The Big Questions in Science and Religion

The Big Questions in Science and Religion

JOHN RADFORD, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at East London University, examines the views of ‘moderate and courteous’ theologian Keith Ward  (pictured above) contained in The Big Questions in Science and Religion
– from the Freethinker, April 2009


THOSE criticising religion are often accused by theologians of not understanding “modern theology”. Keith Ward is Regius Professor of Divinity Emeritus at Oxford, an ordained C of E priest, author of more than 20 books, and presumably a modern theologist.

He is quoted by Wikipedia thus:

I am a born-again Christian. I can give a precise day when Christ came into my life with his power and love. He did not make me a saint. But he did make me a forgiven sinner, liberated and renewed, touched by divine power and given the immense gift of an intimate sense of the personal presence of God. I have no difficulty in saying that I wholeheartedly accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Saviour.   

One’s natural reaction to this is to dismiss the fellow as a nutter, but, fortunately perhaps, I did not see it before I read his book of the above title (2008). Having done that, it seemed worthwhile to attempt an analysis.

The big questions are, briefly:

1. How did the universe begin; is there an ultimate explanation for it?

2. How will it end, does it have a goal or purpose?

3. Is evolution compatible with religion, and the “cruelty and waste” of it with a good God?

4. Do the laws of nature exclude miracles?

5. What is the nature of space and time, and can temporal actions be free?

6. Can we still talk of a soul, and is life after death possible?

7. Is science the only sure way to truth, and can religious experience count as evidence?

8. How does morality relate to religion?

9. Are there any good science-based arguments for God?

10. Does science allow for revelation and divine action?

The author claims that while putting a case favourable to a religious point of view, he has also:

Presented the problematic points and the main opposing views as fairly as I can.

I think this is true. He is moderate and courteous in manner, as befits his church. But I find what I have often found in members of that body, a sort of modest, un-aggressive conviction that in the last resort is impervious to contrary reason and evidence.

I found myself frequently scribbling in the book, something I never normally do, noting what I considered non-sequiturs, false dichotomies, special pleadings, selective uses of evidence, attacks on straw men. I’ll mention just two, wrapped up in one claim.  This is that those who report religious experiences, as in hearing the voice of supernatural beings etc., show no signs of mental abnormality. This is qualified by specifying “true” reports.

Reports from those who do show such signs are presumably not true. This is a circular argument.   But if it is accepted, it would appear that the religious persons do show what are commonly taken as such signs, namely hearing or seeing when there is no apparent external source. Both these are examples of petitio principii, the fallacy of assuming the truth of what is asserted.

Each “big question” is argued in detail, and there is no space to treat them individually, but underlying them all are two main themes.   The first is that science and religion are entirely compatible, and indeed that science supports religion. The second is that in any case we know that religion is true by other than scientific means, essentially by direct experience.

Ward argues that science, by which he seems to mean mainly physical science, is essentially materialistic, insisting on objective, observable, verifiable facts, and nothing else. But, he says, first, scientists do not actually do this, for example physics depends on postulating unobservables to explain what is observed.

Second, there are facts, such as historical ones, that cannot be directly observed. Third, there are other kinds of facts, especially those of personal experience such as with music, which cannot be measured, or verified by others. Such experiences, Ward claims, imply an “other reality”, which can be conceived as “Ultimate Reality”, or God.

My first comment is that I myself do not regard science as an agent which can insist on anything. Rather, it is an approach to knowledge, which has found objectivity, replicability, testability and so on the most productive way.

Scientists certainly accept unobservables (such as gravity), but try to tie them to what can be observed, not postulate them unnecessarily (Occam’s famous razor), and to derive testable conclusions from them. This is not confined to the physical sciences. Historians, psychologists, anthropologists, prefer it, while recognising that their subject matter has particular difficulties.

It is noteworthy that Ward says very little about these disciplines. History, which must encompass the whole past of religion, is mentioned only as an example. Psychology is treated as little more than surveys of the frequency of belief and religious experience. Anthropology, which of all disciplines has most systematically studied religious practice and belief, is effectively restricted to a curt dismissal of two papers by one author.

All of these do attempt, with considerable success, to treat human experience objectively. Further, it is questionable whether artistic experience shows the existence of an “other reality”. It could just as well be a purely personal reaction. The art (visual, musical, etc.) that gives rise to the experience is certainly objectively there, and the qualities that make it more or less effective can be investigated, as can the experiences, even though these remain ultimately private.

It is difficult to see what objective events give rise to an experience of  “other reality”.  And if it does exist, it is a big jump to equate it with the Judaeo-Christian God or the multitude of other gods.

In fact Ward says that interpretation of the experience is culture-bound. Non-theistic religions regard it quite differently, presumably with just as much justification. This seems at odds with his own profession of faith, and with the doctrines of the church he serves.  Is the enlightenment Buddhists seek somehow Jesus in a different hat, or halo? His answer is apparently yes. However different they seem, the experiences are all of the same “Ultimate Reality”. Studies of comparative religion show that this in fact remains speculative.

This leads us to the second theme. Ward says that without religious experience, that is a personal conviction of contact with God or Ultimate Reality, there would be no religion.   This raises a host of questions. Religions involve far more than specific experiences of the “divine”.

For the vast majority of people, religion has always been simply part of a total social structure, one which accepts gods as part of the world we live in, and which provides rules and solutions for everyday life and its problems. It is not clear that any of this depends on anything like Ward’s “sense of the personal presence of God”.   Many studies of religions conclude that they do not derive from personal experience.   Indeed some hold rather that the experiences derive from ‘religious’ practices, in particular ritual.

Ward’s view is that, nevertheless, religion derives from a personal sense of God or Ultimate Reality, given to exceptional individuals whom the rest trust and follow. Which leads to estimates of the frequency of such experiences, generally about a third of the population, though this depends on the questions asked. The reason, according to Ward, is that most humans are flawed, which perhaps derives from the idea of original sin. But the “flaw” is argued merely from the absence of the experience, another circular argument.

There is in fact very little systematic data about such experiences. There are collections of many thousands of personal anecdotes, but there is no agreement that all experiences are basically the same, for example the spirit journey of a shaman, the Hindu Brahman and St Teresa’s (or Keith Ward’s) relationship with Christ.

There are frequently reported characteristics, such as a conviction of certainty and importance, but some characteristics tend to make objectivity more difficult, for example the experiences are typically brief, often unexpected, not replicable to order, and said to be ultimately inexpressible.

There is often strong disagreement as to whether the reported experience is a “true” one (especially in the Roman Catholic Church).  Ward’s argument here is that true divine experiences result in a personality dramatically changed for the better. But this too is questionable. No data are offered on the frequency of such changes.  There is no real evidence that the experience is causal; it might be a side effect of the changes, if such there are.

Or it might be that particular personalities are prone to both moral development and to mystical experiences. (One wonders whether Ward’s friends noticed him morally much better after he met Jesus.) Then again, what is “better”? Looking at some of the more famous religious leaders, they seem a pretty mixed bag – Jesus, Mohammed, Joseph Smith, John Wesley, Savaronola, assorted saints, one might add Aleister Crowley (who certainly reported analogous experiences and came to regard himself as a god), David Koresh of Waco notoriety, and numerous others – they don’t appear to me as all paragons of what I would term virtue.   Of course Ward can easily refute this by arguing (a) that the bad ones are not true and (b) only God can say which is good.

I would argue that while one can readily accept that the individual has experienced something dramatic and personally convincing, it remains problematic what the experience is of. If you like, what is the cause of it. The evidence quoted is simply what the individual feels it to mean, and this, as noted, varies extremely widely.

Personal experience and personal conviction are also a poor basis for certainty. There seems no limit to the absurdity of things in which humans can believe with absolute sincerity, and even everyday observation is frequently false (eg the well demonstrated fallibility of eye witnesses). Ward acknowledges all this but rejects the conclusion. Some people have experienced God and that is that.

Following from the “good” effects of religious experience, and the intangible nature of both scientific variables and human qualities of thinking and feeling, Ward argues that God or “Ultimate Reality” is non-physical and unembodied, a “spirit” which is “pure goodness”, or “pure intelligence”.

I have great difficulty in seeing to what such terms could refer. As a psychologist, I do not think of goodness, intelligence and so on as entities, but as qualities or descriptions. Describing a person as intelligent, or good, is an evaluation of their thoughts and behaviour. Intelligent thought, for example, achieves its aims quickly and efficiently, grasps relevant facts and relationships, and adapts to changing circumstances. It is not a “thing” that the individual possesses. “Pure intelligence” is a meaningless phrase. One might as well speak of “pure speed”.

Further, while thoughts and feelings can certainly be said to exist, and are not to be simply equated with activity of the brain and body, no-one has yet shown that they can exist without such activity. Ward, in line with most religious theory, claims that they do.

What is the evidence that this God/Reality is good? By “good” Ward seems to mean something like “beneficial to human beings”, while also fulfilling a divine purpose. But then there is the ancient problem of theodicy:  many things that happen, presumably by the will of God, or at least not prevented by it, are clearly terrible, such as natural disasters.

Ward’s answer here is twofold. One is that God is constrained by the nature of the universe he has created; but then why did he create it thus?   The other answer is that we cannot know how things will turn out in God’s own time. What seems to us evil may be “redeemed”, and in some way ultimately good (the model, I take it, is the Crucifixion). I don’t find these arguments very convincing. I think that young children drowned by a tsunami is bad, full stop. It was bad if there was a harmless preacher who died on a cross 2,000 years ago.

But there are further complications.   One is, who decides what is good? How can we say that God is good unless we think he is? God seems subject to human judgment. If the answer is that God has given us the capacity to judge “correctly” then the thing seems to become circular (again). God is good because he does good things, as defined by himself, and as judged by us according to his will, and good things are those done (or approved) by God.

Ward’s God is also the creator of everything that is (in passing, what we call a “miracle” is simply God behaving in a way we don’t expect).  Presumably this is also true of Ultimate Reality, though in what sense that creates everything I don’t understand. But this seems yet another circle. Why do things exist, and are as they are? Because God wills it so. How do we know he wills it? Because they are as they are. Indeed, the concept of God is infinitely adaptable to fit any circumstances or objections.

To me, this is because God (or gods, or Ultimate Reality) is the creation of human minds, and not linked to any observable facts or testable conclusions.  That seems to leave us with a hypothesis of which we have, like Laplace, no need. But for Ward, as for many theologians, God is outside the scope of science. Indeed God (or Ultimate Reality) is essentially unknowable by the human mind, which to me compounds the uncertainty. But to Ward, it provides the certainty that God exists.

I would also suggest that while scientists may not be able to disprove the existence of a non-testable Creator, scientific knowledge does make extremely unlikely some concepts, such as life after death, which are intrinsic to most religions. Resurrection and reincarnation are impossible without it. Ward falls back on the “soul” which (like God) is supposed to exist independently of any material substrate.

In the end we come down to the fact that Keith Ward has had certain experiences which he feels profoundly are of God or Ultimate Reality, whatever these are. The problem with this is that while it is certainly evidence, it is not very good evidence by the usual criteria of evidence as accepted in common usage, or technically in law or science. Ward discounts this on the grounds that revelatory experience is a different form of, or route to, knowledge.

But this, as far as I can see, reduces it to mere individual assertion.  There seems little difference, as far as proof is concerned, between Ward’s conviction that he has experienced God and someone else’s conviction that they have been abducted by aliens.

An unknown number of other people have had experiences which may or may not be the same, even though many of them are certainly described quite differently.   They may or may not have had an effect on the behaviour of some of these people, which may or may not have made them morally better, in the opinion of Keith Ward and some others.   At the same time, many other people, lacking such experiences, are equally morally good, while some in both categories are less so. It all seems a rather convoluted attempt to justify personal convictions.

A particularly important one for Ward is that life and the universe must somehow have a purpose, and that this is their ultimate explanation.   Ward specifically claims that a teleological explanation of the universe is the only real one. We must say what it is all for. What the human race is for, is to advance towards union with God or the supreme goodness. Research suggests that for many people, this and a “scientific”, non-purposive, explanation are alternative preferences. The more strongly the one is held, the less strongly the other, and vice versa. What causes the individual preference is not yet clear.

As I see it, purpose is one sort of explanation, which is appropriate to some phenomena, including a good deal of human behaviour. To the question “why did you go to the shop?” the answer, “to buy some eggs”, is a sensible explanation (though it might not be the true or full explanation). To the question “why were you late for work?” the answer “because the train broke down” is a perfectly adequate non-teleological explanation. Most natural phenomena do not have purposive explanations. The train broke down due to faulty components or whatever.   Not because it wanted to.

To the question “why do human beings exist?” the answer “to advance towards an ultimate reality of supreme goodness” seems largely a personal bias, lacking supportive evidence. It satisfies some people, but not others. And it does seem rather selfish of God to create suffering humanity just to watch us struggle.

It has been plausibly argued by anthropologists that there is a natural tendency to seek explanations in personal terms, that is both with reference to ourselves (we see the sun move across the sky when actually we are moving as the earth revolves), and in attributing intention to natural events (God sends the rain, or Poseidon the earthquake).

Psychologists, for going on a century, have studied the way in which children progress from a self-oriented, subjective view of the world and themselves, limited to immediate appearances, and infer purpose where there is none, to a more objective stance. Scientific method enables us to see which sort of explanation is better in each case.

I think it also shows that there is, so far, no evidence for a purposive or non-natural explanation of the universe and ourselves, and this line of thought seems to me preferable to depending on faith or revelation. Keith Ward thinks the opposite.

As for all this being “modern theology”, the notion of religious experience as unique and requiring no justification is relatively recent, emerging in the 18th century. But much of the book seems older theology in modern dress. Instead of the robes of the Church Fathers, or of mediaeval scholastics, it wears a (perhaps ill-fitting) laboratory white coat.

The scholastics in particular devoted immense energy and intelligence to finding reasoned proofs of what they already knew to be true. This was actually their undoing, since reason in the end showed the inadequacy of belief as a foundation for knowledge.

Keith Ward’s arguments are much less elaborate than those of the scholastics; and he quotes
science and religions unknown to them; but the basic themes are essentially the same. In Ward’s version, science and religion are at one.

This can be shown, if you select the science that fits, and ignore the rest; but particularly because you can adapt the concept of God to suit, since there are no objective criteria to test him against. Religion is true, if you rely on individual convictions that it is, equate widely varying reports of experiences as meaning the same thing, and discount wild variations in doctrine.

I am aware that I have neglected many of Keith Ward’s arguments, but there I must leave it, perhaps not soon enough.

• Slightly revised June 2014


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