radio review Robert Hanks

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The Independent Culture
Spring is here: lambs are gambolling, bunnies are hopping, fluffy chicks are hatching, buds are burgeoning, and Radio 4 is experiencing its annual burst of theology. This year's theme seems to be: religion was supposed to be dead, killed off by science and scepticism, but here it is, as flourishing as ever. That was roughly the message of the edition of John Tusa's 20/20 a few weeks ago devoted to "Believing"; it's also, in modified form, the story of Science and Wonders, a five-part series in which Russell Stannard tries to discover what science has to tell us about God.

Stannard, who is both a physicist and a Christian, started his quest on Wednesday by looking at the big picture - what the universe is like, how it started, and what room the modern view of these things leaves for God. This sounded as though it was going to be pretty meaty stuff. Unfortunately, all Stannard's academic interviewees were a bit too determined to put things in layman's terms, and you could tell that they were regurgitating lines worn smooth with the passing of the ages - joking about the Milky Way sounding like a bar of chocolate, explaining Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle in terms of Tommy Cooper ("Just like that!").

They all seemed to agree, though, that science doesn't damage religion - either they are in two watertight compartments, or modern cosmology supports the argument from design. This states, roughly, that this universe is so well suited for people like us that it can't be a coincidence. The problem with this line is its complete circularity: if this universe wasn't well suited to us, we wouldn't exist; so to say that it's well suited is to say no more than, blimey, we exist. It's on a par with pointing out how lucky it is that cats have holes in their fur just where their eyes are.

In any case, this optimism about what science can do for God was undermined by "The Day God Died", in which Joan Bakewell chaired a debate between four theologians on what it's possible to believe. With the exception of David Winter, a vigorous defender of "Sunday school" religion, what they found it possible to believe seemed strikingly abstract and marginal - what modern knowledge seems to have left for theologians to chew over is, in Don Cupitt's words, "a form of consciousness, a manner of speaking, an attitude to life". Still, there did seem to be a satisfying fit of medium and message: here was God reduced to nothing but words - just words drifting in the ether.