The Big Question: Why We Can't Stop Talking About Science, Faith and God

The Big Question: Why We Can't Stop Talking About Science, Faith and God

by Alister McGrath


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Richard Dawkins's groundbreaking book The God Delusion created an explosion of interest in the relation of science and faith. This often troubled relationship between science and religion was seemingly damaged by the rise of the New Atheism, which insisted that science had essentially disproved not just God but also the value of religion. There is increasing skepticism towards its often glib and superficial answers; and the big questions about faith, God and science haven't gone away—in fact, we seem to talk about them more than ever.

Alister McGrath's The Big Question is an accessible, engaging account of how science relates to faith, exploring how the working methods and assumptions of the natural sciences can be theologically useful. McGrath uses stories and analogies, as well as personal accounts, in order to help readers understand the scientific and theological points he makes, and grasp their deeper significance. An extremely accomplished scientist and scholar, McGrath criticizes the evangelism of the New Atheists and paves a logical well-argued road to the compatibility between science and faith.

Some of his main discussion points include:

1. There is much more convergence between science and faith than is usually appreciated

2. How the three great models of scientific explanation can be adapted to religious belief

3. Belief in God provides a 'big picture' of reality, making sense of science's successes

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250077929
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 11/03/2015
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 620,646
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

ALISTER MCGRATH is a scholar in the interaction of theology and the sciences and currently holds the post of Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, the world's most prestigious academic position dedicated to the exploration of the relation of science and faith. McGrath is author of many books on theology and religion, including The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine. He lives in Oxford, UK.

Read an Excerpt

The Big Question

Why We Can't Stop Talking About Science, Faith and God

By Alister McGrath

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Alister McGrath
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-9024-4



Beginning a Journey

Most of us know that heart-stopping feeling of awed wonder at the beauty and majesty of nature. I remember well a journey I made across Iran in the late 1970s. I was traveling on a night bus through the vast desert between Shiraz and Kerma¯n, when its ailing engine finally failed. It sputtered to a halt in the middle of nowhere. We all left the coach while its driver tried to fix it. I saw the stars that night as I had never seen them before — brilliant, solemn and still, in the midst of a dark and silent land. I simply cannot express in words the overwhelming feeling of awe I experienced that night — a sense of exaltation, amazement and wonder. I still feel a tingle, a shiver of pleasure, running down my spine when I recall that desert experience, all those years ago.


For some, that sense of wonder — what Albert Einstein called "rapturous amazement" — is an end in itself. Many of the Romantic poets took this view. Toward the end of his life, the great German novelist and poet Goethe declared that a sense of astonishment or wonder was an end in itself: we should not seek anything beyond or behind this experience of wonder, but simply enjoy it for what it is. But for many it is not a destination, however pleasurable, but is rather a starting point for exploration and discovery.

The great Greek philosopher Aristotle also knew that sense of wonder. For him it was an invitation to explore, to set out on a journey of discovery in which our horizons are expanded, our understanding deepened and our eyes opened. As the great medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas once put it, this sense of wonder elicits a desiderium sciendi, a "longing to know," whose fulfillment leads to joy as much as to understanding.

This journey of discovery involves both reason and imagination, and leads not to a new place, but rather to a new way of looking at things. There are two main outcomes of this journey of exploration. One of them is science, one of humanity's most significant and most deeply satisfying achievements. When I was young, I wanted to study medicine. It made sense. After all, my father was a doctor and my mother a nurse. Knowing my career plans, my great-uncle — who was head of pathology at one of Ireland's leading teaching hospitals — gave me an old microscope. It turned out to be the gateway to a new world. As I happily explored the small plants and cells I found in pond water through its lens, I developed a love of nature which remains with me to this day. It also convinced me that I wanted to know and understand nature. I would be a scientist, not a doctor.

I never regretted that decision. From the age of fifteen, I focused on physics, chemistry and mathematics. I won a major scholarship to Oxford University to study chemistry, where I specialized in quantum theory. I then went on to do doctoral research at Oxford in the laboratories of Professor Sir George Radda, working on developing new techniques for studying complex biological systems. I still have that old brass microscope on my office desk, a reminder of its pivotal role in my life.

Yet though I loved science as a young man, I had a sense that it was not complete. It helped us to understand how things worked. But what did they mean? Science gave me a neat answer to the question of how I came to be in this world. Yet it seemed unable to answer a deeper question. Why was I here? What was the point of life?

Science is wonderful at raising questions. Some can be answered immediately; some will be answerable in the future through technological advance; and some will lie beyond its capacity to answer — what my scientific hero Sir Peter Medawar (1915–87) referred to as "questions that science cannot answer and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer." What Medawar has in mind are what the philosopher Karl Popper called "ultimate questions," such as the meaning of life. So does acknowledging and engaging such questions mean abandoning science? No. It simply means respecting its limits and not forcing it to become something other than science.


The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883 — 1955) put his finger on the point at issue here. Scientists are human beings. If we, as human beings, are to lead fulfilled lives, we need more than the partial account of reality that science offers. We need a "big picture," an "integral idea of the universe." As a young man, I was aware of the need for a "bigger narrative," a richer vision of reality that would weave together understanding and meaning. I failed to find it. What I found to be elusive I then took to be merely illusory. Yet the idea never entirely died in either my mind or my imagination. While science had a wonderful capacity to explain, it nevertheless failed to satisfy the deeper longings and questions of humanity.

Any philosophy of life, any way of thinking about the questions that really matter, according to Ortega, will thus end up going beyond science — not because there is anything wrong with science, but precisely because its intellectual virtues are won at a price: science works so well because it is so focused and specific in its methods.

Scientific truth is characterized by its precision and the certainty of its predictions. But science achieves these admirable qualities at the cost of remaining on the level of secondary concerns, leaving ultimate and decisive questions untouched.

For Ortega, the great intellectual virtue of science is that it knows its limits. It only answers questions that it knows it can answer on the basis of the evidence. But human curiosity wants to go further. We feel we need answers to deeper questions that we cannot avoid asking. Who are we, really? What is the point of life? As Ortega rightly observed, human beings — whether scientists or not — cannot live without answering these questions, even in a provisional way. "We are given no escape from ultimate questions. In one way or another they are in us, whether we like it or not. Scientific truth is exact, but it is incomplete." We need a richer narrative, linking understanding and meaning. That is what the American philosopher John Dewey (1859–1952) was getting at when he declared that the "deepest problem of modern life" is that we have failed to integrate our "thoughts about the world" with our thoughts about "value and purpose."

So we come back to that haunting and electrifying sense of wonder at the world. As we have seen, one of its outcomes is science — the attempt to understand the world around us. But there is another outcome. It is one that I initially resisted, believing that it was utterly opposed to science. The shallow materialism of my youth had no space for it. Yet I gradually came to realize that we need a richer and deeper vision of reality if we are to do justice to the complexity of the world and live out meaningful and fulfilling lives. So just what are we talking about? The quest for God.

Like so many young people in the late 1960s, I regarded the idea of God as outdated nonsense. The 1960s were a time of intellectual and cultural change. The old certainties of the past seemed to crumble in the face of a confident expectation of a revolution that would sweep away outdated nonsense, such as belief in God. Without quite realizing what I was doing, I adopted a worldview that then seemed to me to be the inevitable result of the consistent application of the scientific method. I would only believe what science could prove.

So I embraced a rather dogmatic atheism, taking delight in its intellectual minimalism and existential bleakness. So what if life had to be seen as meaningless? It was an act of intellectual bravery on my part to accept this harsh scientific truth. Religion was just a pointless relic of a credulous past, offering a spurious delusion of meaning which was easily discarded. I believed that science offered a complete, totalized explanation of the world, ruthlessly exposing its rivals as lies and delusions. Science disproved God, and all honest scientists were atheists. Science was good, and religion was evil.

It was, of course, a hopelessly simplified binary opposition. Everything was black and white, with no sense of the many shades of grey that demanded their proper recognition. But this simplistic outlook suited me just fine then. Without quite understanding what was happening, I had fallen into an "in-group–outgroup" mentality, which consolidates a privileged sense of belonging to a superior "in-group" by ridiculing, vilifying and demonizing its opponents. (It is traditionally understood to be one of the nastier features of religion, but it has now become clear that it is characteristic of any fundamentalism, whether religious or anti-religious.) Religion was intellectually wrong, and morally evil. It was a contaminant, best avoided rather than engaged.

Looking back, I now realize that the world must have seemed very simple to my sixteen-year-old mind. I lacked both the detailed knowledge of the history and philosophy of the sciences that would have shown me that things were rather more complicated than this and the wisdom to cope with the paradoxes, ambiguity, limits and uncertainty of any serious engagement with reality. Yet for about three years, I was totally convinced of both the intellectual elegance of atheism and the utter stupidity of those who embraced alternative positions.

In December 1970, I learned that I had won a scholarship to study chemistry at Oxford University. Yet I could not begin my studies at Oxford until October 1971. So what was I to do in the meantime? Most of my friends left school in order to travel the world or earn some money. I decided to stay on at school and use the time to learn German and Russian, both of which would be useful for my scientific studies. Having specialized in the physical sciences for two years, I was also aware of the need to deepen my knowledge of biology and begin to think about biochemistry. I therefore settled down to begin an extended period of reading and reflection.

After a month or so of intensive reading in the school science library in early 1971, having exhausted the works on biology, I came across a section that I had never noticed before: "The History and Philosophy of Science." I had little time for this sort of material, tending to regard it as uninformed criticism of the certainties and simplicities of the natural sciences by those who felt threatened by them. Philosophy, in my view, was just pointless speculation about issues that any proper scientist could solve easily through a few well-designed experiments. What was the point? Yet in the end, I decided to read these works. If I was right, what had I to lose by doing so?

By the time I had finished reading the somewhat meager holdings of the school in this field, I realized that I needed to do some very serious rethinking. Far from being half-witted obscurantism that placed unnecessary obstacles before the relentless pace of scientific advance, the history and philosophy of science asked all the right questions about the reliability and limits of scientific knowledge. And they were questions that I had not faced thus far — such as the underdetermination of theory by data, radical theory change in the history of science, the difficulties in devising a "crucial experiment" and the enormously complex issues associated with devising what was the "best explanation" of a given set of observations. I was overwhelmed. It was as if a tidal wave was battering against my settled way of thinking, muddying what I had taken to be the clear, still and, above all, simple waters of scientific truth.

Things thus turned out to be rather more complicated than I had realized. My eyes had been opened and I knew there was no going back to the simplistic take on the natural sciences I had once known. I had enjoyed the beauty and innocence of a childlike attitude to the sciences, and secretly wished to remain in that secure place. Indeed, I think that part of me deeply wished that I had never picked up those books, never asked those awkward questions and never questioned the simplicities of my scientific youth. But there could be no going back. I had stepped through a door which up to that point I did not know existed, and could not escape the new world I now began to inhabit.

I found that I could no longer hold on to what I now realize was a somewhat naïve view — that the only authentic knowledge we can possess is scientific knowledge based on empirical evidence. It became clear to me that a whole series of questions that I had dismissed as meaningless or pointless had to be examined again — including the God-question. Having been forced to abandon my rather dogmatic belief that science necessarily entailed atheism, I began to realize that the natural world is conceptually malleable. Nature can be interpreted, without any loss of intellectual integrity, in a number of different ways. So which was the best way of making sense of it?


My own rediscovery of the enriched understanding and appreciation of the world made possible through belief in God took place at Oxford University. It was a somewhat cerebral and intellectual conversion, focusing on my growing realization that belief in God made a lot more sense of things than my atheism. I had no emotional need for any idea of God, being perfectly prepared to embrace nihilism — if this was right. Yet I mistakenly assumed that its bleakness was an indication of its truth. What if truth were to turn out to be attractive?

Having already discovered the beauty and wonder of nature, I realized that I had — as the poet T. S. Eliot put it — "had the experience but missed the meaning." I gradually came to the view so winsomely expressed by C. S. Lewis: "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else." It was as if an intellectual sun had risen and illuminated the scientific landscape before my eyes, allowing me to see details and interconnections that I would otherwise have missed altogether. I had once been drawn to atheism on account of the minimalism of its intellectual demands; I now found myself discovering the richness of the intellectual outcomes of Christianity.

It will be clear that my conversion — if that is the right word — was largely intellectual. I had discovered a new way of seeing reality, and was delighted by what I found. Like Dorothy L. Sayers (1893–1957), I was convinced that Christianity seemed to offer an account of reality that was "intellectually satisfactory." Yet, also like Sayers, I found my initial delight in the internal logic of the Christian faith to be so compelling that I occasionally wondered if I had merely "fallen in love with an intellectual pattern." I did not think of myself as being "religious" in any way, and my new faith did not result in any habits of "religiosity." As far as I was concerned, I had simply discovered a new theoria — a way of seeing things which originated in wonder and ended in a deeper understanding and appreciation of reality. To borrow Salman Rushdie's terms, I discovered that "the idea of God" is both "a repository for our awestruck wonderment at life and an answer to the great questions of existence." Like Rushdie, I came to realize the ultimate futility of "the idea that men and women could ever define themselves in terms that exclude their spiritual needs."

I tended at this stage to think of my Christian faith as a philosophy of life, not a religion. I had grasped something of its intellectual appeal but had yet to discover its imaginative, ethical and spiritual depths. I had a sense of standing on the threshold of something beautiful and amazing, which my reason had tantalizingly only grasped in part. Like Einstein, I realized that nature "shows us only the lion's tail," while hinting at the majesty and grandeur of the magnificent animal to which it is attached — and to which it ultimately leads. I was like a traveler who had arrived on an island and discovered the beauty of the lowlands around its harbor. But beyond lay far mountains and distant landscapes I had yet to explore.

I gradually came to see that I did not need to see my faith as conflicting with science but as filling in the detail of a "big picture" of which science was a major part — but only a part. As the theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner pointed out, science is constantly searching for the "ultimate truth," which he defined as "a picture which is a consistent fusion into a single unit of the little pictures, formed on the various aspects of nature." If there was a conflict between faith and science, it was with the view sometimes called "scientific imperialism" (and now usually abbreviated to "scientism"), which holds that science, and science alone, is able to answer all of life's deepest questions. This distortion of science involves borrowing the language and apparatus of science in order to create the illusion that an essentially scientific question is being answered on the basis of what is declared to be "scientific data," using a universal method that will arrive at a "scientific" answer. This inflated distortion of science does nobody any favors, least of all scientists themselves.


Excerpted from The Big Question by Alister McGrath. Copyright © 2015 Alister McGrath. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents

1.From Wonder to Understanding: Beginning a Journey

2.Stories, Pictures and Maps: Making Sense of Things

3.Theory, Evidence and Proof: How Do We Know What Is True?

4.Inventing the Universe: Our Strange World

5.Darwin and Evolution: New Questions for Science and Faith

6.Souls: On Being Human

7.The Quest for Meaning and the Limits of Science

8.An Empirical Ethics? Science and Morality

9.Science and Faith: Making Sense of the World - Making Sense of Life

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