreground the role of scientists in their congregations. They need to recognise that science is as much a vocation as any other topic and that supporting organizations like ECLAS and Christians in Science is a powerful affirmation not only of the professional activity of scientists but on their, let’s be honest, their divine calling.

That sounds a bit haughty, but to pick up on a historical example from the book: there’s a brilliant vignette in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where he visits the Grand Academy of Lagado on his travels in the third book, and it’s basically an enormous parody of the Royal Society. It’s very, very funny. It’s remarkably funny given it’s 300 years old. But it underlines the fact that the early scientific activities were pretty ridiculous: why are you wasting time weighing air? What would cause you to dismember a living dog (which is what they did: hideous experiments).

Actually, the fact that science (as we’ve come to know it) was preserved and nurtured at this critical time (so we’re talking between about 1660 and 1750 or so) was in large measure because it was strongly allied with and indeed baptized by theology. You had innumerable books on different kinds of ‘physico-theology’ where you had the theological reading of a whole different range of scientific enterprises, and effectively this was theology saying, “This is divine stuff: science is a divine activity.” You were allowed, according to Boyle, to do science on the Sabbath – which is a big idea for a Protestant – because science is a form of contemplation and understanding of God’s works. It’s a form of worship. He even suggests it might be an appropriate activity for Heaven: we do science in Heaven. So, that was incredibly important for the birth of science in Western Europe, at the turn of that century. Now, we’ve moved away from that historically, but I think it’s really important to underline how much part of God’s plan for the human and human society science is, and therefore leaders articulating that offers a very powerful imprimatur.

Judith Harbinson: I found that chapter particularly fascinating. All of the applications of physico-theology: I don’t know if we would do conferences on them, but there’s some inspiration for us there.

Nick Spencer: You had theologies of pretty much everything. You name it, there was a theology of it.

Judith Harbinson: And obviously it ended up going a little bit far in some cases, and things swung very far in the other direction. But yes, there’s potentially  something to be regained by reflecting on that period, and what was helpful and good about it.

Nick Spencer: Well, there’s kind of a sub-theme in the book, which is that a lot of people seem to think that actually the moments where science and religion came into conflict were the most problematic.  Actually, ironically, they weren’t at all. It was moments of what’s known as ‘concordism’, moments when science and religion basically got married, that were the really problematic ones. Because, as has often been said of the Church or theology, if it marries the spirit of the age, it soon finds itself a widow. And on several occasions through the history of the Church, theology or the Church married the scientific orthodoxy of the age and that almost always led to a very painful divorce.

Judith Harbinson: So, being careful to not be too final in our pronouncements lest they change.

Nick Spencer: That’s right. And also – and this is an entirely different kind of very, very lively theological debate – always ask questions about whether you’re, as it were, reading too much of the divine off the face of the material. The biggest mistakes, and the chapter in the book is called The Perils of Perfect Harmony, when not only science and religion were harmonious, but the religious tend to believe that actually you could pretty much identify everything you possibly need to identify about God from studying the nature of frogs, or whatever else it might be. And there are questions about quite how much or whether ‘Natural Theology’, as it was known, could tell us anything at all about God.

Judith Harbinson: Yes, and what’s the role of revelation then?

Nick Spencer: Exactly.

Judith Harbinson: And then that became a problem in the era of Darwin and natural selection: why would God’s creation behave in certain unpalatable ways?

Nick Spencer: That’s right. If you put all your money in the natural theological bank which then goes bust, you’re in trouble.

Judith Harbinson: Absolutely. We talked about church leaders, and how they can be involved in this discussion in helpful ways. So, just to end on: you talked a little bit about how you see the conversation moving in light of AI and recent developments. But where do you see this conversation going? Are we moving further together, further apart?

Nick Spencer: Well, I mentioned at the start that my immediate entry into this was the Darwin anniversary in 2009, and that was a period of almost hysterical intensity where, for various reasons, religion in general, and creationism fundamentalists specifically, were seen almost as civilizational threats. Everything that we “had fought for in the Enlightenment” – rather ahistorically conceived – was seemingly now under threat by people who are rejecting established science. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m totally against young earth creationism/ old earth creationism, whatever you want to call it. I’m a fully paid-up theistic evolutionist. But that was a time where, were we to have this conversation, the obvious answer would have been “not just drifting apart but flying apart.” History moves on, as it does. There are different – no less severe but different – civilizational threats today, and you can’t really pin them on creationism fundamentalists.

I’m never temperamentally a particularly optimistic person, I’ve got to be honest with you, but I think the temperatures have cooled sufficiently from where they were 10-15 years ago to allow for some more productive conversations. And, just as lots of religious people were denouncing theologically bad readings of the Scriptures at that time, it’s interesting that in the last 15 years or so there have been lots of non-believers who have carefully distanced themselves from the ‘New Atheisms’. I did a 3-year project with Faraday [The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion] on The Nature of Science and Religion Today, and we interviewed a very large number of very senior scientists, and philosophers of science, and sociologists, and so on and so forth, the majority of whom are non-believers or atheists. A surprising number of them said, entirely unprompted, at the end of the interview, “Oh, I’m not one of the Dawkins crowd. Please understand that.” They were very keen to distance themselves. So, I think when people are willing to distance themselves from the extremities on both ends of the spectrum, there is greater potential for fruitful dialogue.

Judith Harbinson: Well, thank you very much, Nick, for your time – it’s been really fascinating, and I think Christian leaders (and scientists) will find your book very interesting.



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