Our God-given dominion

A prize-winning evangelical scientist is preaching a new green theology

Andrew Brown
Wednesday 08 May 1996 23:02

Richard Dawkins, probably the most famous atheist in Britain, bases his argument against God on the truth of evolution. So it can come as a shock to realise that there are other scientists, quite as committed to evolution as Dawkins is, who have no difficulty with Christianity.

One of the most distinguished is Sam Berry, professor of Genetics at University College London, who will today be given a cheque for pounds 3,000 as winner of one of the British Templeton prizes for progress in religion. Sir John Templeton, the millionaire American stockbroker who each year gives a prize of pounds 700,000 for progress in religion globally, also gives a whole network of smaller prizes here and in America.

The links between Christianity and and evolution are subtle and complicated. Despite the fact that Darwin died an atheist, and one of his chief opponents was a bishop of Oxford known as "Soapy Sam", there have been plenty of Christians, especially Anglicans, to embrace and defend the theory of evolution. Few Christians in this country hold to a doctrine of the literal truth of the book of Genesis, and for those who do, the findings of geology are at least as disturbing as the theory of evolution. The society of ordained scientists, for priests with doctorates in science subjects, has more than 60 members, among them the former Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood.

Professor Berry points out that RA Fisher, a scientist revered by Dawkins, who brought mathematical rigour to genetics and biology in the middle of the century, was a devout Christian who preached regularly in chapel.

Some Christians see evolution as a theological advantage, in that it seems to relieve God of some of the direct responsibility for the horror of the world: if His purpose was to create beings with free will, they argue, then such things as the struggle for existence between the Aids virus and human beings may have been necessary.

Professor Berry is reluctant to go that far, or to draw any large theological conclusions from his scientific knowledge.

He is a sturdy, brisk man with a short white beard who speaks in sudden bursts. He is one of the most confident doubters I have ever known, in the sense that he is extraordinarily forceful about refusing to draw conclusions that he does not see warranted by the evidence. However, evidence for God's existence must, he thinks, be of a different sort to evidence for scientific theories. He himself was converted to evangelical Christianity at a boys' camp in his late teens, shortly after the death of his father.

"You can get a glimpse of God's tactics, but not his strategy out of nature," he says. "I would accept that it is God's world. Natural selection is the method that seems to operate in nature. If you assume that God is operating in nature, that is the method he uses. It may seem to us a slightly daft method, but our ways are not his. That's called faith."

"You can't prove God's activity from nature, though you can get some clues to it. You have got to read both the book of nature and the written book - the Bible. Dawkins neglects entirely half the data, which is the written word."

It is from the Bible that Professor Berry concludes that all Christians have a responsibility to be Green.

"In Genesis, we are specifically given responsibility for looking after the rest of creation. That is the theology of the environment. The word 'dominion' in Genesis has been gloriously misinterpreted. That dominion is given wholly to us as individuals made in God's image - he has made the world, handed it over to us, and said 'look after it'. That, to me, is much more important doctrine than all this farting about with evolution, creation, and all the rest of it."

This has been a controversial viewpoint in Evangelical circles. Fundamentalists are notoriously too excited by the possibility of Jesus's return to worry much about what happens to the world before then. Even moderate evangelicals have an extraordinary paranoia about anything that can be labelled "New Age". But things are changing.

Professor Berry has got 90 prominent British evangelicals to sign a declaration committing their churches to environmentalist values. In fact, he says, he intends to spend part of his prize on drink for the party to launch this declaration at a London church.

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