New Atheism - New Apologetics: The Use of Science in Recent Christian Apologetic Writings
By Alister McGrath
Presentation delivered on Wednesday, 22 January 2014
St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside
As I think many of you know, I began my academic career as a scientist, studying chemistry at Oxford University under the mentorship of Jeremy Knowles, and then researching in the biological sciences at Oxford under Professor Sir George Radda. This immersion in a scientific research culture is meant to shape minds and patterns of thought, and it certainly shaped mine. As I look back on my own intellectual development, I can see four points at which Oxford’s scientific culture had a decisive impact on my approach to thinking and writing.
First, I absorbed an emphasis on clarity of writing and presentation. Opaque, ambivalent and highly nuanced forms of speech were to be avoided, in that they constituted a barrier to grasping your methods, results, and interpretations. I remain suspicious of the habit that some theologians seem to regard as some kind of intellectual virtue – namely, apparently hiding behind words – and take particular pleasure in the writings of those who aim for clarity of expression and formulation. After taking advice, the first Christian theologian that I read seriously was Karl Barth, and he persuaded me that theology could be taken seriously by a scientist. I often wonder what might have happened if I had begun my reading elsewhere? Happily, other theologians I studied reinforced this perception – most notably, Thomas F. Torrance, and Austin Farrer.
Second, an evidence-based approach to argument is now hardwired into my soul, and is reflected in the fundamental questions that I ask as a theologian. Why should someone think this? How might they be shown to be wrong? What evidence underlies your position? The capacity to assemble a well-ordered evidential argument seems to me to be one of the most important skills that any scientist can develop. And I must insist that theologians learn from this. I intend no disrespect, but I am unhappy about the tendency I see in some theologians to assert, rather than to argue; or to appeal to an authority rather than to evidence, without providing reasons for these assertions, or anticipating objections and alternatives. It seems to me that more theologians need to take seriously the intellectual discipline of evidence-based thinking, not least in engagement with the public domain.
A third habit of thought that I picked up during my time as a scientist is related to this. The core question that many of my philosophical colleagues want to ask about an idea is this: “Is it reasonable?” I have always baulked at this. This seems to be a sure-fire way of locking us into some form of rationalism, which allows reason to determine what can be right, and thus imprisons the scientific enterprise within a rationalist straitjacket. The fundamental question a scientist is going to ask is not “Is this reasonable?” but “What are the reasons for thinking this is true?” We cannot lay down in advance what “rationality” is characteristic of the universe; we have to find out by letting the universe tell us, or figuring out ways of uncovering it.
Scientific rationality is thus best thought of as something that is discovered, rather than predetermined or predicted. In my first year studying chemistry at Oxford, I specialized in quantum theory, and soon realized that I had to learn to conform my own thinking to the nature of the universe, rather than tell the universe what form it should take, based on what seemed to me to be “reasonable”. I exaggerate slightly, but we might suggest that rationalism tells the universe what it ought to be like, whereas science allows the universe to answer back – and listens to it.
You will not need me to tell you how this line of thought is theologically productive and responsible. To give one obvious example: the key question to ask about the doctrine of the Trinity is not “is this reasonable?” As Augustine of Hippo pointed out, the task of theology is not to reduce God to the intellectually manageable (and then label this “reasonable”). It is to expand the vision of the human intellect so that it can grasp as much about God as it can – an idea that is best expressed using the notion of “mystery” – namely, “something that we cannot grasp in its totality”. The task of a responsible Christian theology is to discover the internal logic of the Christian faith, not to lay down in advance what form this should take.
Go HERE to download the entire lecture, as well as Lord Harries' response.