Has science proved the irrationality of faith?

This post is prompted by listening to “The Infinite Monkey Cage Christmas Special” – you can listen to it here.

It’s hosted by Professor Brian Cox (he of numerous TV series etc) and Robin Ince. The guests on the programme were Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Mark Gatiss (Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock), cultural anthropologist and editor of the Sceptic Magazine Deborah Hyde and the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines.

Now it’s a sort of comedy come scientific education reality show .. sort of hard to categorise. However you define it, it’s popular – this is its 15th series. It’s an enjoyable listen, if trying a bit too hard to be funny.

The theme of this show was ghosts and “the Victorian obsession with the supernatural.”

This was no New Atheist rant against the dangerous irrationality and intolerance of religious faith. But (not far) under the surface, some very familiar themes were bubbling.

Basically the topic of ‘ghosts’ could just as easily have been ‘God’ or – as the blurb on the website says – the supernatural in general.

  1. Science and the measurement of reality

Cox began the show with a statement: We are here to investigate reality. When it comes to ghosts, there is nothing to investigate because they do not exist. For some sort of persistence of people after death to be possible there would have to be an “extension to the standard model of particle physics” that has escaped detection at the CERN Hadron Collider – something inconceivable at the energy scales that it is now able to measure.

His point goes beyond ghosts to any notion of a ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ – anything that would somehow interact with our bodies must be detectable. Cox asserts (his term) that they can be no such thing as an energy source that drives our bodies.  We are purely material, physical beings.

Similarly, Neil DeGrasse Tyson said that there was nothing he had encountered that defied his “complete knowledge of maths, physics and astrophysics.” Belief in ghosts etc was simply the ill-informed seeing mystery in things they did not understand.

Deborah Hyde commented that belief in the supernatural is the “default setting for human beings” and it takes “a lot of education” to come to understand things as they truly are. In the past it was “forgiveable” that people believed such things and it provides comfort in the face of the realities of life and death.

She added belief in the supernatural “plays into” human nature – “we don’t see the world as it really is.” We are finite and limited. We can’t see infra-red, electrons, gamma rays etc etc. Humans are enormously attuned to a very narrow range of stimuli (faces, movement) and tend to see the world through that (distorting) lens.

It is the genius of science, she implied, that has educated and set us free from the narrow psychological need to see the world in spiritual terms.

To this Tyson made an impassioned plea NOT to believe in or trust the hopelessly limited 5 senses of the human body. Science has access to dozens and dozens of sophisticated senses to measure all sorts of things the human senses have no access to. So successful has science been that it makes sense of the world, it transforms our cultures and has incredible explanatory power. So to believe in something spiritual beyond the human senses is not hard. But to believe in “some spirituality” beyond the vast modern day scientific apparatus is hardly tenable.

And going forward, anything seen as ‘spiritual’ will almost certainly one day be explained by advances in science.

To his credit, Bishop Nick Baines responded that Christianity says there is more to reality that what is measureable. It also deals in questions of meaning and purpose beyond the boundaries of science, but the overwhelming flow of the programme was that science is the gateway to knowledge and objectivity.

Nothing will stand in its way as an explanatory tool to understand all reality. The ‘spiritual’ and the ‘supernatural’ will eventually be squeezed out of existence by the onward march of the inquisitive scientific pioneer.

  1. Scientism

Now as I heard the show (and this is simply my take on it, my opinions are demonstrably falsifiable – just ask my family) this was an entertaining form of scientism – the belief that scientific enquiry forms the limits of our cognition and that any knowledge or belief claim that does not measure up to empirical enquiry is at best inferior and most likely a delusion.

It was a celebration of science, not only for what science can do but for what it is ‘disproving’. The whole ethos of the show is the elevation of experts sharing with us insights into the reality of the world; a top-down hierarchy of knowledge to be shared (in an entertaining way) with the masses.

Science deals in the trade of measurements, instruments and fact; religion is in the realm of unprovable opinions.

This is very much a modernist celebration of the advance of rational objective enquiry and the increasingly discredited and unbelievable world of subjective and credulous faith.

  1. A Conceptual Brick Wall

It seems to me that there is what I call a conceptual brick wall being built here; an inability to grasp that Christianity (I will focus on Christianity rather than the supernatural in general) believes in a God who created the material universe but who is distinct from that universe. He existed prior to it and will continue to exist if it ever collapses. He is not by necessity a material being but a Spirit who cannot be ‘measured’ in material categories.

  1. The ‘ghost’ of Immanuel Kant

kantThe ghost who was really present in the studio was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He wanted to ‘save’ religious faith from rational enquiry and tried to do so by redefining the scope of human reason.

Human reason was the basis of human knowledge, but it could only lead into knowledge of the empirical world. This was true objective knowledge.

That which does not belong to the material, spatio-temporal world (e.g. God, supernatural) cannot be comprehended by the human mind. So faith, for Kant, lay elsewhere, in man’s moral sense; in the realm of the subjective, as opposed to the world of ‘pure’ reason.

Brian Cox & co are disciples of Kant in their claim that knowledge only lies in the empirical world of scientific measurement. Yes, people may believe that there is something beyond the materialist view of the universe, but such claims are subjective (nonsense).

  1. Reflections

Kant’s ideas were a dead end philosophically. Christian truth is not confined to the realm of private subjective moral feeling. It is ‘public truth’, open to enquiry. Neither is it irrational. It has 2000 years of deep theological and philosophical tradition that has explored profound questions of existence. It is rooted in real historical events concerning the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Of course the Christian faith is not a total explanation of everything, but no belief system or worldview can ever be a total explanation of everything – including science.

Indeed, the Christian faith is not even really a ‘belief system’ or a ‘philosophy’ or an ‘explanation’ of reality. It is a faith in a person – the resurrected Lord.

I guess my feeling in listening to the Infinite Monkey Cage were these:

  • These guys (Cox and Ince and guests) are very smart
  • They know it
  • They are also very confident
  • And that self-assurance is leaking over into an over-confident celebration of all things scientific whereby science itself seems to be the measure by which reality and life can be understood

I guess I am just not that confident.

We don’t live in Kant’s Enlightenment Age, intoxicated by the apparently infinite capacity of human reason and all the good it will do. We life in a post-modern world, rightly sceptical of those who confidently claim to have the keys to knowledge.

Yes the rise of science and human reason has led to unimaginable advances, but also to unimaginable brutality and a contemporary ‘culture of death’.

Rather than deGrasse Tyson dismissing the Bishop at one point “Yes, you can get all philosophical if you want”, it would have been good to have a hint of humility that maybe science doesn’t have all the answers. That maybe things that can’t be ‘measured’ – like love, forgiveness, truthfulness, character, compassion, hope, joy – are what really make life worth living.

Comments, as ever, welcome


What is the ultimate purpose of being a Christian?

What is the ultimate purpose of being a Christian?

What things come to mind?

As the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, “To glorify God and to enjoy him for ever”?

To win others for Christ?

To live a life of love?

To live a holy life?

To serve the Lord, using whatever gifts you have been given in service of others?

To work hard at transforming this broken world?

Paul, I think, would affirm most of the above. But I also think that he would subsume them under his primary concern for the believers under his pastoral care – that ‘Christ is formed’ in his ‘dear children’ (Gal.4:19).

In this sense, the goal of the Christian life is spiritual transformation – to be conformed to the image of the Son (Rom.8:29; 2 Cor.3:18).

And this transformation happens in the context of relationship with God and others – in the power of the Spirit. It is the Spirit whom God sends into believers’ hearts and who enables them to call God abba (Gal.4:7).

On this theme, I came across this quote by Bruce Marshall (in a MA diss being written by one of our students at IBI – tks M)

This conforming of human beings to the crucified and risen Christ is a unitary action of the whole Trinity, and indeed seems to realize the most interior and primal purposes of the triune God. The Father has eternally and effectively willed – predestined – our conformity to his Son (cf. Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:5), who, by accepting incarnation and the death from which the Father raises him, constitutes that original form of which we are the intended images. The Spirit is the agent who, poured out from the Father by the risen Son and dwelling in us, immediately joins us to Christ and makes us his icons (see Rom. 8:9-11, 14). The New Testament of course talks about the outcome of Jesus’ resurrection in many other ways, but the notion of “bearing the image of the man of heaven” seems to express both the final aim and the original intention not only of the resurrection, but of the totality of divine acts involving creatures. While for now we are icons of the risen Christ in fragmentary and partial ways, in the end the Spirit will enable us to see him as he is, and so be as much like God as it is possible for creatures to be (see Jn. 3:2). With the perfection of this work of the Spirit will coincide the liberation of all creation; no further divine aim for creation will remain to be realized (see Rom. 8:22-3).  B. Marshall, 2000. Trinity and Truth. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Wonderful – the astonishing agenda of the triune God is personal and cosmic redemption.

And radical – Marshall says God’s goal is that believers are “as much like God as it is possible for creatures to be.” Possibly  – though I’d put it differently. I think the goal is better put that they will be as fully human as it is possible to be.

Humanity without death, sin, selfishness, violence and hate.

Humanity with love, wholeness, relationship, service, joy, self-giving and creativity.

Humanity, in other words, as embodied by the living man Jesus Christ.

Humanity which has been remade in the image of God as it is conformed to the image of the Son.

Comments, as ever, welcome.





Whimsical musings on Christian belief in post-Christendom

Please complete the following sentence ….

“Having faith in terms of historic Christian orthodoxy* in the 21st century post-Christendom West sometimes feels a bit like ….”

…. being a Tasmanian Tiger who suddenly reappears in downtown Hobart  … (OK I was reading a book on Tasmania a while ago – thks Sarah!)

Imagine the reactions:

Genuine surprise – I thought you were all extinct by now! Sorry, but there is no place for you in the modern world any more you know.

Mild alarm – (thinks) umm, are you the dangerous sort of tiger, you know, one of those nasty fundamentalist types who wants power to make everyone should live the way you want them to?

Pity – are you not rather lonely?

Bafflement – why do you exist? Are you not an evolutionary dead end? Would you not rather be a successful species like a possum, wallaby or even a Tasmanian Devil?

Anger – you are a danger to civilisation and need to be eradicated once and for all, and I’m going to get my gun …

Welcome back! – we miss you! (I’m feeling optimistic)

Other reactions? Feel welcome to add some ….

* You know the sort of thing = believing in the triune creator God who works his purposes out in the localised story of a particular people; incarnation – Jesus both God and man; miracles; the death and resurrection of the Messiah; his ascension; inspiration of the Word through the Holy Spirit; the future return of King Jesus; a new creation to come; future justice for all etc