Arts & Books Books

The ‘God debate’ has moved on from Dawkins

Scientists and believers are having an ever more fruitful dialogue, says Alister McGrath

It Keeps Me Seeking
By Andrew Briggs, Andrew Steane and Hans Halvorson,
OUP, 368pp, £19.99/$30

This work illustrates rather nicely the law of unintended consequences. In writing his God Delusion (2006), Richard Dawkins appears to have believed he was delivering a scientifically supercharged death blow to religion. Instead, he has simply alerted people to the importance of religion, and generated a new interest – especially among younger people – in the growing field of science and religion.

It Keeps Me Seeking is an excellent example of a new wave of works by scientists and philosophers of science, offering more informed and balanced accounts of the complex issues than the atheist tracts of the 2000s. Dawkins is referenced a dozen times in this work, but the overall message is clear – the discussion has moved on.

The book, subtitled The Invitation from Science, Philosophy and Religion, is a collaborative work between two Oxford scientists and a Princeton philosopher. The three contributors possess a wealth of wisdom and intelligence which makes this work sparkle. The quality of engagement with the questions under discussion is generally first-rate, with only a few exceptions.

Excellence, of course, does not always entail readability. The authors manage to secure the latter through presenting the text as a collaborative work using a consistent style. This strategy allows them to hold their readers’ interest as a significant range of questions are engaged.

The tone of the book is clear from the outset: we are being invited to think and reflect on the meaning of this strange world, without any prior expectation that we will be able to attain the kind of certainty that some seem to crave existentially, or mistakenly believe to be necessary for either science or religion.

Where some scientists and religious thinkers argue that the truth can be known with crystalline clarity, the reality is that we have to learn to live with a degree of uncertainty in both domains. The authors sum up their approach in two lucid and succinct statements: “Uncertainty is OK” and “We are allowed to open up the window that the natural world offers us.”

These themes, set out thoughtfully and persuasively in the work’s introduction, are developed throughout. “We assert the freedom to reach for aspects of reality which are not immediately apparent or self-evident but rather are emerging and gestured towards.”

Some suggest the universe we inhabit is meaningless. That’s just the way the dice have fallen. Many may think this, but it cannot be proven to be true – or indeed false. There is no “writing in the sand” to persuade us of intelligent design on the one hand, or absence of meaning and purpose on the other. There are other options than the “cosmic meaningless” narrative, which the three authors consider to be more warranted and satisfying. To suggest that scientific accounts of our world – such as a theory of natural selection – eliminate meaning within that world is simply a category error. “Ultimate questions” – such as the existence of God or the meaning of life – belong to categories that lie beyond the scope of scientific inquiry.

Scientists are entitled to comment on these questions, providing they make it clear that these are matters that are “gestured towards”, not unambiguously disclosed, by the natural world.

Some scientists, of course, decline to respect this principle. A good example of what amounts to a metaphysical inflation of scientific analysis can be seen in Dawkins’s presentation of the evolutionary process as an argument for atheism. Yet Briggs and his colleagues argue that the analysis and description of any such natural process cannot, logically, even begin to address the issue of the overall meaning and purpose of that process, or the question of what made it possible for that process to happen in the first place. If this is so, it follows that no analysis of this kind is able to address the relative intellectual merits of atheism and theism.

This book repays close reading, not simply for the quality of its arguments, but also for its overall attitude towards its topic. What “keeps us seeking” is what we find in and behind the natural world, which extends and enriches that quest, rather than closing it down and allowing us to declare that it is complete and finished.

It is this sense of openness – rather than a predetermined anti-religious atheism or preconceived metaphysical naturalism – which allows us to grow as we journey, rather than precipitately terminating it for fear of what we might find.

Catholic readers will find much to enjoy in this volume, particularly the personal testimonies of its three writers. While its dominant philosophical voice is Reformed epistemology, there are many interesting and often enriching appeals to Aquinas. One of the most important of these is Aquinas’s argument that there were issues of metaphysical significance that transcend the power of science to comprehend or explain. And if this is the case, science should be allowed to develop, precisely because it lies beyond the scope of science to engage such transcendent questions. This rich work can only stimulate and enrich the discussion of the relation of science and faith.

Alister McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford