Via Russell Blackford at Metamagician, we have an accommodationist piece in The Drum Opinion by Alister McGrath, “Science is about explanation, religion is about meaning.” McGrath is a professor of theology at King’s College London and President of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (note to thelogians: ditch the word “apologetics”), and has written several books, including Darwin and the Divine and Surprised by Meaning, (a clear allusion to C. S. Lewis’s autobiography; indeed, McGrath is writing a biography of the man).
McGrath also has a Ph.D. in molecular biophysics, and so should know something about how science works. But you couldn’t prove that from this piece, which evinces four of the six characteristics shown by theologians who try to comport science with religion (I listed the six in my debate with John Haught). I will now call this theological strategy religionism. Here are the 4/6:
- Assert that science and faith are complementary ways of getting at the truth, and so should be friends. McGrath is a NOMA-ist:“If science is about explanation, religion is thus about meaning. Science helps us to appreciate the wonder of individual aspects of the universe; religion to see, however dimly, the “big picture” of which they are part.”
- Show that religion answers real questions about the world. Never mind that while theology is perfectly capable of “posing” or “addressing” questions, it’s not capable of answering them. That’s proven by the fact that every religion has different “answers.” McGrath:
“As Richard Dawkins rightly observes in his recent Magic of Reality, there’s something wonderful about the universe. The inspiring beauty of the night sky, solemn arctic landscapes, or a magnificent sunset fill us with wonder.
Yet they also make us ask deep questions. Where did everything come from? What’s it all about? What’s the point of life? These are questions that intrigue both science and religious faith, especially those who find delight and satisfaction in both. . .
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.”
There’s no mention, of course, of the problem that “what makes sense” of things isn’t necessarily true. Richard Feynman argued that science is the best way to prevent people from fooling themselves about the truth. Using the “what-makes-sense” criterion is a sure way to fool yourself.
- Criticize science for its failings. In this case, the failing of science—as compared to faith—is that our answers may not be timeless. As McGrath notes:
“But science is ultimately about a method – a way of making sense of things. Its outcomes change down the ages. Its interim reports are always important and interesting, but they are also provisional. A century ago, most scientists thought that the universe had always been here. Now, we believe it had a beginning.”
The implication here is that the truths of faith never change, and that’s an improvement over science. Well, the provisional nature of scientific truth is something I don’t have to defend, for how can you find out what’s true about the universe unless you can continually question what you know, and strive to prove our understanding? But it’s invidious to suggest that religious truths are unchanging. It’s just that their change doesn’t come from within theology—from any greater understanding of God—but from the findings of science (e.g., evolution) or changes in secular morality (e.g., recognition of the rights of women and gays).
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.
- Show that just like religion, science is based on faith. This is a slight variant of claim #3. If the New Atheists are going to claim that there’s no evidence for God or the tenets of any religion, then accommodationists like McGrath can just argue that science is no better than religion in this respect. McGrath’s unfortunate example is dark matter:
“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.
Thus we infer the existence of dark matter from observations that would otherwise be puzzling. We can’t see it, and we can’t prove it’s there. Yet this doesn’t stop most leading astronomers from accepting its existence.
We can’t see it; we can’t touch it; we can’t smell it; and we can’t hear it. Yet many scientists argue that it’s the only meaningful explanation of observed gravitational effects. Where the naive demand proof, the wise realise that this is limited to logic and mathematics.”
Well, putting aside that scientists don’t demand proof, but provisional yet well-supported answers, let us take up the issue of whether dark matter is like Jesus. I’m not a physicist, of course, and it would be onerous and time-consuming for me to look up all the scientific research on dark matter.
Fortunately, we’re about to be treated to another Marshall McLuhan moment, for I have someone right behind this sign who knows a ton about dark matter, about how its existence is a scientific hypothesis, and how scientists are actually trying to test for its existence. Yes, I have behind this sign the physicist Sean Carroll, who has written extensively about dark matter on his website Cosmic Variance. And what Carroll says to McGrath is essentially this: “I’ve heard what you are saying. You know nothing about dark matter.”
I sent Sean McGrath’s article and asked for his thoughts on the “dark matter = faith” claim. Here’s Sean’s answer, with a lot of links if you want to read about dark matter—and you should certainly read the last link.
I suspect Alastair McGrath might be a double agent. If you wanted to highlight the intellectual superficiality of how modern theologians talk about God, you could hardly do better than to contrast it with how modern physicists talk about dark matter. For one thing, science never “proves” anything at all (as I talk about here).
For another thing, we’re trying very hard to find direct evidence of dark matter:
And we’re always looking for alternatives that might do a better job, and discarding models that don’t work:
But those alternatives don’t catch on, because the dark matter hypothesis makes very specific predictions, which are tested and come out right:
So to repeat the obvious, dark matter is nothing like God. [JAC: do read at least the post at this link]
Sorry for the long list of links. So much silliness, there’s just too much to say, it’s hard to know where to start. –Sean
Thanks, Sean, for looking those up. And so another Sophisticated Theologian® is shown up for what he is: somebody who dissimulates and trashes science to advance his faith in the Baby Jesus.