Review: Private Doubt, Public Dilemma

Private Doubt, Public DilemmaPrivate Doubt, Public Dilemma by Keith Thomson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

Summary: This book, drawn from Thomson’s 2012 Terry Lectures, explores the conflict between religion and science through a look at two men who struggled with this conflict, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Darwin, considering how they handled scientific findings that conflicted with their beliefs and the public aftermath and expresses hope for a different engagement in the future.

Are science and religious belief in conflict? Certainly much of the history of the last couple centuries would suggest this is the case. What Keith Thomson does is examine this conflict, not as two blocks of people opposed to one another, but in terms of what happens when scientific findings conflict with one’s established beliefs, creating both personal doubts and a public dilemma when one publishes these findings, knowing they will conflict with the beliefs of others.

Thomson uses two figures to portray this conflict: Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin. For Jefferson, as he was compiling his Notes on the State of Virginia, the issue was geology and the apparent great age of rock formations he was studying. Privately, Jefferson had moved from Christian faith to a vague deism, even as these findings challenged prevailing interpretations. In his case, however, he recognized that this gave his political rivals an issue and he decided to leave the matter unresolved and publicly espoused more conventional beliefs.

A similar issue faced Darwin, who at one time considered training to be a clergyman. As he came to write On the Origin of the Species, he also struggled with the implications of the theory he was proposing which denied the special creation of different kinds of species but argued that processes of natural selection could account for the rise of different species. Darwin was so troubled by all this that he relied on others to publicly defend his ideas, Aldous Huxley against Bishop Wilberforce in England, and Asa Gray against Louis Agassiz in the United States.

Thomson argues that the public debates and dilemmas are a public manifestation of the clash between old and new knowledge and between differing sources of authority rooted in the new (scientific) and old (religious) knowledge. His hope seems to be that in time, the influence of the old authority will lessen and that religious people and scientists will co-operate on a broad range of issues from climate change to biotechnology.

What troubled me was not so much the places where science and religion conflict about understanding of the physical world. Even in Darwin’s time, theologians like B.B. Warfield were responding cogently and with an openness to the “new” scientific knowledge. Rather, it is the assumption that religion should step aside with its ethical reservations when science asserts that something both can and ought to be done. His treatment of contraception is a case in point. While I think there could be a place for dialogue with the Roman church about its categorical refusal to permit contraception by other than natural means, I found Thomson’s dismissiveness of the church’s concerns about how contraception results in the “banalization of sexuality” singularly condescending. If religious reservations on other ethical questions raised by new technology and new scientific findings are thus simply brushed aside, there is little hope for a real engagement between thoughtful scientists and religious believers. (I would acknowledge that there are certainly reactionary religious ideologues who resist any advances in science and that these often garner far more media attention than thoughtful religious believers who engage in a far more constructive fashion–Francis Collins and his BioLogos Foundation is a good example of the latter.)

What I think is part of Thomson’s problem in these lectures and this book is that he assumes only two kinds of people: either those who mute their religious beliefs because of their science, and those “fundamentalist” believers who resist the advance of science. What I wish he would have done is highlight those in Darwin’s time and ours who do the far more difficult thing–holding firm religious beliefs and rigorous science in a creative tension, taking a both/and rather than either/or approach. I think such individuals in fact represent the best “way forward” in bridging the divide, perceived or real, between religion and science in a way that allows us to address the greatest hindrances to the flourishing of human beings and the rest of, dare I say it, creation.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher as an ebook via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

2 thoughts on “Review: Private Doubt, Public Dilemma

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: June 2015 | Bob on Books

  2. Pingback: A Reading List of Books on Science and Religion | Bob on Books

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