2016-07-27
Science and Spirit
Reprinted with permission from Science & Spirit Magazine.

Spiritually, God is the oxygen of my existence; I would find it very difficult to thrive without a belief in God. Of course, the word "God" needs some clarification. It means different things to different people, even though there are often clear areas of overlap. To clarify: I believe in the God who is made known and made available through Jesus-that is, a personal God who I believe knows me as an individual, cares for me, and enables and inspires me to live my life with a firm sense of purpose and a deep satisfaction in the service of others. That situates me within the generous parameters of Christianity.

I haven't always seen things this way. When I was growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the 1960s, I came to the view that God was an infantile illusion, suitable for the elderly, the intellectually feeble, and the fraudulently religious. I admit this was a rather arrogant view, and one that I now find somewhat embarrassing. My rather pathetic excuse for this intellectual haughtiness is that a lot of other people felt the same way back then. It was the received wisdom of the day that religion was on its way out, and that a glorious, godless dawn was just around the corner.


Part of the reasoning that led to my conclusion was based on the natural sciences. I had specialized in mathematics and science during high school, as preparation for going to Oxford University to study chemistry. While my primary motivations for studying the sciences were the insights they allowed into the wonderful world of nature, I also found them a convenient ally in my critique of religion. Atheism and the natural sciences seemed to be coupled together by the most rigorous intellectual bonds. And there things rested, until I arrived at Oxford in October 1971.

Chemistry proved to be intellectually exhilarating. As more and more of the complexities of the natural world seemed to fall into place, I found myself overwhelmed by an incandescent enthusiasm. I chose to specialize in quantum theory, and found it to be mentally demanding, almost to the point of pain-yet rewarding. Although the quantum universe fascinated me, I was increasingly drawn to the biological world, intrigued by the complex chemical patterns of natural organisms. In the end, I decided to research advanced physical methods of investigating biological systems, under the supervision of Sir George Radda, who later became chief executive of the Medical Research Council. In the midst of this growing delight in the natural sciences, which exceeded anything I could have hoped for, I found myself rethinking my atheism. It is not easy for anyone to subject his core beliefs to criticism; my reason for doing so was the growing realization that things were not quite as straightforward as I had once thought. A number of factors had converged to bring about what I suppose I can reasonably describe as a crisis of faith-or lack thereof.

Atheism, I began to realize, rested on a less-than-satisfactory evidential basis. The arguments that had once seemed bold, decisive, and conclusive increasingly turned out to be circular, tentative, and uncertain. The opportunity to talk with Christians about their faith revealed to me that I understood relatively little about their religion, which I had come to know chiefly through not-always-accurate descriptions by its leading critics, including British logician Bertrand Russell and German social philosopher Karl Marx. I also began to realize that my assumption of the automatic and inexorable link between the natural sciences and atheism was rather naïve and uninformed. One of the most important things I had to sort out, after my conversion to Christianity, was the systematic uncoupling of this bond. Instead, I would see the natural sciences from a Christian perspective-and I would try to understand why others did not share this perspective.

In 1977, I read renowned biologist Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, which had appeared the previous year. It was a fascinating book, brimming with ideas and showcasing a superb ability to put difficult concepts into words. I devoured it, and longed to read more of his work, but I was puzzled by what I considered to be a rather superficial atheism, not adequately grounded in the scientific arguments that undergirded the work. Atheism seemed to be tacked on with intellectual Velcro rather than demanded by the scientific evidence Dawkins assembled. A brilliant scientific popularizer, Dawkins seemed to be propagandizing an aggressive atheism. And there is no doubt that his lucid and hard-line atheism-especially evident in his recent book, A Devil's Chaplain-has done much to shape public perceptions of the credulousness of Christian faith. Belief in God, he argues, is like believing in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy: It cannot be sustained when we grow up and learn the realities of the scientific method.

Dawkins is now the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, where I earned a doctorate in molecular biophysics and first class honors in both chemistry and Christian theology-an academically enriching experience, which I look back on with great affection. I began serious research in Christian theology at Cambridge University, and was eventually drawn back to Oxford. I now hold a chair in historical theology-the systematic study of the development of Christian ideas down through the centuries.

"I believe in Christianity as I believe that..."
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  • To this day, I have never seen the sciences and religion as being fundamentally opposed to each other. As an historian, I am fully aware of important tensions and battles, usually the result of specific social conditions (such as the professionalization of science in late Victorian England) or the unwise overstatements of both scientists and theologians. Yet I judge that their relationship is generally benign, and always intellectually stimulating. My Christian faith brings me a deepened appreciation of the natural sciences, and although I am no longer active in primary scientific research, I keep up my reading in the fields that interest and excite me most: evolutionary biology, theoretical physics, biochemistry, and biophysics.

    Why does faith bring this intellectual enthusiasm and satisfaction? In the words of another academic from Belfast who found faith at Oxford University: "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen-not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else." C.S. Lewis wrote this in "Is Theology Poetry?" his famous essay on the explanatory potential of the Christian faith.

    Lewis conceives God in a manner that illuminates the great riddles and enigmas of life, including how and why it is that we can make sense of the universe at all. His conception offers me an understanding of my own place in the greater scheme of things, and at the same time provides an intellectual Archimedean point from which I can make sense of the world around me. Above all, it sustains my sense of awe at the wonders of nature, and the greater wonders to which they point. There is a fundamental intellectual convergence between Christian theology and the working methods and assumptions of the natural sciences-a convergence I explored deeply while writing three volumes on scientific theology: Nature, Reality, and Theory. How, some people might reasonably ask, can I argue for such a productive and helpful convergence when some scientists argue that atheism is the only legitimate outcome of the proper application of the scientific method? And isn't atheism actually more economic in terms of its concepts? After all, one God is one more assumption than no God at all-and a very important assumption at that.

    Yet, as physicist Richard Feynman pointed out many years ago, conceptual economy is no guarantor of theoretical correctness. The real problem is trying to work out the "best explanation"-to use a highly potent concept from Princeton University philosopher Gilbert Harman-to make sense of this astonishingly complex, puzzling, and exhilarating universe in which we live and think. The scientific method simply does not allow us to adjudicate the existence of God, and those who force it to do so (on either side of the debate) have pressed it beyond its acceptable limits. In one sense, both theism and atheism must be recognized as positions of faith, belief systems that go beyond the available scientific evidence.

    This conviction naturally brings me into conflict with thinkers like Dawkins and his circle, who argue that the natural sciences in general-and evolutionary biology in particular-force us to atheism. Their highly contentious argument rests on decidedly shaky logical, philosophical, and evidential grounds; far from being an intellectual superhighway to atheism, it gets stalled at agnosticism, and is moved beyond that point by an aggressive use of rhetoric alone. It is quite clear that the natural sciences can be interpreted as supportive of faith or hostile to faith, depending on your agenda. Any argument that they necessitate atheism is not adequately supported by any of the evidence available.

    More importantly, from the scientific perspective, belief in a creator God-however that complex notion is understood-offers a powerful incentive to the investigation and appreciation of the natural world. To study nature is to study God indirectly. As many Christian writers of the Renaissance pointed out, the wisdom of an invisible and intangible God can be explored through an engagement with the visible, tangible realities of the world that appears around us.

    My concerns about atheism, however, are by no means limited to my love for the natural world. As a professor of historical theology, part of my academic life involves studying the question of how culture impacts religious (and anti-religious) beliefs. As I studied the intellectual history of the modern period, it became increasingly clear to me that atheism is heavily conditioned by the assumptions of the Enlightenment-assumptions that have left a powerful legacy for our time, but whose imperatives are perhaps less revolutionary in an age without an entrenched royalty to overthrow.

    As many cultural analysts have argued, atheism is the religion of modernity. But the rise of postmodernity has unseated this settled assumption. Atheism now seems a little old-fashioned, the establishment position of a previous generation. And in its place, postmodernity has recovered an interest in spirituality. I have no idea where this trend will take us, but certainly it seems to take us away from atheism.

    Atheism is not the only conceivable worldview for a thinking person. Belief in God gives us reason to examine the universe more closely, and generates a matrix that both encourages and facilitates an engagement with the world. Of course, I know this conclusion will be contested. The arguments remain open, despite rather crude attempts to close them down. I remain respectful of atheism, believing that I have much to learn from it and the concerns that it expresses. But I no longer share its faith. Or lack thereof.


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