John Lennox: God’s Undertaker – Has science buried God?

John Lennox teaches Mathematics and Philosophy of Science at Oxford University. He specialises in the interface between science, philosophy and theology, and took part last year in a live debate with Richard Dawkins. This is a stunningly thorough and helpful contribution to the discussion of the relationship between science and faith, and has been well received by Christians and agnostics alike. John offers immensely helpful summaries of the most challenging issues, and pursues a clear and logical path through what has become a rather emotionally charged debate. I learnt an immense amount from this book.


Why is there something rather than nothing? Peter Atkins, prof of Chemistry at Oxford, summarises the naturalist view: Science, the system of belief founded securely on publicly shared reproducible knowledge, emerged from religion. As science discarded its chrysalis to become its present butterfly, it took over the heath. There is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence.. Science has never encountered a barrier, and the only grounds for supposing that reductionism will fail are pessimism on the part of scientists and fear in the minds of the religious’.8 But is naturalism demanded by science? Or is it a philosophy brought to science? Could it even be more like an expression of faith? We need to be careful with our terms. ‘Intelligent design’ does not oppose evolutionary biology. If is a serious proposal then we need to ask whether there is any scientific evidence to support it, whether it leads to scientifically testable hypotheses. ‘Creationism’ refers not to the belief that there is a Creator but to a particular interpretation of Genesis which holds that the earth is only a few 000 years old.

1. War of the worldviews

There is a common impression that each new scientific advance is another nail in God’s coffin. Atkins: humanity should accept that science has eliminated the justification for believing in cosmic purpose – and yet science has never been held to deal with questions of purpose. Dawkins defines faith as ‘belief that isn’t based on evidence’. And yet evidence has been at the heart of the Christian faith from the beginning. Militant atheists have created a false dichotomy in the minds of many. A 1996 survey by Larsen and Witham found that 40% of US scientists said they believed both in a God who answered prayer and in personal immortality (compared with 42% in 1916). Many eminent scientists believe in God –p17. Science is based on a conviction that the universe is orderly, a belief first found in the ancient Hebrews 2/3000 years ago. Many scientists have been directly inspired by their faith to do science. Kepler: the chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order which has been imposed on it by God; science is ‘thinking God’s thoughts after him’.

Myths of conflict – Galileo. The problem was he opposed the Aristotelian scientific orthodoxy (the geocentric universe), and only indirectly the church whose theology was based on it (not on the Bible, which had been read literalistically in order to support the theory). He held that the laws of nature are written by the hand of God in the language of mathematics. The belief that science and faith have consistently been at loggerheads is a caricature. The real conflict is not between science and faith but between naturalism and theism – the issue is the relationship of science to the various worldviews held by scientists, in particular to naturalism and theism:
• EO Wilson: scientific humanism is the only worldview compatible with science’s growing knowledge of the real world and the laws of nature
• Henry Schaeffer III (quantum chemist): A Creator must exist. The Big Bang ripples and subsequent scientific findings are clearly pointing to an ex nihilo creation consistent with the first few verses of the book of Genesis.
2. The scope and limits of science
Hard to define science. It involves hypothesis, experiment, data, evidence, modified hypothesis, theory, prediction, explanation. It also involves the method of inference to the best explanation (‘abduction’). The ideal of the coolly rational scientific observer is now regarded as a simplistic myth – particle physics shows that the very process of observation gives rise to disturbances that cannot be ignored.

All scientists come to their science with a particular standpoint, be it one of faith, agnosticism or atheism. Immunologist George Klein: I am an atheist. My attitude is not based on science, but rather on faith.. The absence of a Creator, the non-existence of God is my childhood faith, my adult belief, unshakeable and holy. Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin (a materialist): our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some if its constructs.. because we have a prior commitment.. to materialism. The real battle is not between science and faith in God, but between a materialistic/naturalistic worldview and a supernaturalistic/theistic one. There’s always tension when an accepted paradigm is challenged – eg Mendel’s ideas on heredity were seen as inconsistent with Marxist philosophy, so Mendelian geneticists were persecuted. Science explains. Some believe it can explain everything; this is scientism. Atkins: there is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence.

Only science can deliver truth (not philosophy, art, music, literature). Bertrand Russell: what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know – how does he know this? The statement that only science can lead to truth is not itself deduced from science. Sir Peter Medawar, Nobel Laureate, in his book ‘Advice to a Young Scientist’: there is no quicker way for a scientist to bring discredit upon himself and upon his profession than roundly to declare – particularly when no declaration of any kind is called for – that science knows, or soon will know, the answers to all questions worth asking, and that questions which do not admit a scientific answer are in some way non-questions.. that only simpletons ask and only the gullible profess to be able to answer. The existence of a limit to science is .. made clear by its inability to answer childlike elementary questions having to do with first and last things – questions such as ‘How did everything begin?’; ‘What are we all here for?’; ‘What is the point of living’ – it is to literature and religion that we must turn for answers to such questions. Aristotle distinguished 4 causes: material, formal, efficient and final. Aunt Matilda bakes a cake from certain ingredients (material cause) into a certain form (formal cause), by a certain method (efficient cause), for a purpose (final cause – Jimmy’s birthday). The final cause (purpose) lies outside the scope of science.

Atkins: science has no need of purpose.. All the extraordinary, wonderful richness of the world can be expressed as growth from the dunghill of purposeless interconnected corruption. Is God an unnecessary hypothesis? An understanding of the impersonal principles by which the universe works does not make it unnecessary/impossible to believe in the existence of a personal Creator who designed, made and upholds the universe. That’s what’s called a category mistake – because you understand how a car works doesn’t mean there can be no designer of that car.

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