poison-1481596_1920 pixabay Arek Socha copy

Arek Socha, Pixabay

When I was growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the 1960s, I came to the firm view that God was an infantile illusion, suitable for the elderly, the intellectually feeble and religious fraudsters. I fully admit that this was a rather arrogant view, and one that I now find somewhat embarrassing. If this seemed rather arrogant, it was, more or less, the wisdom of the age back then. Religion was on its way out and a glorious godless dawn was just around the corner. Or so it seemed.

Part of the reasoning that led me to this conclusion was based on the natural sciences. I had specialized in mathematics and science during high school, in preparation for going to the University of Oxford to study chemistry in detail. While my primary motivation for studying the sciences was the fascinating insights into the wonderful world of nature they allowed, I also found them to be a highly convenient ally in my critique of religion. Atheism and the natural sciences seemed to be coupled together by the most rigorous of intellectual bonds. And there things rested, until I arrived at Oxford in October 1971.

Chemistry, and then molecular biophysics, proved to be intellectually exhilarating. At times, I found myself overwhelmed with an incandescent enthusiasm, as more and more of the complexities of the natural world seemed to fall into place. Yet, alongside this growing delight in the natural sciences, which exceeded anything I could have hoped for, I found myself rethinking my atheism. It is not easy for anyone to subject their core beliefs to criticism; my reason for doing so was the growing realization that things were not quite as straightforward as I had once thought. A number of factors had converged to bring about what I suppose I could reasonably describe as a crisis of faith.

Atheism, I began to realize, rested on a less than satisfactory evidential basis. The arguments that had once seemed bold, decisive and conclusive increasingly turned out to be circular, tentative and uncertain. The opportunity to talk to Christians about their faith revealed to me that I understood relatively little about Christianity, which I had come to know chiefly through the not always accurate descriptions of its leading critics, such as Bertrand Russell and Karl Marx. Perhaps more importantly, I began to realize that my assumption of the automatic and inexorable link between the natural sciences and atheism was rather naive and uninformed. One of the most important things I had to sort out, after my conversion to Christianity, was the systematic uncoupling of this bond; instead, I would see the natural sciences from a Christian perspective. And I would try to understand why others did not share this perspective….

Those who believe that  [the scientific method] proves or disproves the existence of God press that method beyond its legitimate limits and run the risk of abusing or discrediting it…In a 1992 article in Scientific American, America’s then premier evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould insisted that science, by its legitimate methods, could not adjudicate on the existence of God: ‘We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists’. The bottom line for Gould is that Darwinism actually has no bearing on the existence or nature of God. For Gould, it is an observable fact that evolutionary biologists are both atheist and theist – he cites examples such as the humanist agnostic G. G. Simpson and the Russian Orthodox Christian Theodosius Dobzhansky. This leads him to conclude that ‘either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs – and equally compatible with atheism’…

The definition of faith offered by W. H. Griffith-Thomas (1861– 1924) is typical of a long Christian tradition:

[Faith] affects the whole of man’s nature. It commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence; it continues in the confidence of the heart or emotions based on conviction, and it is crowned in the consent of the will, by means of which the conviction and confidence are expressed in conduct.

This is a good and reliable definition, synthesizing the core elements of the characteristically Christian understanding of faith. Readers might like to notice the explicit statement that this faith ‘commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence’…. [This] is the same faith that underpins the ancient intellectual heritage of [Oxford] university and, indeed, of [Richard Dawkins’s] own scientific discipline, for the role of Christian natural philosophers [scientists] in the emergence of the biological sciences has been well documented…

Although it was once fashionable, following Sigmund Freud, to suggest that religion was some kind of pathology, this view is now retreating in face of mounting empirical evidence that suggests (but not conclusively) many forms of religion might actually be good for you…

A 2001 survey of 100 evidence-based studies to examine systematically the relationship between religion and human well-being disclosed the following:

  • 79 reported at least one positive correlation between religious involvement and well-being;
  • 13 found no meaningful association between religion and well-being;
  • 7 found mixed or complex associations between religion and well-being;
  • 1 found a negative association between religion and well-being…

The results make at least one thing abundantly clear: we need to approach this subject in the light of the scientific evidence, not personal prejudice. I would not dream of suggesting that this evidence unequivocally proves that faith is good for you. Still less would I argue that this demonstrates that God exists…

Sir Peter Medawar, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine some years ago [wrote]:

The existence of a limit to science is, however, 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?’ The beginning of scientific wisdom, I would argue, is an informed and respectful recognition of its limits.

The reality is that the natural sciences are intellectually malleable, open to being interpreted in theistic, agnostic or atheistic ways. The great debate between atheism and theism is not, and cannot be, settled by the natural sciences. Dawkins represents one way of ‘reading’ nature, but there are other ways of ‘reading’ the natural world. The one I discovered many years ago, and which I continue to find intellectually robust and spiritually enriching, is this: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God’ (Psalm 19.1).


9780281081332_2Reproduced with permission from Alister McGrath, “Has Science Killed God?”, in Has Science Killed God?: The Faraday Papers on Science and Religion, edited by Denis Alexander (SPCK, Nov 2019). Available to order now. A launch event will be held at Heffers bookshop, Cambridge, on 10th December