Inventing the Universe, by Alister McGrath
Subtitle: Why we can’t stop talking about science, faith and God
The author’s main aim is to show that science and belief in God (in particular, the Christian faith) complement and enrich each other. He acknowledges this is nothing new, but is necessary given the increased propaganda of ‘the New Atheism’ and its vocal prophets, such as Richard Dawkins, who like to portray science and faith as in conflict with each other.
He begins by explaining his own personal journey, from scientific atheism to the Christian faith, very much with his brain engaged. Perhaps he overplays it a little, risking encouraging purely ‘intellectual converts’. However, his aim seems laudably to be to engage thinking atheists, and persuade them that faith in God need not be unreasonable. He very helpfully shows how some popular atheists have tried to demonise faith as anti-intellectual and even immoral, sometimes with horrendous bias and dishonesty in their reports of history.
He spends a stimulating chapter dealing with the reliability and usefulness of science. Significantly, he shatters the myth held by some that science gives certainty, pointing out that theories change as more evidence is discovered, and explaining that scientific evidence is actually ambiguous, and can be interpreted in different ways. He wisely cautions scientists to be more humble with their hypotheses, and advises them to “carry alternative hypotheses in [their] heads and see which ones best match the facts”. However, disconcertingly, the author seems to imply that Christianity too needs to avoid being dogmatic and cannot hold to certainties. One is left wondering if he includes the resurrection of Christ in that, and doubts the trustworthiness of the Bible.
The author stresses well the deficiency of science, and necessity of Christianity, to answer our ‘ultimate questions’, like the meaning of life and our purpose. This is rightly one of the major ways in which he sees faith as enriching science; answering the questions that science is unable, and should not be forced, to answer. He also very helpfully explains that science cannot, and should not, be used to define our morals. He points out how Darwinian theory was applied to human society with morally disastrous consequences, with the eugenics of the early 20th century. We need theology, notably Christianity, to define our morals.
In a chapter on being human, he reveals how secular, atheistic humanism has robbed a more balanced humanism of genuine aspects of our humanity, such as our obvious yearning for God, and challenges modern humanism to recognise that, and engage more honestly with it. However, the author’s insatiable eagerness to show that science (here contemporary neuroscience) and faith are not in combat, leads him to describe the soul in terms that leave the reader wondering whether the author believes there is an afterlife and an eternal soul.
Perhaps the greatest concern is that he comes across as having too much faith in modern science, and not enough in the divinely-inspired, authoritative word of God. So where there is conflict between the mass of science and the clear revelation of God, he comes down on the side of believing the scientists, and squeezing Scripture to fit in with them, despite acknowledging that major scientific theories may change fundamentally as new evidence is discovered. This seems a disappointing inconsistency in his writing. So, to maintain his ‘no conflict’ thesis, he slams young earth creationists as reading Genesis naively, and hints that they are unintelligent, bigoted fundamentalists.
Overall, he has much that is very helpful in exposing the intellectual fallacies and dishonesty of atheists. He has done much research and interacts well with intellectual authors. His reasoning is often powerful and his conclusions astute. He does well to blast the myth that science and faith are at war. Surely his basic thesis is correct, that scientific reality will be in accord with a correct understanding of Scripture. However, this reviewer questions whether the author is right to accept the mainstream world of scientists, with their atheistic presuppositions, as having correctly interpreted the evidence. He also questions whether the author has correctly understood certain key Scriptures.
The book is well-written and engaging, though perhaps a little lofty in places. It will hopefully stimulate and challenge the thinking atheist. However, by itself, it might lead to a rather unorthodox Christianity.
Nick Fuller, Truro
I’m a little torn with the star rating. For Christians, I would give it 1 star. But for atheists, who are probably the intended, or hoped-for target, I would give it 3 stars.