Can Christianity Help? Birmingham 02/15
I spoke on Monday 23rd Feb in Birmingham at an event called “Can Christianity Help Science Improve the World”, alongside Peter Atkins. The event was organised jointly by Christians in Science Birmingham and the University of Birmingham’s Atheist Secular and Humanist society.
I prepared a text in order to organise my thoughts. In the event, I strayed from the text, of course, in order to react to points made by Peter Atkins, and in order to get the timing right. I do not have a record of what was said. I attach here the text I prepared.
I will not try to summarise what Peter Atkins said, because I don’t think I can remember it well enough to do a fair job, but in the interests of fairness I will state the overall position that he advocated. This is that whereas Christian people can no doubt contribute to helping science in the present and near future, this is a temporary phenomenon which will become increasingly irrelevent, and eventually disappear. Also, he gave examples of opposition to science coming from Christians, and objectionable behaviour in education (Creationism and the like), and overall painted a picture in which Christians and Christianity do more harm than good.
Here is the text I prepared, and which I largely stuck to. We were invited to address three questions.
I’ll begin by saying that I don’t see today’s meeting as a chance for me to win or to lose. I’m not looking for a victory or a defeat. I am hoping to learn something, and, I hope, to clarify areas where people have misconceptions.
Also, I don’t think that Professor Atkins will disagree with everything I say. I think he will agree with a good deal of it, and disagree with some.
1. Does Christianity impede the progress of science?
The quick answer is: well, it certainly should not, and need not, and mostly does not, but sometimes it goes wrong, and does.
Now let me unpack that.
In order to talk about this question, we need to agree a definition of what we mean by Christianity and what we mean by science. Taking science first, I would say, in broad terms, that this is the activity whereby the human community gains an understanding of the structures and processes of the physical world, using empirical tests and reasoned argument. Science is something that anyone willing to test ideas and join in the conversation in a reasonable way can, in principle, do, and do well.
What about Christianity?
Christianity is a way of being human. It is not the only way of being human, but it’s a good way. It can and does go wrong in all sorts of nasty ways, because the people trying to be Christian are themselves human beings, as faulty as all the rest of humankind. But we claim that we are on a journey and we think that, for all our faults, the journey we are on helps to make us less faulty.
Christianity is not so easy to pin down, because it takes a variety of forms. It is often called a religion, but many of us resist that label. If you ask me, “is Christianity a form of religion?” then I would answer “that depends on what you mean by ‘religion’.” If by ‘religion’ you mean an attempt to make ourselves acceptable to some sort of authority-figure, then, no, it is not that. If by ‘religion’ you mean a belief-system based on a Holy Text, then I admit that Christianity often degenerates into that, but that is not the heart of it.
Historically, and in the world today, there are a range of different flavours of Christian attitudes and practices. Each flavour sees the heart of the human problem differently, but finds the solution in one central figure and his influence. I will list these flavours, because doing this will help us get to grips with the question about the progress of science.
Here is the list. [The following is based on a list discussed by Bryan McLaren in “A generous orthodoxy”].
Some followers of Jesus of Nazareth see the way forward for the human problem as primarily a re-focusing of human attitudes, which enables us to find hope and meaning where there seemed to be none.
Some see it as a sort of inversion, in which the greatest realities such as love, attention, perseverance and courageous protest were put to death, but showed themselves to be unstoppable. This was accomplished in a singular way which announces the truth of things for all time.
Some see the essence of this as a death which liberates us from our own guilt and wrongdoing.
Some see it as present-day healing and new energy to address disease and poverty;
Some see it as restoring the human race into the dance of creation;
Some as teaching and example to end ignorance and inspire us to work compassionately for social justice;
Some see it as liberation from the fear of death;
Some as convening a community of lives seeking to model love and peace;
Some see it as commissioning activists to confront unjust regimes.
I just listed versions which might loosely be called mystical or monastic, then conservative or evangelical, then Pentecostal or charismatic, then Eastern Orthodox, then liberal protestant, Roman Catholic, Quaker or Mennonite, and finally, liberation theology.
It all sounds very positive. What’s not to like?
What’s not to like is how it often pans out in practice, and how it sometimes adopts unwise or unjustified ways of thinking.
Christianity, at its best, is also, let me add, very atheist. It is atheist about all the stupid ways of conceiving of God. God as a sort of grandfather-figure, or power-being, lurking just out of sight, but enormous: higher than a skyscraper and deeper than a submarine. Enormous, super-powerful, super-loving, but not actually doing anything very much in the context of AIDS or Ebola or the million shocks that flesh is heir to. Yes, I admit, such naïve and incredible notions, verging on the infantile, are what you will hear in many a muddled or just plain stupid Christian sermon or song lyric. But that is not the way to know God that Jesus of Nazareth was showing us.
I am coming to science in a moment. This foundational material is where the rest flows from.
Physical reality has a foundation. There is that which is. This paper that I hold might not have existed, but it does exist. We live on, or in that foundation. Our bodies are threaded with it; this is utterly inescapable.
Deeper and richer concepts such as love, trust, commitment, and perseverance are also ways in which we express the reality of who we are and of what is.
The physical embodiment of those richer concepts is what our communal life together is meant to achieve. That is what Christians think, and I think atheists and others can largely agree it. What Christianity brings is not a new ethic but a new power to do it. We have found a sort of well-spring that springs up inside us. We find that if we look in the direction that Jesus of Nazareth was pointing, and join the movement that he inaugurated, then our humanity can be expressed in the most authentic and full way, and we receive back love and a sense of deeply refreshing forgiveness, and a challenge to live by the highest possible standards.
We followers of Jesus make sense of our experience of renewal as follows. We admit we don’t altogether grasp the truth of things, because reality extends out beyond what we can fully grasp. But we think it makes sense so say that the foundational reality that is the root of physical existence is also the root or source of the richer realities that human life can embody: the love, trust, commitment and perseverance and so on.
We find that we are not just forced into being but called into being. That is, we — all humans — and the other animals too, to a more limited extent, are not just forced into existence by the inexorable and blind processes of the physical world. We are also called into the fullness, depth and height that is accessible to our life. We are called, as people, by one who so calls. We are talked into talking, and loved into loving and forgiven into forgiving.
Now the question before us is, does this way of thinking and acting impede the progress of science?
The answer is: Well of course not. It practically invented science. Or at least, the striking progress of science in the modern era had its roots in Christian theistic belief, and for four hundred years the Christian community has largely nurtured science and done it well. I fully admit that there have also been examples of nasty narrow-minded opposition to specific projects or ideas or sometimes people, but these are the exception not the rule.
The bottom line is this. Following Jesus of Nazareth and recognising the sort of “kingdom” or way of life that he talked about, includes, as part of it, doing science as well as we can. We talk about loving God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength. What that means in practice is this: loving God means joining in with God’s great project. It means joining in with a project to emancipate humankind and take care of planet Earth and adjudicate wisely among the other species on it. Science is a significant part of this. Science is a welcome, deep, and very important part of the way of life that followers of Jesus call the kingdom of God.
2. Is Christianity incompatible with evolution?
Come again? You would like to know, is Christianity — that is, learning from Jesus of Nazareth about how human life is to be lived, and recognising one’s need of free forgiveness, and living from the prime motivation of gratitude and compassion, and seeking to allow the great source of wisdom to mould one’s priorities — is all this compatible with the biological and geophysical processes of life on Earth?
Well it’s sort of a crazy question. It’s like asking, “is learning the violin compatible with the fact that trees grow from seeds?” Or it’s like asking, “is atheism compatible with evolution?”
The answer is, “well of course. Of course Christianity is compatible with what happened. Christianity is a recognition of the nature of what happened.”
Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to stop there. I know why the question was asked, and I am well aware of the controversy going on the American education system. I am aware that this issue rumbles around in the UK too. Some Christians have been taught to be nervous of Darwinian evolution, and who can blame them when it is served up the way some people want to serve it?
The historical background is as follows. The main facts about evolution were gaining their scientific credentials during the nineteenth century. Scientifically informed Christians initially shared the same reservations about the strength of the case that the rest of the scientific community shared. I admit, large parts of the church worldwide was suspicious about Darwin’s work, and slow to be convinced.
However, as the case strengthened, Christians in mainstream science, along with others, came to accept the Darwinian picture. Like all decent scientists, they also provided some of the arguments, and found some of the evidence. Of course they also puzzled over what this was telling us about human nature, and the divine nature, as did everyone. And of course not all Christians were willing to accept the evidence. But the direction of travel is that they were coming to accept it. The acceptance by wider culture of the Darwinian account of biology was in fact promoted by the Anglican church in the UK at the end of the nineteenth century. Yes, you heard me correctly. The Anglican church deserves credit for being intellectually serious about this and helping people get a balanced view of it.
However, during the early part of the twentieth century, the concept of “struggle for survival” and “improving the gene pool” got carried over into various deeply ugly ideas. The idea of sterilising certain sections of society was talked about, for example, as if it would be the “scientific” or “enlightened” thing to do. And, note well, we are not here talking about the elimination of debilitating genetic diseases. We are talking about racial superiority and genocide. So you can see why some people thought there must be something wrong with Darwinian evolution. If that is what it means, then we’ll stick to our miracle-stories, thank you very much. Of course, all this was an abuse of science. My point is that when science is abused in this way, you can understand why people might become suspicious of it.
More recently, we have had the much less horrible, but still deeply confused, idea that Darwinian evolution somehow belongs to atheism.
No it does not.
The modern evolutionary synthesis or scientific account of the development of life on Earth is part of the communal intellectual property of all humankind. No one can declare exclusive ownership of it. It no more belongs exclusively to atheism, nor to theism, than does the air we breathe or the fact that two plus two equals four.
What is needed now is a long, careful look at all this. We do not need to buy into the metaphors of selfishness, aggression and blindness that have been offered by certain vocal commentators.
I offer you, for example, the phrase “the eager gene”. Genes are not selfish, and they are not eager — it’s a metaphor — but the net result of what genes do is better captured by the metaphor of eagerness than that of selfishness. Genes which confer structure and behaviour that leads to more of those same genes tend to proliferate. Yes, of course. And genes are not guaranteed to make you good. Yes too, and that is important. But the metaphor of selfishness is too loaded with moral overtones. It is too weighted with misleading baggage. We need morally neutral metaphors, such as eagerness. Genetic behaviour is a bit like the behaviour of Donkey in the film “Shrek,” when he innocently jumps up and down saying “pick me, oh pick me”. At least, it is more like that than like the self-centred machinations of Lord Farquart.
Next, let’s think about randomness. Randomness in natural processes is often portrayed as some sort of defect or problem. But randomness could also be named openness. It is freedom from micro- management. That is, I think, a good thing.
This entails risk. If things are uncontrolled, then they can go wrong: badly, painfully, terribly wrong. But without risk there is no freedom. I consider, in all seriousness, that overall, this freedom from micro-management is a good thing.
These brief phrases are not going to solve or make acceptable the unsolvable, unacceptable problem of pain and suffering. My point here is simply that openness, and the freedom that results, is something we can think about in a balanced way. We don’t need to overlay it with misleading adjectives such as “lurching”, “meaningless,” and so on.
An individual turn of the dice is meaningless, but the fact that the dice can turn more than one way is highly meaningful.
And, furthermore, this randomness, though significant, is not the main picture. Look at any living thing: it is full of structure. Look at the leaves on a tree, the wings on a dragonfly, and, yes, the wings on a malaria-carrying mosquito too. All are full of structure. Think of the marvellous factory that is a single cell. Pattern and structure throughout. It is staring you in the face. All this is because the natural world has profound mathematical harmony built into it at a deep level. This harmony emerges again and again in biological forms.
Next, we notice that biological evolution shows much signs of improvisation, of making do, of finding new uses for old tools. It is often a story of making something wonderful despite the imperfection of the component parts. This is very much like creativity in human art and artfulness. It is also a law of spiritual life, of how we must learn to live. Here is something of the character of creative love, and so of God.
Now I will finish on a calm note. I will finish with a poem. The poem is about a giraffe, and it is called “The recurrent laryngeal nerve”. The recurrent laryngeal nerve is the nerve that runs down the neck in mammals, loops around the aorta near the heart, and then goes back up to the larynx. I think it provides a nice illustration of the “gradual adjustment” or “make do and mend” approach of Darwinian evolution. The circuitous route is arguably an inefficient way for this nerve to be routed – especially for a giraffe. The evidence suggests that it came about this way simply because it is a workable solution that can be arrived at by the accumulation of small changes. So this illustrates the Darwinian paradigm.
What I am doing in the poem is saying there is nothing wrong with that. This inefficiency, this managing to make do, to live with limited apparatus, is a wonderful, beautiful thing. It is what life is all about.
I say again: managing to make something wonderful out of whatever bits and pieces happen to be to hand is, truly, madly, deeply, what life is all about.
And I ask for a slowing down, a taking another look and being less quick to judge. Because the mind-set that is quick to talk about efficiency and improvement is, too often, the mind-set that oppresses ordinary workers for the benefit of a few powerful business owners, or that overwhelms nurses and NHS staff with endless rule changes for the benefit of a few politicians. Too often, also, it turns into the mind-set that leads to environmental devastation.
Here is the poem (click to enlarge).
3. Is Christianity useful for moral and ethical thought in Science and Technology?
The answer to this is like the answer to the first question. Christianity in the world today is a mixed bag because it is enacted by a mixed bag of people. However, the driving forces at the heart of it are good. That is what I think.
I am asked to consider here, is Christianity useful? Well, if the central ideas of genuine Christianity were not true then I would not be very interested in them. So the question, “is it useful?” is not the primary question. The primary question is, “is it true?”
However, on the whole, things that are true and beautiful often turn out to be useful too. So let’s think about this.
When we think about moral and ethical thought, an important point to keep in mind is that there is broad agreement for much of it. Most of the central ideas of morality and ethics have been worked at and talked about in a range of cultural settings, and many of the central ideas are in common. They are a human universal. An atheist understanding of ethics and good behaviour is mostly in agreement with a Christian understanding, and a Buddhist one, and so on.
When we say that Jesus was a great moral teacher, we don’t mean he introduced a new morality. There is no such thing. Rather, he affirmed the universal Tao or Way, and made it real and human. So, for example, he pointed to the fact that at its heart is love, non-violence, recognising the concerns of other people, renouncing revenge, challenging oppressive power-structures by non-violent but determined truth-speaking, and so on. Ideas like this were already mentioned by other people such as Buddha, Kongzi (Confucius), Aristotle, Socrates, fellow Jewish rabbis, and so on, but Jesus of Nazareth got the emphasis right and the priorities clear.
What he was doing was first, living by it, and second, talking about the fact that we do this in the context of grief, violence, and being taken advantage of, but in that very context we can already possess the heart of life, the pearl of great price. What he got crystal clear was the following remarkable idea. The greater context of our lives is for us, not against us. We are not situated in a battle to wrestle goodness from an oppressive or aloof or capricious or mindless universe. No. We are partners in a work of creation and we can live tremendously meaningful lives in the here and now, right in the middle of our pain.
How happy if we grieve and mourn, because it means we have hearts that care about other people. It is the peace-makers who will be called children of God (yes, the peace-makers, not the people who say Jesus died on the cross for them). How happy are those who are unpossessive – the whole world belongs to them. He really means it. If you can get to knowing what that means, you will possess the world in a profoundly fulfilling way that the richest oligarch on the planet will never experience.
Now, as I already said, I think atheist philosophy can agree much of this.
What is different about the Christian attempt at community life is not necessarily that it arrives at a different ethic, but that it gives a great encouragement to be brave enough to actually live by that ethic. Also, it gains access to help. This help, which we call the Holy Spirit, can liberate in us a fresh power to overcome our faults and failures and, falteringly, start to live better. Still hopelessly stammering and hesitant, but nevertheless, yes, becoming a bit less miserly, a bit more generous, a bit less lazy, a bit more engaged with the project of being human. A bit more putting into practice the grand unified theory of the universe—the theory of wisdom in thought and love in action.
That is why Christianity is useful. It is useful because it will make a difference. It will persuade a businessman to resist the dodgy tax scheme, and it will persuade a loan shark to make a break with his profession, and it will persuade a drug addict that there is a way out of their addiction in a community and a foundational relationship that will not break faith with them.
Now let me come to what I suspect the question before us really wanted me to grapple with. This question is partly about what to do in the case of moral dilemmas. Dilemmas such as science applied to weapons, and to abortion, and to genetics, and to prolonging life, and to ending life, and so on. Can Christianity help with this?
The answer is “yes it can” partly because of the encouragement to live better which I already mentioned, but also because we have structures to draw on. The world-wide Christian church has put a lot of time and effort into developing centres of learning, universities, legal framework discussions, democratic political discourse, well-informed charities such as CMS, Oxfam, World Vision, and many others. We are not the bunch of religious ignoramuses that some people like to paint us. We are busy developing AIDS vaccine and quantum computing and earthquake prediction and legal frameworks around fair trade and international diplomacy and micro-finance. We are well placed to contribute intelligently to discussions around machine learning, stem cell research, organ transplants and the like.
And our position is not necessarily the simplistic one of merely out-lawing questionable behaviour.
Having said that, I admit that religion generally does seem to attract to it large numbers of somewhat bewildered and bewildering people with muddle-headed notions and objectionable ideas. We put in a lot of work towards trying to be friendly to such people while not allowing their muddle-headedness to dictate policy. And we have our own characteristic problems. The Christian community seems to me to be conservative and slow to change on the whole, but then suddenly produces breath-taking bursts of life.
You can ask me for examples in a minute if you like.
Now I’ll conclude.
The main thing that Christian thinking brings is a long memory and the view that we have to go forward together as a community of inter-dependent beings. The idea that humans are a bunch of atomic individuals each asserting their rights is a deeply misconceived picture of the human community. I don’t mean to imply that atheists see it that way, but I do want to say that we Christians are very active about and alert to this. We love the African concept of ubuntu or one-another-ness. This plays out in the way churches run toddler groups, and environmental awareness groups, and men’s groups, and women’s groups, and marriage courses and carol services and food banks and drop-in centres and alcoholics groups and debt counselling and prison chaplains and so on and so on. By such means, the ever-gracious Caller-into-being changes the world of human hearts, and those human hearts are going to make informed decisions about science and technology, and that technology will shape the world in which our children will live.