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Friday, October 28, 2011

Are Science and Religion Compatible?

I was invited to speak in favour of this motion at Manchester University tonight.  This is the transcript of my initial contribution:-

I address you as an Orthodox Christian priest ... by which I mean I belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church as found today in Greece, Russia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but now also in the west. This is important because not all Christians take the same approach to theology; and in this regard we Orthodox Christians do not get involved in so called “proofs for the existence of God.” Tonight, however, I am addressing something quite different than proving the existence of God, but rather the question: Are science and religion compatible?

1. Let me begin by pointing out firmly that bad religion and bad science are not compatible. But what do I mean by “bad religion” and “bad science”? 

2. Bad religion seeks to challenge science in part or in whole as an alternative explanation for how the world works. Religion, however, has no competence to explain why the wind blows, why my eyes are blue or what happened at the moment of creation. These questions, these explanations, belong to science and science alone. The world is full of bad religion transgressing its limits, quite aside from the terror and violence of which it is sometimes capable. In creationist museums in the southern states of North America, for example, humans walk with dinosaurs in 6000 BC, whilst elsewhere some religious leaders, influenced by both “bad science” and “bad religion” continue their relentless efforts to infiltrate secular institutions in order to suppress scientific freedom. Unfortunately, fundamentalism is on the rise again, particularly in the west; and this is not good either for religion or for science.

3. Bad science, however, commits its own errors in turn. Bad science seeks to characterise all religion as “bad” - that is - superstitious, redundant, lazy, fundamentalist, obscurantist, unconcerned with evidence and meaningless in its information content. Now if ALL religion were like that then I would readily join forces with the atheists. Happily, however, not all religion is like this. 

4. Bad science goes on to declare anything that cannot be measured and theorised as infantile thumb sucking or incomprehensible gobble-dee-gook. Emboldened, it then breaches the limits of the scientific method by asserting its own faith statements, namely, that the Cosmos is without purpose and that human morality has little if no transcendent, universal grounding. Therefore, with bad science masquerading as religion, the most one can hope for in a pointless universe is merely the chance of an excess of happiness over misery; and if intractable misery is to be our lot then stoicism is the best option in the face of such suffering and unhappiness. One cannot and should not hope for anything more.

5. Now, let’s get more positive. What about good science and good religion? Good science does not trespass the boundary of its own sphere of operation - which is to account for the world as it is. With the understanding that good science brings, as it is constantly revised and refined in the face of new data and discoveries, human society becomes better adapted to its environment and the blessings of scientific progress become clear. There is, therefore, a certain evolutionary relevance of science in the remarkable development of the human species. Without good science we would all still be stuck in the proverbial cave, sacrificing our first born to appease the rain gods. Once we understand the importance of good science for all of humanity, perhaps some will not feel so threatened by science as a whole. 

6. Good religion produces holiness, compassion and justice through a relationship with the divine. Now I am definitely NOT saying that such transparent goodness ONLY comes from an explicit faith in God ... far from it. According to Judaeo-Christian-Islamic teaching we are ALL made in the image and likeness of God; and we should expect to see the goodness of God in ALL human life, irrespective of religion. But some of us, perhaps many of us, can only be transformed by goodness through a personal, loving relationship with God. Science can describe this search for goodness and this relationship with God in its evolutionary aspects in terms of human psychology and personal and community behaviour, including the striving for altruism and self-sacrifice. Good science can even explain goodness in naturalistic terms through neuro-chemical processes in our brains and the emergence of consciousness, but good science cannot judge one way or the other whether the God at the other end of this putative relationship exists or not. Neither can religion “prove” such a God or its insights into how to live in the world and relate to others as being eminently sound. However, what good religion can do is offer an invitation and an example, as the psalmist says, to:- “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8)

7. Now all of this has nothing to do with the disastrous attempt of bad religion to explain the world and its natural operations with revealed faith rather than scientific enquiry. Orthodox Christianity say against this:- “God does not explain anything. Things explain God.” What do I mean by this statement?

Orthodox Christians do not believe in God in order to satisfy their ignorance about the world; in short, to give them a comforting bogus alternative to the operations of science. We need to start the other way round, with the operations of science and seek to understand how thereby creation reveals God. One of our 7th century saints, Maximos the Confessor, put it like this:

“The Word conceals Himself mysteriously for our sakes within the rational principles of creatures and thus He reveals Himself accordingly through the visible things as through some written signatures as a whole in His fullness from the whole of nature .... the Invisible in the visible, the ungraspable in tangible things.” (Ambigua 33)

So whenever science discovers something about the natural world, that itself is a hymn of praise to the Creator, even if science itself must not put it in those terms.

8. With the aphorism:- “God does not explain anything, things explain God” clearly understood, religion and science can then walk side by side and contribute each other’s truths (with a small “t”) to the one Truth of humanity (with a capital “T”) in all its diverse forms. That unifying Truth affirms the reality and the relevance of both good science and good religion. We can all be empowered to seek that fullness of Truth in our different paths without attacking each other but by listening and learning with humility and grace. 

9. Believers will say that the one composite Truth has its ultimate source in God. However, accepting that this ultimate source is in God is not necessary in order to discover some important aspects of the Truth by using all those diverse and complementary means that we have developed whether scientific, artistic, humanistic or religious. Truth is one and it must not be allowed in human terms to destroy itself from within through futile competition between its several parts. Good science and good religion, therefore, are indeed compatible. We each have personal responsibilities to advance that harmonious interaction by the way we live our lives. We each make our own personal choices, but I deeply believe that humans together can choose to advance both good science and good religion for the benefit of us all.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Very Old Fashioned Atheist

I attended a disappointing debate tonight at Manchester University ... a face off between the atheist Professor Peter Atkins and the Christian apologist and philosopher, Dr. William Craig.  I say disappointing because Atkins proved to a very old fashioned atheist, not in any way a match for the erudition and sparkling brilliance of Craig. 

Atkins is one of the last of a dwindling breed of positivist atheists of the old school in whose company we might number Bertrand Russell and Freddie Ayer.  Atkins is a chemist so we should not be surprised that, without quoting him, he should venerate the great Laplace who famously declared concerning God: "I have no need of that hypothesis." 

For Atkins "God" is simply a ridiculous competing explanatory principle for the world that science and science alone must decode.  On this ground he was as equally excoriating of philosophy as theology.  So "God sneezes and the east wind doth blow."  This is very old hat "God-of-the-gaps-stuff."  Apart from a "Christians eat babies" type horror story at the end of the debate about a fundamentalist pastor instructing his faithful to throw away their pill bottles he had only one theme, and that belonged to Laplace.  Of course we also had some extraordinarily blind asides.  Consider Voltaire's "As long as people believe in absurdities they will continue to commit atrocities."  So, who exactly were the architects of the "Reign of Terror" then?  Be careful of that old lady who believes in faeries .... she may be prove to be an axe murdress! 

Anyway my main point is that there seems to be an intellectual deterioration in these atheists.  They have become irrational angry old men, somewhat disoriented by the fact that religion has not withered on the vine as they had once hoped.  Reduced to emotive rhetoric and unsubstantiated declarations on the folly of religion and the impossibility of miracles Atkins failed even to evoke sympathy in his hearers (judged by the length of the applause; unaccountably the floor was not allowed to speak). No wonder that Dawkins would not debate with Craig.  I doubt whether any of these popularising atheists (old or new) would have proved his match.  Bring it on!

Friday, October 07, 2011

A Future for British Orthodoxy

This blog has been inactive for a long time.  I apologise to those readers who have come here occasionally expecting to see something vaguely interesting.  The truth is that the three years until the summer I had been writing, albeit with much help, a series of 100 lectures forming part of our E-quip Diploma Orthodox Christian education program.  This, combined with other teaching duties in the church dragged me away from the blogosphere.  With E-quip now in place and the assistance of a deacon, Father Christopher and Subdeacon Emmanuel, I am now able to return to this blog and perhaps offer you something interesting to ponder from time to time.

British culture is strange and I speak as an Englishman.  We have a reputation for being anti-intellectual yet our history has contributed some of the best minds on the planet.  We were on the ground floor of the Industrial Revolution and yet we seem strangely ambivalent about its fruits, especially in the modern era.  We have no written constitution and seem strangely deferential to the ruling class rather to the right or to the left.  However, our radical tradition from religion through politics to humour is as strong as ever.  Of course we could be simply conflicted and messed up, not really sure what path we should follow, continually vacillating between different traditions and options.  Personally I take a more positive position.  Putting this all together I think we treasure personal freedom and are suspicious by nature of absolutism and fanaticism.  We are not without passion and commitment but this is rarely clothed with rigid ideology or unquestioned dogma.  We are only slowly roused to action yet when crises present themselves, we rise to our best.

I present this little vignette of our culture because I want to make a point about Christianity here in these islands.  With the possible exception of Celtic sectarianism (which arguably has roots in disagreeable English attitudes and actions) imposed religious conformity simply does not work in Great Britain.  We do not believe things because someone of great importance has told us that we should.  We make our own mind up.  Yet, for all this, we have a deep and strong feeling for traditional expressions of faith and life which are nonetheless open and in dialogue with contemporary culture.  For centuries (perhaps since the 14th) the British have known that something has gone radically wrong with the Christian Church.  Many at the Reformation thought that they had found the answer.  Protestantism particularly appealed to that idiosyncratic and rebel streak in our national psyche.  Many who still think about these things have concluded in more recent times that these reformed traditions have not proven durable.  From the melancholic abandoned Welsh chapels of the revival to the steady post-war decline in all the denominations it can be clearly seen that Christianity in its more usual variants lays flat out and unconscious, unable to stir itself and stand against a new, aggressive secularism and atheism.  Notwithstanding the fact that our historic antipathy towards Rome remains intact only by virtue of lingering national prejudices, few seriously expect Christian renewal to come from that direction.   The two cultures, national and religious remain too disparate.

Orthodox Christianity from which we might and should expect much has not yet woken up to the parlous spiritual state of this nation.  However, there are hopeful signs that some Orthodox with a different national, cultural and linguistic heritage are indeed waking up to the fact that this is not a nation whose way of life and mores is any longer informed, influenced and guided by its historic heterodox confessions.  Now is the time, therefore, when we, as the Catholic and Apostolic Church of these Isles need to rise to the occasion and present Christianity as it truly is; not a dead and failing institution but a vibrant, compassionate, historical and fresh expression of the God who for our sake took flesh and the humanity of every culture and place in order to redeem it.  At its generous best, Orthodox Christianity has a character which is supremely fitted to the best of our own British culture and although this applies to every nation under heaven the Orthodox Church must not be slow in recognising the possibilities presented to it by God in order to connect with that right here and right now.

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