God’s Planet, by Owen Gingerich

How is one to understand the relationship between science and religion? “New atheists,” such as Richard Dawkins, have a ready answer: they are in conflict. Either one accepts the Bible’s account of a six-day creation and Adam and Eve, or one adopts a scientific worldview incorporating the Big Bang theory and evolution. There is no middle ground; the two are incompatible, and one has to make a choice.

This is a simplistic viewpoint. It ­doesn’t take into account the many scientists who have no difficulty accepting the findings of science and yet subscribe to a theistic belief system. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed an alternative. He regarded science and religion as addressing different kinds of questions. Science is concerned with uncovering how the world operates, while religion is concerned with broader questions having to do with purpose and overall meaning. Each has its own domain of competence. There need be no conflict, providing that religion and science stick to their own territory. This viewpoint is known as nonoverlapping magisteria.

In his short, punchy, accessible, and thought-provoking book God’s Planet, Owen Gingerich goes a step farther with a more nuanced approach. As emeritus professor of astronomy and the history of science at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, he is well qualified to address the issue. He agrees with Gould that the two disciplines address different kinds of questions and that we need both discourses to gain a fuller understanding of what is going on. But are science and religion really as independent of each other as Gould would have us believe? Gingerich says no. Not only can scientific discoveries affect religious beliefs, one’s religious mind-set can mold how one receives and interprets scientific developments.