New book on the Bible and science

1844657256My new book has appeared – The Nature of Creation: Examining the Bible and Science. Although there have been many attempts in modern times to compare and contrast the Bible’s stories of creation with ideas from science, this has almost invariably been carried out in a non-critical way. It’s assumed that the text can be read at face value with scant regard for its historical genesis, almost as though it were a scientific report of the world’s origins. And it’s by no means just young-earth creationists who are guilty of this approach, but many who write on the Bible, especially from an interest in modern science.

What my book tries to do is to build bridges between critical biblical scholarship – which has developed far more sophisticated and historically-sensitive ways of reading the text – and modern science, using theology as the go-between. Remarkably, this has never been done before, or at least not across the whole Bible. This is significant, because there’s far more creation material in the Bible than just Genesis. In this way, I try to argue that there is scope for a whole new way of reading the Bible and science together.

Click here to see the book on the publisher’s web page (Acumen). Amazon uk is also selling the book at a very good price.

If you’re signed up to, you can also see my page, where you can download the Introduction.

Debating Darwin’s Doubt – he’s still doubting

new blog post by the Intelligent Design author Stephen C. Meyer, where he defends his book Debating Darwin’s Doubt against the accusation that it’s a sophisticated form of the God of the gaps approach.

Meyer’s argument is that the so-called “Cambrian explosion” of new life forms in the geological record – which gave us everyone’s favourite marine fossil, the trilobite, as well as the bizzare Burgess Shale – cannot be explained solely in terms of naturalistic science, but requires crucial input from a designing intelligence. This is what Meyer says in the post: Continue reading

Better no God than a God of the gaps

Bakerloo_line_-_Waterloo_-_Mind_the_gapI didn’t realise until last week that I felt so strongly about this, but I abhor the God of the gaps. We’ve been covering it in our MSc in Science and Religion, and I was challenged as to why I feel so strongly about it. After all, it forms the basis for some important attempts to build bridges between science and religion, not least Intelligent Design (ID). I feel no reluctance in saying that I would rather renounce belief in a creator God altogether, than stake my faith in a God who only works in the gaps in our scientific understanding. To my mind, the God of the gaps idea is subtly pervasive, and it miscontrues both Christian theology, and science, all in one. Clearly, not everyone feels as strongly as me, and some are quite open to the God of the gaps idea. But for the record, this is my where the strength of my response arises…

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Flood geology

I’ve been getting back to my roots in recent posts, with something of an emphasis on geology (I first trained as a geologist before I was distracted by the bright lights of physics during my PhD). And in the last week I’ve been reading David Montgomery’s recent book The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood, which offers a rather non-confrontational, but powerful, case against creationism. I must admit to particularly liking the front cover, since it shows an excellent photo of Hutton’s Unconformity at Siccar Point, which is not only just a few miles from where I am sitting now (East Lothian), but is also perhaps the most legendary of all legendary geological sites. Montgomery demonstrates how much the development of modern geology owes to the controversies surrounding Noah’s Flood in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We are so accustomed to hearing of the supposed conflict between science and religion in terms of Big Bang cosmology or Darwinism that it is interesting to come across a discussion from a completely different scientific viewpoint. And Montgomery makes the point that the flood debate shows how complex science and religion are in their relationship to each other. ‘Conflict’ doesn’t do it justice. Montgomery describes his surprise at discovering that the flood controversy wasn’t played out along the conventional science vs. religion lines we’re so used to: ‘[S]cientists were as apt to be blinded by faith in conventional wisdom as Christians proved adept at reinterpreting biblical stories to account for scientific findings. The historical relationship between science and religion was far more fluid, far more cross-pollinating than I ever thought – or was taught at Sunday school or in college’ (p.xii).

As Montgomery ably demonstrates, young earth creationism is one of the most recently-evolved branches of Christianity. Claiming to represent age-old attitudes towards the Bible and the flood, creationism in fact adopts some of the geological theories of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, relying heavily on Noah’s Flood as the main explanation for the reason the earth looks as it does today, including the entire sedimentary record and its fossils – all laid down in a matter of months by the flood waters.

This point is very familiar, of course, but Montgomery provides a novel explanation. He suggests that the reason young earth creationism was so successful in the early 1960s, and currently claims something like 50% of the American population, was that mainstream geology had reached something of an impasse, and was unable to make sense of outstanding but very basic problems, such as the shapes of the continents, or the mechanisms behind mountain formation. The development of plate tectonics over the next decade provided a unified theoretical framework capable of explaining many of these problems, but in the meantime creationism – in the guise of The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris – was able to make significant headway by providing its own theoretical framework, based on Noah’s flood.

This is an attractive hypothesis, but I am not convinced that it altogether holds water. The arguments that Whitcomb and Morris considered clinchers against mainstream geology have not, by and large, been overturned by the discovery of plate tectonics; they were already wrong-headed arguments. So their criticisms of radiometric dating, or the conventional interpretation of thrust faults, for instance, were as myopic of the evidence in the 1960s, as they are now. What is perhaps different now is that the development of plate tectonics, together with a whole lot more data and evidence right across the board, means that the mainstream geological edifice is even more confident in its views that the earth is very old than it was in the 1960s. The fact that many creationist arguments continue to fly in its face is, I think, a testimony to the power of theological persuasion over geological. In particular, in the early 1960s Whitcomb and Morris’s book provided a theological focus around which diverse but conservative Christian groups could unite, in a climate of political unrest (e.g. the Cold War). It continues to provide a common focus for diverse religious believers, even to the extent that it has become an important force in global Islam today. I suspect that plate tectonics has rather little to do with it.

Dark energy and the meaning of creation from ‘nothing’

400-creation-135157891I was mulling over whether to post a piece on dark energy and the idea of ‘creation from nothing’, when our colleague Marcelo Gleiser (Dartmouth) did just that, with this insightful piece. For comparison, here is my take on the issue, as it appeared in the Diocese of Edinburgh magazine.

The idea that the universe was created ‘from nothing’ by God has long been a Christian response to sceptics. Even though science has won much of the territory over which theology once reigned supreme, theologians have been able to rest secure knowing they have the exclusive rights to ‘nothing’. Quite simply, the laws of physics can’t explain ‘nothing’ because they’re a ‘something’ in themselves: they must be created ‘from nothing’. Hence, God comes into the picture, the ultimate ‘no-thing’, and the ultimate no-fail explanation for why there’s something rather than ‘nothing’. Continue reading

The annual MSc dissertation workshop

Yesterday (Friday 5th April), five of our MSc students presented their dissertation proposals, describing their intended research over the coming months as they work towards the 15,000 word dissertation which is the keystone to our MSc.

Students are encouraged to explore any topic which falls broadly within the ‘Science-Religion’ field. The ‘classical’ field of Science and Religion, defined by the work of scholars such as Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke,John Polkinghorne from the 1960s to the early 2000s, is groaning at the seams these days, as we discover more and more crucial areas of engagement between the two disciplines. Our students have uncovered a number of new areas themselves, and we were all impressed by the degree of novelty and ingenuity on display. Topics included: Teilhard de Chardin and the emergence debate; Augustine and ecology; Thomas Hardy, R S Thomas and the absence of God; modernist architecture as an exemplification of the science-religion dialogue; and finally, herbology and creation theology in ascetic and monastic spirituality.

We look forward to seeing how these very fertile and imaginative projects emerge in the coming months.



The Holy Spirit – fields, physics and other metaphors

Today was the Pannenberg day for our MSc class on Key Thinkers in Science and Religion. After an introduction to his thought, including significant moments like Jesus – God and Man (1968), we turned to the set text for the session – Pannenberg’s discussion of the creative work of the Holy Spirit from Vol.2 of his Systematic Theology. This sets out one of his best-known ideas (at least from the perspective of the Science and Religion field), that the Holy Spirit in creative mode can be likened to a physical field, like an electromagnetic field, or a gravitational field.

All of us agreed that this is not an easy text. Pannenberg grapples with ideas from physics – in the context of Christian eschatology and Western philosophy – in such a way that he is clearly alluding to more than he can say. And we agreed that the main scholarly reactions to Pannenberg’s idea – while containing some pertinent criticisms – haven’t addressed the force of his main point. Continue reading

The Entropy of Theology – part 1

Some 15 years ago, as a young researcher trying to push a new idea, I was accused publicly by a much more eminent fellow physicist of not understanding entropy. Ever since then, I’ve been fixated with trying to really understand entropy. Personal pride, and the emerging scholarly consensus, require me to point out that I have since been proved right in what I was trying to say back then, but the intervening 15 years have taught me that neither I nor my eminent colleague had a full grasp of the mysteries of entropy, still less its mystical (what I might now refer to as ‘theological’) overtones.

Entropy is what makes life worth living. Arguably the most important of all the laws of physics (at least where biological life is concerned), the Second Law of Thermodynamics declares that the entropy (disorder) of a closed system (one that is thermally insulated from its surroundings) can never decrease, but must always increase (or at the very least stay the same). This turns out to provide a reasonably straightforward way into an otherwise notoriously-difficult problem – how to define life. Continue reading

Jesus the Higgs boson

I am often asked what the ‘God particle’ (i.e. the Higgs boson) has to do with God. A few months ago I wrote an article for the Diocese of Edinburgh magazine, The Edge, attempting to give a novel angle on that question, specifically within the context of a Christian confessional response. Since people have been e-mailing me from far and wide ever since, asking for a copy, I thought I’d post it on our new blog. Here it is…

‘Why is it called the God particle?’ people often ask me. The Higgs boson was predicted nearly 50 years ago by, among others, our own Peter Higgs of the University of Edinburgh, but has leapt to the fore recently because it appears to have been discovered experimentally. This is big news in science, since the Standard Model of particle physics pretty much stands or falls on whether it exists or not, and the Standard Model is the best scientific explanation we have at the moment for why there are particles – things rather than nothing. Now there are many different particles – some of them have mass (you can weigh them) and some don’t. And this is why the Higgs boson is so important: it confers that most basic of physical properties – mass – to other particles. That, and the fact it’s been so difficult to discover, is the reason it’s earned itself the name of ‘the God particle’. It’s a moot point what it might tell us about God though.

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A new blog

Welcome to our new blog. We are a group of academic staff and students at the University of Edinburgh who are dedicated to exploring the interaction between science and religion in all its various forms. To this end, we are in the first year of a new postgraduate course – the MSc in Science and Religion – one of the world’s very few advanced courses in the subject. All of us hope to inform, to engage, and to challenge in this totally new venture. I can honestly say that I am discovering, as we go along, that there is much more to Science and Religion than first met my eye.

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