science, religion, atheism and violence

I’ve been given a copy of a new volume of essays, The Future of Atheism.

I’m planning to read it over summer — although, no doubt it will cover a lot of by now fairly familiar ground:

Has science ‘disproved’ God (whatever that means)? Do we need religion to ground morality or does it simply foster intolerance, bigotry and violence? Is there any future for the traditional theistic ‘proofs’ of God’s existence (or something that resembles them)? Might religion itself be explicable scientifically? Etc, etc…

I’ve culled a sample of recent ‘takes’ on some of these issue  from around the web dealing:

  • On The Stone Frans De Waal published this follow-up to his earlier article, in which he argued that (monotheistic) faith provides no basis for morality — although he allows that it may provide compelling after-the-fact rationalisation. Amusingly, he seems genuinely surprised to have stirred up a hornets’ nest.
  • Sarah Coakley serves up a fascinating pair of articles that propose a more constructive way of configuring the relationship between science and faith — HERE and HERE.
  • Michael has apparently put together some material on the ‘myth of religious violence’ — although he hasn’t posted it online yet (it will presumably have a lot to do with this review he posted earlier in the year)
  • For the visual learners among us, you can watch Miroslav Volf offer some preliminary comments about violence in the name of faith (h/t Steve).
  • And while we’re on the topic of violence, Stanley Hauerwas takes to task the Pacifism Is An Unrealistic Luxury Parasitic On Those Who Are Less Squeamish About Violence argument: Part One and Part Two. Provocatively, he concludes the second piece by insisting that the church is the alternative to war — would that it were so!

should I be worried that I’m not worried?

I don’t know. You tell me…

On The Stone the other day, I read an article by Frans De Waal, called ‘Morals Without God?’, in which — among other things — he makes an evolutionary biological case against the so-called moral argument for God’s existence. (I’m sure you’d at least be familiar with one popular form of that argument. It goes like this: ‘if there’s no God then everything is permissible’.)

I think this quote nicely captures the heart of De Waal’s position:

If we consider our species without letting ourselves be blinded by the technical advances of the last few millennia, we see a creature of flesh and blood with a brain that, albeit three times larger than a chimpanzee’s, doesn’t contain any new parts … No one doubts the superiority of our intellect, but we have no basic wants or needs that are not also present in our close relatives.

Some of the evidence he marshals for this is absolutely fascinating! Like the fact that many animals display responses that look a whole lot like a rudimentary form of our own preoccupation with justice and fairness. You really should go and read the article in full.

The funny thing is that even after a couple of days digesting it, I’m still not worried about it. I guess it’s just not that shocking to me to be told (a) that morality is all about relationships and sociality, and (b) that this is something the human and non-human creation have in common.

I already believe that the God I meet in Jesus Christ is three persons in eternally loving relationship. The doctrine of the Trinity tells me that relationships are at the heart of reality. Now evolutionary biology is saying the same thing. Wow! Good for evolutionary biology.

between delight and wisdom

I’ve been thinking a bit about the possible connections between science, delight and wisdom. And I’ve been particularly stimulated in this by two different lines of thought — although they’re yet to fully coalesce for me.

On the one hand, my attention has been drawn to Psalm 111, in which a celebration of God’s covenant provision for his people is bookended by a call to delight in the works of God at the beginning and the familiar biblical insistence that it’s the fear of YHWH that’s the beginning of wisdom at the end. Apparently, verse 2 is emblazoned over the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge.

In response to this I want to say something like: investigation of the natural world — or indeed of any of the works of God — ought to unfold in between delight and wisdom. It should spring from delighted attention to what God has made and done. And yet it can never be carried on in a moral vacuum — it must fall within the ambit of the wisdom that humbly acknowledges our place before the maker of heaven and earth.

On the other hand, I’ve been mulling over Oliver O’Donovan’s tantalising remark on the way Solomon provides the template for that key characteristic of modern experimental science, disinterestedness (from Common Objects of Love, p 12):

To detach oneself and one’s interests from events into which one enquires, to assume the posture of an impartial researcher, clambering into an eyrie of observation where one renounces an interest in affecting the course of events, that is an achievement of civilization, borrowed, we should note, by the sciences from the political skill of judgement. Solomon and the two women [in 1 Kings 3:16-28] is a paradigm not only for juridical discernment, but for every kind of experimental enquiry. (Emphasis added)

Once again, the moral (or God-ward) frame of reference that biblical wisdom brings with it seems to be crucial here. In Solomon’s case, his ‘impartial’ testing of the women was an investigative strategy that answered to his thoroughly interested and moral imperative to achieve a true and just outcome.

Lots more interesting thinking to be done…

science, Christianity and … Islam?

various medieval Islamic figures and scholars

I’ve been trying to get behind the popular account of the rise of modern science — in which science is said either to have emerged as it shook off the dogmatic slumber of faith or to be fundamentally indebted to the recovery of explicitly Christian beliefs (especially belief in the world as God’s creation).

Colin Gunton’s Triune Creator has been massively helpful. Especially in underscoring the story’s many complexities. But it’s been The Copernican Revolution, Thomas Kuhn’s landmark intellectual history of astronomy, that I’ve found most compelling.

Kuhn’s discussion of the role of Islam has particularly piqued my curiosity. In Chapter 4, Kuhn charts the changing way the Aristotelian framework was inherited over the course of thirteen centuries. And he makes the following points about Islam:

  • The Islamic invasion of Mediterranean in the seventh century contributed to the decline (or hibernation) of Western learning that marked the ‘Dark Ages’. It did so by shifting Europe’s intellectual centre of gravity northward. And, crucially, it resulted in many important documents and manuscripts being ‘lost’ to the West.
  • However, the very same geopolitical shifts resulted in the new Islam empire appropriating the intellectual heritage of the West. This allowed for the preservation and proliferation — through translation and commentary — of ancient texts and learning, as well as providing invaluable stimulus to Arabic scholars in making significant scientific advances all of their own.
  • The transmission of the deposit of ancient learning from medieval Islamic to European scholars began (in the late Middle Ages) affected its form. Generations of debate were telescoped in their reception into one, more or less coherent body of timeless wisdom. Modern science developed within this context — and partly in reaction to its newly visible tensions and fissures.

How’s that for complicating the story!

should we put faith in science or derive science from faith?

I’m sure you’ve noticed the two ‘going’ popular stories about the relationship between science and faith — particularly Christian faith. Matt has recently posed the question in relation to the resurrection.

On the one hand, there’s the one that plays faith off against science. In this story, reason and individual autonomy triumph over dogma and institutional authority. The so-called New Atheists love this story. Especially because it appears to justify their faith in science (and opposition to faith). Galileo is the hero here.

On the other hand, there’s a competing story which keeps telling us that we should — and that in the course of Western history we have in fact — derive our science from faith. In his book, God’s Undertaker, John Lennox sounds like he’s working with this story when he says:

…the rise of science would have been seriously retarded if one particular doctrine of theology, the doctrine of creation had not been present.

The Protestant Reformers are usually the heroes in this story.

My problem with both of these stories is that (as ever) things are more complex. For the faith in science story, I would have thought that even not very recent work in the history and philosophy of science had popped the Galileo = Science Trumps Faith balloon.

As for deriving science from faith, I wonder: if it’s belief in creation that’s the key to developing modern science then…

  • Why didn’t modern science develop long before it did (since Christians believed in creation well before the Protestant Reformation)?
  • And why did the Reformers — with the possible exception of Calvin — not actually have that much to say about creation (there are big gaps here in the Protestant Confessions, etc)?