A believer hits back

Has science destroyed God? The argument goes on, with a book that takes on the scientists on their own ground
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The Independent Online
The battle between science and Christianity appeared more than 20 years ago. Both sides had their own domains, and neither intruded much on the other. What has revived it in this country is the extraordinary aggression of some scientists, chief among them Richard Dawkins, professor of the Public Understanding of Science, and Peter Atkins, a chemist, both at Oxford University. Professor Atkins, for example, suggested that Oxford drop the teaching of theology, since it is a nonsense subject.

Now the Regius professor of Divinity at Oxford, Keith Ward, has written a book to argue not just that science and the idea of God are compatible, but that the universe which science reveals makes more sense in the light of God than without Him.

Part of his task is too easy. Many scientists are philosophically illiterate and fiercely proud of it. They tend to a crude reductionism, sprinkled with Byronic posing. The weaknesses of this have been pointed out in a most devastating fashion by Mary Midgley, in Science as Salvation and The Ethical Primate. There is no real difficulty for Professor Ward in showing that the world is a complex place, and that metaphysical entities really exist.

Nor is it hard to show that what philosophers, novelists or humans in their normal use of words, mean by "morality" is a rather different concept from the "altruism" of biologists. What is difficult to show is how the two uses are related, and how a human sense of morality may have evolved from an animal's imperatives of behaviour.

None of this, however, can do more than show that science cannot eliminate the religious imagination. There is a dispute among Christians as to whether science can legitimately constrain the fruits of the religious imagination: this is mostly about miracles. Professor Ward is careful not to say whether he believes that the laws of nature may on occasion be suspended. He considers that even to ask the question is an act hostile to religion. He may be right. If I have correctly understood his position, he does not think that these laws are in fact suspended, but he believes that the occasional appearance of suspension is a valid pointer to the character of God.

But all these points have been more clearly made by other philosophers. It is difficult to see at whom the book on the philosophical consequences of Darwinism that fails even to mention Daniel Dennett, the American philosopher and author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea, is aimed. It is certainly not comprehensive, or very useful to students of philosophy. And if it is meant to persuade theology students that Darwin was wrong about the role of intention in evolution, it will simply mislead them about the consequences of his theory.

This misunderstanding is not peripheral, it seems to me: it is central. Professor Ward is constantly smuggling in through the backdoor purpose and teleology. Evolution is not just a process, he says; it is a process with a willed end. Now, that certainly cannot be read out of science. It is a dogma of evolutionary biology that evolution cannot have a purpose, any more than Newton's laws have a purpose. Even biologists sympathetic to religion, such as Stephen Jay Gould, argue over and over against the notion of progress in evolution. This does not, of course, prove that God cannot have a purpose in all this, only that this purpose is so utterly inscrutable to us that it can have no predictive value.

Now, part of the time, Professor Ward understands this. On the other hand, he is committed to the belief that God wants there to be free human beings who can love Him back; and that that is the point of the Universe. This is a fashionable explanation among theologians for the quandary of why an omnipotent being should have forsworn the simple and direct methods used to produce human beings in Genesis, in favour of the roundabout route from the big bang to DNA that modern science reveals.

The roundabout route, through a universe that is reliable, yet unpredictable, produces creatures who are free and thus able to love God freely, which is what He created the world for. This argument is not unique to Professor Ward; a similar version has been suggested by the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev Richard Harries. It has the further advantage of appearing to remove God from complicity in all the hideous suffering of the world. He is merely obeying the rules, just as His creatures must, when He fails to rescue them. Such a God is conceivable, though He seems to me to have nothing in common with the deity of the Bible.

Scientifically, this is quite possible, and may even have a desirable consequence, in that it suggests that the universe will be comprehensible; that God, like a good detective story author, gives us all the clues we need. That is a useful faith for scientific research, even if it turns out to have been unjustified. That is not to say that it is particularly convincing; merely that it is a possible interpretation. But this picture of God the evolutionist, while it may be compatible with science, seems to me to be wide open to moral objections. It makes both God and the Universe cosy and comprehensible. It suggests that the purpose of evolution is the production of Oxford dons able to appreciate the work that has gone into producing them. It has been said of Richard Dawkins that he believes that if natural selection can produce a professor of the Public Understanding of Science, there is no need for the hypothesis of God. Professor Ward and Bishop Harries come close to arguing that if natural selection can produce a theologian, this proves the hypothesis of God

`God, Chance and Necessity', by Keith Ward (Oneworld, pounds 9.99).