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The Big Question: Why We Can’t Stop Talking about Science, Faith and God

Alister McGrath
Published by St. Martin’s Press in 2015

In The Big Question, Alister McGrath does not set out to present an apologetic for God or science so much as to provide a personal account of how he has come to view the world from the perspectives of both science and religion and how this approach has given him a fuller, richer picture of the world than he knew when he was an atheist. To a great extent, The Big Question presents McGrath’s personal testimony of his conversion from atheism to faith in Jesus Christ while explaining how that change enriched rather than diminished his understanding of the world.

Stephen Jay Gould famously declared that science and faith belong to two separate realms and constitute non-overlapping magisteria. McGrath challenges this simplistic demarcation and explores the many ways science and faith may properly be in dialogue with each other. While not only acknowledging, but also devoting considerable space to the exploration of, the limitations of both science and faith, McGrath explores how the dialogue between science and faith can contribute to a bigger picture of the world precisely because neither realm has an exhaustive view. While he focuses on science and faith, McGrath also suggests the value to both areas of a broader conversation with the arts and humanities.

Alister McGrath belongs to a small group that holds impeccable credentials in both the scientific and theological communities. McGrath holds the Doctor of Philosophy in Molecular Biophysics (1977) and the Doctor of Divinity (2001) from Oxford University. He not only argues for an interdisciplinary dialogue that will bring a fuller picture of the world, but he also demonstrates how to carry out such a dialogue as he draws from various areas of his intellectual development.

While debunking the old “conflict” account of the relationship between science and religion, McGrath stresses that neither science nor religion tells the whole story of the world we inhabit. Each presents part of the picture, but neither can claim an exhaustive view of the world. McGrath stresses the importance of “stories, pictures, and maps” from different disciplines in order to develop a “big picture” of reality (29). In contrast to science, McGrath explores quasi-science which makes extravagant claims about what science can know and the answers that science can provide to life’s perplexing questions.

McGrath focuses much attention on the New Atheism movement, which he sees as locked in a seventeenth-century understanding of the absolute certainty that science provides, as though the twentieth-century understandings of uncertainty, chaos, and indeterminacy had never taken place. McGrath likewise criticizes as sloppy historiography the “warfare” narrative that the New Atheists champion. Tracing the current “warfare “ view to Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science and Theology in Christendom (1896), McGrath presents a corrective view that explores how Christianity has played a positive role in the development of modern science. If anything has inhibited the development of science, one might look at an emotionally charged commitment to an atheistic perspective that rejects out of hand any scientific view that has theistic implications, such as Fred Hoyle’s insistence on a “steady state” understanding of the universe “because it least resembles the account given in Genesis” (39).

The exploration of unexamined prejudices and unfounded assumptions on the part of the New Atheists comprises a great part of the book. McGrath shows that the prejudice against faith extends to other ways of knowing that the New Atheists regard as illegitimate due to their conviction that scientific knowledge is the only real knowledge. A purely scientific perspective on reality leaves no room for ideas such as identity, value, purpose, and agency. McGrath stresses that we must turn to other disciplines than the sciences to pursue “ultimate questions.” He insists, in contrast to a reductionist view of science that resembles the Vienna School of positivism of a century ago, that reality has multiple maps, levels, and narratives, all of which must be called upon in order to have a robust picture of reality.

At one level, McGrath’s arguments sound familiar, not so much because he is merely rehashing old material, but because his adversaries rehash old material that has grown obsolete in the face of twentieth-century science and historiography. As he explores why humans “can’t stop talking about science, faith, and God,” McGrath discusses not only physics, chemistry, and biology, but also theology, philosophy, and history. Instead of carrying his discussion to the specialists, however, he writes for a broad audience of thoughtful readers with a general education background. Because the subject involves McGrath’s decision to abandon atheism and to follow Jesus Christ, the book also has a devotional flavor in the tradition of such classics as Augustine’s Confessions, John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding, and C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. In this way, he presents not merely theoretical ideas, but reasons that he found compelling himself.

In many ways, the average person in the twenty-first century lives within the scientific framework of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with all the hubris that was the Enlightenment. McGrath must necessarily explain basic concepts like theory, evidence, proof, certainty, and truth. To a certain extent, the New Atheists play to the broad ignorance of how the scientific community understands these terms after the collapse of the wave function and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. McGrath argues against the kind of simplistic reductionist absolutism that characterized Pierre-Simon Laplace, but which often appears in popular conversation. He provides accounts of how our scientific understanding of the world has changed and continues to change so that we now think of scientific knowledge in more provisional terms as we await the next breakthrough. By analogy, McGrath makes the case that science works in a way similar to faith in terms of making sense of the world.

Having argued for the value of “the God-theory” to make sense of the world, McGrath then endeavors to demonstrate that we have substantial evidence for the God-theory. Having made the case that “proof” is not the appropriate word to use in relation to scientific theories, he suggests that proof is likewise not an appropriate term to describe our grounds for belief in God. With respect to proof, science and religion bear a striking similarity to one another.

Having faulted New Atheism with a lack of critical judgment, McGrath also levels a passing critique at some twentieth-century religious interpretations of science. He has no use for fundamentalism of a naturalist or supernaturalist variety. In his attack on all sorts of fundamentalism, McGrath critiques the foundational logical process by which his opponents make their extreme, dogmatic declarations. At no point does McGrath make this case more clear than when dealing with the declaration by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design that philosophy is dead. At certain points, McGrath appears to lose patience with his opponents and rips into them with exasperation, as he does in response to the notion that philosophy could be dead:

This is nonsense, and the remainder of the book at least serves as a powerful demonstration of the continuing need for serious philosophy, if only to challenge and counter the inflated and muddled claims of some scientists. What Hawking and Mlodinow provide is not pure physics but poorly argued metaphysics whose failings are all too evident. (93)

Throughout this book, McGrath points out where his opponents speak in the name of science but actually make ill-founded philosophical statements that they do not recognize as such. The Big Question is a valuable contribution to the literature on science and religion for laypeople who want to have answers to serious questions that have been raised by positivists like the New Atheists. The concluding section has particular value, however, given the rudderless moral and ethical climate of recent years. In this final section, McGrath explores the assertion by Edward O. Wilson in Sociobiology (1975) that ethics should be based on science. Here McGrath distills a highly complex debate about the possibility of ethics in a society based exclusively on values derived from science. He makes clear that a set of values precedes that process of rationalizing ethical values from science. Someone must first establish the presuppositions for assessing such scientific ethics.

Cite this article
Harry Lee Poe, “The Big Question: Why We Can’t Stop Talking about Science, Faith and God”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:4 , 419–421

Harry Lee Poe

Union University
Harry Lee Poe is the Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture, Union University.