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New Atheism – New Apologetics: The Use of Science in Recent Christian Apologetic Writings

February 1, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

Alister McGrath, Boyle Lecture 2014, St. Mary le Bow Church
This year’s Boyle Lecture at St. Mary-le-Bow Church in Cheapside saw Alister McGrath in one of the church’s two pulpits. His stylised communication (head titled upwards, addressing a virtual gallery; hands used to express the weightiness of a point) took a little getting used to but soon we settled down to a thought-provoking lecture on the use of science in Christian apologetics.

The full transcript of his lecture can be found here, but this gives some flavour of his ideas:

“It is not my intention to engage the ideas of the New Atheism in this lecture. This has been done by so many people in so many ways that it seems pointless to add further to an increasingly tired and stale discussion. My intention is rather to explore how the assertion of epistemological priority and privileges on the part of the natural sciences by leading “New Atheist” writers, such as Richard Dawkins, has been reflected in the way in which Christian apologetics has deployed recognizably scientific strategies and working assumptions in responding to them. This is not about “science versus religion”, although it suits the purposes and agendas of some to present it as such. As we will see, it is fundamentally about competing interpretations of science, and diverging applications of the scientific method.

I can see four points at which Oxford’s scientific culture had a decisive impact on my approach to thinking and writing.

First, I absorbed an emphasis on clarity of writing and presentation…

Second, an evidence-based approach to argument is now hardwired into my soul, and is reflected in the fundamental questions that I ask as a theologian. Why should someone think this? How might they be shown to be wrong? What evidence underlies your position? The capacity to assemble a well-ordered evidential argument seems to me to be one of the most important skills that any scientist can develop. And I must insist that theologians learn from this…

A third habit of thought that I picked up during my time as a scientist is related to this…The fundamental question a scientist is going to ask is not “Is this reasonable?” but “What are the reasons for thinking this is true?” We cannot lay down in advance what “rationality” is characteristic of the universe; we have to find out by letting the universe tell us, or figuring out ways of uncovering it…

To give one obvious example: the key question to ask about the doctrine of the Trinity is not “is this reasonable?” As Augustine of Hippo pointed out, the task of theology is not to reduce God to the intellectually manageable (and then label this “reasonable”). It is to expand the vision of the human intellect so that it can grasp as much about God as it can – an idea that is best expressed using the notion of “mystery” – namely, “something that we cannot grasp in its totality”. The task of a responsible Christian theology is to discover the internal logic of the Christian faith, not to lay down in advance what form this should take…

But it is a fourth habit of thought that I want to highlight. When confronted with a mass of observations, the scientist’s fundamental instinct is to try and figure out what “big picture” or “theory” makes the most sense of them…We might term this style of thinking “induction”. Or we might turn to the great American philosopher Charles Peirce – himself a scientist – and speak instead of “abduction”. By abduction, Peirce meant a search for a way of seeing things that fitted in observations naturally and persuasively…

The whole issue of making sense of reality is deeply embedded within both the natural sciences and the Christian faith…The ability to illuminate reality is an important measure of the reliability of a theory, and an indicator of its truth. The best theory is the one that is able to fit in observations and experiences most elegantly, most simply, most comprehensively, and most fruitfully…Instead of saying that there are certain incorrigible considerations that force us to draw the conclusion that God exists, we suggest that the Christian faith is like a good scientific theory: it gathers together or “colligates” observations and experiences in manner that is plausible, expansive, and productive.

What I want to highlight in this lecture is the way in which the New Atheism’s somewhat unsophisticated evidential appeal to science as indicative of atheism is being matched within Christian circles by a rather more sophisticated appeal to the scientific method as supportive of faith.

A number of studies of Polkinghorne’s approach have picked up on his idea of “congruence”. This is expressed at a number of levels, including his important reflections on the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”.

We are so familiar with the fact that we can understand the world that most of the time we take it for granted. It is what makes science possible. Yet it could have been otherwise. The universe might have been a disorderly chaos rather than an orderly cosmos. Or it might have had rationality which was inaccessible to us… .There is a congruence between our minds and the universe, between the rationality experienced within and the rationality observed without.

Yet this congruence itself requires explanation.

Polkinghorne makes a critical and important distinction between what critical realists call different “levels of explanation”. He uses an analogy which is familiar to the British, and endearing to the Americans. Suppose, Polkinghorne suggests, that he decides to make a pot of tea, and puts a kettle on his gas stove. An observer might see this kettle of water on the stove and asks “Why is the water in the kettle boiling?” At one level, the answer is to be framed scientifically. Burning gas generates heat, which is transferred to the water, and thus raises the temperature of the water to its boiling point.

Yet the question can – and should – be answered at another level. The kettle is boiling because Polkinghorne wanted to make a pot of tea. Now I think you can see that these two responses are both valid and grounded in reality. Yet they are not in competition; indeed, the two explanations complement each other, providing a more complete picture of the whole tea-making enterprise. The two explanations are to be seen as “friends, not foes”.

Why is this point so important? The “New Atheism” takes a strongly positivist view of science, holding that it explains (or has the potential to explain) everything, including matters traditionally regarded as lying within the religious realm. Science and religion offer competing explanations. For the “New Atheism”, science will ultimately triumph, and religious explanations will fade away. There cannot be multiple explanations of the same things, and only the scientific explanation can be valid…Now my point is that these two accounts supplement each other, rather than contradicting each other. They are not in competition.

Next, we need to look at the question of whether religious faith can be proved. Polkinghorne makes it clear that Christian belief can be regarded as warranted or justified. Yet it is not something that is – or, indeed, can be – proved. Good reasons can be given for faith, even if these fall short of the rigorous proof that we expect in logic or mathematics. But on further reflection, we realize that this form of rigorous proof is actually limited to logic and mathematics. Here is what Polkinghorne has to say on this matter.

Neither science nor religion can entertain the hope of establishing logically coercive proof of the kind that only a fool could deny. No one can avoid some degree of intellectual precariousness, and there is a consequent need for a degree of cautious daring in the quest for truth. Experience and interpretation intertwine in an inescapable circularity. Even science cannot wholly escape this dilemma (theory interprets experiments; experiments confirm or disconfirm theories).

This account of the place of proof and faith in science should be compared with that set out by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, on which he bases his criticisms of religious faith in The God Delusion. Dawkins argues that there is no need for faith in science, in that the evidence for a correct conviction compels us to accept its truth. Let us listen to what he has to say.

[Faith] is a state of mind that leads people to believe something – it does not matter what – in the total absence of supporting evidence. If there were good supporting evidence, then faith would be superfluous, for the evidence would compel us to believe it anyway.

Yet on reflection, this turns out to be an unsustainable view of the relation of evidence and belief in the natural sciences, not least because it fails to make the critical distinction between the “total absence of supporting evidence” and the “absence of totally supporting evidence.”

For example, consider the current debate within cosmology over whether the “big bang” gave rise to a single universe, or a series of universes (the so-called “multiverse”). Many distinguished scientists support the former approach, and equally distinguished scientists support the latter. Both are real options for thinking and informed scientists, who make their decisions on the basis of their judgements about how best to interpret the evidence. The issue is that of evidence-based judgement, in which decisions have to be taken on the basis of a less than total apprehension of reality. The issue is about justification, rather than proof – being able to show that there are good reasons for thinking something is right, without the luxury of total confirmation.

Thus far, I have commended an appeal to the natural sciences in engaging the “New Atheism”. Yet I need to add a little more texture and depth to this discussion…Any attempt to describe Christianity properly would have to make into account its rational, moral and aesthetic dimensions, acknowledging that it is a multifaceted phenomenon which is supremely resistant to reductionist accounts of either its identity or significance. Yet the “sceptical” criticisms of Christianity of the early Augustan Age primarily challenged its intrinsic rationality. In response, the apologists of that landmark age reasserted and defended the rationality of their faith, concentrating on meeting specific cognitive objections, rather than setting out a full vision of their faith, indicating as appropriate how this related to the controversies of their day.

At one level, of course, this is a sound rhetorical strategy, in that objections are seen to be engaged and to be met. But I must suggest that it also unintendedly creates the impression that Christianity is essentially a rational belief system…”

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