Thoughts on Nature’s essay: "We cannot live by scepticism alone"

In this week’s issue of Nature, Professor Harry Collins, Director of the of Centre for the Study of Knowledge Expertise Science at Cardiff University publishes an essay entitled: “We cannot live by scepticism alone”.

In a refreshing way, Prof Collins gives a background to the way that social sciences have perceived the scientific world: First by regarding Science as the ultimate form of knowledge, and secondly with skepticism. He then moves on to propose a new model of understanding the impact of Science on today’s societies – a model which he calls “elective modernism”, as opposed to the current trend of POST-modernism that influences much of Western thinking today.

He writes: We must choose, or ‘elect’, to put the values that underpin scientific thinking back in the centre of our world; we must replace post-modernism with ‘elective modernism’. To support this, social scientists must work out what is right about science, not just what is wrong — we cannot live by scepticism alone. Natural scientists, too, have a part to play: they must reflect on and recognize the limits of their practice and their understanding. Together, we must choose to live in a society that recognizes the value of experience and expertise.

The primary drive of this proposal seems to be a growing misunderstanding of the limitations of Science, especially by scientists who virtually deny that those limitations actually exist because of their a priori postulation that the natural world is all that there is.

Writing about the Big War between scientists and social constructivists in the 1990’s, Collins writes: The conclusions of most of us were moderate: science could not deliver the absolute certainties of religion or morality, and scientists were not priests but rather skilful artisans, reaching towards universal truths but inevitably falling short. Far from being anti-science, we were trying to safeguard science against the danger of claiming more than it could deliver. If science presents itself as revealed truth it will inevitably disappoint, inviting a dangerous reaction; even the most talented craftsmen have their off-days, whereas a god must never fail. (my emphasis).

Prof Collins’ point is to encourage scientists to take and promote the fact the science is, by definition, limited. He wants scientists to be realistic and “teach fallibility” to a society that increasingly bestows upon them the role of moral leadership because it is also increasingly discarding and relativising its own ethical and moral standards.

Another quote: “If we are to choose the values that underpin scientific thinking to underpin society, scientists must think of themselves as moral leaders. But they must teach fallibility, not absolute truth. Whenever a scientist, acting in the name of science, cheats, cynically manipulates, claims to speak with the voice of capitalism, the voice of a god, or even the voice of a doctrinaire atheist, it diminishes not only science but the whole of our society.”

But, sadly, that’s as far as Prof Collins will go: Science is uncertain, but it might be all we have. We can’t be skeptical about it every time it doesn’t flow with Popper’s falsifiability standard (e.g.Joseph Weber’s gravitational waves in the 1960’s) but in the same time, we can’t grant it powers of divine and absolute revelation. Still, we must encourage it to take the reins of modern society – but always under the shield of open debate.

Towards the end, Prof Collins praises scientific discovery over “religion’s revealed truths” and claims that it is better grounding for the structural basis of society – so long as Science does not propagate delusions of certainty.

Reading this essay, I think it’s obvious that Prof Collins is not religious in any way. I would also dare to disagree with his proposition of a purely scientific society on the grounds that a) given his admitted uncertainty of science, it would ultimately produce a narrow and jelly-like foundation that, in the possibility of overturn would leave only destructive anarchy behind it with nothing to fall back on; b) it would illogically and unnecessarily close off the exploration of non-scientific dimensions, and c) it would turn scientific expertise from a noble goal into an unprecedented and unchallenged global political power-play with far-reaching repercussions.

Having said that, I do applaud Prof Collins for bringing the issue of scientific uncertainty into such sharp relief. And those of us who are Christians should take note, especially in an increasingly secularised world that wants the Christian worldview out of the public forum ASAP on the grounds that it has no validity in light of contemporary scientific progress. Strange, considering that it was that Christian worldview in the first place that, at least in the West, gave birth and sustenance to the scientific process.

"A priori": a little philosophy of big things

These days, while delving in the world of logic and apologetics with the inimitable Ronald Nash, I’ve suddenly become aware of a principle that we’d all do well to pay attention to.

Actually, it’s been sitting at the back of my mind for a while, but a recent series of unconnected experiences have yanked it out of there and dangled it before my eyes:

A priori.


It’s Latin. Some might have come across it, some might have come across it by some other name (think Marcus Aurelius), and some others are already yawning and about to click back to Facebook. But the reality is that we all use “a priori” – virtually every day of our waking lives.

A priori literally means “before the fact”. In terms of thinking (aka “philosophy”) it is defined along the lines of “knowledge apart from sense experience” or “a presupposition”. In human words, “something we know without needing to prove or justify”.

But I won’t bore you with philosophical structures and terms, even though they have a tremendous impact in how we see the world, whether we acknowledge it or not. What I want to point out, briefly, is how often we embark upon a journey of thinking, debating and even outright fanaticism on the basis of something we have assumed, without asking first whether or not that assumption is logical, true, correct, right or even helpful.

Don’t get me wrong; I haven’t become a postmodern suddenly. I’m not saying that there is no a priori knowledge; 1+1 equals 2 and that’s the end of that. But even for us common mortals who don’t get paid to spend our working life theorizing under a tree (but respect those who do), there is a huge implication.

Example: Here is a nice fella who today is celebrating C.R. Darwin’s 200th birthday (and you thought I wasn’t going to say anything about it). He accepts the Theory without quibbles and is dutifully suspicious of all those religious nuts who dare to cast Dark-Ages skepticism on it. To him, evolution makes sense; it nicely fits those weird things we dig up every now and again; it explains the variety of life forms that abound on the planet today, how species adapt, why there is apparent imperfection and even uselessness in many organisms and finally, the time-scale matches star distances, geological formations and development and the data from dating studies.

So, on his way to the Evolution Dinner, someone stops our friend and asks him: “Do you believe that there is a God?” And even though his stomach’s grumbling, he takes time to think about it. “Well”, he says finally, “no, I don’t.”

“Why not?” asks the other guy.

“Because we don’t need God.”

“Come again?”

“Well”, says our friend, warming up to the subject, “natural laws are enough to explain everything in the world. There’s no need for miracles, for divine intervention – even for a Creator sustaining the world. The universe is all that there is, has been, and ever will be.”

“Are you – are you trying to do a Carl Sagan impression?”

“Heh. But the point is this: Since everything in the world can be explained by natural processes, why do we need to pile on the logically unnecessary burden of a Divine Creator? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just have to try that protozoa dish.”

What do we have here? A fictional, albeit surprisingly common conversation that reflects a popular line of reasoning, which in turn is based on a priori naturalism. Translation: our hungry friend begins with the assumption (aka ‘presupposition’) that the world is confined within the natural box, that nothing super-natural exists outside that box, and therefore everything must be explained only by naturalistic processes; and evolution is the best fitting model.

Question: How does he prove that first assumption? Through a scientific experiment? No, because that would be limited to the natural world. How then?

Answer: He can’t. Seriously. But that doesn’t stop him from effortlessly making the leap from “evolution” to “atheism”, even though his reasons are not philosophically adequate.

Now, I know I have oversimplified this particular issue and I’ll get lots of the usual hate mail from angry readers who will accuse me of making straw-men arguments. That’s not my intention. My intention is to encourage us to examine our beliefs on ANYTHING and ask whether or not they are based on assumptions and presuppositions that we might personally like but that do not necessarily qualify as a priori. We might find that while we accuse others of close-mindedness and fanaticism, we are unintentionally guilty of the same.

And yes, I am still a Christian:

God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds – Heb. 1:1-2

The New Atheism

Last Friday marked a historical landmark for this blog: the blogpost with the shortest life-span.

It was simply a humorous list of 21 “instructions” that aimed to point out some characteristics of the attitude and apologetics of the New Atheists. I admit that the tone leaned a little towards the sarcastic, but certainly no more than what is allowed in this blog, and definitely nowhere near than the usual vitriol fired by the New Atheists when they attack those who are “simple-minded” enough to still hold onto theist positions.

It didn’t fly. Within an hour of posting the list it was obvious that it wasn’t going in the right direction: one atheist blogger commented in counterattack sarcasm, one guy wrote something that sounded supportive but didn’t make any sense, and five hours and an “astonishing” 18 hits after the blogpost went up, I thought it wiser to take it down. Trouble is inevitable and well-expected with the content of what I usually write, but trouble because of the tone of what I write is something we can all live without. So, apologies to all atheist readers who I unwillingly offended – I didn’t mean to, but that’s hardly an excuse.

So, having said all that, I’d still like to return to the subject, and occupy our minds a little with the rise of the New atheism today. What we’ll say below will actually still echo elements from that list of contentions, but I will try to steer clear of forming “straw-men” as I was accused.

It’s no news that atheism is currently seeing a new day in the sun. Aggressively propagated by eminent academics like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, the idea that God does not exist is crossing rapidly from its old elitist intelligentsia home right into the world of mainstream thinking. It’s no longer something discussed at philosophical symposia in incomprehensible German terminology; it is now vehemently debated and defended in the public square.

Of course, geographically speaking, this isn’t really news to us who live in the Old World. Western Europe has been progressively secularised in terms of social structure and worldview since the Enlightenment, and even the famously religious Victorians embraced a strange, moralistic form of atheism (“I’m a Christian in my body, but not in my mind”).

Thus, I wonder if the alarms sounding from all fronts about the New Atheists don’t have more to do with the sudden spread and wide appeal of their ideas in the US; even though hyper-modernised as a country, even Richard Dawkins finds it necessary to specifically address the “religiosity” of his US readers in “The God Delusion”. But whatever the reason, what is most interesting is the reception of these ideas by a much wider audience than before.

In the following paragraphs I don’t aim to put forth a full-blown apologetic against every single argument of the New Atheism. Others, much more knowledgeable and intelligent have done so, and, even though there is much left to answer, I will give some references throughout. This article will just take an overarching view of New Atheism and pick up some of what I think are its more stringent arguments – in particular, as a scientist, I am interested in the way the New Atheists argue their case by claiming that atheism is the only place that science can lead us.

Before we start, it’s probably best to understand why we refer to this as the New Atheism. Here I will summarise the eight distinctive characteristics of the New Atheism that Dr Albert Mohler gives in his recent book Atheism Remix: A Christian confronts the New Atheists (pp 54-63):

1. It is marked by an unprecedented new boldness.

2. There is a clear and specific rejection of the Christian God of the Bible.

3. There is a rejection of Jesus Christ with a new explicitness and intensity.

4. It is specifically grounded in scientific argument.

5. There is a new refusal to tolerate moderate and liberal forms of belief.

6. There is an attack on religious toleration, which seems to include religious freedom of speech.

7. There is a questioning of the right of parents to inculcate belief on their own children.

8. There is the argument that religion itself must be eliminated in order to preserve human freedom.

Now, discussing the roots of the New Atheism is always an interesting conversation. It usually instigates emotional accusations from both theists and atheists, and – in my personal opinion – demonstrates very quickly the understanding that a person of either camp has on the subject. But it does bring two things into focus:

1) A perceived failure of theism/religion to respond to the modern (and post-modern) concerns. In human words, this means that people today feel that the notion of a God cannot satisfy our big questions. Under this I would tentatively put the general negative-to-hostile feeling that has been generated by the abuses of organised/institutional religion and the often-extreme conduct of the members of various religions (whether such extremism and fanaticism is actually allowed or justified by the core theology of their religion is something that seems unhelpfully ignored by the New Atheists).

2) A perceived uselessness of theism/religion in current ideological models. This is best demonstrated in the current vicious Evolution/Creation debate, which, essentially, runs much deeper than the fossil record and is a great example of how the interpretation of scientific data can quickly transform into a philosophy on the actual purpose of our existence. As a personal note, it saddens me as a scientist to see the almost intentional blurring of the de facto boundaries of Science; boundaries that even Prof Dawkins has admitted in a recent debate with his main critic Alistair McGrath. Pure, real, unadulterated Science can only look with a degree of confidence for the what, when, where and how of our existence as a cosmos; the why has always been outside of its scope because it must be beyond its grasp if it still wants to be called Science and not Metaphysics.

So in those two elements there is immediately much to find and understand about the New Atheism and in particular the growing hostile, militant attitude of its proponents. For the New Atheists God is not only dead, He is also useless. Theism, and in particular biblical theism, is not just passively pointless, it is dangerous, a disease; a mental virus that infects the entire human consciousness. So it logically follows that religious people are also dangerous (as Christopher Hitchens would have it), and ample evidence of that can be found from the Crusades to every suicide bomber attack today. Archibald MacLeish’s J.B. lamenting “If God is God He is not good; if God is good He is not God” still echoes through this idea, which some would – unjustly – simplify like this: “I can’t believe that there is a God because there is so much evil in the world”. But clichés aside, it is important to understand that the effects of believing in God today are seen as an active threat.

Nor are they perceived as useful either, as we mentioned above. In fact, Religion and Theism are seen as downright debilitating. Religion is the Big Leash; it’s holding us back with its viral epidemic, making people comfortable with the Unexplained and complacent with the world’s defects and problems. In the greater scheme of things, the New Atheists would argue, belief in God is holding us back from spreading our evolutionary wings, of “becoming all that we can be” in terms of human evolution. Religious belief might have had some evolutionary benefit once (though what that could be has not been proposed by the New Atheists to my knowledge) but it is time to grow out of our infantile minds, as Nietzsche would say, and let Nature take us to the next step.

I always get some flak when I’ve replied to this last one, and not unjustly. Because it is unavoidable that this sort of language immediately evokes some spine-chilling terminology used by some very “destructive” forces in the recent past – namely Nazism and Stalinism. Now, if we disagree with the straw-men attacks of the New Atheists, we really ought not to do the same and accuse them all of wanting to bring about a Fourth Reich. But isn’t it fair to at least mention that their assertion that a completely evolutionary worldview is needed to “save” mankind has been experimented with in the past with far-from-salvific consequences we are still reaping decades later? As a biologist, I am not aware of any new dimensions in the Theory of Evolution and Darwinism that would prohibit such a “logical evolution” in the future. Isn’t it practically an axiom that without a God there is no absolute; that without absolutes morality is relative, and a relative morality can easily redefine itself to anyone’s whim? What honest Evolutionist could argue that whatever Greater Good we devise under a completely naturalistic (and thus, atheistic) worldview will stand forever without fail?

But that, the atheist camp would argue, is irrelevant (hence the flak). Arguments from moralism don’t prove anything – and I fully agree. Besides, religious regimes also have volumes of dark pages in the books of History, and we’d be naive to think that Religion is a safe and proven way to social bliss. Thus, like Prof Dawkins would argue, whether or not we like the Darwinean/Nietzschean dystopia has nothing to do with reality. In other words, if the truth is that God doesn’t exist and evolution/naturalism is all we have, who cares about who likes what and what is right or wrong? Or, put differently, God doesn’t exist just because we’d like Him to (conversely, of course, we can say that God doesn’t not exist just because we’d like Him not to). The existence or not of God must be an absolute – He’s either there or He isn’t. This is why, I think, the New Atheists don’t particularly support the postmodernist philosophy, which decries any claim to propositional truth – including that God exists or does not.

The major question then, to my mind, is whether or not the “God hypothesis” is true or false, since it is from here that all other – theistic and atheistic – arguments follow. Now, in The God delusion Dawkins creates a scale of 7 degrees of belief in God:

1. Strong Theist: I do not question the existence of God, I KNOW he exists.

2. De-facto Theist: I cannot know for certain but I strongly believe in God and I live my life on the assumption that he is there.

3. Weak Theist: I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.

4. Pure Agnostic: God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.

5. Weak Atheist: I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be sceptical.

6. De-facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable and I live my life under the assumption that he is not there.

7. Strong Atheist: I am 100% sure that there is no God.

Dawkins classifies himself as a number 6 on the scale, saying that no sane person can say with absolute certainty that God exists or does not exist. He does, however find that God is highly improbable. His view is rather peculiar (to say the least) since he reaches this conclusion by way of a philosophical fallacy (in my untrained eyes): Dawkins rightly states, in several places, that the designer of a thing must be at least as complex as the thing itself, if not more, and complexity is inversely proportional to probability. Thus, he extrapolates and says that God – the ultimate Designer of all things – must be so vastly complex that He inversely becomes vastly improbable as a being.

This is where things become intensely philosophical – and it is important to understand this. If, for example, you read through Alvin Plantinga’s in-depth critique of The God delusion, your head will spin – not because of pretentiousness, but because of necessity: Dawkins himself opened Pandora’s box (good for him, of course) by understandably thinking that he could dismantle theism by taking apart every historical argument for the existence of God, including Anselm’s ontological argument (a God that exists in reality is greater than a God who exists only in our imagination; we imagine/understand God as the greatest being of all; thus God cannot exist in our imagination/understanding only, He must exist in reality as well).

So what is Dawkins’ fallacy concerning the improbability of God? Simply put, the whole argument assumes that God would also be part of His creation, where the inverse relationship between complexity and probability applies. But, by definition, God, would transcend His creation, or otherwise He would not be God. Furthermore, there’s the question of whether or not God should be thought of as complex in the Dawkins sense of being composed of multiple parts. In classical theology (e.g. Thomas Aquinas), God has been thought of as simple in that He is immaterial and in that He is without “distinction of thing and property, actuality and potentiality, essence and existence, and the like” (Alvin Plantinga – see link above). In this sense again we can say that a simple, immaterial, spiritual God would not, by definition, fit into the complexity-probability model, even though His creation might.

But what is of particular interest to me is Dawkins’ own declaration that the “God hypothesis” is, by its very nature, an untestable scientific hypothesis (i.e. there is no experiment we can devise and perform to equivocate it), there is no good reason to accept it as true. Now, this might ring like the right tune to our “rational” ears, but I think that it has a central flaw: Since the “God hypothesis” is by nature untestable, it cannot, by nature, be treated as a regular testable hypothesis (according to Karl Popper’s definition). In other words, since God, by definition, must transcend the material world (and thus transcend the realm of Science), what makes anyone think that God should be “discovered” by any scientific means? In fact, if He could be conclusively discovered by a microscope or telescope, then He wouldn’t, by definition, be God – certainly not a God any theist would believe in.

I’m sure this argument won’t dismantle the New Atheism machine, but I hope that it demonstrates two things: First, that one of the central arguments of the New Atheism makes a very mistaken assumption (that God is part of His creation) and second, that the perceived division between Science and Religion seems more artificial than real.

I’ll have to end this “lengthy discourse” here, but I hope that it will stimulate some thinking and discussion. The New Atheists have put forth more arguments than the ones we’ve briefly touched upon here, and hopefully we’ll be able to address more of them in time.

Furthermore, I appreciate that I haven’t even touched upon the arguments from Evolution and how all that fits into the conversation of the New Atheism. This was intentional, mostly because there simply isn’t enough space here. But I do plan to revisit the whole issue and we can look at it in some depth, hopefully in the context of the current Creation-Evolution debate. Here I just aimed to introduce the New Atheism and dissect it a little. We also haven’t looked at the other New Atheists, but I thought that looking at Richard Dawkins would cover some good ground. In the same way, I’m also aware of the fact that we haven’t looked at John Lennox, an Oxford mathematician who has raised some substantial arguments against Atheism’s claims through the Philosophy of Science. All that at a later time.

Finally, I’d also like to recommend Peter S. Williams’ extensive critique on The God Delusion, which you can find here.

For now, I’d like to close with the Bible’s calm, confident, and very unpretentious way of responding to atheism – in my mind, the Bible itself is the ultimate proof that a personal God does exist:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. – Rom. 1:18-23

A response to Nature’s “Triumph of the medieval mind”

This week’s issue of Nature publishes an essay entitled Triumph of the medieval mind by Philip BallNature‘s consultant editor and freelance science writer. It takes a look at the “scientific revolution” of the 12th century AD, a time when re-circulation of translated works of ancient Greek philosophers such as Euclid, Aristotle, Archimedes and Ptolemy led to a challenging of the generally-accepted views on how the world functioned. As the essay puts it: “The translations guided scholars towards a mode of inquiry governed by scepticism and reason rather than by the search for validation in the Bible or St Augustine.”

Ball also correctly points out that, at the time, dogmas concerning nature and the cosmos were pretty much influenced by religious thinking. Even the new kids on the block like Bernard of Chartres and his student William of Conches with their “crazy” ideas on natural philosophy were pretty devout men who generally regarded God as a supreme reality – Bernard of Chatres even regarded matter as created out of nothing. Of course, those who regard him so highly today would laugh at him had he said that 800 years later.

There is certainly nothing wrong with the history laid out in the essay, and it was refreshing for once to see something in Nature that didn’t necessarily concern the next CERN experiment or a new behavioural pattern of some obscure rat or even what the NIH is doing with its funding. But other than subject matter, the essay didn’t offer much in the way of novel thinking.

And let me tell you why.

On the shoulders of giants

There is a myth about scientists that is maintained, promoted and propagated even in today’s info-stuffed times. And that is the guilty, silly and tragic belief that somehow, “scientists know best” (You disagree? Then ask yourself why so many commercials today feature models in white lab oats). As a scientist, sitting on the cutting edge of biological research, I can appreciate why people would think that: Because it’s true – with qualifications.

See, the legacy of Science often has us looking backwards – just as in the case of this essay. In fact, it is Bernard of Chartres to whom we traditionally attribute the catchphrase: “Standing on the shoulders of giants”. And it is a good idea to acknowledge those giants lest we fall and break our necks. But in doing so, we unjustifiably carry over the image of those great men, and superimpose it on their successors of today without applying the filters of history in the process. The result? A distorted but popular image of today’s scientist that sees him or her as virtually omniscient – in every walk of life.

How does this happen? Simple: The people we call early scientists had a lot less to go on with than we do now. Information wasn’t as affluent as it is now and education was a privilege rather than a commodity. Labs didn’t exist – applied science was a dream. These “scientists” worked mostly with parchment and stylus, not a laptop and Nature Online. They were great thinkers in that they attempted to establish methodologies as to how to do what we call today “research”, and they did this because they were thoroughly trained and educated in Classics, Philosophy, Linguistics, Theology (or what passed as Theology then), History, and all sorts of other fields that most researchers today would regard as utterly useless. Why? Because, in terms of applied science, they are a waste of time. I can’t count how many times I have gotten blank looks from colleagues when I ask them what the Latin name of an anatomical part means (my favourite is cornu ammonis. It stands for – wait; you have Google! Look it up!).

But Science has changed in the past 800 years. Information, knowledge and the application of these has increased in leaps. And thus, those who occupy themselves professionally with Science no longer hold all the keys to the deep mysteries of the world. In fact – and I say this from personal experience, though many agree – specialisation is a necessary evil in modern research. We operate on groups of experts who are essentially people who’ve spent a lot of time on a certain subject. And you don’t need a PhD to know that being an authority in one field doesn’t necessarily make you an authority on another. Scientists can pontificate on their fields, but not on everything – especially in today’s increasingly specialising research world.

It’s called Presumption.

Back to the essay

That simple, axiomatic fact is beautifully demonstrated in Philip Ball’s Nature essay. Now, if you’re going to write to be read by today’s scientists, you have to follow a certain agenda. Stick to certain rules. One of them is that you need to have researched your topic – and there’s no denying that Dr Ball has done so. But another one is that you need to conform to the standard way of thinking when it comes to anything metaphysical: God is dead and those who believe in Him are brain-dead. Especially the God of the Bible.

I think it is still kosher in the scientific world to admit that you believe in a god, so long as he/she/it has nothing to do with reality. Scientists are fashionably fond of the Blind Watchmaker (mostly because of Richard Dawkins), but consider it absurd to attribute a personality to him – he’s more of a natural phenomenon whom one day our valiant Toolkit of Knowledge will dissect. As Dawkins puts it, God is just a delusion of a childish humanity – as we grow and mature He’ll fade away, much like Santa Claus does when we hit our teens. In his essay, Philip Ball puts it like this: “By making God a natural phenomenon, the medieval rationalists turned Him [sic] into an explicatory contingency for which there has since seemed ever less need.”

It is phrases like that, and the entire traditionally sneering, anti-God feel of the essay that reminds me of the words of the apostle Paul: But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. – 1 Corinthians 2:13-15 (NASB)

I’ve written about this before. I am constantly surprised of the phenomenal theological ignorance that is displayed by those who either directly – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet et al – or indirectly, like this essay, attack anything even remotely related to Christianity. For example, writing of the scientific awakening of William of Conches (ca. 1090– after 1154), Philip Ball comments: If everything is subject to the whim of God, there is no guarantee that a phenomenon will happen tomorrow as it does today, therefore there is then no point in seeking any consistency in nature. A logical proposition, except that the implication here is that this is a fundamental part of Christian theology: in other words the Christian God is whimsical, unpredictable and therefore completely unreliable (and non-existent, given the consistency of the natural world). Of course, this could be true; except that the Christian God is nothing like that: the central Christian proposition is that God has revealed Himself explicitly and sufficiently to us through the Bible, thus revealing everything we need to know about His nature, which the Bible describes as anything BUT whimsical. Like Socrates said, unless someone comes from above to inform us, we would be forever in the dark.

I would like to ask Dr Ball if he’s ever heard of the sola Scriptura doctrine – the historical Christian doctrine that the Bible is the inerrant and sufficient revelation of God to men; that it contains everything we need to know of Him as mortals. And if He has revealed Himself to us, then He must be consistent – otherwise, He would be inherently false and thus not a God – and thus not part of any religion, not only Christianity. That is a historical theological principle that seems to have eluded Dr Ball.

I would also like to ask him whether in his astute study of the medieval church, he ever wondered why its very practises and beliefs were eventually countered by the Reformation. That would hint at the possibility that what was regarded as Christian doctrine in 12thcentury Western Europe had very little or no grounding in the actual Christian faith. It was, as he rightly perceives, mostly blind fanaticism, superstition and ignorance maintained by the Roman church for political, rather than theological, reasons. For example, that the earth is the centre of the Universe or that it is flat, is not even remotely proposed in Scripture, and yet was maintained as a fundamental cosmological view at the time. On the contrary, there are biblical passages that hint to the earth as a sphere (Job 26:10, Prov. 8:27, Is. 40:22 “circle” (חוּג) (khûg) was used in Hebrew to also describe spheres), some 1000 years before Copernicus. And there are more examples like this, including the water cycle (Job 36:27-28) and the warm and cold continental sea currents (“paths of the sea”), which were discovered by the father of modern oceanography Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-1873) solely on the basis of Psalm 8:8.

So it seems historically inaccurate to claim that the rise of 12th century scientific thinking was really a blow to the blindness of all Christian theology. Such a view makes the puerile, yet often-uncorrected mistake of identifying Christianity with the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle-Ages without taking into account a) that what was called Christianity at the time was vastly separated from the Bible and thus had grown laden with religious superstition, which led, in part, to the Reformation; and b) that Biblical theology never encouraged the “God of the gaps” notion (we attribute to God whatever natural phenomenon we don’t understand) but regards God both as Creator and Sustainer of the entire natural world and c) that the Bible never promotes the image of a dice-playing God, but by claiming to be His (only) revelation, by definition describes Him as inherently consistent, especially in terms of His creation. Miracles in the Bible only happen for a clear and unequivocal reason.

So in conclusion (though there is so much more we could talk about), we can say that superstition – rather than Christianity – and Science can’t go hand-in-hand. But the Bible and the natural world have no real rift between them, despite many witting and unwitting attempts to alienate one from the other. The cornerstone of Science is the pursuit of ultimate natural truth, whilst the Bible is the revelation of all Truth. And even though Dr Ball obsequiously sneers at the “theologically immature dogmas” (I wonder what he means by that) of those whom he considers today’s fundamentalists and the “absurdities of today’s creationism”, it is, as those early 12thcentury proto-scientists would say, a matter of definitions.

Church of England – where’s the Love?

Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. – Rev. 2:4

Looking at the Church of England’s (CoE) website the other day, I came across their statement of faith, or as they call it, “What it means to be a Christian”. This is what someone who wants to know about Christianity is directed to. Here is how it reads:

“Christian life is lived in relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and in common with other Christians in the church seeking to deepen that relationship and to follow the way that Jesus taught.

For Christians God is understood and known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

…Father… God is love, caring for creation and for every human being as God’s beloved child.

…Son… God is as he has revealed himself to be in the historical person of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection holds the key to knowing and loving God, and to making sense of life, before and after death.

…and Holy Spirit… God is alive, loving and active today, inspiring faith, justice and truth, sustaining the life of the world, giving spiritual gifts to the church and bearing his spiritual fruit in the world – changed lives and a transformed society.”

What’s the problem with that, I hear you ask. There is nothing unbiblical about it; there is nothing heretical about it. Everything in that statement corresponds to teaching found in the Scriptures. It’s inoffensive, caring, loving, polite, appropriately English, and it certainly introduces a good aspect of Christianity.

Now, before I go on, I think I have to point out that it is tragic that the Church of England today seems mostly preoccupied with catering to whatever “spiritual needs” people feel they have. It is, as one might say, a “spiritual” service. In fact, I can say from valid, carefully-gathered and personal examination and experience, that you wouldn’t find more spiritual benefit in most CoE fellowships today than you would by visiting the Inland Revenue.

I know. I’ve never really taken on a particular denomination before. But I live in England. I’ve spent considerable time and energy with CoE fellowships and have dear friends from that part of Christianity. And that is why I have to write this, no matter how polemic or “divisive” it might sound. Whatever I say, comes in love – and may ALL of us take heed (1 Cor. 10:12). We all need God’s grace – and especially TRUTH. Also, I must point out that what follows seems to be the pattern for the majority of CoE congregations, as there are still some in the land that are spiritually healthy.

So here’s my question: Where in that statement, is any mention of sin, the Gospel, repentance, faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and quite simply OUR DESPERATE NEED FOR SALVATION FROM THE WRATH OF GOD? Oh, they’ll say, that’s for later – maybe even never. It’s advanced stuff; they don’t need to know that from the beginning. All they need to know is that God loves them – after all, isn’t it necessary to change that old-fashioned notion of the vengeful God and let people know the good news that God simply wants their best?

Well, let’s act like Christians and take a look at the Bible and see what that says about God’s love:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. – John 3:16

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. – Rom. 5:8

But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – Eph. 2:3-5

In the Bible, God’s love is never separated from the gospel, because His love for us is demonstrated in His grace and mercy – and both those are fulfilled and demonstrated in the highest manner in the gospel. In the Bible, God’s love is not a generic vague thing that just has to do with good stuff happening to you. It is part of God’s very nature – one of His attributes (1 John 4:8, 16). To even imply that the blessings that God gives to those who truly belong to Him (e.g. peace, joy, provision in life) apply to everyone indiscriminately, borders on blasphemy because it diminishes the importance and necessity of the gospel. You can’t separate God’s love from the Cross – and yet that’s what the CoE seems to be trying to do.

This is not so much an issue of theology (well, it is), but rather an issue of emphasis. In the desperate need for political correctness within the CoE, the original way the gospel was preached has slowly been pushed away to make room for more “sophisticated” and “trendy” approaches. In the CoE’s talk of Christianity, there is no clear distinction made between Christians and non Christians, believers and unbelievers, regenerate and unregenerate, saved and unsaved, children of God (John 1:12) and children of wrath (Eph. 2:3). Everybody’s called to “partake of God’s blessing”, and that blessing is never really described clearly. Everyone is included without distinction, without mention of sin, or even the need for repentance to enter God’s family. The gospel message, the most important message anyone will ever hear, has been diluted enough to allow every “pretty good person” to feel as if “they belong”.

And yet, in the Bible, there is a world of difference between those who are saved and those who are not:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. – 1 Cor. 1:18

But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. – 1 Cor. 2:14

This is why the CoE has given itself to whatever trend and fad the modern “Christian” culture spits out: From Seeker-Sensitive (tell us how YOU want to do Church!) to charismatic trends (come and learn how to speak in tongues!) and even Emergent movement teachings (don’t listen to me; here’s Rob Bell!). Basically, anything that thrills and entertains – which explains the obsession with bigger and better and trendier worship bands. There is no preaching, no exposition of biblical text, no diligent uncovering of biblical truth, and thus there is no edification of the body of Christ. Doctrine is being assassinated. People come and go, for years even, without ever being clearly challenged with the real gospel. I daresay that the CoE’s Jesus is very different to that of the Bible; He seems more concerned that we can cope with our daily life than teaching us how to sacrifice it on His altar.

The CoE’s priorities seem to be shifting from God-centred to man-centred. “Sermons” are vague, wishy-washy superficialities and generalities about “the Christian Faith” without ever cutting deep as the Word of God should (Heb. 4:12). And that leaves plenty of room for errors and confusion to enter in by simple osmosis – to the point where having a homosexual as a minister is actually an issue of debate rather than of repentance. It’s more of a social Christianity – focused on the things of the world rather than the things above (Col. 3:2). For the CoE, being a Christian is more like hobby that makes life just that little bit better. Or gives you licence for political activism.

I’ll leave it there, and hope that some of you will leave some good comments below – meta they call it. I could delve into the legacy of the CoE, especially post-Reformation when Queen Mary I (1553 – 1558) felt it necessary to rejoin Anglicanism with the Pope, but that would be a fruitless endeavour. A church is what it is today – it can only learn from the past and reach forward to those things which are ahead (Phil. 3:13).