Posts Tagged ‘Alister McGrath’

Darwinism

December 24, 2009

A lot of my friends are writing an essay on whether science in general, and darwinism in particular, are compatible with Christian belief. It’s got me – someone who’s tempted to be a bit of a fence-sitter on the whole issue – thinking a bit about the issues involved.

A lot of Christians have strong opinions on the issue – depending on who you talk to, the mainstream scientific opinion on the origins of life is either anti-Christian and contradictory, or not in the slightest bit of conflict with Christianity. I’m not going to try and put forward a particular view of origins as being the correct one here – there are plenty of books I can suggest for those interested that do precisely that – but I do think it’s a bit more complex than those two options.

I’m not happy with the assumptions that Christians who have strong views often make about those who have the opposite views: Creationists often think evolutionists are theological liberals or commiting apostasy; evolutionists often think creationists are backwards and fundamentalist. Actually there are educated, non-fundamentalist Christians who don’t believe in evolution, and faithful, orthodox, even conservative, ones who do. Wayne Grudem does us all a favour in his Systematic Theology by pointing out that the test of whether we’ve really grasped the message of the Bible’s statements on creation is how we treat those Christians who disagree with the interpretation we hold. And there are a lot of different, nuanced, positions taken by Christians. Alister McGrath, in a lecture a while ago when he visited Nottingham, said he’s heard of at least 20 Christian positions on origins. Adrian Warnock lists 6 (+1 Atheist perspective) on his blog, with some good links to further resources. So let’s not pretend it’s obvious to all Christians (or even all “real” Christians – whatever content we want to put into that loaded phrase) that any one view is right.

I’m also not happy with presentations of the issue that make it seem like there are no problems with a particular view of origins. A problem for young-earth creationism is why God created a world that appears to be much older than it is on numerous different indicators of age; or why there are two accounts of creation in Genesis. There are some explantions which creationists offer for these phenomena, but also a lot of them are honest enough to admit that there are “difficulties” or problems that remain unresolved. I think it is the same for Darwinism and Christian belief.

Even if we separate “Darwinism” from “naturalism” and say that we’re only talking about evolution within a Christian framework, it’s good to be aware of the potential areas of tension. I think a few of the difficulties for reconciling Darwinism and (evangelical – though some problems also apply to nonevangelicals) Christian faith might be:

  • Biblical difficulties – are there texts which are hard to interpret in a Darwinian framework? How are (e.g.) Genesis 1 and 2 to be understood? Romans 5:12? Were Adam and Eve the first people? Was there a “historical” (in the sense of an actual event, whether or not investigable by historians) Adam and “Fall”?
  • Theological difficulties – the problem of evil being a big one. If we want to adopt an “Augustinian Theodicy” which ascribes suffering, death and evil to judgement upon humanity’s sin then there doesn’t appear to be room for natural selection – at least not without extensive modifications of the traditional theodicy. Augustinian theodicy and Darwinism seem very hard to reconcile – so which one do we abandon, modify or reconsider?
  • Philosophical problems – is a God who creates by seemingly natural processes the same God as the one who seems personal and interventionist in the Bible? Isn’t he rather the God of Deism who winds up the universe and then sits back? And is there any real basis for an ontological distinction between humans and animals such as the gospel might suggest to us?

I’m aware that some, and I’m I’m sure that all, of these questions can be answered by Christians who believe in evolution – and I look forward to reading some of the essays people are writing on this question at the moment. But I don’t think I could say there was no conflict between Darwinism and Christian faith. These kinds of points remain points of tension just as much as the Biblical and Scientific problems for Christians who reject evolution. At the current point in the debate, do we have to say that no one option is entirely satisfactory for Christians? I think that we might. While still professing faith in the gospel and a confidence in the Scriptures, it is possible to admit that there are some things we just don’t understand – and how precisely the world and human beings were created might be one of them.

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Lunchbar: Has Science Disproved God?

October 16, 2009

Lunchbar today was addressing the question “Has Science Disproved God?”. There were a lot of people at the event, which is great, and some really good questions asked after the talk.

In his talk, the speaker began with the observation that for science to disprove God, there would have to be something within science that was incompatible with belief in God. Some atheists might indeed want to argue for this – for example, this is exactly what Professor Richard Dawkins (Zoology, Oxford) argues in his book The God Delusion. But, in a 1996 survey of several hundred American scientists, researchers discovered that almost 40% believed in the kind of God to whom one could pray and expect to receive an answer, about 15% were agnostic, and 45% expressed disbelief in such a God. Clearly at least four in ten scientists find nothing incompatible between science and belief in God, which significantly undermines Dawkins’ claim.

In addition, Professor Alister McGrath (Theology, Oxford) reportedly asked many of his atheist scientific colleagues why they were atheists, and discovered that their reasons weren’t always or even most frequently related to science. So, again, there does not seem to be anything inherent about science that is incompatible with belief in God.

So why do many people find that science does make it harder to believe in God? There are two main areas:

Questions about Origins – many Christians interpret the Bible’s statements about origins, and in particular, the opening chapters of Genesis, in a way that is incompatible with science. But not all Christians would interpret the Bible this way – and in fact there is nothing “less Christian” about some of the ways of interpreting Genesis which are compatible with the picture of the origins of the world offered us by contemporary science. The Bible’s explanation of origins is not in conflict, but in fact viewed from a different angle – the theological angle rather than the scientific one.

Miracles – many people claim that Science makes it impossible to believe in the kind of miracles found in the Bible, and indeed, integral to orthodox Christian belief. But, if we define a miracle, as most people do, as an act that is inexplicable on natural grounds (i.e. a supernatural act), then to reject the possibility of miracles is already to prejudge the matter of God’s existence. If there is a God, then there is no problem with the idea that he might perform supernatural acts. There is only a problem with belief in miracles if we have already decided that there is no God – so the matter cannot be used to adjudicate the existence of God without our argument becoming being fatally circular.

So neither of these two difficulties presented to Christian belief by science are sufficient to reject belief in God.

Looking at it from another angle, has science done away with the need for God? How satisfying is an entirely and purely scientific understanding of life, the universe and everything? There are four points that can be made to show that a purely scientific understanding of the world as offered by an atheist is deeply unsatisfying:

  1. Naturalistic understandings of origins require just as much faith to believe in as theistic understandings of origins. “God created the universe” and “The universe happened by chance” are both statements of faith, and both unscientific in the sense that neither can be proved by scientific method, but actually belong to the realm of metaphysics.
  2. There are some things in life that science on its own just can’t make sense of. An example of this is altruism – a lot has been written by biologists, psychologists and philosophers to explain the origins of altruism in naturalistic terms, but no satisfying explanation has been offered.
  3. Science is just not a good tool to answer many of the questions we really care about. What can science say about things like love, beauty, meaning… Can science answer the questions, Who am I? What am I here for? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there so much suffering? and, Why does it bother me that there is so much suffering?
  4. Finally, science cannot help us as we confront the inevitable reality of death. Science, particularly medical and pharamaceutical science, can help us postpone the inevitable, but it cannot stop it happening. Science just can’t tell us what (if anything) happens to us after we die – and yet this is something of huge significance to all of us, no matter how much our culture dislikes asking these kinds of questions. This is one reason to take seriously the claims Christians make about Jesus Christ – has he really defeated death, and is there something beyond the grave?

So it seems that science just cannot answer every questionalthough it is a very good tool for discovering a lot of things, on its own science cannot offer a truly satisying or complete answer to everything. This is not to denigrate science, but to make clear that the optimism of the Enlightenment to think that science could eventually tell us everything we wanted to know is severely misplaced.

So science is not incompatible with belief in God, nor has it made belief in God superfluous.