Christianity shouldn’t be afraid to talk about science, theologian Alister McGrath tells Colm Fitzpatrick
The story goes that when the French physicist Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace presented Napoleon with his definitive work on the properties of our solar system, he was asked about the absence of God in his model. Laplace replied: “I had no need of that hypothesis.”
It’s unclear whether Laplace was denying the existence of God or simply stating that an account of our universe doesn’t require divine intervention as part of its explanation. Regardless, the often cited quip is used today to suggest that religion has nothing of value to offer science or tell us anything true about the world.
In a hope to dispel this narrow-minded perspective, renowned theologian Dr Alister McGrath has written a new book to outline the harmonious relationship between science and faith. While the title is quite long – A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God -– the book itself provides a short, lucid synopsis of Albert Einstein’s groundbreaking theories about time and space and how this relates to religion.
It comes on the 100th year anniversary of Einstein’s revolutionary idea being confirmed – on May 29, 1919, British astronomers tested his theory of relativity by measuring the path of the stars travelling near the sun during an eclipse. On November 7, the results of the experiment were announced, proving the German physicist was correct.
In this book, Dr McGrath aims to give a “reliable and accessible” account of Einstein’s view on science and also explore how this relates to religion in order to present a systematic picture of the universe.
“The really important thing to say is for Einstein, it was really important to have a coherent view of reality in which science, religion, ethics and politics were all somehow held together – and in many ways, what Einstein was saying is that it’s very easy for us to in effect say, ‘well of course there’s science and that tells us everything we need to know’,” Dr McGrath tells The Irish Catholic.
“[But] Einstein is very clear in saying that science is actually limited, it’s able to tell us some things, we need ways of looking at other aspects of it and for Einstein the important thing was to tell this coherent grander picture of reality.”
There’s perhaps no better person to explain the relationship between science and religion than Dr McGrath given that he is currently Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University. He holds three doctorates in molecular biophysics, theology and intellectual history – and his interest in the faith is more than just an intellectual endeavour as he was ordained an Anglican priest in 1983. His Oxbridge background and accent might lead you to believe he’s lived in England all his life, but Dr McGrath grew up in Downpatrick, Co. Down, before leaving for university.
He studied Einstein at greater depth in 1971 and almost 50 years later has finally penned his thoughts on the scientific icon and how his findings have changed the world.
It’s not entirely clear what Einstein’s views on God were; in a 1954 letter, he writes: “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.”
However, he is also critical of fanatical atheists and is quoted as saying that “the bigotry of the non-believer is for me nearly as funny as the bigotry of the believer”.
It seems Einstein can’t be placed into either camp. He’s certainly not a devout theist who believes God intervenes in the world but neither is he a militant atheist who steadfastly rejects the possibility of a divine mind operating behind the scenes. Deism – the belief that a supernatural entity created the universe, but that this being does not interfere in its creation – is probably the simplest description of Einstein’s take on religion.
“His use of religion is actually slightly unusual but in fairness to him he uses the word religion to explain or refer to both being in the presence of something mysterious and grand but also the idea that there was some kind of mind behind the universe,” Dr McGrath says, adding that it’s hard to place him on the map.
“I think he’s probably closer to a kind of “philosopher of nature”, in other words, someone who has this sense that there’s this wonderful world that’s very complex and there’s something or someone behind it but he can’t actually reach out and put his finger on what or who that is – but certainly what he does do is give us permission to say well look, let’s take this thing further and see where it gets us.”
That’s exactly what Dr McGrath does and in his book argues that science and faith can be held together; their distinct identities can remain intact while enriching one another. This outlook isn’t universal. Many people today believe than only science can teach us about the world and that religion is inhibiting us in our pursuit for knowledge. Others argue that science explores facts whereas religion explores values and they never overlap.
The Church, however, teaches that science and religion are friends. This is because the empirical method cannot fully explain everything and this struggle can be illuminated by a philosophical and theological perspective.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reads: “Though Faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between Faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses Faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.
“Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the Faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God.”
The key thing about science is that it is neither intrinsically atheistic nor religious – you can take it whatever way you like”
Likewise, Dr McGrath argues that science and religion go hand-in-hand despite what today’s culture says to the contrary.
“I think Einstein demarcates science and religion, and he says although they’re different they need to talk to each other. Our contemporary culture says they are different and should not talk to each other because they contaminate each other and that certainly was the view I held when I was atheist myself growing up in Belfast,” Dr McGrath continues.
“But I moved away from that now and I would say really that science is mapping out one area of reality, religious faith another, and these two can have a constructive and critical conversation. So for me, it’s very important to have that conversation as it leads to a deeper and richer vision of reality.”
More recently, one particular cultural movement has contributed to the idea that religion is an impediment to our intellectual endeavours: New Atheism. Characterised by thinkers such as Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, advocates of this group hold that religion is damaging and completely unsubstantiated.
“The real problem for me is that New Atheism is very, very good at slogans but actually when you begin to look at the arguments that lie behind the slogans, they’re not really that good. So, I think we need to say that New Atheism has said what it has to say, that’s now in the past,” Dr McGrath explains.
“It’s receding very quickly, we need to in effect reconnect with this very interesting discussion which has been going on for a long time and see New Atheism as trying to move us down one line of inquiry but we need to come back to this one because it’s very interesting and productive.”
New Atheism has inspired a whole generation of people who reject religion as some form of farcical superstition, placing science alone at the centre of their moral and epistemic outlook.
But Dr McGrath is keen to stress that there isn’t a battle between science and religion; being an astrophysicist or biologist doesn’t automatically entail rejecting the existence of God. Such a position isn’t logically sound as there’s nothing intrinsic to science that precludes the possibility of a divine mind.
“I think there are a lot of scientists who are atheists, there are lots of scientists who have religious beliefs and actually the key thing about science is that it is neither intrinsically atheistic nor religious – you can take it whatever way you like, and for me it’s very important to keep that conversation open because for me the best science is, in effect, neutral on this question of religion.
“Some are atheists, some are religious but science by itself and in itself doesn’t take you to either of those destinations and that’s why I gave the book the rather intriguing title A Theory of Everything (That Matters) because in many ways science is great, I love science but the problem is it doesn’t tell you what the meaning of life is or how to be a good person,” Dr McGrath says.
Keeping this conversation going is an area where Christianity has taken a back seat. Rather than engaging in productive dialogue with scientists about new discoveries and their impact, Dr McGrath believes Christianity has withdrawn into itself and abandoned these kinds of discussions. Self-sabotage is rarely a recipe for success.
Without these discussions, a whole generation of young people will be left in the dark about the value of religion”
“I think Christianity’s future is up for negotiation…Christianity isn’t as good as it should be about having the kind of critical conversations I’ve just been describing. It very often tends to retreat into its own silo and, if you like, for me Christianity needs to be there in the public arena having these conversations and showing there’s something distinctive and positive and useful to contribute to those discussions.”
This isn’t an easy task, he adds, noting that it requires a “degree of cultural confidence”, a quality which is lacking in the Irish Church.
“I left Ireland many years ago but my impression is that the Irish Church isn’t very good at having those conversations but those conversations really need to happen,” Dr McGrath says.
Without these discussions, a whole generation of young people will be left in the dark about the value of religion and how it, along with science, can help us to understand and navigate through life.
“Even though they may be distinct, there’s still the possibility of discussion and that for me is really important that we keep open this possibility of critical, good conversation between science and faith.
“They’re coming from different places but nonetheless they’re both very important aspects of human life and my own view – and in fact Einstein’s view as well – is actually we get a deeper and richer vision of life by having that conversation.”
It’s thought-provoking stuff and while it might sound complex, the book is an accessible gateway into the mind of Dr McGrath’s thoughts on the subject, and this academic has done a lot of thinking. The amount of material he has written could fill a small section of a library. He set down his pen at Christmas to spend time with his family during the important Christian celebration.
“But the reason why Christmas is so important of course is that it brings hope into a dark world, and my goodness we need that hope!” he adds.