Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The carbon and the Christian

Times Literary Supplement
20th December 2006

The carbon and the Christian

By Thomas Dixon

Most of us assume that our beliefs are products of an evolved brain; but this is no longer being treated as a knock-down argument either for or against religious faith.

Dixon reviews four books:

Owen Gingerich
144pp. Harvard University Press. Paperback, £10.95 (US $16.95).
0 674 02370 6

Francis S. Collins
A scientist presents evidence for belief
304pp. Simon & Schuster. £17.99. (US $26).
0 7432 8639 1

Todd Tremlin
The cognitive foundations of religion
256pp. Oxford University Press. £17.99 (US $30).
0 195 30534 5

J. Wentzel Van Huyssteen
Human uniqueness in science and theology
The Gifford lectures
365pp. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. $40; distributed in the UK by Alban Books, £22.99.
0 8028 3246 6

"Opinion polls today consistently find that, when asked to say whether human beings were created by God within the past 10,000 years, or by a process of evolution guided by God, or by an entirely natural process of evolution, about half the population of the US choose the first option, and most of the rest choose the second. In a country where the question of whether Intelligent Design should be taught in schools on equal terms with Darwinism is regularly debated, it is understandable that books about science and religion sell well and that they have a more tangible political impact than they do in Britain. In this American context, Richard Dawkins’s recent atheistic broadside, The God Delusion, also makes a little more sense. It is really a book to keep up the morale of that embattled 10 per cent of Americans who think God has nothing to do with evolution.

Although Dawkins of course has no truck with “irreducible complexity”, one thing that he and his Intelligent Design antagonists agree about is that God’s existence or non-existence is, in Dawkins’s phrase, “a scientific fact about the universe”. Most theologians would want to reject Intelligent Design, along with the theology of The God Delusion, for exactly that reason. For them it is axiomatic that if we are going to talk about God at all, then God is not part of the natural order and should not be expected either to conform to the laws of physics or to feature as another entity in scientific accounts of life or the cosmos. Whatever theology is, it is not the attempt to provide empirical confirmation for “the God hypothesis”. Many theologians consequently regard the whole area of science and religion with some suspicion. They fear that this is an academic field entirely built on an outdated view of knowledge that might be described variously as empiricist, scientistic, or foundationalist. Are such theological worries justified or allayed by this crop of new volumes about science and religion?

The books by Owen Gingerich and Francis S. Collins are both works written by scientists reflecting on their own Christian faith.

Gingerich’s God’s Universe is the brief and elegant apologia of an emeritus professor of astronomy and the history of science at Harvard University.

In Francis Collins’s The Language of God, a scientist presents evidence for belief. But then, it is a different kind of book. Collins was the director of the Human Genome Project when it announced the successful sequencing of the human genome in 2000. He is a geneticist and physician. He is also an Evangelical Christian.

Tremlin states that the aim of his book is to provide nothing less than a “complete, detailed explanation of the relation of heavenly gods and earthly minds”.

In his book, van Huyssteen, Professor of Theology and Science at Princeton Theological Seminary, sets up an extended interdisciplinary dialogue between palaeoanthropology and Christian theology. The key idea is that the “image of God” should be thought of as something that emerges in flesh-and-blood human beings during the course of their evolution. On this account, language use, symbolic thought and religious imagination, along with bipedalism, a large brain and social morality, can all be seen both as fundamental to human uniqueness and also as entirely natural phenomena. Some of the earliest traces of the emergence of these human capacities are to be found in the remarkable cave paintings at Lascaux and elsewhere, which are depicted in the beautiful colour photographs that illustrate this book. "

Full review:,,25349-2512801,00.html