Thoughts on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Secret History of Science and Religion’ (Part 4)

Albert Einstein in 1951. Courtesy of Flickr / Rogelio A. Galaviz C. under Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) licence
Albert Einstein in 1951. Courtesy of Flickr / Rogelio A. Galaviz C. under Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) licence

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Guest writer Grace Dalton concludes her four-part series of posts on BBC Radio 4’s The Secret History of Science and Religion, broadcast last year.

(Continued from Part 3)

John Hedley Brookes next discusses Albert Einstein. He rightly explains that, despite keen efforts, Einstein defies attempts by both the religious and atheists to be claimed for their side. I know this because I’ve scoured quotes of Einstein’s before; again, it is a pity that any such quotes are lacking at this point in the programme. Spencer tells us of Einstein’s “endless” references to God, and rejection of atheism, but also of his having “had no time” for organised religion: a rational position which is held by plenty of people, but is all too often overlooked in the science-religion “war.” All the same, why not include some of eminent musings Einstein had on the ultimate questions?

“Spencer tells us of Einstein’s “endless” references to God, and rejection of atheism, but also of his having ‘had no time’ for organised religion: a rational position which is held by plenty of people, but is all too often overlooked in the science-religion ‘war.’”

Brookes next summarises the origin of the term “big bang” to describe the universe’s beginning. The term was mockingly coined by atheist physicist Fred Hoyle in a bid to ridicule the emerging idea that the universe had had a beginning (as opposed to having always existed). The concept of the Big Bang (as many people would be surprised to discover) is credited to a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître. Perhaps surprisingly, we’re told that Lemaître, like Hoyle, came to disapprove of Christian attempts to use the theory as an argument for creation.

Spencer notes that whether scientists are Christians is a frequent matter of interest, and introduces Professor Elaine Howard Ecklund, whose work in sociology has involved surveying those within “everyday” scientific professions.

She reports that such scientists are quite often professing Christians, but the proportion is smaller for those in the academic professions. She opines that, ultimately, “highly educated people in the US are about as religious as the general population,” and that (contrary to the often-held assumption) only a small minority of those in the field say that science has made them less religious. Sadly, again, no primary evidence is provided. Some statistics here would be useful.

“Whilst ‘the warfare model is deeply embedded in our culture,’ Rev Prof David Wilkinson argues, there is in fact a ‘humility’ amongst physicists, who are open to such questions as, ‘Where do the laws of physics themselves come from?’”

Whilst “the warfare model is deeply embedded in our culture,” Rev Prof David Wilkinson argues, there is in fact a “humility” amongst physicists, who are open to such questions as, “Where do the laws of physics themselves come from?” Such humility stands in marked contrast to the rhetoric of certain famed atheists in the current public discourse, as well as many of the atheists whose commentary I have observed online. Very often these are people who are not experts in science, yet with the very opposite of humility assert that physics and other sciences have nullified God. Of course, we who are Christians also need to nurture humility within ourselves. Whilst we have certainty of the Gospel, just like true scientists we should be keen to learn more, drawing closer to the Truth, and continually being humble before God and respectful towards others.

“In your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behaviour in Christ may be put to shame.”
1 Peter 3:15-16[1]

My former genetics professor, Steve Jones, has an excellent analogy for the battle between science and religion. He says it’s like the battle between a tiger and a shark. Each animal is extremely powerful, but defenceless in the other’s environment. I know Steve Jones to be an atheist, yet this analogy is one with which some Christians will agree — including Nick Spencer. Spencer states that when “religious” people attempt to make pronouncements on the age of the Earth or the development of species on the basis of religious texts, “it’s a disaster” — as it is, he says, when science attempts to answer questions such as whether God exists, or questions of morality, with empirical evidence.

“My former genetics professor, Steve Jones, has an excellent analogy for the battle between science and religion. He says it’s like the battle between a tiger and a shark. Each animal is extremely powerful, but defenceless in the other’s environment.”

Whilst indeed these questions can’t be answered by separate fields as mentioned, I believe that science can give us good reasons to conclude that God exists: in particular, the degree of specificity required of dozens of parameters in order for the universe to support life renders our existence so absurdly improbable that it is more than reasonable to suspect a designer. Countless aspects of the natural sciences, such as the irreducible complexity within biological systems, strengthen this conclusion.

That 40% of Americans apparently reject evolution, is, to Spencer, “remarkable.” But Professor Fern Elsdon-Baker proposes that this may not be a precisely accurate representation of their views, since the question might mistakenly be thought by some to require a choice between evolution and religion. As I have already mentioned, there is both a scientific argument to be made against Darwinism, and also distinctions to be made between different types of evolution; so the question, as it stands, can’t give us a useful insight into Americans’ views on science. Elsdon-Baker points out that beliefs on this issue in the UK are markedly different from those in the US; again it would be nice if some statistics could have been included here.

Steve Jones refers to ethical sensitivities that distinguish humans from other animals. Intriguingly for an atheist, he also states that those ethical sensitivities cannot be explained by evolution. If only the programme had taken the step of asking him how he supposes they can be explained, it would have been markedly philosophically deeper.

“Since it seems to be the case that we are distinguished from animals by our ability to reflect on past events, to contemplate the future and to ponder deep questions, why not ask atheists how they make sense of these distinctly human abilities?”

Wilkinson speculates that relationships between humans are a fundamental way in which we are different from other species. Yet it occurs to me that relationships are also one of the most outwardly visible aspects of being, whilst we are likely also distinguished from animals by our ability to reflect on past events, to contemplate the future and to ponder deep questions. Why not ask atheists how they make sense of these distinctly human abilities?

Elsdon-Baker, identifying herself as an atheist, speaks of her disdain towards the conflict narrative, and her hope that people from all backgrounds will feel welcome in science. In a similar vein, Wilkinson expresses his concern that the Church today tends to exclude science.

Finally, Spencer visits a project — “God and the Big Bang” — that visits schools and runs workshops in which teenagers discuss ultimate issues. This sounds positive, but the programme tells us relatively little. It might be helpful at this point, for instance, to know what proportion of Generation Z identifies as atheist.

It’s a shame that The Secret History of Science and Religion doesn’t contain much religion or science. Why the lack of statistics? Why the absence of Scripture verses referring to creation and knowledge? Why the omission of the fine tuning and irreducible complexity arguments? Additionally, having found the writings and lectures of certain Christian professors on the sciences particularly poignant, I wish that some of them like Stephen Meyer, Hugh Ross, Alister McGrath, Francis Collins or John Lennox might have been included.

For all its faults, however, it’s nevertheless marvellous that this programme was aired. More of the same, please, Radio 4!

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Peter+3%3A15-16&version=ESVUK

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