The Creationist Debate

Arthur McCalla, The Creationist Debate. The Encounter between the Bible and the Historical Mind, (Bloomsbury, 2013), £19.99, pp viii – 327,ISBN:978-1-62356-852-8

The first edition of McCalla’s book was already well-known to me when I received this new edition for review. The first edition is an excellent critical study of the historical growth of creationism, an area surprisingly neglected by historical scholarship given the prominence of creationism in the pews of North America. This second edition is better still, thoroughly deserving a place alongside Ronald Numbers’ magisterial The Creationists as one of the few definitive historical studies of the phenomenon.

Beginning with the medieval metaphor of ‘the two books’, McCalla charts the historical development of scriptural exegesis and its relation to science (the earth sciences in particular) in the early modern period, setting the scene for a discussion of the great Darwin debates of the nineteenth century, the development of inerrancy and fundamentalism, and then ‘creation science’ in the twentieth century. Key moments like the Scopes trial feature prominently, along with Whitcomb and Morris’s epochal creationist text, The Genesis Flood, grounding the debate in the political and social milieu of American religious conservatism.

Noticeably more polemical in tone than Numbers, McCalla’s aim is to demonstrate that debating with creationists over the interpretation of scientific evidence misses the point. Their real agenda is to exalt the status of the Bible above all historical contingencies as a transcendent reality of its own. This is why creationism must defend its inerrantist reading of the Bible from all historical studies that threaten it, evolution for sure, but biblical criticism perhaps even more so. And this provides an explanation as to why creationism is persistently able to evade all attacks on its view of science, since science is only a secondary issue compared with the exalted creationist view of the Bible.

First published in 2006, McCalla’s new edition of 2013 expands the original treatment in several ways. There are small changes to the earlier chapters, but most notably, the treatment of intelligent design towards the end of the book is expanded considerably from the first edition, bringing the treatment up to date by covering the first decade of the twenty-first century. More material on Islamic and Vedic creationism also helps to extend the remit beyond that of the United States (but apart from this McCalla’s discussion of creationism is largely restricted to the American situation). Another new chapter presents a penetrating overview of attempts within more moderate Christianity (compared to creationism) to harmonise science and religion, making useful points of contrast and contact with the creationist situation. This chapter makes McCalla’s case all the stronger, since it brings the issues closer to home for those of us who might be tempted to take an ‘us and them’ attitude towards creationism.

This is an excellent book, and is highly recommended.

 

Review of The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity

J. B. Stump and Alan G. Padgett, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

I have lived and taught with this book for a year now, using it extensively in our new MSc programme in Science and Religion.  I can honestly say that it is a superbly useful resource at this level, alongside other similar titles: the even more voluminous Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (2008, ed. Philip Clayton and Zachary Simpson) and the much more compact (but no less insightful) Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion (2010, ed. Peter Harrison).  These three titles cover much of the same material, at a similar depth, and even making use of some of the same authors. At first sight then, there is relatively little to distinguish these three titles, but it is important to note my earlier caveat ‘at this level’. Like the other two books, the Blackwell Companion is heavyweight and scholarly, which means that readers new to science and religion dipping into the book may struggle to find a quick answer to old chestnuts like ‘Has science disproved religion?’, or ‘What does Richard Dawkins think about this?’  On the other hand, those more familiar with the controverted and contorted academic dialogue between science and religion will find that the Blackwell Companion provides new opinions and fresh approaches.

The most obvious point that distinguishes the Blackwell Companion from its older siblings is that it concerns the dialogue between science and Christianity, instead of the more usual generic ‘religion’.  This already illustrates how times have changed in recent years, since scholars have become sensitive to the fact that the ‘science and religion’ dialogue in the past has almost always tacitly meant ‘science and Christianity’, and that when other religions are brought to bear openly, the questions and answers change considerably.  It is not only that different conceptions of God are at stake across the world religions, but different conceptions of reality too.  Hence, the fact that the Blackwell Companion self-consciously focusses on Christianity means that it is able to engage in greater depth with specific issues.  This is an important point, since, as the editors note (p.xix), now that the science-religion field is maturing into the second generation of scholars, it is time for a more ‘fine-grained analysis of the issues’.  Added to which, the scientific fields involved in some of these areas (e.g. cosmology, and the cognitive sciences) are moving very rapidly at present, and an up-to-date and fine-grained approach is by far the most appropriate.  Accordingly, rather than containing mostly single articles on important topics like Big Bang cosmology and fine-tuning, or theology and Darwinism, the Blackwell Companion stands out by presenting a number of different views on each.  Thus, Part IV contains five articles on modern cosmology and physics, while Part V contains seven articles on evolution (including two that argue the case for and against Intelligent Design).  While there is inevitable overlap in content in some of these articles, one gets much more of a sense of the breadth of opinions at play than in the usual handbook approach, where crucial topics are often covered by one general-purpose article.

In addition to its fine-grained approach in crucial areas, the Blackwell Companion has also tried to broaden the boundaries of the traditional science-religion field.  In a still male-dominated field (p.xix), it is very welcome to see a number of chapters on feminist angles, and on the role of women in science.  ‘Science’ is also broadened beyond the natural sciences, so that human sciences (principally psychology, sociology, and economics) are included.  Finally, I was delighted by Part XI, which devotes chapters to six of the most important contributors to dialogue between science and Christianity from the last fifty years (Teilhard, T. F. Torrance, Peacocke, Barbour, Pannenberg, Polkinghorne).  Not just ‘key issues’, these chapters give one the chance to begin to get inside the minds (and different approaches) of ‘key thinkers’.

But for all its strengths, there are inevitably some areas of weakness in a volume like this, which seeks to cover an immense sweep of thought and practice.  ‘Practice’ is at least as important to Christianity as is thought, but apart from the section on bioethics (Part VII) – and a very rich article on transcendence by Alexei Nesteruk – Christianity comes across in this book largely as an intellectual exercise.  Of course, to some extent this reflects the scope of the scholarly field at present, which is far more interested in investigating religion in its encounter with science as a cerebral, rather than a spiritual and practical, discipline.  And the editors, relying on the traditional ‘philosophical and historical approach to the topic’ of science and religion (p.xix), have by and large not challenged this paradigm.  So we find little evidence in the Blackwell Companion, for instance, of the many and varied explorations in the visual and literary arts of the encounter between Christianity and science/modernity.  More noticeably though, the focus on philosophy and history has meant that Christianity in its explicitly confessional dimension has suffered disproportionately in this volume.  Christian Scripture (and especially Genesis) is mentioned here and there, but is rarely engaged with at any length, despite its significance in the history (past and present) of science and Christianity.  And while Part X is devoted to ‘Theology’ (with a short section on the Trinity by Polkinghorne in a longer chapter, and a very helpful chapter on miracles such as the resurrection of Jesus, by Padgett), it is not until we come to chapters on specific individuals – particularly Teilhard, Torrance, and Pannenberg – that we find extensive confessional discussion of important Christian doctrines, where the roles of Christ, and of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, feature intensively.

Partly, these reservations illustrate the point that, while this second-generation field is actively focussing on specifics raised by the previous generation, the boundaries of the field are still wide open – still ‘up for grabs’ to a large degree – and very much dependent on the particular mediating discourses brought to bear to allow science to converse with religion.  The first generation has been very much caught up with history and philosophy, but there is every reason to suppose that other solutions will bear fruit in time. As I said at the outset, this Blackwell Companion has proved itself to be an indispensable companion to me as I try to set out the current shape of the field for the third generation, but I cannot help but wonder how different such a volume will look in their time.

This review was published in Modern Believing 55 (2014) 78-81.

Edinburgh Science Festival sermon

Science Festival Service at St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, 30th March 2014, 11.30am

Reading: Gen.1:24-31; Col.1:11-20

The theme for this year’s Science Festival makes a bold claim, that ‘science lies at the heart of everything’. Bold, because many religious believers today, and many of the philosophers, scientists and theologians of yesterday would dispute that claim, or at least want to tone it down a bit. For sure, these people might say, natural science tells us a lot about the world around us, and a lot about the human condition, but there’s a fundamental mystery at the heart of existence that can only be seen by the eye of faith. Hence, the important and very ancient distinction between physics and metaphysics, and between natural science and theology (or, the Queen of the sciences as theology used to be known). So goes the traditional way of thinking: natural science can’t possibly tell us everything, because in its commitment to naturalism (the idea that the natural world can be explained on its own terms) science is simply not competent to tell us about everything. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy’, says Hamlet to his friend Horatio. Of course, Hamlet isn’t about naturalism and the limits of science, but this is a famous line that’s often quoted in this context of where does science stop and theology start. However, against Hamlet, and against all those who might want to set reactionary limits on science, there’s been something of a revolution going on over the last decade which has drawn science into the heart of everything, and in doing so has consistently challenged some of our most ingrained beliefs, some of them religious, but many of them to do with who we are as humans. And it’s that revolution I want to speak about here. Continue reading

The comings and goings of the Son of Man

I recently had an article published in the journal Biblical Interpretation, on an idea I’ve been working and re-working for a long time, which attempts to make sense of the very difficult Son of Man material in Matthew’s Gospel concerning the theme of ‘second coming’. This paper was a long time in the coming, and so I was particularly pleased when it finally made it into print. It seemed to me that Matthew doesn’t so much portray a second coming of Jesus in the indefinite future, so much as a motif of perpetual presence in the present. Not only did this make sense of some of Matthew’s more difficult apparent contradictions, it also exploited something the great G. B. Caird once wrote (all too briefly) about how the coming of Jesus is also a going. I called this paper ‘The comings and goings of the Son of Man’, a title I was rather proud of.

The full reference is this – ‘The Comings and Goings of the Son of Man: Is Matthew’s risen Jesus “present” or “absent”? A Narrative-Critical Response’ Biblical Interpretation 22:51-70 (2014), and I’ve included the first few paragraphs here. You can also see the full article on my Academia page (https://edinburgh.academia.edu/MarkHarris).

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Science and Religion dissertations – the topics

Every year around this time our masters students in Science and Religion give a talk outlining their intended research over the coming months, as they work towards their dissertations which are the keystone to our MSc, due for submission in August. For me, as the programme manager of the MSc, this is one of the high points of the year, as I get to see how the students are developing their own thoughts way beyond the past 6 months’ classes, interaction and debate. I am always deeply impressed (and also rather humbled) by the breadth of interests and expertise.

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 being rapidly superseded 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: intercessory prayer and divine action; Teilhard de Chardin and systems biology; natural theology in McGrath and Gould; dark matter/energy and Christian mysticism; T F Torrance, Polanyi and a new theology of science; creationism is UK schools; Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Nietzsche; Neanderthals and the ‘image of God’ theology; creationism and the evolution of inerrancy; critical realism and the potential influence of Polanyi; divine action in the human brain and religious belief; Sam Harris and Buddhism; the deep future, human evolution, and the ‘image of God’ theology

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

 

 

Thera, Egypt, and the Exodus

I wrote about this topic last summer here and here, when I gave a conference paper on the much-hypothesised effect of the Bronze Age volcano Thera (now called Santorini) on ancient Egypt and the Exodus. The reason I’m returning to it again is because of some challenges I received recently, which prompted me to return to the evidence. I was accused of promoting a religious agenda over science. My response is that quite the opposite is true. Some of the mythology surrounding Thera has taken on the status of a near-religious belief, a belief that is, by and large, not borne out by the scientific evidence, as I try to explain here.

Many books, scientific articles, TV documentaries, etc, have appeared over the last few decades claiming that the C17 BCE eruption of this volcano created all of the conditions necessary to explain the miraculous events of the Exodus naturalistically. For instance, the ash cloud from the eruption is said to have completely engulfed Egypt, and provided the sequence of events that we know as the Plagues of Egypt (e.g. the Plague of Darkness). Most spectacular of all, a gigantic tsunami from the eruption is said to have been what enabled the Israelites to cross a lagoon on the Mediterranean coast (the “Sea of Reeds”), while it drowned the pursuing Egyptians. That’s the well-known idea, which has been recycled many times with variations to take account of changing attitudes towards the date of the eruption (which has been refined from the C15 BCE back to the late C17). I call these ideas the “Thera theories”.

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Take me to your Messiah – Science, Religion, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (David Wilkinson)

A review of David WIlkinson’s excellent new book from OUP – David Wilkinson, Science, Religion, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, (Oxford University Press, 2013), £25, pp 1 – 227, ISBN:978-0-19-968020-7

Until the 1920s, only one galaxy was known of, our own Milky Way. Nowadays, it is commonplace in cosmological research to affirm not only the existence of countless galaxies, but also countless universes. In parallel with this vast expansion of our cosmic horizons has come the realisation that there are countless other planets beyond those in our own solar system, many of which could be potentially life-bearing. Just a few weeks before writing (4th November 2013) another 833 new planets were added to the list by astronomers working with the Kepler Space Telescope, and ten of those planets could be suitable for life. As the scientific work continues apace, theological questions – some old and some new – are raised with increasing rapidity. If life is discovered on another planet, especially if it is intelligent life, what will be the impact on our world religions, and especially on Christianity, which relies on the unique incarnation of Christ. Continue reading

Ghost stories, science and religion, and time travel

The University has just released a new podcast for Halloween on its website, which explores ghost stories told in Scotland in previous centuries, and discusses their relevance for modern-day issues in science and religion (including time travel). This is what the webpage says:

“Why do stories of ghosts and time travel persist in an age of reason and logic? These uncanny subjects come under the spotlight in the latest, Halloween-themed, Big Idea podcast.

The academics on this month’s show include

  • Martha McGill from the School of History, Classics and Archaeology, who has organised Ghost Stories of the Scottish Enlightenment, to be held in the spooky surroundings of the Anatomy Lecture Theatre on Halloween evening.
  • Dr Mark Harris, lecturer in Science and Religion in the School of Divinity. A trained physicist and ordained church minister, Mark regularly blogs about science and belief on the University’s website.
  • Dr Alasdair Richmond, from the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, who teaches, among other subjects, the philosophy of time travel.”

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 Academia.edu, 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