Is there a God? asks world famous theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author, Stephen Hawking in his posthumously published book Brief Answers to the Big Questions. He begins answering it with these words:
“Science is increasingly answering questions that used to be the province of religion. Religion was an early attempt to answer the questions that we all ask, but nowadays, science provides better and more consistent answers, but people will always cling to religion because it gives them comfort, and they do not trust or understand science.”
This opening is a tragedy for scientists everywhere. It betrays empirical observation and research, and instead Hawking has collapsed his fine mind into a scientific equivalent of a religious fundamentalist zealot, namely scientism. Science is to be celebrated of course, but scientism is to be resisted and vigorously critiqued. Why? Because scientism simply reduces all knowledge to the scientific formula – and this is not science as an expansion of the mind, but a closing down of the mind; it is a squeeze on how we know and what we know in this world and universe. Sadly, it is this form that has gained so much territory in the world that pits science over and against religion (i.e. Christianity), what Rowan Williams calls “the phoney war between faith and science” because it profoundly misunderstands what classical theism is! As I remember from the 2015 Macbeth DVD production, “…have we eaten on the insane root that takes the reason prisoner?”
And it is phoney, as Rupert Sheldrake, a scientist of cell biology and biochemistry at Clare College, Cambridge, quite rightly demonstrated in his book The Science Delusion. Dawkins, an “old fashioned materialist” and a writer more akin to what Anthony Thiselton call a “scientific journalist” writes in his (in)famous book The God Delusion, “The irrationality of religion is a by-product of a particular built-in irrationality mechanism in the brain” (p.184). But Sheldrake challenges whether Dawkin’s worldview genuinely springs from the scientific method, attacking the notion that human beings, animals, and even plants are all “genuinely programmed machines in a mechanical universe (p.54). This all amounts to no more than mid-twentieth century positivism, as Alvin Plantinga, a founder of reformed epistemology showed in his 1984 book Faith and Rationality.
The claim that there is nothing that science cannot explain reveals an arrogance that beggars belief. Hawking opens his new book with what has become a standard strategy of scientism, a patronising “There, there, poor religion, you’ll grow up one day!” All he achieves by these power-play assertions is articulated by David Bentley Hart, ““Simply said, we have reached a moment in Western history when, despite all appearances, no meaningful public debate over belief and unbelief is possible. . . . Precisely how does materialism (which is just a metaphysical postulate, of extremely dubious logical coherence) entail exclusive ownership of scientific knowledge?”
What Hawking has failed to do of course, is recognise the difference between the overlap where some forms of primitive religion did ascribe thunder, storms and wot-not to “them angry gods up there,” but if that is what Hawking is building his case upon, then he has not understood the difference between bad religion and actual Christianity. Christianity, and ancient Hebrew before it, condemned that kind of “bad religion” naming it as the human sickness of idolatry (“them angry gods” look very much like violent and angry humanity)! Hawking has failed to understand Christianity and her rich theological/philosophical tradition, hence internet sensation and Jungian psychologist Jordan Peterson comments, “The ethic you think is normative (atheistic scientism) is a consequence of its nesting inside this tremendous lengthy history (i.e. Christianity).” Scientist-Theologian Alistair McGrath, in his recently published Mere Discipleship, writes of the strategy of argument by the New Atheists, being a “… rhetorically supercharged agnosticism that hopes the ferocity of its words will divert attention from the poverty of its arguments.” And if that wasn’t hot enough, David Bentley Hart turns up the heat,
“A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.”
Theology/religion (i.e. Christianity) is not answering merely scientific questions, but addressing wholly different sets of questions – it is precisely this that Hawking has failed to express or comprehend in his opening words: “They do not trust or understand science.” Let us ask a simple question: Is the “they” all people of “faith” and all Christians everywhere, throughout all space and time? Oh boy, talk about shooting yourself and your worldview/epistemological ideology in the foot! How is it then that it was a Christian culture in Europe that led to the flourishing of the sciences in the 16c+? How come it was a This is of the kind of atheism that Jonathon Sachs spoke of when he said, “This 21st century atheism is seriously low-grade atheism.” The only thing Hawking’s rejects is in fact what Christianity rejects – false versions of what is the truth (which includes only one way of speaking about truth), and truth is more than the sum of scientific data. If God were an object within the universe, then science would surely be onto something. But ancient Hebrew, and the Christian tradition following it have never thought that. As Kim Fabricius so poetically demonstrated, (and you need to have your wits about you for this one):
“If it could be demonstrated that God does not exist, I would, of course, become an atheist.
And if it could be demonstrated that God does exist, I would, of course, become an atheist.”
The un-science of the famous scientist is, as I said, a battle of two fundamentalisms. There is a staggering level of oxymoronic claims about religion (when I use the word “religion” I mean biblical and historic Christianity). For example, religion always leads to violence and religion is a comfort blanket for wimpy people afraid of the dark (“it gives them comfort…”). Oh please! Wimpy people are hardly the warrior types of Freudian suppression that only reveals itself in violence and anger. It can’t be both. This is a schizophrenic view that propagates the wish fulfilment theory of religion: “I’m scared of the dark; I need a god to comfort me.” “I hate all non-believers; I use god to justify me.” What rubbish. Read Carl Jung! At least he understood the biblical material/revelation and took it seriously, unlike Freud who is worth reading but didn’t! Name one character in the Bible whose life becomes easier, or who feels that life has become easier, on account of their faith in God. You can’t. Actual Christian faith, biblical faith, is hardly the best advert for gaining converts: “If you want to follow me, said Jesus, pick up your cross and follow me!” What?? It is a failure of boundaries and the categories of knowledge for thinkers like Hawking to think so cheaply about religion/Christianity. Maybe it’s not so much a case of some not being afraid of the dark, but others being afraid of the light! As Carl Jung said in 1952, “Not nature, but the “genius of mankind,” has knotted the hangman’s noose with which it can execute itself at any moment.”
Here is a case in point: Dr. Bo Bennett, a website I came across by accident whilst doing some research, has a tag-line: “A critical thinking, reason and science based approach to issues that matter!” This perfectly captures the point being made, because this is a version of scientism that by definition masquerades as the sum of all knowledge. The whole way through his article entitled “Christians, Are You in an Abusive Relationship with God?” he falls into the logical fallacy. He opens with the classic tale of the frog in cold water slowly getting hot! But he assumes that this is Christianity – O boy! Now, for sure, to give him credit, spiritual abuse is a real thing, a vile thing in fact. But to claim that this is the case for all or even the majority of Christians is itself a coercive and totalitarian claim. He even said (I can hardly believe I’m repeating it): “I will argue that Christianity is, at its core, a system that promotes this abusive relationship where God is the abuser and his flock is the abused.” This is not an argument formed on a “science based approach” at all, but a bias of the same proportions that Hawking used in his opening lines above. As Dr. David Matcham comments,
“While popular atheism seems to be gaining ground among certain (fairly well-heeled) groups of people, I strongly suspect that the insipid shallowness of its arguments will finally give the game away. It cuts both ways of course, just as trite and intellectually unchallenging preaching/teaching leads a lot of thoughtful people away from church. . . . . it wouldn’t be a bad thing if some atheists actually went to Nietzsche, or Heidegger or Freud and learned about an intellectually robust atheism that doesn’t rely on sniggering and soundbites.”
Sniggering, soundbites, and I would add “generalities!” Why? Bennett then develops his article into “signs of domestic abuse” published by The National Domestic Hotline (presumably USA only), and then alarmingly asserts that these “should be quite alarming to any Christian” – Well, I’m a Christian and these signs should be alarming to any human being. It is evident his bias is against actual Christianity, under the guise of secular, rational, liberal scientism, but he does in fact rage against a caricature of the church – a straw man argument if ever I saw one! But as the main point in this blog post is attempting to demonstrate, the “scientific claims” of some of the “scientific community” are as skewed and prejudiced as in any other arena. It’s not scientific and it is all rather embarrassing. To paraphrase a Jungian student, “Either Christianity is crazy, or I’m too stupid to know what it means.”
Anyway, moving on, maybe Leo Tolstoy goes a fraction too far (it could be construed that way for sure), but we can certainly understand the motive behind his comment, “Science is meaningless because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important to us, ‘what shall we do and how shall we live?‘” This doesn’t dismiss science (though it looks like it could), but puts it in its proper place, for science cannot answer Tolstoy’s question. Tolstoy shows, at least, that human knowledge is built upon more than one way of knowing! Consider the logical implications of prioritising scientific epistemology: That until the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment, the whole human race knew what exactly? Nothing? This is plainly absurd. Human knowing is more than the accumulation of the empirical observations of the material world, as vital as these are! How quickly and cheaply we dismiss the wisdom of the ancients!
My former Vice Principal at Bristol Baptist College, and former research biochemist, Rev. Dr. Ernest Lucas, is a theologian who is also a……wait for it…..a scientist. He sees no disparity between the two; no war; no clash of ideas. In his excellent commentary on the Book of Proverbs, he writes,
“Beauty seems to have another function beside giving us enjoyment. Quite a number of scientists, especially in the physical sciences, argue that beauty is a guide to truth. The beauty they are talking about is a special kind of beauty – what they call ‘mathematical beauty’. Paul Dirac, one of the founders of quantum physics, used to tell his students to look for ;beautiful equations’ because they were likely to be true. When asked what led him to one of his greatest achievements, the ‘relativistic equation of the electron’, his answer was that it was the beauty of the equation. Now it is amazing that humans should be able to appreciate the beauty of sub-atomic quantum systems, but what is even more amazing is that that sense of beauty should lead to the understanding of nature at a deeper and deeper levels in the micro-world. It was the relativistic equation of the electron which predicted the existence of anti-matter – something no one had ever thought of before. It was not long after the prediction that its existence was proved during the study of cosmic rays. This too, cannot be explained simply as the result of being shaped by an impersonal process of ‘survival of the fittest’ in the macro-world. Why should the human mind be able to appreciate such beauty? Might it be because we were created in the image of the Creator of the universe, as the Bible teaches, and so are able to share God’s appreciation and enjoyment of the world?
A number of prominent scientists who are not Christian believers recognise that science raises questions which cannot be answered from within science (my emphasis) and which therefore point to a metaphysical basis for science. Paul Davies, a professor of theoretical physics who subsequently held chairs in the philosophy of science in Australia and the USA, has written, ‘though science may explain the world, we still have to explain science. The laws which enable the universe to come into being spontaneously seem themselves to be the product of exceedingly ingenious design.’ According to Martin Rees, Professor of Astrophysics at Cambridge University, British Astronomer Royal and a past President of the Royal Society, ‘The pre-eminent mystery is why anything exists at all. What breathes life into the equations of physics, and actualised them in a real cosmos? Such questions lie beyond science, however; they are the province of philosophers and theologians’ (my emphasis).
Ernest C. Lucas, Proverbs, pg. 362-3
In the words of Dr. John Dickinson, “Christians have been pondering this stuff for a long time. They’ve faced textual, historical, and philosophical scrutiny in almost every era, and they have left a sophisticated literary trail of reasons for the Faith. My first tip [for atheists], then, is to gain some awareness of the church’s vast intellectual tradition. It is not enough to quip that ‘intellectual’ and ‘church’ are oxymoronic. Origen, Augustine, Philoponus, Aquinas, and the rest are giants of Western thought. Without some familiarity with these figures, or their modern equivalents – Pannenberg, Ward, MacIntrye, McGrath, Plantinga, Hart, Volf – popular atheists can sound like the kid in English class, “Miss, Shakespeare is stupid!”
The last word, out of respect for the great man, should go to Hawking (and I sincerely hope he features in the forthcoming new £50). In 2010 Hawking claimed that “because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself out of nothing. . . . . Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”
Now, even if it were true that quantum gravitational laws – which, incidentally, we still do not have (another evidence lacking assertion) – permitted the “spontaneous” generation of universes, we would still be thrown back on the question that Hawking himself once asked (in 1988), namely, “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?”
And that is my point….