December 1, 2006

The coexistence of reason and faith - Harries seems to be making it work

I was led to this clear-headed and straightforward "Thought for the day" from Bishop Richard Harries by way of a passage cited in Sean Carrol's new book "The Making of the Fittest." (A good read so far)

Good morning. In 1860 there was a famous meeting in Oxford on the subject of evolution at which a predecessor of mine as Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley, the scientist, took opposing points of view. Wilberforce was a well-informed amateur scientist and did not think that the case for evolution had at that point been made out, so he opposed the idea. However, it soon became clear to most thinking people that the earth was not, as it were, simply plonked down ready-made, but that it had evolved gradually over a very long period of time. Indeed historians of science note how quickly the late Victorian Christian public accepted evolution. It is therefore quite extraordinary that 140 years' later, after so much evidence has accumulated, that a school in Gateshead is opposing evolutionary theory on alleged biblical grounds. Do some people really think that the worldwide scientific community is engaged in a massive conspiracy to hoodwink the rest of us?

I find what this school is doing sad for a number of reasons. First, the theory of evolution, far from undermining faith, deepens it. This was quickly seen by Frederick Temple, later Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that God doesn't just make the world, he does something even more wonderful, he makes the world make itself. God has given creation a real independence and the miraculous fact is that working in relation to this independent life God has, as it were, woven creation from the bottom upwards: with matter giving rise to life and life giving rise to conscious reflective existence in the likes of you and me. The fact that the universe probably began about 12 billion years ago with life beginning to evolve about 3 billion years ago simply underlines the extraordinary detailed, persistent, patience of the divine creator spirit.

The second reason I feel sad about this attempt to see the Book of Genesis as a rival to scientific truth is that stops people taking the bible seriously. The bible is a collection of books made up of very different kinds of literature, poetry, history, ethics, law, myth, theology, wise sayings and so on. Through this variety of different kinds of writing God's loving purpose can come through to us. The bible brings us precious, essential truths about who we are and what we might become. But biblical literalism hinders people from seeing and responding to these truths.

Then there is science. Science is a God-given activity. Scientists are using their God-given minds and God-given creativity to explore and utilise God-given nature.

Sadly, biblical literalism brings not only the bible but Christianity itself into disrepute.

I post this because, as I've said previously, I believe that religious defenders of science and reason are key to meeting the challenge of pseudo-sciences such as ID and creationism.

In addition, it struck me that this man's words might serve as a useful barometer for where many of us stand on one of the hot topics under discussion right now across the science blogs - that being the question of whether it is either good science or good tactics to oppose religion itself as we oppose some of its less savory offerings, e.g. creationism.

Are we from the "Neville Chamberlain school" of science defenders if we suggest that Harries efforts in service of science need not be disregarded because of his religious beliefs? Does giving credence to the opinions of someone of faith, regardless of whether those opinions comport with ours, simply postpone (maybe even add to) the eventual undermining of reason?

Or is it fervor of a nearly militant stripe to suggest that reason and faith cannot co-exist, that opposition to theism is inextricably linked to defense of science? Is "evangelical atheism" (a phrase that I use because of its ubiquity these days, not necessarily because I think it accurate) assuming the recognizable trappings of just another insecure ideology?

Some of my views on this can be found here.

It's not an issue that's going to disappear any time soon. But fleshing out some of it will help us figure out how to move forward from here.


Blogger Antonio Manetti said...

The institutional church bases its casuistry on a specific view of how divine intent is manifest in nature.

For example, God's intent with regard to human sexual preference is reflected in the norm. Preferences outside the norm, like disease in general, are considered to be a product of man's fall from grace (ie. original sin) and are therefore to be borne like any other form of suffering.

It strikes me that this particular view of nature is irreconcilably at odds with science.

12:31 AM  
Blogger RLC said...


"It strikes me that this particular view of nature is irreconcilably at odds with science."

Well, sure, in those cases where it is literally applied it is. But the real question is to what degree those views are prevalent throughout the assembled multitudes.

In deciding how to prosecute this conflict (i.e. resisting irrationalism) I think it's important to remember that when we aim at the ecclesiastical institutions there are often people standing in the way.

If it's true that for most, their views do not necessarily reflect the chapter and verse of their church proper, I think we might consider the advantages to our side if they can be turned, rather than just swept aside.

9:27 AM  

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