FAITH Magazine November-December 2009
Science and Religion News
CARDINAL PELL: TOWARDS A MODERN FOUNDATION OF THEISTIC CIVILIZATION
At a 'Festival of Dangerous Ideas' held in Australia from October 3rd to 4th in the Sydney Opera House, Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, delivered a lecture from the same platform as the atheist and vociferous British journalist, Christopher Hitchens. The Festival was a new initiative of the Opera House, co-organised by the non-denominational 'St James Ethics Centre,' by which "Through courageous discussion, [they] aim to stimulate, provoke and engage with the wider world."
Cardinal Pell's presentation, "Without God we are Nothing", attempted to describe the contradictions of modern atheism. As part of his argument he approvingly quoted Professor Antony Flew, the ex-atheist, "of all the great discoveries of modern science, the greatest was God". Pell presented the components of what we believe is a convincing argument for the existence of God, without quite connecting them together.
It is this lack that would seem to be keeping him more tentative than St. Paul (Rom.s 1:19) and Vatican I concerning our ability to "prove" convincingly the existence of God from nature. He simply argues that theism is "more reasonable" than atheism or agnosticism.
On the other hand the flow of his argument seems to give a stronger weighting to the evidence of science. Having quoted the invariably profound, long-term Sunday Times journalist, Bryan Appleyard, to the effect that "matter evolved in an elaborate, finely tuned conspiracy to produce air-breathing, carbon based life forms possessed of self-consciousness" he goes on to state that "Living matter, or living beings, are purpose driven". He discusses the reproductive processes that result from the "directive capacity of DNA" and "believe[s]" that the idea that "blind and purposeless forces [...] spontaneously produce such a process is [...] metaphysically impossible" (our emphasis).
The fact that, in terms of evidence for purpose, Pell argues more strongly for DNA and "living matter" than non-living matter does have slight resonances of the Intelligent Design mindset. As ever with such argument we would agree with the basic sentiment but would suggest that it is fatally undermined if the idea that "purposeless forces [...] spontaneously
produce" non-living matter is not also seen to be "metaphysically impossible". It can only be the fact of the inter-related unity of the whole cosmos, living and non-living, which allows the definite metaphysical conclusion.
The rest of Pell's piece presents some points which seem to be tentatively moving towards such a synthesis:
• "the God for which we are arguing is not a God of the gaps, not a God who is brought in to paste over the gaps in our present scientific knowledge, which might be filled later as science progresses. It is the whole of the universe which is not self-explanatory, including the infrastructure and elements we understand scientifically. Many people have found evidence for the mind of God in the laws of nature, in their regularity and symmetry."
• "God is beyond space and time [...] spiritual, not material", that is on the level of love.
• "there is a mental, purposive or intentional explanation more fundamental than the basic laws of physics, because it explains even them", a quote from Brendan Purcell.
THE FAILURE OF ATHEISM
The overall thrust of the lecture well argues that atheism cuts off the branch on which it is sitting. Modern attacks upon theism invoke concepts of goodness, justice and intelligibility. Yet atheism sees the universe as ultimately meaningless and thus fails to give any justification or real coherence to these concepts. On the other hand the Christian transcendent, personal God, Pell argues, has a rational foundation in the reflections of Greek philosophy, as well as the discoveries of modern science.
And yet "Here in Australia public discussion and debate often proceed as though most of the population is godless, atheist or agnostic. In fact only 17 per cent do not accept the existence of God. [... This mismatch is due] more to the secularist hostility to Christianity which remains the most formidable barrier to their programme for an ever broader personal autonomy." Pell does not offer an analysis concerning how, given theism's intrinsic superiority over atheism, the "godless" assumption has become (increasingly) so dominant. We have argued before that a deeper analysis into the interaction of Greek philosophy and modern science is needed if we are to
understand the momentum of modern agnosticism, and re-synthesise the concepts of physical formality and spiritual mind. (See Edward Holloway's Perspectives in Philosophy: Volume 3 - Rethinking the Greeks in the Age of Science.)
NATURAL SELECTION AND HUMAN CIVILITY
A recently established American evangelical journal, The City, has now started being available to all readers online - via the website www.civitate.org. This journal is a publication of the Houston Baptist University, and the new edition is very pleasant to read via their flexible online-reading facility. In the Summer 2009 issue there is a particularly instructive article entitled 'Who owns Science? The End of Secularism' by Hunter Baker on the application of neo-Darwinian ideas ('survival of the fittest' etc) in the social/ political realm. He argues convincingly that for all the neo-Darwinian atheists' claim that man is no more than the result of blind scientific forces, they have to wriggle to claim, as they do,some place for justice, equality and political fairness. He writes:
"One finds this near neck-breaking turn in the kinds of things Richard Dawkins says. He is a dogmatic atheist and an evangeliser of the strongest anti-metaphysical conclusions from Darwin's work. Does this turn him into a Nietzschean nihilist of some kind? No, Dawkins has very proudly proclaimed that though he is a 'passionate Darwinian' in the academic sense and holds Darwinism as 'the main ingredient' for understanding all of life and our existence, he is at the same time a 'passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to human social and political affairs.' So, the survival of the fittest and natural selection is the real reality underneath our veneer of civilization, but we must actively think differently when it comes to ordering political life. Again, why? If Dawkins is right and blindnature is running the show, isn't that anti-Darwinian stuff in politics little more than cheap sentiment? Why not just follow nature and install a program for culling the weak and breeding stronger, smarter human beings?"
The ideas of Baker's article are more expansively treated in his new book, The End of Secularism, published in August by Crossway Books.