Science and religion

Following the US election marathon is always unnerving for Brits. Listening to some of the views of potential presidential candidates can be scary on this side of the Pond. But, aside from the strangely limited world view of some of the guys who clearly haven’t looked at an atlas recently, there is something more interesting and incomprehensible to many of us in Europe – something to do with religion (surprisingly).


According to news reports here, Rick Santorum thinks the ‘global warming’ warners have had too much space given to them. He seems to have the sort of understanding about science that makes not only Richard Dawkins shiver with incredulity. Add into the mix the whole fundamentalist view of creation and the Bible and the picture is complete. It’s also weird.


Let’s nail this one. If someone believes that (a) God is the creator of everything as it is and how it is, and (b) all truth is God’s truth, then why be afraid of whatever science might throw up? As someone once said (possibly CS Lewis, but I can’t remember while sitting in a Yorkshire Dales car park): “If Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it isn’t true because it is Christianity.” In other words, if you truly believe in God, there is nothing to be afraid of in scientific exploration – after all, and if you accept my logic, God must have known the truth about what is true and real anyway.


Sorry if all this sounds like a statement of the bleeding obvious, but it clearly isn’t obvious to some people who think that (a) God needs to be defended and (b) the science has to be bent to our assumptions rather than our understanding be re-shaped by the science. What is there to fear – other than that the whole house of cards might collapse if one card is removed. Such a faith isn’t worth having anyway.


As Operation Noah will make clear later this week, global warming isn’t a knock-down issue by itself. Whatever conclusions you draw about this particular phenomenon (and the interpretation of the science that undergirds it), it still exposes a bizarre, utilitarian, short-term selfishness insofar as we think it OK to gradually turn the earth into some sort of mineral-drained Swiss cheese that one day will have little or nothing for future generations. What sort of theology sanctions such blind exploitation?


Which brings us back to the Santorums of this world. What is often called the ‘cultural mandate’ of Genesis 1 & 2 says more about the exploration of reality, materiality, spirituality and existentiality than it does about the exploitation of the earth’s resources for short-term and selfish utilitarian expediency.


I guess this is where Richard Dawkins comes back into the picture. He is all over the news at the moment because of his attacks on religion in the last couple of weeks. (There is an interesting exchange between him and Will Hutton in today’s Observer newspaper.) My question is simply why Dawkins doesn’t take the best examples of religious expression rather than the worst when engaging in debate? This is a lesson that should go to the heart of tolerant liberal secularism: not misrepresenting your opponent’s case. Picking Christian loonies and ridiculing their credulity is not the best way to secure the sort of rational, respectful and intelligent debate he claims he wants. In fact, this is what annoys intelligent, rational Christians and other theists most about Dawkins and his polemical methodology.


This is something Christians have to learn in respect of Muslims, atheists, etc.: always measure yourself against the best of your opponent’s examples, not the worst. And, following the ninth Commandment, don’t misrepresent his case… or set up saw men simply in order to knock them down.


Will the debate improve? I don’t know. But there are lessons to be learned on all sides in how it should be pursued.

I know they sound like a firm of solicitors, but it’s not law that they have in common.

Terry Eagleton wrote an excoriatingly incisive critique of AC Grayling’s decision to leave Birkbeck College in order to set up the New College of the Humanities. Eagleton questions the motives, values and consequences of the establishment of this college – which only rich kids will be able to access. Others suspect it might be a successful venture, but don’t address some of Eagleton’s questions (especially of the values underlying the move).

Giles Fraser has a go at atheistic humanism, stripping bare the pretensions of an assumed humanism that has amnesia with respect to its own roots and fails to follow through the logic of its own case. He cites Nietzsche and Foucault en route to his challenge:

Indeed, the new atheists simply duck the challenge made by atheistic anti-humanism, believing their expensive scientific toys can outflank the alleged conceptual weakness of their humanism. Thus they dismiss the significance of philosophy just as much as they have always done of theology – as if the two were fundamentally in cahoots. But this is nonsense. Nietzsche, Marx and Freud attacked Christianity with passionate ferocity.

Christian theology of the 20th century has spent much of its time wrestling with the consequences. Why won’t the new atheists do the same?

It’s a good question. I wonder of any answers will be forthcoming. Probably not from the New College of the Humanities which appears to be headed towards the sort of thing Grayling & co hate about (their often misguided perceptions of) faith schools: only addressing matters from a narrow perspective that conforms to a set of philosophical assumptions that have been previously agreed – and won’t admit inconvenient theologies or anti-humanist philosophies.

Or will we be surprised?

Several people picked up on something I said on BBC Radio 2 last Friday in a Pause for Thought piece on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show. Picking up on reports last week that scientists had found why some blokes go bald, I remarked that “mine’s been falling out for years”. I then went on to say:

According to the scientists, the problem is not a lack of hair, but that the new hair growing out of heads like mine is (and I quote) “so small it appears invisible to the naked eye”. Right! Which basically means it’s invisible – or, as some of us would say, “not there at all”. It’s all to do with stem cells, apparently.

You know what? I don’t care. I remember someone once pointing out that hair growth is linked to virility – he said that if you blokes want to use your hormones for growing hair, that’s up to you… (He was completely bald.)

I concluded:

…we are made as human beings to grow and age and die. And it’s the fear of this process that lies at the root of some people’s attempts to roll back the clock or avoid the inevitable.

So, what do I, a Christian, think about science and scientists (of whom I have several in my family)?

Firstly, a Christian anthropology begins with God creating humanity in his own image and committing to us what is known as the ‘cultural mandate’ – to go forth and multiply and cultivate the earth (give shape to it, etc.). We are made to explore, investigate and seek to understand the world as well as live and thrive in it.

Second, scientists fulfil a serious element of the human vocation, helping the rest of us exploit (in a neutral sense) the world, investigate how and why it works in the way it does. Scientists have to find a way to enable the rest of us to understand, learn about and live with the ‘cosmos’ we are part of.

Third, matter matters. In Jesus, God opts into the material world and does not exempt himself from it (just in case we had missed the implications of the ‘creation narratives’ which keep depicting God as thinking what he had made was brilliant). The material world matters and we are made to respect it (although we usually live disrespectfully in it).

Fourth, however, is the tough bit for some people. Science deals in mechanics and explanations of causes and effects – it does not and cannot deal in meanings. The fundamental tenet of ethics is that ‘you can’t get an ought from an is’. That is to say, the mere fact that something ‘is’ does not imply or allow some ethical imperative to be derived from it. Which is to say, phenomena are distinct from inherent meanings.

This is why science and philosophy/religion belong together. Science can answer the questions about how things happen and what the causes and effects are; but these explanations (however provisional or otherwise) cannot imply value or meaning of themselves. We attribute meanings to phenomena according to other sets of criteria which we assume (or for which we argue) on other grounds that simply what ‘is’. The ‘why’ questions need different approaches and a different language.

So, a Christian anthropology welcomes the scientific task, encourages scientists to do their inexhaustible work, supports them in it and learns from it. If science deals in real material stuff, then there is nothing to fear. And those Christians who reject the bits of the scientific enterprise they find inconvenient to their ‘faith’ have perhaps missed the point several Christian apologists have emphasised: that if Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it is not true because it is Christianity. In other words, lose your fear, love the truth and get out more.

Helmut Thielicke, the great (and dead) German theologian and preacher once wrote something about the world needing Christians who were passionately interested in the world: the arts, culture, science, and so on. What the world doesn’t need, he said (although I can’t locate the complete quote), is “stupid Christian Philistines”.

As God made clear in Jesus: get stuck in. And that’s what I think about science and scientists. And art and artists. And so on.

Having decided to turn my mind to other matters, I then came across the article in the Guardian by Madeleine Bunting in which she summarises the state of the debate between theists and atheists and makes particular reference to Richard Dawkins.

The article itself is lucid, but the comment thread (while including some interesting observations and responses) displays some of the intemperately-expressed categorical statements that make this debate more of a shouting match between people who don’t want to listen to those who start from a different set of assumptions. I am grateful that some of those commenting on this blog showed more genuine interest in the central issues and respected those who differed.

I link it here because it is a place where the debates we have had on recent posts here might be continued. I remain unsure whether the online medium is a useful one for the conducting of such debates.

Sometimes there is virtue in reading the newspaper the wrong way round – that is, from the back sections through to the frontal news and comment sections. In an interview with film director Peter Greenaway in yesterday’s Guardian, we are asked to conlcude that “there is nothing more to life than sex and death”. Hardly original thinking, but look at what it is based on.

The opening lines of his interview remarks are as follows:

I don’t know much about you,” says Peter Greenaway, sipping his mint tea, “but I do know two things. You were conceived, two people did fuck, and I’m very sorry but you’re going to die. Everything else about you is negotiable.

He then goes on happily (if ignorantly):

…all religion is about death and art’s about life. Religion is there to say: hey, you don’t have to worry – there’s an afterlife. Culture represents the opposite of that – sex. A very stupid Freudian way of looking at it, but one is positive and one is negative.

He’s a great film maker, but clearly a terrible thinker, albeit with fundamentalist tendencies. The dichotomy he draws between art and religion is mindblowingly weird: religion addresses death – how could it not? – but is not an opiate aimed at consoling people with an after-life. Has he not read the Gospels or wondered why they crucified Jesus of Nazareth?

This might be an inconvenient truth, but Christianity (for certain) is very much about the here-and-now – the Church being called (and frequently failing) to be the people who reflect the character of God in order to change the world and its ways. The after-life will have to look after itself while we Christians give our attention to this world into which God has called us. The Incarnation (however else you construe it) is about God opting into the world, not exempting himself from it (in all its unpredictable and unjust messiness). We left Plato behind a long time ago – even if critics of Christianity find that inconvenient.

Art is very much concerned with death as well as life and tries (it seems to me) to address questions of meaning and purpose even when the artist is setting out from a premise that denies the possibility of intrinsic meaning. You simply can’t separate life (and living) from death, art from religion, morality from assumptions about destiny. Peter Greenway has been satisfied with too narrow a prejudice about both art and religion – especially based on a surprising ignorance of Christianity.

But, I also want to defend him. Looking at the scandals of paedophilia addressed (at last!) by the Pope, it is very tempting to write off any idea of the Church having anything to say about a ‘good life’ in this world. But, Greenway is clearly intelligent enough to recognise that that only begins an argument and certainly doesn’t end it.

However, he could also be a good example of what Oliver Burkeman confronts in a superb article in the G2 section of yesterday’s Guardian (which I read after everything else). Although he is subsequently criticised by Adam Rutherford for being too uncritical about the theories he addresses, he does raise some important questions about the discrepancy between the popular and ‘professional’ scientist understanding of Darwinism.

Burkeman reviews several new books which question popular understandings of the implications of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. I am not competent to address the epigenomic science of it, but I do find the thinking about it interesting. Amongst some evolutionary scientists, questioning Darwin or his fundamental theories is inadmissable: the responses evoke memories of stupid fundamentalists in the church refusing to listen to anything that might question the Bible or six-day creation. All Burkeman was doing was saying that it is worth talking about the ‘naturalness’ of theories of natural selection.

Of course, it is not just biology or genetics that are concerned with the questions thrown up by new research; even questions of theology and philosophy arise uninvited. (For example, how, in the light of this, should Christians address questions of sexuality, social justice or bioethics – to name but three for starters?) And it is in these almost incidental asides that I thought Burkeman’s questioning hit the mark. For example:

Leftwing and feminist critics did frequently misinterpret evolutionary psychology, imagining that when scholars described some trait as adaptive, they meant it was morally justifiable.

This is a common sleight of the philosophical hand today when matters of science and meaning are being considered. A ‘phenomenon’ becomes a ‘virtue’ – without any explanation of how the translation was either made or justified. In other words, the mere fact that some human trait adapts does not and cannot confer upon the adaptation any ‘meaning’ (in the sense of attributing purpose). Yet, even those who claim the inadmissability of intrinsic meaning to human (or any other kind of) life go on to speak of Darwinian ‘progress’ as if it had some incontrovertible and inherent justification to it. Hence, Burkeman is right to question whether ‘survival of the fittest’ actually means ‘survival of the survivors’ and can tell us no more than the simple fact that ‘what is, is’.

He illustrates this as follows:

But that was how many such findings – often better described as speculations – came to be believed. We’re not exactly saying it’s right for, say, men to sleep around, evolutionary psychologists would observe with a knowing sigh, but . . . well, good luck trying to change millennia of evolved behaviour.

Burkeman goes on to question just how helpful the ‘nature-nurture’ debate is when the reality of evolution is clearly more complex than an ‘either-or’ choice allows.

You’ll have to read the articles for themselves – including Rutherford’s rejoinder which raises other questions. But I suspect the really interesting debate won’t be about the content of the disagreement between them, but what the debate itself says about the fundamentalsim that exists in some scientific communities who, when they are questioned by informed popular curiosity, resort to the responses they so rightly abhor when offered by religious authorities: don’t worry your little heads about it, for we experts understadn these things and you’ll just have to trust us. Rutherford concludes:

But without fully understanding the issues at hand, it is easy to fall into the trap of regurgitating self-serving controversies. “To an outsider” says Burkeman “this is mind-blowing”. Unfortunately though, to the knowledgeable, it is a disappointing combination of at best misleading distortion, and at worst plain wrongheadedness. Now we have to clean up the mess.

It’s almost Christmas and I had thought to desist from blogging for the duration of the celebrations. Then I caught a link on the Guardian website to a video of an interview with the great Sir Terry Pratchett. So, here we go again…

I will not hear a word against Terry Pratchett. His books (especially the Discworld series) have been holiday reading for me for years and he is one of the very few authors to make me laugh and think in equal measure. I still think Small Gods is wonderful and should be read by anyone who claims to be a theist. But, I am mystified at how such a bright man can make such elementary mistakes when it comes to writing off theism. That said, however, at least he does it with the charm and self-effacing humour that advocates such as Richard Dawkins singularly lack.

I don’t know who the audience is (in the Guardian video), but they are clearly on his side and haven’t engaged their critical faculties. Well, why should they? After all, this is entertainment and not the place for having your assumptions challenged, isn’t it? Well, let’s start with a few quotations:

We [human beings] are shaped by the universe to be its consciousness. We tell the universe what it is.

I’d love to see that unpacked. He hints at an unpacking a little later:

I’d much rather be a rising ape than a falling angel.

This statement follows a romp through evolution and the assertion that we are monkeys who have achieved rather a lot. But here is where the problems start. Pratchett is working with what used to be called ‘the conflict metaphor’ which assumes that science and faith are in a battle for either/or supremacy: we can either have religious faith or we can trust science. This false positioning is given away when he says (earlier):

In my religion the building of a telescope is the building of a cathedral.

He dismisses the Judeo-Christian tradition on the basis that he read the Old Testament through in one sitting, thought that God comes over as a maniac who sanctions genocide and rejected Genesis as anti-scientific nonsense. Oh dear…

First, humanity is neither ‘rising ape’ nor ‘fallen angel’, but (according to Judeo-Christian thought) what Bruce Cockburn called ‘the angel-beast’ – made in the image of God, yet as frail as strong, always needing to learn and grow and develop. Science is integral to this ‘project’, not antithetical to it. This is the bit that leaves me a bit boggled: why does someone as intelligent as Pratchett not allow himself to get beyond false alternatives such as ‘faith versus science’ – when (to put it crudely) science is addressing questions faith does not, and faith asks questions for which science has no remit?

Have you seen the latest Hubble photos? They are amazing – awe-inspiring. I don’t understand a lot of the science around this sort of work, but I do marvel at what it shows us of the universe(s). The cathedral and the telescope are not inimical to one another – they open us up to awe and understanding and faith and worship, but in different ways. Why does Pratchett think they must be alternatives or opposites?

Understanding the workings of the universe is no threat to Christian faith – rather, it is integral to it. We are made to explore the world and why it is the way it is and how it came to be the way it is. But, as the ethicists always insist, you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ – so we need a different way of asking about meaning, values and significance in that universe. The creation-evolution divide is a false divide and most Christians got over it a long time ago.

Second, Sir Terry would be horrified (presumably) if we read his books as if they were scientific text books. The genre of the literature matters and shapes how we read what we read. So, couldn’t he show a little more literary respect to the material he dismisses and read it for what it is and not for what it isn’t? His assumptions underline for me the charge I continue to make: that many of the loud new atheists such as Richard Dawkins are not stupid, but they are illiterate. They want us to read every text as if there were only one genre of writing. (Fundamentalist creationists fall into the exact same trap…)

Third, the great man goes on to say:

God help me if I ever become a Christian. You lot would suffer, I’ll tell you…

It seems to me that there is nothing here that should stop him from becoming a Christian (even if he was just having a laugh). Evolution would become more interesting, reading ancient texts (with a different set of questions) would become enriching and challenging, and the world would become more colourful. And I’d love to see him using his amazing creative imagination and humour to expose the false contradictions and dichotomies he once espoused.

I am off for a few weeks of uninterrupted reading in January. You can bet your life there will be the odd Pratchett book in the bag. And I’ll be wondering if people like Sir Terry – justifiably popular and sadly now experiencing Alzheimer’s – ever get challenged, or if their fame and popularity simply make every statement they utter acceptable without question.

Yesterday I had to go to the Kazakh Embassy in London to get my visa for a forthcoming trip. The embassy is over the road from the Victoria & Albert Museum and just down a bit from the Natural History Museum. I had never been to the Natural History Museum and thought it was time to put this right. Nobody needs to be reminded that this is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his revolutionary Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selectionor that this anniversary has spawned a plethora of radio and television programmes as well as exhibitions and dramas.

Charles Darwin (Natural History Museum)The exhibition at the NHM is excellent, but it doesn’t take long to discover evidence of the evolution of myths about his theory of evolution  and its reception by the Christian Church.

darwin_tree_lgThere is a fantastic representation of Darwin’s famous tree diagram on the ceiling of one of the halls. Tania Kovats has sectioned an oak tree and fixed it to the ceiling – sounds a bit odd, but certainly worth seeing. Unfortunately, in the freebie brochure that goes with it it says this:

Charles Darwin’s work had enormous impact not only on the biological science of the nineteenth century but also on its culture. His work caused the church and science to break apart, and his ideas made artists reconsider their view of landscape and nature…

That’s that then! Yet, this is nonsense. Yes, there were Christians who opposed Darwin’s theories on the grounds that they contradicted an apparent reading of the ‘plain meaning of Scripture’. But it appears from a study of the actual history (perish the though…) that the notion of a ‘breaking apart’ is nonsense. Indeed, for many Christians the new theories didn’t flap them at all; they merely represented a new development in what had always been seen as the Christian task of exploring the world as it is ans asking why it is the way it is. (I think it was GK Chesterton who said that if Christianity is true, it is true because it is true – it is not true because it is Christianity.)

I remember reading way back in 1989 a superb article by Professor Colin Russell (then Professor of History of Science and Technology at the Open University, England) on The Conflict Metaphor and its Social Origins in which he demonstrates that the ‘division’ between science and Christian faith has little to do with reality and much to with the agenda of some atheists who imposed on the world their particular prejudices. As a historian referring back to the nineteenth century debates, Russell claims that “science, like theology, was in a measure culturally determined, that its triumph was by no means inevitable, still less that its very existence owed much to the long tradition of Christian theology in the west.”

Thomas Henry HuxleyRussell goes on to examine Thomas Huxley, the X-Club and the attempts to “clothe science in the vestments of religion”. He concludes that if theologians or church people were stubborn in claiming an unjustifiable objectivity, then so were the ‘scientists’. It seems that we have not moved further in some respects as spurious claims to exclusive objectivity still abound.

The recent publication of Rescuing Darwin: God and evolution in Britain today by Theos tells this story succinctly and well. Most people in the church do not see any contradiction between science and faith – they address different questions and need each other. To perpetuate the myth that faith and science are in opposition is either mischievous or ignorant. And caricatures of either do not help us become wiser or (in the case of Christians) more biblically literate in the real world.

The REM classic from the 1991 Out of Time album proved a turning point in REM’s career. It also became a bit of an anthem for a disillusioned generation of people who didn’t want too much depth, but loved a good tune and a soundbite lyric. I still turn the volume up high in the car and belt it out with Michael Stipe. It is somehow cathartic.

It came to mind again yesterday when I was reading the Independent Magazine. In it Deborah Orr interviews Marcus du Sautoy (now, that is a name you don’t forget) who has just replaced Richard Dawkins as the Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford. The chair was created for Dawkins and he held it for thirteen years until he grew less interested in science and apparently only interested in evangelising for atheism.

sautoyDu Sautoy is also an atheist, but is keen to leave the ‘interesting’ debate about science and religion to other people. He is more interested in the promotion of the public understanding of science in general and mathematics in particular. It appears that his decision to concentrate on science has met with huge approval from people who are fed up with the Dawkins crusade.

This is very good news. Not because theists will be glad to have the heat taken off them for a while – or, at least, from this particular direction – but because  the promotion of science is a pressing need. The number of people going into scientific research and teaching is diminishing in the UK and this is both tragic and worrying. I will not be the only theist calling for greater investment in scientific research, better communication of the richness of science and greater encouragement to young people to embark on scientific careers.

However, I suggest that two comments should be introduced to this discussion.

Firstly, I wonder if the diminution in the numbers of those going into science has something to do with the diminution in our ability to evoke wonder and imagination in our children. It is the vastness of the universe and the complexity of life from the micro to the macro that captures the imagination and provokes the serious questions of meaning. But this is where the problem lies in the current debate: science pursues mechanics, but cannot address the questions of meaning. yet the two cannot be separated. The Dawkins obsession with losing the religion in order to leave science unsullied patently doesn’t work.

Secondly, knocking what you don’t like is never very useful for the cause you want to promote. A renewed concentration on science and research needs not to be distracted by artificial and misleading obsessions with false dichotomies. Simply put, religion and science are asking different questions and are not mutually exclusive. The myth of scientific totalitarianism needs to be debunked. But so does the stupid idea that the Bible answers every question in the world.

earth-lightI might add a third observation here. Surely one of the greatest problems in the science-religion debate – centered mainly on the creation-evolution divide – is illiteracy. Without writing a whole book on the matter, I don’t expect poetry to depict scientific factuality. When Isaiah says that ‘the trees of the field will clap their hands’, I don’t throw the Bible in the bin on the grounds that it is nonsense to suggest that trees have hands to clap. Similarly, to treat the Hebrew poetry of Genesis 1-11 as scientific abstract is as absurd (and dangerous) as arboreal hand-spotting.

And this, I suggest, brings the two things together. We need an approach to science that evokes wonder and curiosity and inquisitiveness, but with an openness to mystery and the questions of meaning. And alongside it we need to teach people how to read – especially when it comes to reading religious texts.

Of course, Marcus du Sautoy may lose the religion only to find it appearing more healthily elsewhere. I wish him well in his new job.