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This includes the audience Q&A portion of this episode.
About this episode:
Has science replaced God as an explanation for life and the Universe? Or has the rise of New Atheism sold the evidence for God short?
John Lennox is professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford and a well-known Christian thinker and speaker. He is the author or books such as God’s Undertaker: Has science buried God? and Gunning for God: Why the New Atheists are missing the target. He argues that science and our increasing knowledge of cosmology and biology has increasingly pointed towards the existence of a divine mind.
Michael Ruse is professor of philosophy of science at Florida State University. He has published books including Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know and Darwinism as Religion: What Literature Tells Us about Evolution. An atheist himself, he is nevertheless critical of the New Atheist movement represented by figures such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, believing that a better conversation between faith and science is possible.
The 4th episode of The Big Conversation series with Prof John Lennox and Prof Michael Ruse was recorded with a live audience at One Birdcage Walk in London on 18th July!
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More from this season:
- Episode 1: The psychology of belief: Do we need God to make sense of life?
- Episode 2: The future of humanity: Have science, reason and humanism replaced faith?
- Episode 3: The search for happiness: Can we have meaning without God?
- Episode 5: Mind, consciousness and freewill: Are we more than matter?
- Episode 6: Evolution, morality and being human: Do we need God to be good?
Justin Brierley (JB), John Lennox (JL) & Michael Ruse (MR)
JB: Well thank you very much for joining us here at the Institution for Mechanical Engineers in London for today’s live audience edition of ‘The Big Conversation’ with me, Justin Brierley.
The Big Conversation is a series from ‘Unbelievable’ exploring faith, science, philosophy, and what it means to be human, in association with the Templeton Religion Trust.
Today, our conversation topic is science, faith and the evidence for God. And The Big Conversation partners I’m sitting down with tonight are John Lennox and Michael Ruse.
John Lennox is a professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, a well-known Christian thinker and speaker. He’s the author of books such as, ‘God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?’ and ‘Gunning for God: Why the New Atheists are Missing the Target’. He argues that science and our increasing knowledge of cosmology and biology is consistent with the view that a divine mind is behind the ordered universe we live in.
Michael Ruse is professor of Philosophy of Science at Florida State University. He’s published books including, ‘Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know’ and ‘Darwinism’, and recently, ‘On Purpose’, which is an exploration of purpose in philosophy, science and religion.
As an atheist himself, he’s nevertheless critical of the new atheist movement represented by figures such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, believing that a better conversation between faith and science is possible.
So, tonight we’ll be asking questions like; Has science replaced God as an explanation for life and the universe or has the rise of new atheism sold the evidence for God short? I’m sure we’re going to have a really interesting evening. So, will you greet again my two guests, John Lennox and Michael Ruse.
Lennox and Ruse shake hands (Let’s see if they are shaking hands by the end).
Now, I’m really excited about this conversation, both of you, because this series and what we are doing tonight I think is a really good example of how to bring two different perspectives together and hopefully have a fruitful, substantive discussion even though we come from very different viewpoints.
So, perhaps we’ll start with just a little bit of a sense of those viewpoints first of all. John, would you like to describe as briefly as you can what worldview you inhabit as a Christian?
JL: I grew up in Northern Ireland as you can immediately guess which hasn’t got the best reputation for the dissemination of Christianity. But my parents were living examples of what I understand the Christian faith to be. Not so much formal religion but a personal relationship with God through Christ.
I learnt from them some utterly basic things. We lived in a divided religious community. My father believed the statement in Genesis that all people are made in the image of God and so he insisted on trying to employ people from both sides of the religious community and got bombed for it. And I grew up with that sense that the way to have increased meaning in life was to treat everyone exactly the same way. And that’s why I’ve been privileged throughout life to meet people like Michael and others so that we can discuss these things publically.
And that’s where I started but my parents did something else; they encouraged me to think. So, when I arrived at University I had read a great deal of stuff. And I immediately plunged into investigating whether or not my Christian faith was credible against the background of other worldviews. And so on virtually day one I decided that the best way to proceed was to befriend people, and I mean befriend people who didn’t share my worldview. Because, arriving in Cambridge, of course, the first thing that was said to me was, of course you believe in God, all you Irish do, and they fight about it. So, I had to really get some answer to that Freudian viewpoint. And so I’ve been doing this all of my life.
JB: Fantastic, thank you, John, for sharing.
Michael, where do you come from in terms of your metaphysical outlook on life?
MR: Well, first of all, as you can tell from my accent I was born in England. In fact, I was born in Birmingham in 1940. My father was a conscientious objector and during the war they came in contact with the Quakers and after the war my father and my mother joined the Quakers. And so I grew up very intensely, very intensely as a Quaker, to the extent that I was sent away to a Quaker boarding school when I was a teenager.
I’m still not quite sure, but about the age of twenty, twenty-one my faith started to fade. As I say, it wasn’t a Saul on the road to Damascus experience in reverse, it was just as I like to say, like collecting stamps and loving baked beans. One day I did these things and loved these things and the next day they’d more or less gone. And I really thought back then at twenty, twenty-one, well I’m sure if I get to seventy I’ll be getting back on side with the big chap in the sky, but it just wasn’t that sort of way.
However, that said, my non-existent God, who’s a Calvinist and so guides everything that we do, made sure that I was going to work on Charles Darwin which meant that I was brought into contact with the science/religion relationship. And so this has been something which has been both of personal interest and a professional interest because my daytime job is a professor of Philosophy.
And so this has been a constant…what should I say, topic of great interest to me. I spend a lot of time fighting creationists in the forties. But I’ve also come more and more in contact with people like John who are genuinely trying to bridge the gap between science and religion. As I say, I’m seventy-eight now and I don’t have any more faith. Now, I’m an atheist about Christianity, but I’m really agnostic about whether any of it means anything, and I’m sure this will come out more in the discussion.
So, I always like to say once a Quaker, always a Quaker. And I’ve certainly grown up with an intense sense that the only truly happy person is the person who’s serving others. And I’ve been very, very lucky, I’ve been a professor all my life, it’s a wonderful job that way. But also the Quakerism that I grew up with was very mystical in a way that God really wasn’t somebody like me in a bedsheet and much more unknown and unknowable.
As I say, I no longer believe in a force for good or a force for ill, at least in that sort of way, but certainly my religion then and now has always been one which, you know, is it Christian? Is it agnostic? You know, there are days when I’m not quite sure. It’s pretty much always agnostic, but it’s on a continuum. It’s not like Richard Dawkins where you go along and then suddenly you fall off the cliff.
JB: Well, if God does have a beard I’m sure it would be very like yours. But it’s interesting to hear you say that because, in a sense, you say you’re probably more an agnostic than a hard, thorough atheist in that sense.
MR: I’m pretty atheistic in that I don’t think Jesus is the son of God.
JB: Now, I won’t ask you to reveal exactly what age you are, but do you feel that looking back, do you feel like you could still be persuaded?
MR: No, I don’t think so. First of all – and I think this is where John and I are going to disagree very strongly – is I’m not very keen on being persuaded in the sense of is there some evidence that would tip you over to whatever? I could certainly see some experience might fill me with faith, I don’t expect it to happen, but that’s the only way that I could see it happening.
JB: Thank you for joining us both Michael and John for what I’m sure will be a fascinating discussion. We’ve got lots of ground that we want to cover but we’ll just see where we go in the conversation.
I think it is a little bit significant that we are meeting here at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, founded by George Robert Stephenson in 1847, very much building on the fruits of the Scientific Revolution which gave us so much of what we enjoy today.
I suppose my starting question is though, when it comes to modern science, do you both share a view that it does owe something to the Judaeo-Christian foundations if you like of Britain and the West? What’s your view on that, John?
JL: I think very much so. I remember as a teenager being subjected by a friend to reading Alfred North Whitehead – he’s a difficult philosopher as you know – but I remember coming across the notion that the rise of modern science was due to the medieval insistence of the rationality of God. And then later, reading C S Lewis, who summed it up in slightly easier language, he said, men became scientific because they expected law in nature. And they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver.
So, in one sense, I am delighted to be both a scientist – if you allow a Mathematician to say he is a scientist, which is another matter – and a believer in God. Because, arguably, it was the Christian cradle that gave birth to my subject. And I noticed, of course, subsequently many people who weren’t necessarily Christians, like Melvin Calvin who won the Nobel prize for Chemistry, he said, as I look back to ask where this belief in order came from that’s fundamental to all science – in fact, it’s the fundamental faith of scientists, we can’t do science unless we look for order in nature – he says that it came from an idea first mooted by the ancient Hebrews and then communicated later in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. And John Hedley Brooke, who was an expert historian of science, is perhaps, well he is more nuanced than I would be and is a bit more cautious, but nevertheless the tenor of the argument is that certainly there’s a deep connection for a very obvious reason. If you believe that behind the universe is a rational mind, then you expect to be able to do science. So, I would put the two together quite strongly.
JB: Firstly, do you agree that there is a sort of Judaeo-Christian heritage that has informed modern science? But also how far do you go along John’s line that an orderly science presupposes a sort of orderly mind at some level behind it?
MR: Well, I think it has done in the past. Yes, first of all, I agree with John. I think that modern science owes great… I mean, you know, we want to say, we’ve got to be broad and we’ve got to bring in Buddhism and all of these, but the simple fact of the matter is modern science owes basically it’s being to Christianity. I mean, at least the science that we have. And I’m sure we’ll talk about Darwinism and I would say it owes it’s being to Anglican Christianity. But certainly I think that you’re quite right to say that modern science owes it’s being to Christianity.
Now, John and I were talking just before; we’ve both took courses with and I was very much influenced by a woman called Mary Hesse who was a professor at Cambridge of Philosophy. And she made a great deal of metaphor. And I bought into this hook, line and sinker, that I don’t think that science is just, you know, like Dragnet, just the facts ma’am, just the facts. Science is interpretation. Science is the facts as you put them together and make sense of it. And I think the key is metaphor.
Now, up until the Scientific Revolution the key metaphor, what linguists call the root metaphor, was that of an organism. The world was seen as organic. I mean, Plato in the Timaues comes right out with that, but Aristotle too. I think there was a change of metaphor – I’m not saying anything that John Hedley Brooke and others wouldn’t say – there was a change in metaphor to that of a machine. Now, of course, to a certain extent, it was fuelled by the fact that we now had more and more sophisticated machines and particularly clocks; this was the big one.
So, I think that more and more in the Scientific Revolution the world was being looked at as a machine made by the divine engineer. And what happened was this became tremendously powerful by the end of the 16th and certainly into the 17th century. You read people like Robert Boyle and all of these others, they are using the machine metaphor all the time. The thing was, though, that more and more people found, as much as doing science was concerned, God wasn’t very helpful. To use the language of today, you just had to get on with being a methodological naturalist and leave as it were metaphysical naturalism, the question of God or no God, out.
As one of the great historians of the Scientific Revolution said, eventually God became a retired engineer. When they started with the machine, of course, it was looked at in terms of this is good, who was the divine creator? But as I say, I think as the years went by it wasn’t because people were necessarily irreligious – many of them like Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle were very religious – but they found increasingly, as scientists, it wasn’t necessary and it wasn’t very helpful to bring God into the discussion, Descartes says this.
Now, the fact is, they wanted to go on believing in God but it started to make the way possible for what Richard Dawkins has called, you could be an intellectually justified atheist. They were not atheists in the 17th century, but it was with the thin end of a very big range.
JB: Did you agree with that assessment, John?
JL: To a certain extent. I think we have to recognise as well that it depends what area of your science you’re talking about. I’m a pure mathematician and when I teach pure mathematics I don’t mention God at all. And if I was designing the rocket locomotive that George Stephenson designed we don’t mention God at all. God doesn’t arise in the vast amount of the practicalities of science, even biology.
Where the deeper questions come are; Why can we do science at all? What is it about this universe that allows us to do science? And there I would begin to see the fingerprint of a divine mind. So, it’s not so much in the mechanisms – now there are exceptions to that because when you raise questions of origins inevitably if you look at the history of ideas you’ll see that the question of God comes up a great deal, and God as the one who creates the universe and sustains it – but you’ll not find God at the bottom of the piston cylinder in an automobile engine. And, of course, you won’t.
And the danger is that because that kind of practical science was so successful in spinning off technology, people then began to take what I regard as a completely illegitimate step and that is to do away with God altogether. And the main reason for that is the notion that science cannot answer every question. Scientism is rampant today and I think it’s dangerously false
JB: Just explain what Scientism is?
JL: It’s the idea that science is the only way to truth. And, of course, as a statement, if I say science is the only way to truth, that’s logically self-contradictory because that statement is not a statement of science. So, if it’s true, it’s false. Perhaps it’s a bit too early in the evening for that.
But, the point is this: many people, like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, regard science as the only way to truth. Well, that would shut down your department of Philosophy and that would be absurd. And Cambridge Philosophy Department reacted very severely to Hawkins statement.
JB: Before Mike comes back on this, I’d just be interested in you teasing a bit open the idea of why we do science at all? That big question. Because, as a Mathematician, do you agree with, I think it was Eugene Wigner who said the universe is written in the language of mathematics. He talked about the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.
JL: That’s a famous 1961 paper that all mathematicians love. But he was wrong, you see, because the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics assumes a naturalist philosophy. It is absolutely unreasonable that mathematics works if you assume an atheist or naturalistic philosophy. But if you believe there is a God who’s mind is behind this universe and behind our minds then the effectiveness of mathematics is something that I would expect.
And, of course, Newton, being the genius that he was, this was one of his evidences when he wrote Principia Mathematica. He wrote in the beginning that he hoped a thinking person would see that there was a deity from his descriptions of the universe. Kepler said similar things.
JB: What do you make of that idea that the very order of the universe, the fact that we do maths, that the way to discover the world is written in the language of mathematics in the universe?
Is that in any way pointing beyond itself, as John obviously thinks, towards some kind of divine mind?
MR: Well, of course, as a philosopher, I’m going to say it depends what you mean by… No, I want to make three responses to the line that John’s pushing.
The first is, I feel I’m getting into one of these discussions like, have you stopped beating your wife? As soon as you say, ‘yes’, you say, well, why did you beat her in the first place? If you say, ‘no’, then you say, well maybe you should. It’s the fallacy of complex questions. I’m a little worried that we’re already been driven into arguments about proofs for the existence of God. I like to describe myself as a very conservative non-believer and I am not that keen on natural theology at that sort of way. I think that religious beliefs, certainly Christian belief, should be based on faith.
I’m with Cardinal Newman on this. He said, I believe in design because I believe in God. I do not believe in God because I believe in design. So, that’s my first sort of statement I want to make about that.
The second one is, well, if it is designed, then you’ve got some questions to ask about the nature of the designer. I mean, you know, the Richard Dawkins type questions of who designed God? And you’re going to have to say something like, well, no, God is a necessary being and that’s going to get you into, I’m not saying insoluble questions to do with the nature of existence, but at least some.
I mean, take, for instance Oliver Ruse sitting on the front. It is possibly conceivable that my wife and I had only two children. We jumped from Emily down to Edward and Oliver was just, you know, a flash in the pan or wasn’t even thought, not even, what do they say, a dirty glint in his father’s eye. So, in other words, Oliver does exist but he doesn’t have to exist. Whereas, of course, I think that John’s God at some level has to exist.
The third point I’d want to make is if we do have a designer, what is this designer? John and I before we came in as two old men tend to do, we were swapping stories about, you know, I’m more gravely ill that you are. I’m going to collapse on stage before you do! But, I mean, let’s take something that neither of us brought up; haemorrhoids. I can’t believe that any God who cared a bit about human beings would have invented a world which allows haemorrhoids. So, I think if you’re going to get into design, then you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth as it were. And so I think there are all sorts of issues like that.
JB: There’s three issues to get us going… if you’re happy, shall we start at least with one of those?
JL: Oh, I’d like to start with all three.
JB: So, if memory serves, there’s the question of natural theology. Michael doesn’t like that, he thinks if you are going to believe, believe on the basis of faith alone not some speculation about the universe.
There’s this question of, well, where did God come from in the first place?
And then there’s this question of why, if it’s a designer, why haemorrhoids?
JL: Right. Well, to take the first one; it’s quite clear that Michael and I differ fundamentally on what we mean by faith. Because you see faith, to me, is part and parcel of my life as an intellectual and a scientist. Scientists believe certain things. I believe in the theory of gravitational attraction. Why is that? Because I have evidence for it. I believe that my wife loves me. Why? Because I’ve evidence for it.
And my Christian faith consists, not in faith as a leap into the unknown, it’s an evidence-based commitment. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be remotely interested in Christianity. And I notice that Richard Dawkins’ faith is heavily evidence-based. That’s why he writes a 400-page book called, ‘The God Delusion’. So, I think we’ve a fundamental difference about faith.
And, secondly, I didn’t use the word proof, Michael. I’m too much a mathematician to use the word proof. I think it’s a question of evidence. It’s very interesting to me that when Paul talks about the impact of the universe he says that the existence of God and his power are perceived through the things that are made. It’s a perception and what intrigues me is that perception is admitted by so many people that you would think would not admit it. Dawkins says, it’s terribly tempting to believe in a design. Stephen Hawking co-authors a book called, ‘The Grand Design’. Why? Because he sees design. And then there comes all the arguments that I don’t find convincing to say, well, it’s not real design it’s only apparent design. So that’s the first thing. My faith is an evidence-based commitment.
Secondly, the question of who designed the designer. And Richard Dawkins put that to me and it’s the heart of ‘The God Delusion’ argument. If you say God created the universe, then you have to ask who created God? Well, do you? Because if you ask the question, who or what created X, then you’re assuming that X was created. But the biblical God wasn’t created so the question doesn’t even apply to him.
So, it’s one of these questions that you think is asking something seriously important but it misses the point. And I actually put it to Dawkins in the end. I said, your question makes no sense apart from about created things. But I don’t need you to tell me that created gods are a delusion. Most of us think they are. We call them idols. But I said, let me try your question on you. You believe the universe created you. So, if your question was valid, let me ask you it. Who created your creator? I’ve waited ten years and got no answer.
JB: Before you come to part three, the haemorrhoids question is really a question of evil and I think I’m going to park that and perhaps we’ll come back to it a bit later on.
But we’ve got plenty to talk about. I do want to address it but at least with these first two issues and John’s responses there, Michael, what’s your take?
MR: I particularly want to talk about the first one. This whole question of evidence-based and what exactly does that mean? If, for instance, somebody tells me, as I was taught by my physics master when I was at school, if I’m told that Galileo’s laws work or something like that and then the physics master says, well, let’s do some experiments to show you exactly how this sort of thing does work and we swing some pendulums back and forth and that sort of thing. Now, I take it that that’s an evidence-based belief that I’m going to go away with. That missiles go in parabola rather than in regular circles or something like that. Now, that I see is evidence-based.
Now, let’s go back to the whole question of God. As I said, I don’t want to take evidence out of the story but I’m worried about evidence being used to justify these beliefs in God. I believe in design because I believe in God. I do not believe in God because I believe in design. Whereas I think in the physics case, I do believe in Galileo’s laws because I believe that the physical evidence was there.
So, it seems to me obvious that any Christian is going to look at the world and interpret the world in an evidence-based way. I mean, for instance; think about the difference between Heinrich Himmler and Sophie Scholl who died on the guillotine because she was a member of the white rose group in Munich. Surely anybody who is a Christian is going to interpret these actions and it’s going to be evidence-based in that sort of sense. That, yes, that I see here’s a case of a person who is made in the image of God and that’s what makes them evil. If they were just a wild dog they would be dangerous, but they wouldn’t be evil.
But as a Christian I would see Heinrich Himmler and deeply evil, whereas I see Sophie Scholl as transcendently good. So, it’s evidence-based in that sense, but it’s not proving my beliefs. My beliefs are something that I have through faith. It really is a question, folks, of Saul on the way to Damascus. Saul was not met by somebody who says, by the way Saul, I’d like to introduce you to the ontological argument. I think if we spent a couple of hours talking this one through or we’d talk about the argument from design and Saul says, you know you’re right, I’m on the way to Damascus and now I believe in God. It didn’t work that way. It doesn’t work that way. It’s the gift of God that’s the basis…
JL: Hang on, Michael. You see, Paul was convinced. What was the evidence? It was the appearance of the risen Christ. That’s what started Christianity. It was the appearance of the risen Christ and the fact that there was evidence of the other kind for his resurrection that launched Christianity on the world. And I’m intrigued by your example; the moral example you gave. You see, you mentioned what I would call testability. If you don’t test Newton’s law and all this kind of thing. And I’m constantly up against the question; how can you as a scientist believe this stuff when it is not testable? And I say, who says it isn’t testable?
You see, why am I sitting here as a Christian? Because I tested the claims that Christ has made. Let me give you one simple example: we might want to deal with this later on, I don’t know, but Christ promises that those who trust him and receive him will receive peace with God and forgiveness and a new life and a new power. I’ve seen that happen to me and to people endless times. And when you see two and two make four all the time you begin to believe that two and two make four. I think it’s eminently testable.
And so to come back on Michael’s side for a moment, I think there are different levels of argument, Michael. You mentioned testing laws in the laboratory but there are many things in science as we know that are not testable. You can’t test the origin of life in the lab. You have to make an inference to the best explanation and the past. And that is true of many things. So, for me, the evidence on which my faith is based is cumulative; part of it is objective, intellectual arguments and all this kind of thing. But a great deal of it has to do with the evidence of does it actually work in life?
JB: Why doesn’t that satisfy you?
MR: Well, there are a couple of things I want to say. I think that John and I probably have a very different take on the resurrection. I have a feeling that for you, John, proving that it actually happened physically is very important to you and you’re the sort of person who says, well, look at the fact that it was women who reported on this and women were not normally taken, and so this must be significant and must be true.
Well, as a conservative non-believer, I think the physical resurrection is totally unimportant. I think that what is important is that those disciples on the third day who were downcast, who felt they’d seen this man put to death in the most horrible way suddenly said, our creator lives. And that was within them. Whether there were laws to prove this I think is irrelevant. I’d say, I take my religion much more at a spiritual level.
JL: I’m beginning to worry that you’re not an evidence-based atheist. You see, to say that the resurrection is irrelevant, I find utterly…
MR: The physical resurrection. I did not say the resurrection was irrelevant. The resurrection for a Christian is the key moment.
JL: The word ‘anastasis’ in Greek means standing up again, it is a physical resurrection. And its significance is vast. Here all of us are faced with physical death. If the problem of physical death has actually been solved historically I want to know about it. To say it’s irrelevant I just don’t understand, especially from a philosopher.
MR: But John, let’s go back to some of the really important miracles like turning water into wine. Now, that one, do you think that Jesus really was in the wine business and had, you know – I wouldn’t mind it right now actually (lifts water glass), abracadabra, a really nice glass of Bordeaux. Or do you think that Jesus’ presence there so filled the host with a sense of guilt and love that, you know, he said to hell with it, I’ve been hiding my good wines and I’m going to bring these out. That, to me, makes Jesus a much more important person than David Copperfield.
JB: Is this also the scientist in you speaking? Do you feel like miracles reported as literally true like water into wine, physical resurrection, somehow go against the scientific enterprise, the way we should be thinking about the world?
MR: Well, they go against the scientific enterprise, but I see it’s perfectly consistent for a Christian, like Ernan McMullin would say, well, but human salvation required direct intervention by God and so these are not scientific claims.
But this is the point I would want to make; if somebody like John says to me, I believe in a literal resurrection, I don’t want to hear arguments about it was women who first discovered the tomb was empty, you know, that sort of thing. I want to say, yes, you believe this on faith and we differ here but I understand where you’re coming from but we’re not going to argue about that one. We can argue about other things.
JB: I think we probably are going to end up arguing about it. John, do you want to respond?
JL: I’m amazed that your selectively as a person that’s interested in rationally sorting a thing out. The thing you mention about the women has stuck in your mind because it actually is a very important piece of evidence from the point of view of Jewish.
MR: Totally irrelevant.
JL: Well, that’s your belief. I would like some evidence that it’s totally irrelevant. That’s not an evidence-based statement.
JB: What about the water to wine. Should we naturalistically assume that actually it was something to do with Jesus shaming the host into bringing out his best wine? Nothing miraculous happened?
JL: Well, of course, if you are a naturalist you’ve got to assume that, you’ve no other option. But if you’re sitting where I’m sitting, this is the very first sign that Jesus did. ‘Semion’ from which we get semiotic; it’s an indicator of something much deeper. And what he said at the end of it in John chapter two is that this beginning of his signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee manifested his glory and his disciple believed on him. Their faith, initial faith, was in part a response to what he did.
And I believe he did turn water into wine. I don’t believe it broke the laws of nature. This is God feeding a new event in. The laws of nature can’t say anything to that. But I do think it had a profound significance because that water was religious water. The religious ceremony was over. It’s a seven day wedding and they ran out of wine which was a social catastrophe. And what Jesus did was he brought the religious water into the middle, which would have been an increased embarrassment. Don’t bring religion back into this we’re having fun. And he turned the religious water into the best wine that they could drink.
It’s a powerful miracle that becomes a preached sermon because wine symbolised to the Jews and to many of us as a symbol of joy. Why does the joy run out of many weddings, as it’s run out of millions since? It usually has to do with purification. And Christ was beginning to indicate by what he did, what he was going to do about that.
So, I see it as an actual miracle. He’s demonstrating he’s the son of God, the creator of the universe, but he’s doing it in such a way as to communicate something about the way in which he’s going to deal with this question.
JB: Coming back to John’s point about the idea that, as far as he’s concerned, miracles aren’t a problem for science because if there is a God that God can feed new events into…
JL: They’re only a problem for naturalists.
JB: Sure. Now, what’s your take on that? I don’t know whether you would subscribe to naturalism yourself, Michael?
MR: Well, I think I’d call myself a naturalist, I’m not sure I’d call myself a materialist. No, I certainly would call myself a naturalist. But, I mean, at one level, I can accept miracles. I mean, when I grew up Dunkirk was… everybody I knew said that Dunkirk was a miracle. Why? Because the British Army, despite everything, was able to get away almost in time. And what did that mean? It meant that Britain had the makings of a professional army that they could then build up again from there and go back and fight Hitler.
Now, what would people say? They said God did this in order, not that it stopped Hitler, but it made it possible for us to fight back against Hitler. Now, if you’d asked anybody that you were talking to, do you think that God actually intervened or do you think it was just the laws of nature came together fortuitously at that moment? I think most people would have thought that you were joking and not really in very good taste because that’s totally irrelevant. It’s the meaning of it that, in some way, God made it possible for us to pick up and go on fighting against this great evil which I do believe in.
JB: You don’t believe that’s what happened, obviously. From your perspective it wasn’t a miracle because you don’t believe in God?
MR: From my perspective it was a miracle but it wasn’t necessarily one which required God to say, right, I’m going to break the laws of meteorology at five o’clock tomorrow afternoon.
JB: But, in a sense though, you then do take the view that it was that confluence of…
MR: Yes, see, if I were a Christian, I would have absolutely no trouble with accepting… I mean, it’s interesting, although I’m a very liberal non-believer, do notice that John and I are about as far apart on these issues. It’s important to point this out. We still are completely far apart on this. So, for me, these things are not only didn’t happen but they’re not relevant.
I mean, they’re feeding the four thousand or five thousand, depending on which gospel you read, I want to say, you know, Jesus wasn’t working for Fortnum and Mason or for Sainsbury’s and, you know, getting sandwiches brought in. No; he filled people with love, so the people who brought food shared it with those who didn’t have it. That, for me, is a real… that’s why the whole of life, at some level, is in a secular way for me is miraculous.
JB: What I’m hearing though is essentially that if you were a Christian, Michael, you’d be a very liberal Christian essentially.
MR: Why would I be a liberal Christian? I just said, if I were a Christian, I would be seeing God’s actions in the world all the time. Why do you, I mean, yeah, I’m not a fundamentalist. I’m not, I mean, you know, I’m with St Augustine; so many of these tales are for people who were, you know, prescience, preliterate and all of those sorts of things. I don’t think of myself as a liberal.
JB: Let me rephrase it. The kind of Christianity that you would find plausible and engaging is one which is evidently very different to John’s…
MR: It’s considerably more sophisticated than John’s. But it’s also a very conservative position.
JB: John, do you want to respond.
JL: Sophistry is a very interesting phenomenon.
JB: Is that what you think Michael’s engaging in when he’s giving his alternative explanations?
JL: Not at all, because, you see, I agree with him more than he thinks. And the first thing is, I see God every day in the normal things of life. But I notice when we look at the different kinds of claims for supernatural interaction in the Bible they are graduated. Some of them are simply that working of the laws of nature as at Dunkirk. I’m very happy with that. But there are special events where the intervention level is higher and, of course, that is what I would expect. I would expect it rarely because a God who constantly intervened in a special way, well, would intervene everything virtually out of existence.
In fact, I do believe that the regularities of the universe are essential for us to perceive miracles and that is why I disagree very strongly with your notion that these beliefs grew up in a prescientific time. They did in terms of chronology. But, you see, when the man who was born blind was healed by Jesus he said, well, since the beginning of the world this has never happened. He recognised it as a miracle, as a special event caused by God because he knew what normally happened. And when Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant he didn’t say, oh marvellous, how very interesting, God did that did he? No! He wanted to divorce her. Why? Because he knew as well as any modern gynaecologist where babies come from. And therefore we’ve got to realise David Hume was totally wrong about this. Talking about these beliefs rose in prescientific days because you can only recognise something as a supernatural intervention if you know the norm. That’s why Jesus’ resurrection was so impressive because dead bodies weren’t popping out of the graves all over the place.
MR: Well, I just feel, John, that you’re reducing the gospels to the level of Grimm’s fairy tales. We’ve got miracles happening in Grimm’s fairy tales and I think that the way that John’s approaching the gospel is if… let me be rather rude about this; I think you’re downgrading a tremendously important story to one of, you know, David Copperfield. That Jesus was a miracle doer. And I just don’t see Jesus in that sort of light.
JB: Maybe one final comment and we’ll move on.
MR: Then we’ll get on to haemorrhoids.
JL: I find it difficult to see that it’s a downgrading when through all of this to my mind comes an increasing sense of the sheer wonder and glory of God in Christ the son of God. And evidence that that’s who he is.
I would put it the other way, I think you’re downgrading it to the level of Grimm’s fairy tales because I believe in the story. I’m an Irishman, I’m a storyteller, and I love the story. It’s not either or, Michael, it’s both. And in my case I want the story, I want to understand the story. But it’s not what I want. The question is what is true or not. And I believe the story is enhanced and increased in its power because behind it there is a reality. And the reality is in terms of what we’re talking about. The increasing revelation of Christ as to who he was. And it was as a result of watching these signs that led people to believe that he was the son of God, the Messiah, and they took that extra step of trusting him and had life in his name.
JB: We’ll leave that one there. I appreciate that there’s probably more responses from you, Michael, but I do want to get to your third point; the haemorrhoids point. Because I think this is… (MR: We always want to get to the bottom of these things!)
Right, so, John, I think, I mean, joking aside, this is an important question. It fundamentally boils down to, if you do believe there’s a designer behind the whole show, why are there so many awful things in the world? And that’s a question that’s been asked since, well, time immemorial isn’t it?
Where do you want to begin with that one coming at it from, I guess, a scientists’ point of view?
JL: Well, this is a huge question, of course, but the first point that I would make is they’re two separate questions. There’s the recognition that there’s a mind behind the universe, that’s one question. And I believe that science can tell us something about that. But then there’s a second question; Who is behind the universe and what is his character and what is his nature?
Now, when it comes to the question of evil, moral evil and natural evil, I think about this a lot because I find it’s the hardest question for any of us. There’s no two ways about it. And if you want a short response, it’ll have to be short; my approach to it is, first of all, it seems to me, atheism doesn’t solve it. It solves it in an intellectual sense that people say, like Dawkins, the universe is just like you’d expect it to be but at bottom there’s no good, no evil, no justice and we just have to face it. Well, if that is correct, of course, it means you’ve solved the problem. You’ve removed it in some sense but what you haven’t removed is the suffering and the pain.
So, I find that, philosophically, a disaster. But now in order to respond to it as a Christian I have to come down to the heart of the Christian faith. And this is the very short answer; at the heart of the Christian faith stands a cross. And if that really is God there then it tells me that God hasn’t remained distant from this problem but has himself become part of it. And the cross and the resurrection together seemed to me to do what atheism’s solution to this problem doesn’t do. They give us grounds for hope. And I face a universe, as Michael does, that presents a mixed picture. It’s like a ruined cathedral, Coventry Cathedral. You can see traces of beauty and you can see the marks of bombs. I call it beauty and barbed wire. And whatever our philosophy is or worldview we have to cope with that because that’s the reality. And the only way that I can see a window into it – I can’t solve it, I wouldn’t pretend to or insult anybody’s suffering by so doing. I’ve been to Auschwitz many times and wept every time – but I would say this; we will never solve the problem, philosophically, of what a good God should, would, might, could, etc. have done.
So, we’ve got a problem. And as a mathematician, if you can’t solve one problem you ask a different one. And the different question for me is granted that it’s like that, is there anywhere in the universe evidence that there’s a God that we could trust with it? And I believe there is as revealed in Jesus Christ. That’s my short answer.
MR: Thank God we didn’t get the long answer! Sorry, that was uncalled for.
JB: But, Michael, I suppose at this point John does turn to his Christian faith in a rather direct way, in the way that you were hoping he would earlier in a way. The point is that, yes, ultimately, this is a question which isn’t going to be necessarily answered by science but it can be answered by a revelation of Jesus Christ.
What’s your response?
MR: Well, I’m okay with the revelation part. First of all I think I want to say that I agree with John that there’s two things I think we agree about. One is that these are genuine questions; why is there something rather than nothing? Is there a purpose to the universe? I think a lot of my fellow philosophers following Wittgenstein would say that these are not genuine questions. That they can’t be answered and so anything which can’t be answered in principle can’t be a genuine question in the first place. I think that’s nonsense. So of all people I’m with Heidegger on this. I think why is there something rather than nothing is the fundamental question of metaphysics.
The second thing is, I think, again, I agree very much with John on this, is that these are not questions to be answered by science. I talked about metaphor and, as I say, I think the metaphor that we’ve got, at some level, drains out questions like; why is there something rather than nothing? What is the nature of morality? Is there a purpose to the universe? I think the whole metaphor that we’ve got of the machine, which is just following laws and just going round and round like a clock, is one which excludes these questions.
It doesn’t mean that they can’t be answered and I think it’s perfectly legitimate for Christians to offer their answers that the universe exists because it was made by a good God. Morality, in some sense, is following the will of God, the purpose is eternal salvation with our creator. So, I think these are legitimate answers, but I think they are open to theological and philosophical criticism.
And John’s mentioned the problem, we’re both mentioning the problem of evil. You see, this is where I have trouble here. The usual answer about the problem of moral evil – I’m not talking about the Lisbon earthquake now, I’m talking about Auschwitz – the usual answer is that God gave us free will and the implication of that was that some people would misuse this. All I can say is I just don’t see how you could possibly say we’ve got a good God who gave Heinrich Himmler free will and thought it was more important to give Heinrich Himmler free will than to let Anne Frank die of typhoid in Bergen-Belsen. If that’s the cost of getting a universe going I don’t want any part of it. Anybody who says to me, at least in any evidential way, that, yes, I think we can make progress to belief in a good God I want to say, I just don’t know how you can balance the free will of Heinrich Himmler against the death of Anne Frank or Sophie Scholl or any of these others. I don’t want a God of that kind at all.
Now, if you want to say to me, but by revelation I believe in a God who will make it possible, I think that’s a legitimate position to take. It’s not mine because I’ve not had the revelation. But this, again, goes right back to where I think John and I have got a very fundamental disagreement about the evidential basis of Christianity.
JB: A response to that?
MR: I don’t think John’s position is stupid I think it’s wrong.
JB: Right, sure. That’s something.
JL: Well, I would reciprocate with great affection. I think that I would sit where you sit, Michael, if I didn’t in believe in the final judgement. I don’t think Himmler is going to get away with it. That’s one side. And secondly; however strange it may seem to you, I think that God is a God who knows how to compensate. And it’s because of that and the resurrection of Christ and the promise of the future that I sometimes dare to think that when we see what God eventually does with the Anne Franks of this world we mightn’t have such severe questions.
But, you know Michael, the thing that weighs most with me is not whether my beliefs help me it’s whether they’re true or not. I’ve had, ever since a child, I’ve had a passion about truth. And at Cambridge a Nobel Prize winner – and this was the turning point in my life – having spoken at a dinner he took me up to his room with three other professors around and he said, Lennox, do you want a career in science? I said, yes sir. Well, he said, in front of witnesses tonight, give up this childish belief in God. It’ll cripple you. It will completely throw you out of the running. And he offered me some solution. I said, what have you got to offer me that’s better than what I’ve already got? And that put steel in to me somehow. I thought, if ever I get the chance to go before the public as a scientist I want to try to do what we’ve done tonight. And that is to put out into the public space two sides of the argument and let people make up their own minds.
But that moved me deeply and I couldn’t help thinking if he’d been a Christian and I’d been an atheist, he’d have been out of the University the next day. But that was my first experience of the pressure coming from that particular person.
MR: Well, I think you’re a better Christian than you let on, John, because it does seem to me that while the evidence is not swaying, I don’t know how you could get better evidence of the iffy nature of God’s personality to say the free will of Heinrich Himmler is more important than the suffering and death of Anne Frank.
Now, if you come at it from a faith based thing and say, I’m trying to put it in perspective with my already given conviction, my knowledge if you like, that God exists and is loving and then I’ve got to interpret… I think that’s one thing. But to say, oh no, I’m working on an evidential basis. I believe in God because of the design rather than design because of God, that’s where I get hung up… I just don’t think you’re doing that anymore.
JB: Let’s have one final comment then we must go to some questions.
JL: Yes. I take the argument from design in both directions, not only in one direction. I think of the alternatives and the main alternative, God could solve that very easily by making us all robots who were entirely deterministic. But what that would do is empty the world of human beings. You and I wouldn’t be in that world for the simple reason that having been given, to some extent, a freedom of choice we are capable of love.
Now, when I have children and grandchildren… now I remember bringing my first child into the world and holding this little girl and saying, you could grow up to disown me, rebelling against me. Why would anybody have children? And I think that God faced a similar problem. We have children because of the potential for love but we know it can go wrong but it can only go wrong because the potential for love is there. Now I admit that problems like Himmler and Anne Frank are terrible problems. But if you solved them by saying God ought to have made us robots so there was no love in the universe, well, that would make me think very hard in the opposite direction.
JB: Perhaps we’ll get a chance to chase that up during the Q&A. For the moment, will you give a round of applause to both our guests.