The surest way to God

February 27, 1998

Could religion hold the key to the environmental catastrophes threatening the world? Geneticist Sam Berry explains why natural theology is currently in vogue among scientists.

The eighth earl of Bridgewater, fellow of All Souls and of the Royal Society, son of a former bishop of Durham, died in 1829, and, allegedly to expiate for a misspent life, left Pounds 8,000 to the president of the Royal Society to commission eight authors "to demonstrate the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God as manifested in the Creation; illustrating such work by all reasonable arguments".

The resulting Bilgewater Treatises (as they were called by the anatomist Robert Knox) were published when young Charles Darwin was sailing around the world in the Beagle, wondering about nature at first hand. They were the last major manifestation of the peculiarly British flirtation with natural theology.

When the earl of Bridgewater made his will, the idea that the natural world was a simple mirror of God's work was already under attack. The perceived age of the earth was growing as a result of various investigations, which allowed for sufficient time for changes in the natural world to have taken place.

Time has been described as the Achilles' heel of natural theology: although a creator could design a perfect organism for a constant world, this would be impossible if the environment were changing. Adaptation to change of climate, or to the threats posed by predators and competitors is possible only if organisms can adjust to their circumstances; in other words if they evolve.

In the late 19th century natural theology began to yield to natural law - to the idea that God created comprehensible mechanisms to regulate the world he had made. In 1885, in a work commonly regarded as marking the acceptance of Darwin's evolutionary ideas by the establishment, the archbishop of Canterbury, Frederick Temple declared, "(God) did not make the things, we may say; no, but He made them make themselves."

Against this background of a fading belief in natural theology it seems somewhat obtuse that in the same year that Temple's The Relations between Religion and Science was published, Adam Gifford, a Scottish law lord, signed his will endowing lectures for "Promoting, Advancing, Teaching, and Diffusing the Study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of that term".

Notwithstanding the bad timing of their inception, the Gifford lectures have now been delivered for more than a century, and although the interpretation of natural theology has been somewhat liberal, some notable works of scholarship have emerged. Reviewing the Gifford enterprise at the time of its centenary a few years ago, Neil Spurway wrote: "the late 20th-century intellectual climate is a substantially more fertile one for natural theology than that prevailing when the lectureships were founded...the most widely influential change has been in attitudes to the environment. There is undoubtedly scope for a series on the natural theology of the environment."

Can one develop such a thing at a time when evolution is seen as effectively opportunistic and without overall aims? Ironically, it is theologically minded scientists who are most positive about natural theology. Witness physicist John Polkinghorne who, encouraged by the anthropic principle (that the physical properties of the universe contain too many "coincidences" in their interrelations to be reasonably supposed to have arisen by chance) has called for a "revised form of natural theology that seeks to offer insight rather than proof and that appeals to the given fabric of the universe".

Indeed, Polkinghorne believes that natural theology is undergoing a revival, albeit among scientists not theologians. He cites the physicist Paul Davis, who is notably unsympathetic to conventional religion, but who has written: "It may be bizarre, but in my opinion science offers a surer road to God than religion."

I suspect non-theologians regard much theological debate as mere intellectual play. The "big" problems of the world -aggression, greed, famine, disease, nuclear holocaust, ecological collapse, survival itself - are too important for the niceties of theological debate. While we are prepared to look anywhere for solutions to such problems, we have to be convinced that any answers are practical. Our forebears can be said to have had it easy, because they believed God was in charge of the world, and that the church would provide salvation, at least long-term. Nowadays we are less convinced about either, to put it mildly.

Nevertheless there is a widespread belief that neither science nor politics has all the answers to the world's "big" problems. This is consonant with the argument of Nobel laureate Peter Medawar that there is a class of questions outside scientific logic. For Medawar, "that there is indeed a limit upon science is made very likely by the existence of questions that science cannot answer and that no conceivable advance of science would empower to answer. These are the questions that children askI such questions as: How did everything begin? What are we all here for?What is the point of living?"

The World-Wide Fund for Nature implicitly acknowledged these limits to science when it held its 25th anniversary celebration in 1986 at Assisi, (forever associated with the name of St Francis), and called upon the world's great religions to proclaim their attitudes to nature. Following Assisi (and the publication of the Assisi Declarations on Man and Nature from leaders of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Baha'i), WWF established an international Network in Conservation and Religion.

In its Assisi initiative, the WWF was joining a growing awareness that religion (in the widest sense) was needed to deal effectively with environmental problems. This linkage was pointed up in a much reprinted paper on "the historic roots of our ecologic crisis" given by historian Lynn White at the 1996 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting.

White's premise was that our increasing ability to harness natural resources is marred by the deep-rooted assumption that "we are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whimI We shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence but to serve manI Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance towards nature that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone."

White ended by asserting that "since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not". He called for a "refocused Christianity, not a wholesale repudiation of itI what we do about ecology depends on our ideas of the man-nature relationship".

This brings me back to Polkinghorne's call for a revived natural theology.Last term, I gave five lectures in a Glasgow University Gifford series on "God, Genes, Greens and Everything"; I shall give another five in the current term. As a Christian, I believe as a matter of faith that there is a God who has made and redeemed the world and has impressed his image on humankind; as a scientist I am conscious of the spread of environmental damage from the local to the global arena and certain that we are in danger of handing to our children an irrevocably degraded planet.

Empirical reductionism is a proper strategy in scientific experiment; doctrinaire reductionism, the assumption that any phenomenon can be fully described in terms of its simplest components, is dangerously simplistic. I believe with Aristotle, Peter Medawar and Lynn White that an effect may have more than one cause, and that it is logically flawed to assume that an effect is nothing but the result of one particular cause.

Following the Nobel physics laureate Niels Bohr, who resolved the embarrassing contradiction that electrons could be interpreted as waves or particles by arguing that no single model could adequately explain atomic phenomena, it can be helpful to recognise the possibility of complementary explanations for the same happening. Father of the atom bomb Robert Oppenheimer has applied the same interpretation of complementarity to mechanistic versus organic analyses of life processes, Oxford mathematician Charles Coulson to mind versus brain, and physicist and engineer Donald MacKay (in particular) to scientific versus divine explanations. Michael Polanyi, philosopher of science, approached the same problem of apparently conflicting explanations for the same phenomenon through the notion of boundary conditions limiting processes at different levels. Science populariser Richard Dawkins has attempted to deflate complementarity as an approach to God's involvement in scientific processes by arguing that religious explanations are untrue; he has been answered by yet another Nobel laureate, crystallographer Max Perutz, on the grounds that "Science teaches us the laws of nature, but religion commands us how to live."

All this is relevant to developing an effective approach to sustainable living which is more rigorous than the fashionable homogenising syncretism of New Age environmentalism. Physicists' Theories of Everything are not the answer to a search for synthesis. They are based on the reductionist assumption that everything can ultimately be explained on the basis of intra-atomic forces. Unless we believe this (which requires a great deal of faith), we have to complement physico-chemical mechanisms with those at other levels -of life, influenced and transmitted by genes; of green concerns about the maintenance of life-support systems and biodiversity; and perhaps of God, providing purpose to the whole.

Perhaps the biggest obstacles to a synthesis are the traditional intellectual stumbling blocks of discipline boundaries, misunderstood definitions and academic jealousies. A modern natural theology will not be a simple restatement of an argument for the existence of God. What it will have to do is focus on coincidences within science and implications beyond science that need explanation, and seek robust answers, even if they do not persuade doctrinaire reductionists or unreconstructed mystics.

Sam Berry is professor of genetics at University College London. His 1997-98 Gifford lectures are titled "God, Genes, Greens and Everything".

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