Why we have to think differently about science and religion

This is an article commissioned from me from the American Physics Journal Physics Today. With their permission I am republishing it here for readers of this blog,

Maintaining the “alternative fact” that science and religion, and in particular Christianity, are in conflict is hurting science. Over the past year, three occasions have left me with strong visual memories and deep impressions that point towards a better approach.

The first, held at St John’s College of Durham University in the UK, was a debate on the sensitive topic of ‘fracking’—shale-oil recovery by hydraulic fracturing. I have witnessed several such discussions, both live and broadcast, and they rarely succeed in anything except escalating entrenched positions and increasing misinformation and fear; few participants bother to treat the science with respect.

Tom McLeish seminarThis gathering was different. Strongly opposing views were expressed, but their proponents listened to each other. Everyone was keen to grasp both the knowns and the uncertainties of the geological science and technology. Social science and geophysics both drew sustained civil dialog. The notion of different priorities was understood—and some people actually changed their views.

The second occasion was some reading I have been doing for a book on the role of creativity and imagination in science. Research for one chapter had led me to connections between the explosion of new science in the 17th century and ideas from the same period expressed in literature, art, and theology.

image

Those ideas included a discussion of the nature of God to a depth unseen since the fourth-century ecumenical councils. One treatise impressed me hugely with its author’s detailed knowledge of textual analysis, variants in New Testament manuscripts, and nuances of Greek; it would rival any current scholarship. Furthermore, it evidenced a scientific logic and a perception of the revolutions in natural philosophy that is very rare in theological writing today.

Job on stageA one-act play I attended in my hometown of York in the UK supplied the third occasion. I’d heard that a respected national theater company had long wanted to create a work based on the ancient book of Job. I admit to a personal love for that ancient poem. No one really knows where it came from, but for my money it contains the most sublime articulation of the innate curiosity into nature that still drives science today but that has clearly deep human roots. Its probing questions seek answers to where hail, lightning, and clouds come from, why stars can be clustered together, how birds navigate huge distances, how the laws of the heavens can be applied to Earth, and so on.

Common across the three occasions is the theme of surprisingly deep and constructive mutual engagement of science and religious belief. The conference on shale-gas recovery was between academic Earth scientists and a few dozen senior church leaders, including bishops of the Church of England. The author of the impressive New Testament scholarship was Isaac Newton. And the play that so impressed me, staged by the Riding Lights Theatre Company in the elegant renaissance church of St Michael le Belfrey in York, featured a 20th-century Job as a research physicist. After the performance a panel of scientists discussed how their faith supports their scientific research. Anyone who has not read beyond the superficial yet ubiquitous stories of conflict between science and religion that receive so much airtime today would be surprised to see such deep entanglements of scientific and religious thinking, from the ancient past of the book of Job to current scientifically informed political decision making.

Between the ancient and the contemporary lies the history of early modern science. There, too, the public sphere today seems dominated by a determined program of misinformation. Newton himself is testimony to the deep formative role of Christian theology in the rise of experimental and mathematical sciences. Far from being a sort of secular triumph over centuries of dogmatic obscurantism, the writings of early modern scientists such as Newton and Robert Boyle make it clear that they were motivated by the theological philosophy of Francis Bacon.

For Bacon, science became the gift by which humankind restores an original knowledge of nature, lost as a consequence of rejection of God. The truth that faith conveyed direct motivation and influence for many great scientists can be uncomfortable. Historian of science and biographer Geoffrey Cantor, author of Michael Faraday: Sandemanian and Scientist—A Study of Science and Religion in the Nineteenth Century (1991), still receives ‘hate mail’ from readers incensed at the suggestion that such a scientific mind might also have been a Christian one.

We are even learning to readjust our schoolbook picture of the Middle Ages as a period of intellectual stagnation, generally repressive of science. History is far more interesting. The scientific enlightenment that gave birth to the Copernican Revolution, the Royal Society of London, the universal theory of gravitation, and the telescope and microscope did not, of course, arise from nowhere. The long fuse for that intellectual fireworks display was lit in 12th-century Europe by scholars like Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon through the movement to translate Aristotle’s scientific texts. They were mostly lost to the West since late antiquity but were preserved and developed by brilliant Islamic scholars in Baghdad, the Levant, and Spain. Arab natural philosophers Al-Kindi, Averroës, Alhazen and Avicenna ought to be far better known as beacons in the long history of science; they, too, saw their task of comprehending the cosmos as God-given. The consequent scientific awakening in the West saw the new learning about the cosmos, not as conflictual with the Bible, but as a ‘second book’ to be read alongside it.

The scholars’ work allowed 13th-century English thinkers Grosseteste, Bacon, and others to develop theories of light, color, and motion. Their work led, for example, to the first complete theory of the rainbow at the level of geometric optics, from the laboratory of Theodoric of Freiberg in the 1320s and to the first mathematical articulation of accelerated motion by Jean Buridan of Paris a decade later. Small wonder that Nicolaus Copernicus saw his astronomical work as a form of worship and that Galileo Galilei viewed it as reading God’s second book.

Maintaining the alternative fact that science and religion are in conflict does no one any favors and is hurting science. The damage comes not only through a warped transmission of history but also because it suggests to religious communities that science is a threat to them rather than an enterprise they can celebrate and support. The bishops’ fracking conference is just one example of how the quality of social support of and discussion around science can be raised once churches get involved. After all, a community with a commitment to core values of truth and a banishment of fear might well offer the clarity and calm needed in a public debate currently marked by far too much falsity and fear.

Equally tragic is that in families with a faith tradition, even very young children may receive the idea that science is not for them or that it somehow threatens their community. The truth is that throughout most of history, scientific investigation has gone hand in hand with a commitment to theism, at least in the three Abrahamic faiths. It is, sadly, possible to invent conflict where none needs to be.

The “literal” reading of texts such as Genesis–as if they were scientific documents rather than part of a story in which we inquire about the universe–is a 20th-century aberration away from orthodox Christianity. Conversely, misrepresenting faith as mindless adherence to beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary needs to give way to a more thoughtful understanding. The term can describe painstaking engagement with the world through the true stories we are part of. Reflecting the vital presence of what we might call “reasoned hope,” faith is not so very far from descriptions of the experience of doing science.

Driving an unhistorical and unrealistic wedge between science and religion has got to stop. It leads, in part, to the optionalism that we see in some public and political attitudes toward science, from climate change to vaccination. It damages the educational experience of our children, and it impoverishes our understanding of our own science’s historical context. Human beings live not only in a physical world but within historical narratives that give us values, purpose, and identity. Science sits on the branches and draws from the sap of many of those stories whose roots are anchored in the great themes of creation, redemption, and renewal that course through our religious traditions and endow us with humanity. We are still looking for answers to some of the questions God asks of the luckless Job:

The-Lord-Answering-Job-out-of-the-Whirlwind-Blake

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the Earth? …

What is the way to the place where lightning is dispersed …?

Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades?

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Does the Size of the Universe Prove God Doesn’t Exist?

FaWis_450A good colleague of mine at my University of Durham’s philosophy department, Dr. Emily Thomas, recently posted a short essay with this title on the (wonderful) academic multi-disciplinary blogsite TheConversation. It’s had a great number of readers, one of whom was me. I like most of what Emily writes, but this time, as she knows, I had a rather strong negative reaction! So I thought I would write a little about this question on the Faith and Wisdom in Science blog, as it is clearly important for a good number of people.

Eagle Dark matter

A massive computer simulation of the cosmic web of Dark Matter, Gas and Galaxies from the Eagle Project 300 million light years across- itself only a 30th of the diameter of the observable universe

Here is the short version:

  • Yes the Universe is ‘mind-bogglingly big’ (thanks Douglas Adams) on the scale of the human being (see image and caption above)

but

  • No, that does NOT imply in any way that the ‘Christian God’ is less likely to exist

because

  • The argument confuses the two distinct categories of scale and significance (the old ‘size matters’ problem)

and

  • Is, as typical of arguments from philosophers and scientists today that they believe impact on Christian theology, based on a level of triviality of theological learning and sophistication that makes me blush to read it.

So, just a little more on that.  The confusion of scale and significance is an easy one to make – we are overawed by size, vastness, immensity. Of course we are. But that is a visceral reaction not a cognitive one.  I hesitate to illustrate the point, but we do not ascribe a greater significance to a mountain than to a human baby simply because the first is 7 orders of magnitude larger than the second.  One of the special abilities that humans have is to identify meaning and significance, and to associate that with narrative place and relationship.

To take a more cosmological example, we do not know how common life is in the universe (yes Drake equation, Fermi and all that – another time perhaps – but we really have no idea because we don’t yet have a process for the origin of life).  We might be alone or the galaxy might be teeming with life.  But whichever of those turns out to be the case, the microscopic and special event or events that start a tree of life on its way are extraordinarily significant, yet vanishingly tiny in time and space, compared with the 13 billion years, and light years of the cosmic T and R. Another vital point rides on this – namely that in order to have had enough time to manufacture heavy elements in the first generation of stars since the Big Bang, and to evolve a second generation of stars, planets and life since then actually requires a universe the size of ours.  So the length scale of the cosmos and the human scale are physically and causally related, it turns out.

Thirdly, those who take the line that the largeness of the universe rules out a theology of specificity have forgotten that even our notion of scale ordering is conventional.  Physicists, mathematicians, chemists and molecular biologists are used to thinking in ‘reciprocal space’.  Its the space in which the diffraction patterns of molecular structure dwell, the realm of the Fourier transforms, of the photon fields in theoretical physics.

BGc483iCMAAZq21

X-ray diffraction pattern of Beryl in reciprocal space (Bruno Juricic)

The figure shows an example.  The point is that descriptions of reality can be made either in ‘real space’ or reciprocal space, in which the information on large objects is held in small places, and vice versa.  In many ways, physics looks more natural in this space.  If we were to apply the ‘large matters’ mantra in a view of the world through reciprocal space, then we would be led to favour the small, the detailed, over the large.  Of course I am not advocating that automatically any more than its opposite, merely pointing out that the ascription of large or small numbers to objects in the world is conventional, so cannot carry any philosophical weight at all.

Finally we need to do out theology just a little better.  Yes of course there is a strong strand of the particular and special in Judeo-Christianity.  Israel, Moses, election, … and supremely the incarnation.  But that is not the only strand.  From the oldest texts there is alongside this an decentralising narrative as well.  Readers of this blog will at this point not be surprised that we are going to go to the Book of Job for a reminder of the warning not to be exclusively anthropocentric about the world.  For the pinnacle of Yahweh’s creation as displayed to Job in the ‘Lord’s Answer’ is not the human, but the sublime and ‘other’ creatures of Leviathan and Behemoth (from Job chapter 40):

15“Look at Behemoth, which I made along with you  and which feeds on grass like an ox.16 What strength it has in its loins,  what power in the muscles of its belly!17 Its tail sways like a cedar;  the sinews of its thighs are close-knit.18 Its bones are tubes of bronze,    its limbs like rods of iron.19 It ranks first among the works of God, yet its Maker can approach it with his sword.

Even the later and highly-developed Genesis 1 creation narrative does not stop with humankind, but reaches its climax with the Sabbath, God’s rest, where He is central.  Jesus takes up the non-anthropocentric theme at several points in the Gospel narrative.  It’s not ‘all about us’.  A number of theologians have explored this theme – Christopher Southgate’s book The Groaning of Creation is a good starting point for a discussion that goes back to Aquinas and further.

So in conclusion, the findings of modern cosmology turn out to balance the place and significance of humans in much the same way that the Judeo-Christian narrative does.

It’s not the size, it’s what you do that matters, and who you are.

The-Lord-Answering-Job-out-of-the-Whirlwind-Blake

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

‘Let There Be Science’- Publication Day!

lettherebescienceHere it is – the short, broad-readership, story-filled book about why God loves science and why science has always been stimulated, supported and has flourished within a worldview in which people seek to serve God.

Let There Be Science!

Like its background text, Faith and Wisdom in Science (good for further reading by the way), it’s main task is to blow away the myth that science and orthodox Christian faith are in any necessary conflict now, or at any time in history.

On the contrary, we find that throughout the ages, the faith required to do science, that our minds might just be up to the job of perceiving the inner structures of the universe, as well as its cosmic glories, is motivated by the same ‘Faith’ that dares to suppose that those very minds reflect in some way that of their Creator.

Furthermore, we find that the reason to do science is also theologically grounded.  Historically, the great scientists at the start of the early modern period when experimental science got off the ground, had a worked out theological reason for acquiring knowledge of the natural world.  To take just one example, Johannes Kepler, whose calculations following Tycho Brahe’s new observations of the planets identified for the first time the true structure and dynamics of the solar system, said:kepler

Those laws are within the grasp of the human mind. God wanted us to recognize them by creating us after his own image so that we could share in his own thoughts… and if piety allow us to say so, our understanding is in this respect of the same kind as the divine, at least as far as we are able to grasp something of it in our mortal life

Science is hard, sometimes painful – new ideas get stifled if they go against the grain, our confused minds find many false avenues to waste time down, experiments and calculations go wrong.  Yet this very painful ‘harvesting’ of knowledge about nature is strongly resonant with the mandate we understand humankind has from the Bible in Genesis chapter 3:

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.”

though the command to name the animals and birds – where names stand in for a knowledge of their natures – was not rescinded. We find, as in Faith and Wisdom in Science, God in conversation with humankind about nature once more in the wonderful Book of Job.  Here, the essential ingredient of science – the creative question – is celebrated and explored in the great ‘Lord’s Answer’ to Job in chapters 38-42.  Just read a taste of this agenda-setting text from chapter 38:

The-Lord-Answering-Job-out-of-the-Whirlwind-Blake

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?
    Can you loosen Orion’s belt?
32 Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons
    or lead out the Bear with its cubs?
33 Do you know the laws of the heavens?
    Can you set up God’s  dominion over the earth?

34 “Can you raise your voice to the clouds
    and cover yourself with a flood of water?
35 Do you send the lightning bolts on their way?
    Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?
36 Who gives the ibis wisdom
    or gives the rooster understanding?
37 Who has the wisdom to count the clouds?

And now here what a great scientist such as Werner Heisenberg says about questions:

heisenberg-werner-large

In the course of coming into contact with the empirical method, physicists have gradually learned how to pose a question properly. Now, proper questioning often means that one is more than half way towards solving the problem

So why do so many people, and especially sadly, so many young people, think that they have to choose between science and Christian (or any) faith?  Sadly the answer is because of misrepresentation and a covering over of truth by all sides:

  • The ‘conflict myth’ was really set off by two books in the late 19th century by Draper and White.  Little read today and historically discredited, their polemic nonetheless lies underneath many peoples’ thinking.
  • Bad history, such as representing the Galileo affair as the clash of science with religion (when it can’t have been – all those involved on both sides were Christians and the arguments were almost entirely scientific ones) serve to bolster the impression of conflict.
  • A recent (20th century), theologically bad, way of interpreting the Bible that assumes that it gives us shortcuts to scientific answers, rather than setting out our task, has had terrible effects.  For example, the pitting of ‘The Bible’ against ‘evolution’ is quire wrong.

Here we have just a taste of the work we need to do, and when we’ve done it, what then?  Perhaps Heisenberg has more advice for us:

The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you!

beer

By all means raise a glass with Dave and me to the wide and healthy readership of Let There Be Science (already in the Amazon top-5000 and top 3 for science and religion after just a day!).

Better still – do come along to Waterstones York (tell them you are coming) at 7pm on Tues February 21st to here Richard Staples of BBC Radio York talk with me and Dave about the book – and have a glass or what have you as well!

Year 10 Quiz Science and Faith

lettherebescienceNo better way, I think, to start the Faith and Wisdom in Science New Year than by spending a day with school pupils.  I am always very grateful to be invited by Michael Harvey and his colleagues to participate in any God and the Big Bang events, and Thursday saw us at Abbey Grange School in Leeds.  As ususal, the day ran with an entire year group, working with religious studies and science teachers together (when we can) and offering talks, science labs, and discussions on Christian Belief and Science.

This time Michael suggested we offer prizes for the best questions posed at the Q&A at the end – and what better (hmmm…) to offer than pre-publication copies of Let There Be Science, the new book that talks, with teenage school pupils especially in mind, of the reasons that one does not need to choose between science and Christian faith.

Questions

Some great questions too!  What about, ‘Would intelligent life on other planets not pose a problem for Christian theology – why would it be fair for Jesus to visit the Earth and not elsewhere?

This one won a prize.  It pushes at the apparent specificity of the Earth, and human beings, in an incomparably vast universe whose size seems to draw value away from our provincial and diminutive backwater, and also to pose this problem of inappropriate favouritism. Interestingly, my colleague David Wilkinson at St Johns College Durham has written a book about the theology of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

setiThere’s lots to say – and lots of resonance with the Bible’s Book of Job, which among other things cautions, in the ‘Lord’s Answer’, Job to think of human beings as the pinnacles of creation, but points to the alien creatures of Leviathan and Behemoth as more wonderful still… But this is also not a new problem.  An incarnation in Palestine in AD30 is in many ways as specific and ‘irrelevant’ to 21st century London, for example, as a visit to a small planet at the unfashionable end of the Galaxy’s Western Spiral Arm might be to an inhabitant of Andromeda (until we collide that is).  Yet encounters with the risen Christ are as relevant, revolutionary and real there and then as they were as recorded in the closing passages of the Gospels.  Read David’s book for more…

Another thoughtful one – What evidence would you give, scientific and philosophical, in support of Christian belief?

It’s an important one as one of the current myths floating about media, schools and conversations is that Christian belief is unevidenced dogma and so conflicts with science methodologically.  I tend to be personal in answering this sort of question and point to my main five reasons for belief:

  • A universe that is comprehensible by minds
  • The New Testament events and the need for an explanation of the consequences of what they claim was the resurrection of Jesus.
  • The account that Christianity gives of the observation that there is a non-relativisable thing called ‘evil’ (non-relative ethics in a system can only be defined with regard to a context outside that system)
  • A personal experience of encounter with a Person in being a Christian
  • The experience of thousands of humble, unnoticed, kind, people whose distinctiveness and love they themselves attribute to their following Jesus

Probably there ought to be a long Faith and Wisdom in Science blog that expands these and adds to the list in a ‘long apologetic’ of some kind.  Possibly titled Why I am not an Atheist or some such.

The last question was more or less Why do you do this?  The answer is not to insist that the pupils should believe in God – this is their road and their choice.  But it IS to quash the demonstrable and pernicious lie that Science logically implies atheism, that you have to choose between Christianity and Science. God loves science -it’s his gift, so nothing could be further from the truth.

 

 

 

 

How Christian Faith Supports Science

‘Can you give us a few words on how a Christian worldview assists science?’, was the question put to me a few weeks ago by the organisers of an event in Leeds run by Faith in Scholarship under a new resource called The Church Scientific.  I wasn’t able to attend in person at the launch, sadly, but was able to put a few thoughts together for a video message they showed.

Galileo

Galileo Galilei

 

‘Wait!’ I hear you say.  What a ridiculous question – for centuries Christianity has exerted a drag force, surely, on the forward momentum of science? Think about Galileo, evolution … how can a worldview that elevates dogma in spite of evidence possibly assist a scientific outlook of evidence-based fact?

So runs the tired, and (paradoxically) ill-informed, dogmatic and not-at-all evidence-based view sadly trotted out in public and the media today.  And more than sadly, taught to children in a way that plants an ignorance of history, of philosophy, of a true notion of science and indeed of a true idea of Christianity that can last a lifetime.

That there is a very different story to be told, much more in line with how science really works and how Christian faith operates, and has operated in the development of mind, worldview ethics and imagination, is the reason I wrote Faith and Wisdom in Science and the reason that Dave Hutchings and I just finished Let There Be Science (out with LionHudson in January), which takes the idea of Science as God’s Gift to a wider readership, and develops exactly this idea.  Through the ages, the balance of evidence indicates that a Christian worldview has propelled science forward both on the individual and communal level.

For the full version – see the books!  But for a few brief pointers for thought …

  1. To do science needs huge courage, against the expectation that we might be able to comprehend the nature of the universe with our minds. The hope that we might be able to do this comes from Biblical Wisdom such as encapsulated in The Book of Job (chapter 28 in particular) and in the idea of being created in the image of God.
  2. pleiadesThe core creative activity in science is to pose the imaginative question – and imaginative questions about nature, the nature of God and the human, are the intellectual Biblical backbone.  Can you bind the stars of the Pleiades? is just one of the 165 searching questions put to Job by God (chapter 38).  The Bible’s Jewish milieu is deeply educational in the tradition of the pedagogy of questions.
  3. Science is hard!  It’s full of disappointment and struggle as well as joy (on occasion).  The painful story of any engagement with nature is the Biblical account through and through, from the ‘great commission’ in Genesis to the metaphor of creation groaning of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
  4. Science requires us time and again to change what we believe in the light of evidence.  Sometimes this is a total about-face.  It’s a hard thing to do, to change a deeply-held view. Yet the experience of turning a worldview upside down is exactly what is required to become a Christian.  It’s good training to drop cherished ideas n the light of new observations when the idea that following oneself has already been laid aside in favour of the new direction of following Jesus.
  5. Science is done in community. It is in the end a work of love, of the world, and of the others with whom we share the work.  We can only do that in an atmosphere of respect and trust, of mutual encouragement.  It isn’t always like this in reality, but science works best when these resolutely Christian values are deployed.
  6. Science keeps you humble.  The more we learn, the bigger the ‘coastline of science’ – the boundary perceived between the known and the unknown, also grows, as Marcelo Gleiser has pointed out in his recent book The Island of Knowledge.

More is true – we have not touched here on the historical conception of the experimental science we know today through the theological motivation of the early Christina thinkers, through philosophers such as Bede, Adelard, Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, and through the Renaissance to Francis Bacon and the scientists of the 17th century.

This is not the replacement of theological thinking by a new secular tradition, but the outworking of a theologically motivated understanding that a work of healing is given to us by our Creator, alongside the tools to do it. If medicine is God’s gift to us for the work of healing broken people, the science is God’s gift to us for the work of healing a broken relationship with nature.

 

Can a Freethinker Believe in God?

Following an online interview with an interesting organisation called TheFreeThinkTank, they asked me to write an opinion piece for them on the title above.  They had read Faith and Wisdom in Science, and thought that it approached science from a point of view that atheist readers might find more able to engage with than other Christian ‘science and religion’ material. In case readers wonder why this is an issue at all, the ‘Freethinking’ movement has its history in secular and non-theistic thinking, so the expectation within that movement (and of several people I know) is most certainly a NO!  But dig a little deeper and it’s not at all clear that it’s quite that simple….

Here I reblog the essay:

This article originally appeared on The Freethink Tank, on December 1, 2016.

moscow-1_tcm233-2369440The post-doctoral researcher, who first worked with me as a new-minted junior lecturer, came from Moscow. A theoretical physicist trained in the excellent school of polymer physics at MGU, Tanya was a fearsomely good mathematician and wielded theoretical statistical mechanics with a distinctly Russian flavour. That was scientifically useful – two complementary approaches to a problem are always more powerful than one. We compared other notes too – about our education and our very different experiences growing up in 60s/70s London or Moscow. I was interested and somewhat amused when the topic of teenage rebellion came up. Schooled with a stream of materialist atheism and Soviet cultural history by day – Tanya and her breakaway 16-year-old friends would head off to underground churches by night. Context makes a big difference.

I’m not offering teenage contrariness as an example of ‘freethinking’, but the roots of the freethinking movement also constitute a deliberate departure from a received norm, albeit a more grown-up one. The example of those wicked teen rebels chanting psalms by candle-light might serve to remind us that the expression of freedom is defined by its context, and by its act, not by a foreordained place of arrival.

Degrees of freedom

For any act, including acts of thinking, to be free requires a lack of constraint. The more constraints imposed on a world of thought, the less free will that mind has to explore, create, to think radically. The analogy here is with the sciences of mechanics, or of thermodynamics. For each constraint imposed on a system, there is one fewer ‘degree of freedom’. So my first approach to the question in this article’s title is to explore this physical metaphor of freedom and constraint. According to the Freedom from Religion Foundation (quoted to me by an atheist friend who had been confused that The Freethink Tank had interviewed me and invited this contribution):

No one can be a freethinker who demands conformity to a bible, creed, or messiah. To the freethinker, revelation and faith are invalid, and orthodoxy is no guarantee of truth.’

Constraints on conclusions

True enough – a freethinker cherishes freedom in others as much as in herself, and will not make ‘demands’ of conformity on the thought of others. But when the mandatory tone is removed, the Foundation’s statement begins to look like a constraint. The a priori demand that thinking through a world-view should rule out belief in God, constitutes a constraint, a mental removal of a cogitative degree of freedom. More constraints imply fewer degrees of freedom, so imposing a non-theist constraint to thinking achieves the same as any constraint – it makes it less free, not more. The philosopher Bertrand Russell knew that freethinkers do not impose the constraints of conclusions at the outset of their thinking; he insists that freedom of thought is a process, not an end:

bertrandrussellWhat makes a freethinker is not his beliefs but the way in which he holds them. If he holds them because his elders told him they were true when he was young, or if he holds them because if he did not he would be unhappy, his thought is not free; but if he holds them because, after careful thought he finds a balance of evidence in their favour, then his thought is free, however odd his conclusions may seem.’

I could finish here in a flourish of unanswerable logic, but suspect that would be less than satisfactory. Much of the remainder of his 1944 essay The Value of Free Thought is spent pointing out examples of cruelties and enormities of religious power structures, in which he is largely correct, and rehearsing the supposed age-old conflicts between religion and science, in which he is largely mistaken. Russell insists that a theistic stance must be shackling to thought, preserving of harmful prejudice and inimical to the creation of the new. For him, all religion is backward-looking in a world that needs to reach out with hope to the future. He implies that although theism is possible for a freethinker in principle, it ought to be ruled out in practice. I suspect he speaks for most readers at this point, so we need to go a little deeper than the mathematics of constraint to decide whether in practice a freethinker might ever arrive at a belief in God.

Theologically-informed philosophy

Staying with Russell’s great bête noire of Christianity, we might explore the degree to which its worldview shackles or serves freedom of thought. And since the ‘medieval’ church has received more censure in this regard than most ages, let us read from Adelard of Bath – a remarkable 12th-century thinker. After an intellectual pilgrimage to the great adelard-of-bath-04Arab schools in Sicily and Asia Minor, he returns to southern England full of passion for a theologically-informed natural philosophy and writes his Questiones Naturales (or Questions on Natural Science) in about 1110. He makes an amusing and fascinating complaint in its preface: ‘… for the present generation suffers from an ingrained fault, that it thinks that nothing should be accepted which is discovered by the “moderns”. Hence it happens that, whenever I wish to publish my own discovery, I attribute it to another person saying: “Someone else said it, not I!”‘. There then follows a book of fascinatingly novel thinking about the natural world of animals, humans, the earth and sky, much of it wildly out of tune with the science of today of course (yet it includes a wonderful account of centripetal gravity on a spherical earth), but very firmly on the questing path that brought us there. Here is a very freethinker, who urges a higher value accorded to the novel ideas that freethinking produces, than he sees in the intellectual world around him. He is one of the generators of the ‘12th-century renaissance’ that galvanised new thinking across Europe and prepared the way for the rise of the experimental method up to the 16th century.

Silent partner of thought

It takes energetic thinkers such as Adelard to motivate the silent partner of thought, namely the will. The great freethinkers have noticed that freedom by itself is not enough – to think into new spaces, to dare explore novel ideas and relations requires an effort, an energy, a release of the will, beyond the ordinary. The great 20th-century thinker Hannah arendtArendt writes extensively on Will in her magisterial The Life of The Mind. For her, to release the possibility of freedom in thinking requires first the comprehension and direction of freedom in the will. She wrestles with both secular and religious sources of constraint on the will: ‘… the trouble has always been that free will, whether understood as freedom of choice or as the freedom to start something unpredictably new – seems utterly incompatible, not just with divine Providence, but with the law of causality‘. Yet free acts of thought are possible, though much harder and rarer than we might flatter ourselves is the case. Arendt scales the philosophy of thought through Hebrew, Hellenistic and Christian frameworks in the search of a ground for freedom. In the company of Epictetus and St. Paul, of Virgil and the ancient author of the Book of Job, it is with Augustine that she finally draws to a close in the ambivalence of the birth of freedom.

I’ve briefly visited these two thinkers of such different ages, a Christian and secular Jew, not purely to include reminders of the subtle and rich history of thinking informed by theism, nor purely to rebut the accusation that theism cannot look forward to the new, in the way that both Abelard and Arendt clearly do. For they also illustrate another prior need if one is to be free-thinking – a mental scaffolding with which to explore new spaces. Freedom of movement requires footholds – freedom to explore a domain of thought is as important as freedom from impediments.

Mental construction kit

It is this sense of ‘freedom to’, rather than ‘freedom from’, in my own freethinking that led me toward Christianity rather than away from it. It was the rich legacy of ideas, its mental construction kit, that constitute a freedom to think in the categories I needed. There is, for example, more than one perspective on a core idea like divine creation – is this an ancient doctrine that we need freedom from or an energising idea that gives us freedom to think in categories of purpose, or of our own creativity? Is a belief in the resurrection a nonsense of myth and delusion that still shackles too many modern minds or the fundamental source of freedom to hope?

FaWis_450I am a working scientist, but I have also long wanted to conceive and communicate a human narrative for science within culture. I constantly detect that the human core of science has been at best hollowed out and at worst lost in our superficial and materialistic times. Our culture has ‘optionalised’ science in a dangerous and impoverishing way. Working through the history and pre-history of science for this project, I found the need to draw on the theological story of ends, relationships, healing, even to articulate an account of the problem. Belief and a life of thought in God ‘felt like’ it was giving me the framework to make the first foray into the cavernous space of those ideas (that ended up in my book Faith and Wisdom in Science).

Why artificially constrain our freedom to think by padlocking all that possibility away, especially as theism begins to look increasingly subversive of today’s received dogma?