The God Squad
In early May, 1995, when physicist Paul Davies won the Templeton Prize for progress in religion, Peter Lennon of The Guardian upbraided six scientists and authors including Davies for letting down the atheist cause. In an article facing a full-page blow-up of one of William Blake’s famous representations of God, Lennon called us “Science’s New God Squad.”
I must say I am rather taken with the notion of this New Scientific God Squad. We are such an exceedingly motley crew! First, Davies, for whom God is “the rational ground that underpins physical reality . . . not a person.” Second, myself, biographer of Stephen Hawking, wife, mother, musician, the only woman on the Squad. Third, Stephen Hawking, who says he doesn’t believe in God but whose rhetorical flourish at the end of A Brief History of Time declared that finding the Mind of God would be the ultimate triumph of human reason. Fourth, Nobel Laureate Leon Ledermann, whose delightful, down-to-earth book The God Particle has very little about God in it. Fifth, John Polkinghorne, theoretical physicist, Anglican priest, theologian, and Master of Queens’ College Cambridge. Sixth, off-the-wall mathematical physicist Frank Tipler, who insists that God and immortality can be arrived at mathematically and that any non-mathematical search for God should be “consigned to the flames.” One imagines God casting a jaundiced eye over this Squad. However, if God is cagey and has a sense of humour, God may be rather pleased.
Unlikely as it seems, we six stand accused of writing books that make the world less safe for atheism. This is nothing new, of course. C. S. Lewis warned over fifty years ago that a young man who wishes to remain an atheist can’t be too careful of his reading. I don’t think Hawking or Ledermann intended to pose a threat. As for me, I plead guilty. When I wrote The Fire in the Equations (a book Frank Tipler wanted to consign to the flames) I did indeed hope to undermine the notion that science is a super-weapon in the atheist arsenal and a reason for closing our minds to the possibility that religion, after all, might be onto something.
We can’t demonstrate by way of science that there is a God, but we also can’t demonstrate that there isn’t. In my book I carried that exercise to extremes, exploring a great range of science and giving such theories as Hawking’s no-boundary proposal even more benefit of the doubt than Hawking does, and I didn’t find any of the science ruling out the possibility of God. It doesn’t even rule out orthodox religion (leaving out the nutty fringes). If one wants to remain an atheist, well and good, but one must find other grounds for doing so besides science. Scientific consolation for atheists has been an illusion. Atheism turns out to be a faith that is no better supported by science than faith in God is, arguably less well supported.
Perhaps more detrimental to atheism than mentioning God a great deal in books is the Squad’s success in explaining science in relatively simple language, admitting non-scientists behind the scenes. From Hawking we learned that the best scientists must frequently change their minds. However, it isn’t fair of Peter Lennon to accuse the Scientific God Squad of being as “shifty as the priests.” Don’t blame us. You can’t trust scientific discoveries always to be exactly what you expect them to be or to uphold your faith or philosophy unfailingly. For all its order and rationality, nature turns out to be a loose cannon when it comes to supporting dogmas. Ledermann told us “When you read or hear anything about the birth of the universe, someone is making it up.” With insider views and statements such as this, some of the old mystique is lost, some of the naïve notion that science is studying reality right back to the beginning and beyond, without a bias, with pure objectivity, proving conclusively what is true and what isn’t. It’s also possible now for interested non-scientists to learn enough about the latest discoveries and theories to decide for themselves whether these threaten their belief or unbelief, without having to take the word of scientific gurus.
There is one part of the scientific mystique that I am reluctant to give up: the idea that science keeps an open mind. I do expect scientists to live up to this principle. Granted, it’s necessary for them temporarily to focus their attention on some possibilities while ignoring others, but completely closing ones mind to something a great many intelligent, sane, well-education persons (many of them scientists themselves) believe and claim to experience – is just plain unscientific.
Is agnosticism the choice, then, for anyone of intellectual integrity? One advantage is that agnostics don’t have to be so careful of their reading. Even Davies isn’t too dangerous a threat. Davies’ God is an “abstract principle that implies something like meaning or purpose behind physical existence.” Certainly there is no risk here of having to wrestle with a God who interferes in history and the lives of individuals. Davies discounts several thousand years of reported human dealings with God. He finds that sort of God repugnant. Having got beyond the cant that insists science will decide about God, is it all to be a matter of taste? Ridiculous! Thomas Aquinas reported having a direct experience of God that made all his wealth of philosophical endeavor seem by comparison “mere straw.” If we do indeed want to know the truth behind everything, we can’t afford to ignore even the outside possibility that such an experience is where the real human quest begins, not where it ends.
Is the New Scientific God Squad a significant threat to atheism? I do hope so! In that interest I propose an addition to the Squad: Biologist Richard Dawkins, who set out so confidently in his wonderfully readable book The Blind Watchmaker to show that beings such as ourselves could not possibly be part of God’s design and purpose, and instead inadvertently revealed precisely the ingenious method by which God could have made certain we turned up on the scene! C. S. Lewis should have said: Anyone who wants to uphold atheism can’t be too careful of his writing.