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Ursula Goodenough


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Ursula Goodenough is a biologist. Although she describes herself as a non-theist, she believes that religion is very important and indeed she attends the Trinity Presbyterian Church, where she sings in the choir, recites the liturgy and prayers, and generally participates in the religious life. She is thus at one far end of the atheistic spectrum, opposite to that occupied by people such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. She loves traditional religions, she tells us.

In this short book, which she compares to a Lutheran Daily Devotional booklet, she provides twelve chapters which are intended to illustrate her view of how a scientific non-supernatural understanding of nature can sustain a spiritual outlook. Her position is that science and spirituality do not contradict each other and indeed are mutually reinforcing. Each chapter offers a simple introduction to a scientific idea.

On the basis of this scientific survey the author derives some religious principles which she thinks should be acceptable to those of all religious backgrounds. We can feel gratitude for our existence, though this need not be to a personal God. We can feel reverence towards the sacredness of life. And we can feel faith in the continuity of human life. All this is based on evolution.

Humans need stories—grand, compelling stories—that help to orient us in our lives and in the cosmos. The Epic of Evolution is such a story, beautifully suited to anchor our search for planetary consensus, telling us of our nature, our place, our context.
The book is an eloquent presentation of what Goodenough calls religious naturalism and I think that many readers will find this deeply satisfying. It will not appeal to those who regard religion as the enemy, nor will it work very well for those who, unlike the author, find religious ritual meaningless. This seems to be a temperamental difference.

There is also an objection of another kind to Goodenough's thesis. It has been discussed by Thomas Nagel in a recent essay, Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament, in which he points out that the evolutionary perspective "probably makes human life, like all life, meaningless, since it makes life a more or less accidental consequence of physics." I don't think Goodenough really provides an answer to this objection, but her book is still an interesting take on the religion–science issue.

28 March 2007

%T The Sacred Depths of Nature
%A Ursula Goodenough
%I Oxford University Press
%C Oxford
%D 1998, 2000
%G ISBN-13 976-0-19-513629-6
%P xxi + 197pp
%K science, religion
%O paperback edition

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