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Opening Ourselves by Opening the Science-Religion Debate

Facing the radical insufficiency of even our best ideas about God, even for a moment, may help us see the static and fruitless opposition that characterizes much of the science-religion debate.
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Oxford biologist and noted atheist Richard Dawkins recently sat down with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and had a nice chat about science, human origins and God. It was an entirely civil affair. Because Williams does not object to evolution, there was real agreement between them on a number of issues.

But their essential difference surfaced right at the end. At issue was the origin of the universe and the possibility, put forward by some physicists, that the universe arose out of nothing and has evolved on its own ever since. With this idea in mind, Dawkins said to Williams, "What I can't understand is why you can't see [that this] is such a staggering, elegant, beautiful thing, why you would want to clutter it up with something so messy as a God."

Williams agreed with the elegance bit but added, "I think you put your finger on one of the things that does seriously divide us. .... I'm not talking about God as an extra who you can shoehorn into that. That's just not how I see it." To which Dawkins replied emphatically, "That is exactly how I see it."

The debate, if it could properly be called that, therefore shone a light on the God question as the great divider. And that question is not whether God exists or doesn't exist, but what kind of God it is that exists or doesn't exist.

Plenty of Christians (not Williams) agree with Dawkins about the nature of God. Take Albert Mohler, for example, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and biblical inerrantist. He believes that religion and science are in a necessarily competitive relationship, writing that "evolution ... represents one of the greatest challenges to Christian faith and faithfulness in our times." On this Mohler is wholly in agreement with Dawkins.

They agree on this point because of their shared assumption that, whether or not God exists, God properly plays the role of an idea among ideas. For them, God is capable of being displaced by scientific investigation and necessarily jostles with science within a single conceptual space, like opposing chessmen on a finite Cartesian grid. Their disagreement lies only in the fraction of that space given over to each competitor. Mohler's science-to-God ratio is the inverse of Dawkins', just as his theism is a mirror image of Dawkins' atheism. Their contrast is evident and their game is possible because of -- not despite -- their shared assumption.

Both Dawkins and Mohler are excellent communicators and have spent years expressing their views with clarity and vigor. I admire them for the internal consistency of their perspectives and for their shared impatience with woolly-headedness. Their trust in the sturdiness of concepts really is a refreshing contrast to the intellectual laziness prevalent in much of our public discourse.

But conceptual clarity is no substitute for openness to the world. So often the cost of clarity is narrowed vision, and both Dawkins and Mohler have had to divide the world in order to conquer it. I don't think it's unfair to say that, for Dawkins, science is good and religion is bad. Or that, for Mohler, the Bible is right and science is wrong. The integrity of both views depends on not taking seriously those features of reality that fall outside these artificial boundaries, and both views therefore flatten and artlessly shortchange the world.

There is a way to release the science-religion debate from this static and deadening opposition, and Williams' remark about not "shoehorning God in" is suggestive of it. That way is to take seriously the notion that God, if God is real in any way at all, cannot be confined by any conceptual space. God is in no way, and can be in no way, "in addition to" anything. Instead, God must be, in the words of theologian Kathryn Turner, "beyond kinds." Put another way, God is not subject to our notions of similarity and difference, or even to our idea of existence.

This is basic ex nihilo Christianity: God is the author of existence itself and therefore cannot exist as the world does or as we do or as concepts do. "Existence" is an idea derived from the push and pull of experience, and as Marilynne Robinson wrote in her novel "Gilead," "creating proofs [about God] from experience of any sort is like building a ladder to the moon. It seems it should be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem."

This kind of theology makes empiricists and creationists -- empiricists in their way -- crazy. Admirably labelled "theological doohickey postmodern BS" by one of my readers, it is anathema to common-sense types, atheist and religious, because it suggests that we live in a state of near-total ignorance about God. And nothing is more offensive to the modern mind than the idea of any kind of permanent, in-principle ignorance.

Offensive it may be, but once we let this simple Christian claim settle in, everything changes. The flat and uncreative opposition of science and religion vanishes and the possibility of a noncompetitive relationship arises. And isn't it hopeful and imaginative to consider that God is not a small manipulable thing, like a hammer or a chessman or a wedge for splitting the world in two? Maybe all of that is our own dreadful creation, like making a bomb out of the beauty of physics.

Please don't misunderstand me. There is not nothing to say about God. Acknowledging that God is beyond kinds is merely a starting point. Yet it is a critical step, because such acknowledgement equips us with a kind of theological central nervous system. It prevents us from being burned and from burning each other.

The thoroughly boring God of the world's Dawkinses and Mohlers is a rather benign caricature and is largely harmless so long as it remains within that debate. They can have their game. But as we all know, truly horrific things can happen when people think they really know something about God, and this is true whether or not they believe in God. So admitting real ignorance up front seems like a good idea.

Facing the radical insufficiency of even our best ideas about God -- even for a moment -- may help us see that the static and fruitless opposition that characterizes much of the science-religion debate is no more than an expression of our own desire to control, that is to say deny, God. And only after facing that insufficiency can we know that the setting-aside of our ideas about God, which is the selfsame act of acknowledging our ignorance, is also the act that opens us to the world -- the whole world -- as it really is.

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