Alister McGrath must be one of the worst examples of a Christian with a degree in science who simply doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand science, and, I suggest, he doesn’t really understand Christianity. The last thing a Christian should do is to try to make Christianity and science compatible. As a mythology that has a possible existential interpretation (see Tillich and McIntyre, for example) Christianity may have some mileage as a figurative way of interpreting the nature of being human, but it has no mileage if put into the race with science; it must stumble and fall at the first fence. But Alister McGrath continues to try to pick Christianity up, dust it off, and send it off on the race again which it has already lost. The latest example of this quixotic adventure is to be found in his essay: Science is about explanation, religion is about meaning.
The problem with this is that Christianity is only about meaning if Christianity is plausibly true. It may be that we cannot stop ourselves from asking the questions: “Where did everything come from? What’s it all about? What’s the point of life?” But we can stop ourselves from trying to answer them before we have plausible answers, and this is precisely what religion refuses to do. Despite the fact that there is not an iota of evidence that Jesus is who Christians claim that he is, or that Mohammed is who he claimed to be, and so on, religious believers in Islam or Christianity go on claiming that these men — supposing them actually to have lived — have vital things to tell us about the meaning and purpose of life.
McGrath tells us, in this abortion of an essay, that
At Christmas, we recall that God is one who tells us he’s there, shows us what he’s like, and accompanies us as we journey – even through the darkest and loneliest valleys of life.
But what evidence, besides Christianity’s claim that these things are true, do we have that God is one who does all these things, as well as being “a God whose tender affection for humanity led him to enter our history as one of us,” as McGrath claims? What would it mean to say that a god entered human history as one of us? There is nothing in Christian theology that solves this problem, that allows us to see, in the babe born in Bethlehem, the god who created the heavens and the earth. Despite the fact that this makes a nice sentimental story at Christmas time, as the unfortunate Rev’d Ms Jessica Martin shows in her pathetic Christmas homily, there is no way of explaining how the baby Jesus could be both god and man at the same time. Lots of lives have been lost over the attempt to define the relationship of godhead and humanity in Jesus, but no satisfactory expression of what this could possibly mean has ever been devised.
Leaving that problem to one side, McGrath has some problems more immediately to hand. For McGrath simply misunderstands, despite having received a doctorate in biochemistry from Oxford University, the nature of science and its claims — and, I must say, egregiously misunderstands them. McGrath tries to take theoretical entities like dark matter, and say that God plays the same role in theology as dark matter and other theoretical entities play in science. We cannot see dark matter, and yet scientists posit its existence based on the things that we can see. As McGrath puts it:
Some atheist scientists ridicule Christians for believing in a God whose existence cannot be proved. Yet science regularly posits the existence of things whose existence cannot be proved to make sense of our observations.
Now, I know nothing whatever about dark matter, but theoretical entities are never “proved,” in the requisite sense. These are hypotheses on the basis of which physics pursues its enquiries into the nature of the physical world. Just as planets were posited where none were known to exist, because of their influence on the orbits of known planets, so dark matter is posited because of its influence on known entities. So, dark matter is not assumed without proof. It is assumed because observations require the assumption. Whether dark matter will ever be identified and measured is another matter, which will be worked out in time, as cosmology progresses.
The suggestion that its existence is assumed without proof is wrong in another way. Scientific theories, and the models that are used to understand them, function as temporary staging points on the way to more complete understanding. The simple concept of the atom as a tiny planetary system has undergone constant revision as new particles have been identified and their functions accounted for and measured. However, that McGrath simply does not understand the function of scientific models and theories is demonstrated by this statement:
G.K. Chesterton pointed out how we can accept “a very good working belief” long before “we can get absolute proof.”
First off, we do not expect absolute proofs in science, but the idea that we do lies behind the way McGrath thinks of religion as in this respect analogous to science. He says, for example:
Christians have always held that their faith makes sense of the enigmas and riddles of our experience. It’s not about running away from reality, or refusing to think about things (to mention two shallow popular stereotypes of faith).
For Christians, faith is not a blind leap into the dark, but a joyful discovery of a bigger and clearer picture of things, of which we are part.
But this is simply not how scientific theories are used, not how models function in helping us to understand empirical observations. So far as scientific models are concerned they are, in a sense, leaps in the dark. Scientific theories explain present observations and appearances. The models or theories are explanatory structures which help us to understand what is going on behind the scenes, as it were, of the observations and measurements that scientists provide. In fact, you might say that as science progresses, and the greater complexities of things come to be understood, older models become less and less helpful as ways of understanding what is “really” taking place. This seems to be the case, for example, with quantum theory and string theory.
We don’t necessarily get ”a bigger and clearer picture of things”, but, if anything, a picture which is more opaque; and it is the acknowledgement of that opaqueness that is so crucial to the project of finding out more. What we don’t yet know is a vital impetus for discovery. It is precisely because of the simplifying nature of religious belief that people think that they achieve a bigger and clearer picture of things. This becomes abundantly obvious when religions start making moral judgements on the basis of their “bigger and clearer picture of things.” Then the oversimplifications become painfully clear, because such moral judgements simply cut through all the complexity of human life, its origins and its complex relationships with other forms of life, to make simplistic judgements as to what God, in his wisdom, and out of care for us, has determined. Reading Pope Montini’s (Paul VI) encyclical Humanae Vitae the other day this became very clear; for, instead of recognising that sex and sexuality are related complexly to human relationship, Montini thinks that the magisterium is the deciding factor, and that what the magisterium says is in some sense the very voice of God himself. This god is decidedly male, and is concerned, almost solely, with procreation and the assurance that the issue of the marriage is the result of the husband’s insemination of the female. This is all that counts.
Once you separate the act of sexual intercourse from the possibility of pregnancy — as contraception does – both the biological purpose and the isolation of sexual intercourse to the marriage relationship are threatened. This is to oversimplify the function of sexuality in human relationship. As pornography demonstrates, sexuality and the colour of sexual desire in human relationship is much more pervasive than the pope suggests, which is why, for instance, celibate priests are so often involved in sexual relationships of clandestine and irregular sorts. The belief that the pope has a bigger and clearer picture of the social context of sexuality than the commission that reported to him is the effect the pope’s unnatural isolation, not of his clearer moral vision.
The same thing must be said for McGrath’s oversimplifications, both of the nature of science, and of the product of religious belief. Theology does not provide a bigger and clearer view of things, as a short excursus through a book of introductory theology would convince any thoughtful person. There is so much that is simply ignored, especially the very different ways that other theologians have of explaining the same features of human life. Some time ago, when Jerry Coyne was preparing for his debate with John Haught, I recommended a book of modern theology in which a number of different theologians explained the very different ways in which Christian theology is done nowadays. The result that I hoped would derive from reading the book is what happened to me when I read it: that it would become obvious that theology in fact makes things up; that there is no basis for agreement between theologians, and that the bases for theological positions are as diverse as the positions themselves. That is, there is no basis for doing theology. Theology is like a mood that people have in the presence of sacred texts and the history of thought about them. It has no rational ground.
Take the following statement from McGrath’s essay in The Drum:
If Christ is indeed the “light of the world” — an image developed with some skill in John’s gospel — then his power to illuminate the dark matter of our soul and our world must find some place in our thinking.
Of course, here we differ greatly. John’s skill with the image of light is not great. It is heavy-handed and ideological and antisemitic. It has Jesus make outrageous claims for himself, none of which have any basis in reality. It separates the world decisively into those, on the one had, who follow Jesus, and those, on the other hand, like the Jews, who reject him, separating the light from the darkness. (Followers of Jesus are children of light.) And though Jesus entered the darkness of Judaism — the text makes this very clear — that darkness did not overcome the light, but the light shone more brightly amongst a people that were not his own. If anyone wonders where Hitler got his conception of Christianity, and his concept of the Lord as a fighter, they need look no further than the gospel of John, for throughout the gospel Jesus insults the Jews, and shows himself superior to them, because his light was stronger than their darkness. However, even if the foregoing criticisms of the gospel of John are not made out, the idea of a mood in the presence of the sacred writings is. I can never read John’s gospel as good news, because it is too closely related, in my mind, with the later antisemitism of Christianity. That mood pervades it as I read it, which I now seldom do. I find it deeply compromised and repugnant, and can see no other way to read it. Certainly, McGrath’s reading does not spring readily to mind.
My point, though, is that McGrath simply misunderstands both religion and science. Scientific models do actually clarify what scientists are talking about, and elucidate things about the world that are being discovered and measured by scientific experiment and observation. This is how we discover things that are really true. Religious stories do not work in this way at all. They may help people navigate some of the complexities of human life, but not because, by doing so, they help us to understand more about what exists, or about what human life “really” means. They are, one and all, human creations in a sense that science is not. Science is governed by parameters that are not established by scientists, but by the nature of things. Religion has no such limitations, and is free to mythologise practically anything if it helps someone, or is claimed to help someone, deal with the complexities of life. Religion does not explain, or help us understand these complexities, no matter what it says, because, in fact, there are so many religions that it is not plausible to think that only one of them is true. The best that religion can do is to provide a “just so” story that some may find helpful. Trying to compare science and religion in the way that McGrath does is simply religion pretending to be more like science than it can possibly show itself to be, and a religious believer who should know more about science that McGrath seems to should know better than try to make this accommodation. Religion does not comport with science or scientific ways of understanding at all, and it must learn to take a back seat to science, and recognise that it is only because some people find it useful that it has any use at all; but it has far less use than people think it has, and most religious people are consumed by doubt; that’s why so many of them get upset when religion is criticised. Science is completely different to religion in this respect, for, no matter what you believe religiously, science will continue to be useful. As Stephen Hawking says, science will win in the end, because it works.