A Book That Changed Me

Honest to God John A T Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich
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The Independent Culture
When did you first read it?

When I was 17. That was in mid-1963, and the book had already been reprinted seven times since that March. It created a great stir, and I felt rather daring purchasing a copy.

Why was this book so significant to you? It set the pattern for my career by making me decide to be a scientist. It may seem odd that a book about God and religion should point the way to science, but here was an ordained minister, a bishop no less, questioning some of the most basic and cherished beliefs about the nature of reality, and inviting us to reformulate them. As a rebellious teenager, I thrilled at the excitement and audacity of it. Scientists also question everything, even the foundations of their subject, and tangle with the deepest issues of existence. I wanted to know how and why the universe began, what I was doing in it, and whether there was any point to it all. John Robinson's iconoclastic book told me it was okay to ask.

Why was the book so controversial? It was an attempt to drag theology up to date, by rejecting the idea of God as a sort of cosmic magician "out there" somewhere. In the Preface, John Robinson even suggests abandoning the word God altogether, as being too laden with fairy-story interpretations.

Of course, in the Sixties it was fashionable to re-evaluate all traditional beliefs about ourselves and the world, but the religious establishment was still fairly conservative and influential in those days, and many people were scandalised.

Do the ideas in the book still have value for you? The age of 17 marked my disillusionment with organised religion, and I turned instead to science to provide the answers to the big questions. I have not been disappointed, as I believe that scientific knowledge is the most reliable. However, in later years I returned to the subject of theology, and revisited some of those age-old questions that John Robinson had articulated. I was drawn to his idea of God as a sort of timeless "ground of being" on which the cosmic order is built. Since science proceeds from the assumption that nature unfailingly obeys rational mathematical laws, these laws must be rooted in something. But not a cosmic magician!

8 Paul Davies's latest book, `The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin of Life' is published by Allen Lane (Penguin) on 17 Sept at pounds 18.99