The God Issue

The Baby and the Molecule by gregoniemeyer
The Baby and the Molecule by gregoniemeyer
I am not renowned for my scientific prowess. I received my first school detention for juggling sheep eyeballs in a biology class! So I felt like something of a fraud this week, when I entered my local newsagents and bought a copy of New Scientist

It’s not my regular magazine of choice, but this week’s edition caught my attention, since it bears the title ‘The God Issue’ (which is suitably ambiguous – either an issue dedicated to God, or an issue dedicated to the issue of God… or both) and purports to address questions of why religion may outlast science, why we have a God-shaped space in our minds, and whether God’s existence is scientifically verifiable.

It’s a mixed bag; probably worth a read if you’re regularly engaged in apologetics, but it was less fresh and provocative than I had hoped. The first article examines whether children are born with a propensity to believe in a deity. This was, for me, the most interesting of the articles (written by a Professor from Fuller Theological Seminary). Through a number of experiments, the author argued that babies are able to perceive the difference between objects and agents, even if the agent is invisible; they have an intuition that order requires an agent to bring it about and that they appear to presume that agents can have supernatural abilities. It gave no answer to the question of why children may have these inbuilt predispositions, but there were some thoughtful observations nonetheless (coming to a sermon near you soon!).

Having started strong, the rest of the edition was a little disappointing. The second article made some interesting observations about morality in civilisations where people live under the idea that ‘someone is watching,’ and demonstrated how some secular states are learning to engender moral behaviour without the need for a watchful God. The author then claimed that “Locke’s intuition – that atheists cannot be trusted to cooperate – is the root of intolerance” and that “while atheists think of their disbelief as a private matter of conscience, believers treat their absence of belief in supernatural surveillance as a threat to cooperation and honesty”, which I found a little peculiar. I’m not sure it is fair to paint atheists as mild-mannered types, happy to keep their personal views to themselves and not impinge on society as a whole (!) nor to suggest that believers mistrust atheists wholesale and thus are guilty of creating intolerance.

Victor Stenger’s article on science’s ability to address the God hypothesis is just disappointing. He offers a whole list of evidence for the existence of God which science ought to be able to find, but has failed to, without any discussion of what such evidence might look like, or how science is equipped to find and analyse it. Apparently there is no verifiable proof for fine-tuning, religious experiences, or answered prayer, which makes me wonder where he is looking and what he thinks he’s looking for?

The edition concludes with an interview with Alain de Botton on his new book Religion for Atheists, which is an apt summary of the thrust of the whole feature: secularists should not think of religious people as simpletons, but should feel free to take the best bits of religion, without the need for God. In a sense, there is little new or innovative in this edition, but perhaps the most interesting observation is the way in which the various authors (Stenger perhaps excepted) seem to want to distance themselves from the angry New Atheists, instead recognising that there is much good in religion, but that you can get it without God. Atheism 2.0: Theism without the Theos! Christian Apologists would do well to note this shift, and think how to reframe their arguments accordingly, lest we be left as the shrill voices, answering questions people are no longer asking. 

The edition is out until the end of this week, in case you fancy a read. I don’t anticipate becoming a regular subscriber, but I may well pick up next week’s edition, if only to read the responses on the letters page!

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