It’s been sitting on my ‘to read’ pile for some time, but I’ve finally got round to reading Bill Bryson’s ‘Short History of Nearly Everything’. I’ve never considered myself naturally scientific, but it was a great read – mostly easy to understand, and with Bryson’s usual warm, humorous but penetrating tone. All sorts of snippets of dimly-understood science were placed in context and by the end I felt I had a real working map of our scientific understanding of the world.
It was not a significant theme of the book but I was intrigued, nevertheless (given wider current debates over the new atheism and the possible terrains of science and faith), to see how the whole question of religion was treated. I was impressed. Bryson keeps his cards fairly close to his chest, and although he seemed to steer towards the view that the universe as we know it was purely a matter of chance, there was little of the sniping that characterises some recent polemic on the subject. Some of the great set-pieces of the science and religion controversy – such as the Huxley-Wilberforce debate – are given fair treatment, and there was due recognition of the people of religious faith who have contributed to scientific understanding, from the covertly Unitarian Isaac Newton to the Catholic monk and pioneer geneticist Gregor Mendel and the supernova-chasing Uniting Church minister Robert Evans.
There are some challenging questions in the book for people of faith – just what was God up to with dinosaurs? (although my children’s delight a recent dinosaur-themed birthday party seems, I say a little flippantly, justification enough for their existence). However, I was intrigued to find that besides the theological questions I had several strong emotional reactions to the book: first, renewed wonder and gratitude at the universe in which we live. Second, a renewed sense of the unlikelihood of our existence, its continual fragility, and the vital necessity of living well upon the earth to at least do our part in preserving and stewarding what we have. Finally, a sense of amazement at the intrepid thinkers, explorers and researchers who have sought to understand the workings of our universe and used them to build the society we inhabit today (accepting of course that not all scientific discoveries have been used for good). I remain convinced that there are important ‘why?’ questions which need to be asked, alongside the ‘how?’ questions which modern scientific enquiry deals with, and there’s a place for God in all of this. But those three things – gratitude for the universe, awareness of our fragility, and thankfulness for those who have helped us understand these things – remain to be shared by people of all different belief systems, religious or not.