Science and Religion Towards a Constructive Dialogue

Alister McGrath FAITH Magazine January – February 2011

Alister McGrath Professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education at King's College, London, debunks Hawking’s atheistic philosophy of science. But he does not think that a conclusively convincing theistic version is possible. Professor McGrath, a former atheist, is author of Why God Won't Go Away: Engaging the New Atheism, to be published by SPCK in February 2011.

There is no doubt that the natural sciences offer one of the most successful ways of exploring the world. A delight in the beauty of the world around us leads to a deeper desire to make sense of it. The rise of science was partly driven by this longing to go deeper, to understand more of the world in which we exist. What is the best way of making sense of the clues we see around us? What, to use phrase a phrase of the Hungarian philosopher of science Michael Polanyi, is the "hidden reality" towards which they point?

I certainly felt this deep sense of wonder when I was young. It moved me to want to study the heavens, and build a little telescope to look at the stars and planets. I studied sciences at university partly out of a sense of delight and fascination, and a deep sense of intellectual inquisitiveness. It was like scratching the surface of something deep and mysterious - yet something I very much wanted to know more about.

The Import of Science

The natural sciences represent one of the greatest intellectual achievements of the human race. They have opened up new ways of thinking, and cleared the way for a deeper understanding of the way the world is. Science is a vital tool in our engagement with reality. But every tool needs to be calibrated before we can use it responsibly. How reliable is it? Are there conditions under which it malfunctions, producing false positives or distorted results? What are its operating limits? We must be critical about every tool we use in our quest for truth - including science. Good tools, when badly used, lead to unreliable outcomes. The wise person is one who knows the limits of the methods being used to get results. Otherwise, the results cannot be trusted.

Recent debates about atheism and religious belief often involve appeals to the natural sciences. Yet Sir Karl Popper, a great philosopher of science, once commented that "science doesn't make assertions about ultimate questions - about the riddles of existence". The kind of questions that Popper has in mind are ones that most of us think about from time to time. Why am I here? What's the point of life? I have no doubt that science can identify the mechanisms of life. But that's not the same as telling us what life is about. The question here is about meaning, not mechanism. Telling us how something happened doesn't tell us about why it happened, or what it means.

So what might science have to say about God? Or the meaning of Life? It's an issue that has been rekindled recently by Stephen Hawking’s latest book The Grand Design, which takes the view that God is somehow made redundant by the laws of physics. Let's look at this in more detail.

Every shrewd publicist knows that the best way to sell a book is to generate lots of advance publicity. That's why there was such interest in Hawking’s book, which declares that there is no need for God to light the blue touch paper of the cosmic firework. Hawking tells us that "because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist." The "big bang" just happened spontaneously, the outcome of the laws of physics, not a cosmic designer. It's a great way to promote a book. And it's also a great way to keep the age-old debate about God going, as it raises such interesting questions.

It's widely agreed that the natural sciences are neither atheistic nor theistic. They just don't operate at that level. They can certainly be interpreted in religious or anti-religious ways. The militant atheist Richard Dawkins uses science as a weapon in his war against religion. But others see science and religious faith as mutually illuminating. For example, Francis Collins's book The Language of God argues that belief in God makes more sense of science than atheism. Both sides can be argued; neither has been able to prove its case; both are entirely reasonable.

Hawking's Category Mistake

So what about Hawking's latest book? Does this move things along? I don't think so. My scientific colleagues in Oxford and London are puzzled by Hawking's bold declarations about God, mainly because they are such speculative interpretations of what is already a very speculative theory. His analysis is disappointingly weak at the critical points. The Big Bang, he argues, was the inevitable consequence of these laws of physics. "Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing." Yet Hawking appears to confuse law with agency. Laws themselves don't create anything. They are merely a description of what happens under certain conditions.

Imagine that you're watching a game of cricket. Newton's laws of motion help us understand how a player hits a six. But those laws don't cause this to happen. There is a human agency involved. The laws help us understand what is going on here - but they don't make it happen.
Hawkins tells us that we don't need to invoke the idea of a creator, because the laws of physics are already there? Well, this is hardly anything new. But it simply postpones the issue by one stage. Where did these laws of physics come from? Who made them? How did gravity come to exist in the first place? Who put it there? What is the agency involved?

Hawking seems to think it is a question of either the laws of nature or God. Yet this simply fails to engage with the question of agency. Think of Leonardo da Vinci painting the Mona Lisa. The laws of physics help us understand something of what is going on here. But they hardly compel us to write Leonardo out of the picture, as if he is an unnecessary agent in the process of composition.

But the problems with Hawking's approach run a lot deeper than this. A lot of scientists are angry with Hawking, for risking bringing science into disrepute by overstating itself. Science is the great success story of the unaided human intellect. It is widely regarded as the most secure and reliable form of human knowledge, and has gained this enviable reputation by the modesty of its ambition. Scientists know that they don't have to comment on everything - just what can be shown to be true by rigorous and testable investigation. Science only seeks to describe the forms and processes of the world, and declines to comment on issues of meaning and value. It stands above ethical, political and religious debates. And it is right to do so.

The cultural and intellectual authority of science depends critically upon its absolute neutrality in such debates. If it is hijacked for ideological purposes, its public reputation can only suffer. This point was appreciated long ago. Darwin's great supporter Thomas H. Huxley (1825-95) famously declared that science "commits suicide when it adopts a creed." Huxley was right. If science allows itself to be hijacked by fundamentalists, whether religious or anti-religious, its intellectual integrity is subverted and its cultural authority is compromised.

That's one of the reasons why so many scientists are troubled by the New Atheist agenda. They see this as compromising the integrity of science, and hijacking it for the purposes of an anti-religious crusade. Baroness Susan Greenfield, one of England's most distinguished scientists, was asked to comment on Hawking's musings about God. Was she worried by scientists making claims about other areas of life? "Yes I am", she replied. "Of course they can make whatever comments they like but when they assume, rather in a Taliban-like way, that they have all the answers then I do feel uncomfortable. I think that doesn't necessarily do science a service."

She's right. And anyone who uses science as an anti-religious weapon needs to heed her comments. "All science is provisional and therefore to claim to have the definitive answer to anything is a hardline view. It would be very great shame if young people think that to be a scientist you must be an atheist. There are plenty of scientists, such as genome researcher Francis Collins, who also have Christian faith."

Greenfield is surely right here. In one sense, science has nothing legitimate to say about God. As the great Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) rightly remarked, "science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God's possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can't comment on it as scientists."

The "New Atheism" sets science and religion in permanent opposition, with the ultimate triumph of the former being only a matter of time. Science has become a weapon in the New Atheism's all-out war on religion. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to argue that the New Atheism does more than just reflect the cultural stereotype of the "warfare" of science and religion; it actually depends upon it for its plausibility. But the history just isn't there.

A New Era of Dialogue

Historians of science are generally agreed to have shown, during the 1970s, that the "warfare" model of the relation of science and religion was historically untenable. The historical myths on which this model depends so critically - especially in popular atheist propaganda - have been comprehensively dismantled. In recent decades, popular culture has become increasingly willing to abandon absolute dichotomist ways of thinking, and engage with the more messy complexities of history and culture, instead of reducing them to mindless slogans and stereotypes. Everyone knows that "science" and "religion" are shorthand terms for enormously complex and diverse beliefs, practices, and communities.

Happily, there are signs that things are moving on. The public seems increasingly willing to appreciate that the relation between science and faith is more complicated than media-driven slogans. Maybe there is hope that civilised conversation will at last take the place of confrontation and ridicule. Science and religious faith have lots to talk about, including the grounding of their beliefs. Let's hope these conversations are allowed to take place, and not prohibited by what Susan Greenfield called the scientific "Taliban". They're too important to be avoided, and too interesting to be ignored.

Faith Magazine

January - February 2011