Churchman preaching to the unconvertible

God outside the Box
February 7, 2003

Richard Harries is the Anglican bishop of Oxford, a liberal churchman by reputation and by the evidence of this book. He is also a Darwinist and one of those who not long ago raised a mild protest when a school in the north of England was found to be teaching creationism of a kind. His book is what the title says: an answer to some (but not all) of the arguments against Christianity.

The book is addressed to the sub-set of English-speaking humanity described as "spiritual", which is nowhere carefully defined. At the outset, the spiritual are said to be the 88 per cent of the sample for an opinion poll who failed to check a box asking: "Not a spiritual person?"

Elsewhere, they are the likes of Nelson Mandela, whose claim to be an agnostic is said to be belied by his manifest goodness. Harries acknowledges that his spiritual majority includes believers in astrology and spiritualism.

I have a conflict of interest to declare. I am a card-carrying atheist (of the British Humanist Association's kind), but - I hope - a tolerant one: I do not fall out with people because they go to church, for example, and I turn up for weddings, funerals and memorial services. I acknowledge that I have not read religious texts (apart from checking quotations in the Bible) for more than 60 years, so that I am out of tune with much of what the bishop writes. For example: "Religious language has a different kind of logic and purpose (from the scientific) which has its own validity. This means that this side of the coming of the kingdom..."

The plan of the book is simple. There are 21 chapters, most of which have a title defining a question a doubter might ask. Why, for example, is God a despot, demanding obedience (and constant praise)? Well, he isn't, says Harries: on the contrary, what about the occasions when priests have fomented resistance to oppressive regimes in Latin America?

And is not God a misogynist? It was all different when the Bible was written and when male dominance held sway, Harries says. Now the Anglican Church is catching up with changed social values. Although "the pain and anger of women" when they read the Bible is understandable, it is "not true that Christianity is irreformable". (He is a master of the cryptic double negative.) What about the "cruelty and horror in nature"? This leads the bishop to his most overt discussion of the relationship between science and religion - the "alleged clash", as he calls it. On the problem of evolution, he quotes Archbishop Temple as saying that God did something "more wonderful" than make the world: "He makes the world make itself." And, in any case, he cites "historians of science" as believing that Darwinism was more quickly accepted (outside the Bible Belt) than comparable discoveries.

Richard Dawkins, acknowledged as a friend, is delicately patronised: "He is a wonderful writer on science and has enlarged the appreciation of us all when it comes to how evolution works." But Dawkins' atheism will not wash.

His handicap (and mine, no doubt) is that scientists try to answer the "how" questions, but that "philosophers, theologians and all of us when we are not doing science, are concerned with the 'why' questions".

Harries is, I think, right when he goes on to say that a scientific explanation of a process (the evolution of life or of the universe) does not "rule out a complementary explanation that puts that process in a wider perspective". The catch is in that complementary.

The scientific and the religious explanations of the world are not complementary but different. The first supposes that the evolution of the world and its content is governed by physical laws, by no means fully understood as yet. The second includes intervention by God as an essential ingredient. As in Harries' quotation from Temple, modern religious explanations are versions of the "God of the plan" - the universe was designed at the outset to evolve as it has done.

In that sense, Harries' claim that there is no conflict between science and religion is undeniable. The religious explanation of the world is not free standing, but an optional add-on. The atheist position is that the add-on, which gives many people a sense of purpose but raises questions of credibility (as about the resurrection and the after-life), is neither necessary nor consonant with the intellectual temper of our times. None of this requires one to break friendships with church-goers.

Sir John Maddox is a former editor of Nature .

God outside the Box: Why Spiritual People Object to Christianity

Author - Richard Harries
ISBN - 0 281 05522 X
Publisher - SPCK
Price - £11.99
Pages - 178

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