I am often asked how I fell into Science and Religion. Sam Ford, who produces Manna, the magazine of the Diocese of Bath and Wells, interviewed me about just this subject. His article, with the interview, follows here.
Mark Harris has just returned from a conference at CERN, the world’s leading particle physics laboratory where the so-called ‘God particle’ has been discovered. He was there talking with physicists, philosophers, theologians and representatives from major world religions, exploring the relevance of the Big Bang theory for religious belief, and vice versa. As the author of a book on what the Bible has to say to science about the world, he stands confidently in the middle of a heated debate that has been characterised at times by fervent, even aggressive, stances on both sides.
Before we talk about evolution, you’re known in the scientific community as the discoverer of spin ice. What on earth is that?
Spin ice is a scientific model that my colleague Steve Bramwell (University College London) and I discovered. We were working on a particular compound called holmium titanate which existing theory said should be a really strong magnet but didn’t behave that way in our experiments. We puzzled for 18 months and discovered that what was going on was very similar to the famous problem of proton ordering in ice, which has been known about for decades as a fundamental problem in physics but not very well understood. Physicists use the word spin to talk about the amount of magnetism that’s on each atom, and our theory of spin ice has gone on to shed light on ice, and to overturn some of the existing thought on magnetism.
Your book The Nature of Creation addresses maybe the most heated debate in the world of religion at the moment: evolution. What made you brave enough to tell scientists that the Bible has something for science?
The science and religion field has tended not to engage very closely with the Bible, or at least not with biblical studies anyway. When the Bible is brought up, the issues usually tend to be about how to interpret Genesis – do you interpret the six days of creation literally or metaphorically? What my book does is to present the sophisticated field of biblical scholarship in a way that is relevant for the science and religion debate.
Quite apart from the theological richness it might bring to us today, we need to understand the Bible as an historical text first of all. The creation texts in the Bible are far more varied than people give the Bible credit for. As well as what goes on in Genesis, there’s a huge array of texts later on in the Bible concerning creation but they’re often completely overlooked. Any attempt to construct a theology of creation and to understand how it impacts upon science or how science impacts on it, needs to take all of these extra texts into account.
Beyond Genesis, then, do you have a favourite example that talks of creation and raises an issue for the science-religion debate?
Yes, and it’s one of my favourite texts in the Bible – Isaiah 51:9-11, written by a person who was living in exile when the kingdom of Judah had been taken into captivity by the Babylonians in the 6th century BC. They were hoping for return to the land and the prophet gave them hope. This particular passage puts it in terms of a second exodus back to the land but it also construes it in terms of the ancient myths of creation. These myths work with the idea that in creation God battled chaos in the form of a dragon (sea monster), and cut it in pieces, thus bringing the created order about. These pieces were fashioned into the sea and the land and the sky. The other creation stories (beyond Genesis) add an extra poetic or metaphorical depth to the whole idea of creation. Simply asking ‘is this about the Big Bang’ or ‘is this about evolution’ doesn’t get us very far in appreciating what they might tell us theologically.
So, adding poetic depth to the idea of creation… does that frustrate some of the ‘scientistic’ attempts to rubbish religious narratives?
I think so, yes: if the scientists with this kind of scientistic mentality suggest that science can know everything there is that one would ever want to know about nature as creation then I think they’re wrong. There are other depths which are very hard to express in literal scientific terms, but which are grasped when expressed in poetical terms. Humans down the ages have needed to paint, compose music, write poetry, in order to express something that they can’t quite put their finger on with literal terms. The theology of creation is another attempt to do this. Simply saying that it’s all down to mathematical equations really misses the point. I think after the ‘new atheism’ debate (carried by those such as Richard Dawkins roughly between 2004 to 2010), the religious landscape has changed immeasurably. But I think that people are getting tired of that idea and want to move on beyond it. At the conference in CERN, it was pretty widely agreed that we need to be in touch with a new spirituality that would be of relevance to people who might be atheists or agnostics as well as to religious believers and that could involve science as well.
The scientific dogma – the need for evidence – has entered into our culture hasn’t it?
That’s right, politicians talk about it all the time; everything has to be evidence-based in ways that it didn’t used to be even ten years ago.
I think a lot of people take the theory of evolution as evidence for the idea that God did not create…
So it’s a really difficult problem that many of us try to sweep under the carpet. When Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859 he realised that he was letting a bomb off in the cultural world of his time and we’re still feeling the after effects now. What’s more, it’s very easy to assume that this is a debate that takes place between hardline creationists and hardline evolutionists. Different religions have different takes on evolution, but for Christianity in particular it’s been a challenge since 1859. There are two particular problems – and I’m not even mentioning the six days of creation in this because I think that’s a tiny issue in comparison!
Firstly, Christianity operates with a strong conviction of God’s guidance of the created world and with the idea that humankind is part of God’s plan for creation. But the version of evolution that Darwin put forward undermines any sense or purpose or direction in evolution. In other words, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to speak of humans as ‘inevitable’ or specially favoured in evolutionary terms.
Secondly, there’s a challenge in trying to understand how God would create a world which works by means of favouring the fittest or strongest or most intelligent or most aggressive creatures by victimising the weak. It doesn’t seem to be the kind of creative process we would expect of a God of love. Any Christian coming to terms with this needs to think hard about the problem of evil and particularly the problem of natural evil: why is there this degree of suffering in the world? Is it true that God just made the world this way, and that’s just the way it is? The question of purpose and the question of why is there so much suffering and death have been wrangled over for thousands of years but Darwin’s placing them as part of God’s creative processes has really sharpened the problem.
So what’s your response as a Christian priest?
To be honest, I find this really difficult myself but the move that is nearly always made by people in the science and religion field is to point to the fact that Christianity is no stranger to suffering and death because we believe that God in the person of Jesus Christ actually came to suffer and die in order to save the world. So, whatever is going on here must somehow be caught up, embraced and put right in the cross of Jesus and his resurrection. Irenaeus, one of the first theologians of the early church, had a particularly useful view: rather than seeing the original creation as perfect he felt that it was always a work in progress and therefore we can see evolution as a part of God’s creative processes which are working towards a goal. In the fullness of time, whatever is to come will somehow perfect that which we perceive at the moment to be problematic.
The other side of the coin here is that evolution has produced an amazing world full of incredible wonders that you only have to look at to feel awe and be inspired to worship. I think that all scientists would agree on the wonderfulness of the natural world, and on science’s ability to discover new wonders. The reason many people are scientists is not because they want to do away with God but because they are simply amazed and fascinated by natural wonder. That’s a very important conversation which has also been going on for over a thousand years and the science and religion debate has tapped into it: we believe that we see evidence of God’s hand in nature. Much of modern science has actually grown out of that conviction although it would no longer call upon God anymore to explain the natural world. Our encounter with empirical evidence in science often inspires emotions that go beyond the rational, and suggests that there is more here than we can always taste and touch and test.
Is science itself a leap of faith – to say that the world can be understood in the first place?
We have no reason to know why science works so well. There isn’t a scientific law that says science should be good at explaining the universe – it just seems to work extraordinarily well. Even if we understood every single law of nature we wouldn’t know why there are laws of nature. There’s a famous paper by the mathematical physicist Eugene Wigner called ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences’. He basically goes through example after example of ways in which physics appears to work really well. He describes it as a miracle again and again, and although he doesn’t call upon God or religious faith in this, he ends by saying that what we do as scientists often touches on a beauty that is deep; it’s a gift and we need to celebrate that. This tugs at the need for a spirituality in science, a spirituality that I find even scientists who profess themselves to be agnostics recognise.
How important is addressing the perceived conflict between science and religion?
Much of the academic dialogue between science and religion has grown up as an attempt to come back against that perceived conflict. Many of my students first come to the field because they’re interested in learning how to defend the faith but they quickly realise that there are important matters of truth here, quite apart from issues of defence or attack on religion. Deep questions arise about what it means to be human, for instance, or what exactly is the ultimate basis of reality? Humans have been asking these questions for millennia, but the science and religion debate has brought completely fresh angles on them. We realise that science can only say so much, and religion can only say so much, but we need a creative combination of the two.
I personally believe that the dialogue is actually a very progressive way of looking at these most important questions to humankind. When looked at like this, we’re a long way from a perceived conflict. This is not to deny that there are areas of conflict between science and religion, and we especially shouldn’t deny the challenges of evolution to any worldview that believes there is ultimate purpose, such as Christianity. I don’t think there’s any point toning those conflicts down or saying that they’re not challenges but we shouldn’t be embarrassed about that as religious people.
There’s enormous popular interest in these issues. You don’t need to have strong religious beliefs to realise that there are questions of real importance in the debate between science and religion. The questions at stake are deep and existential, which means they must be addressed at the deepest possible levels. But because of the relevance to ordinary people, a lot of what we do in the science and religion field is equally at the level of popular engagement. And personally, in terms of my vocation as an Anglican priest, I’ve always thought of this as a vital part of what originally brought me to ordination.
So how can the average person engage with the debate, the perceived conflict, the accusation that faith is irrational?
There are many resources at all kind of levels on the internet, as well as many books that engage with these topics. I know that many Christians have found the new atheist debate challenging; the best thing for me was to read all of those books [by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, etc] carefully, rather than assume that it was enemy propaganda. I’m sure my own faith has matured as a result of engaging with that material. I’d suggest that, rather than taking a defensive attitude, people engage as much as possible with the critical movements from science and atheism. The Faraday Institute in Cambridge is excellent – part of their mission is to work with churches, schools and local communities at an accessible level. Their website has a wealth of material, YouTube videos, articles… all sorts. For those who are particularly interested in the debates around Genesis and evolution, the BioLogos website can hardly be beaten for intelligent and accessible resources.