World religion and our contrasting ways of reason

World religion and our contrasting ways of reason Alister E. McGrath
The Territories of Reason: Science and Theology in an Age of Multiple Rationalities

by Alister E. McGrath (Oxford University Press, £25.00)



The world is changing; nothing surprising in that. Change is the norm. What is interesting and even disturbing is the growing sense of disorientation. The maps that guide us fail.

The political landscape no longer corresponds to our map. We find it difficult to locate Trump, Brexit and the growth of populism in its contours. More seriously, we look at the map and struggle to find a direction that would avoid catastrophic climate change.

Of course, it is more accurate to speak of maps-political, economic, religious. The most important of our maps, the one first sketched by the ‘enlightenment’, locates us in the modern world. The more specialised maps orientate themselves within it. This poses no problem for politics and economics. It is a problem for Christianity.


The map’s cartographers give priority to science. While the way the world impresses itself on us, the feelings it provokes, are important, they are, nonetheless, subjective and cannot be relied on. What we need are the objective accounts that only science can provide. Science is the only path to truth and our surest guide.

Christianity makes claims that are not amenable to scientific proof, and indeed appear to contradict the laws of nature and so it is deemed irrational. How to reconcile the Christian’s map with the dominant modern map is a problem. Alister McGrath addresses it by questioning the notion of rationality that supports the claim for science’s priority.

Prof. McGrath holds doctorates in both molecular biophysics and theology. He has published extensively on the relationship between science and theology. He is director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at the university of Oxford.


In this short, dense, book that draws on the work of many philosophers, he challenges the simple-minded reductionism that would make science the sole path to knowledge.

The essential mistake of the reductionist is to suppose that all our engagements with reality are efforts to do science. Religion is in competition with science to explain how the world works.

Terry Eagleton, quoted by McGrath pithily demonstrates the error of this: “Believing that religion is ‘a botched attempt to explain the world’ is about as helpful as ‘seeing ballet as botched attempt to run for a bus”.

Put another away, the scientist who goes to Mass and reflects on what it teaches and what he learns, knows about something as real as his different engagements in the laboratory.

If we abandon the role of philosopher or critic and simply attend to how humans engage with the world, we find different ‘rationalities’ in play.

We visit a court, for example, and find lawyers arguing according to the stringent standards of legal rationality.

Or we visit a laboratory and observe a scientist pursuing the ‘scientific method’. If we immerse ourselves in the theology collection of the Central Catholic Library on Merrion Square, we find evidence of hard intellectual grind as theologians dispute what best meets their discipline’s criteria.

This ‘bottom up’ approach that delivers a plurality of ‘rationalities’ contrasts with the ‘top down’ approach that seeks a unity in the plurality in one comprehensive view.

Some are content with the plurality, preferring a number of maps to just one that distorts. Prof. McGrath while recognising the plurality, nonetheless, seeks a harmony between science and theology. He succeeds in showing that this is a rational endeavour and points to how it might be accomplished.

That our maps fail us is disturbing. They were serviceable, and they did indeed guide some of us to a good place. But we have hardly reached the promised land.

We can hope, and perhaps expect, that the many efforts to redraw them, of which this book is a fine example, will allow us find a better track.

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