Habgood on religion and science

Talk given at Atheist Society on the 11th of August 2009 by Robert Bender


The Reverend John Habgood, born 1927, now aged 82, had an interesting career. His father was a General Practitioner, he went to Eton, then King’s College Cambridge to study sciences – physics, chemistry physiology and mathematics, earning double first class honours. He did research on the physiology of pain, became University Demonstrator in Pharmacology and completed a PhD in 1955 at age 28.


At age 20 he joined the Christian Union and just as he finished his PhD he changed career and studied theology to prepare for priesthood in the Anglican church. After a brief curacy he taught theology at Westcott House Cambridge where he was Vice-Principal. He became the first director of an ecumenical theology college, Queen’s in 1964 and lectured with John Hick.


He was appointed Bishop of Durham in 1973, at age 46, which made him a member of the House of Lords, and in 1983 moved up to be Archbishop of York and chaired ecumenical committees and was involved in the evaluation and passing of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. He retired in 1995 at 68, and is now a Life Peer. He has written 9 books of which Religion and Science was his first, published in 1964 just after he left Westcott, before becoming a bishop.


He is very obviously a mature, intelligent reasonable man, very critical of the extremist end of the Christian spectrum of churches, a strongly committed Christian who is a scientist by original training and accepts that much theological attack on science has been misguided and foolish, and that theology has had to be seriously rethought since the development of modern astronomy, geology, evolutionary biology, psychoanalysis and the historical criticism of the text of the Bible. He wrote that theology had much to learn from the criticisms coming from unbelievers and from scientists and that much of the material in Genesis is myth and poetry. But at the same time he is a committed Christian who believes, as he says on the last page of his book, “it is possible to be both an honest Christian and an honest scientist, and to find the two allegiances both illuminating and correcting one another.”


He accepts that the dogmatic and absolutist theology propagated by the churches for many hundreds of years was wrong, but believes it has been strengthened as a result of its rethinking in response to criticism, as it has been purged of much of the wrong interpretations and spurious certainty that unbelievers have attacked. For example, “it is not only scientists and philosophers who make mistakes. Theologians are just as liable to do the same, if not more so…Their mistakes have undoubtedly contributed to the feeling that Christianity is somehow discredited…”


Atheists’ writings tend to focus on the fundamentalist extremist end of the Christian spectrum, which tends to be held by people who are scientifically ignorant, and who are essentially hostile to science. I thought it of some interest to examine the work of a far more moderate, scientifically educated theologian. The book, and various other of his writings available on the web, are a pleasure to read, and do not raise hackles like the ravings of the fundamentalists, but I still find I differ profoundly from his beliefs and find his arguments wrong and full of fudge.


For contrast, I also recently found a copy of another book with the same title, dating from 1939, edited by Rev. Cuthbert Lattey, a Jesuit who organized a series of summer schools at Cambridge. All the contributors of papers were Catholics and the attitude to defending Catholic doctrine against the advance of science was much more dogmatic and vigorous. They make a most interesting contrast.


Habgood at many places is very critical of the theological reaction to the advance of science, His book opens with this statement: “Some people claim that there is a fundamental conflict between science and the Christian faith. They claim that as science has advanced so Christianity has retreated. They believe we have now come to the point at which dogmatic religion can be seen to have no future; it may still be fighting a rearguard actions, but to all intents and purposes it is obsolete, clung to only by those who are so stupid that they cannot see the arguments against it, or so clever that they can make up spurious reasons of their own for continuing to believe.” This is a pretty accurate description of the atheist (and many scientists’) attitude to the churches, so it is a challenging opening gambit.


He considers the progress of science in rough historical sequence, from Plato and Aristotle to the basing of the medieval world view firmly on the basis of Aristotle’s pronouncements, to the breakup of this Old Order starting with Copernicus and Galileo, and its replacement by the modern world view, much enriched in the 1850s by Darwin and Wallace’s theory of evolution and modern advances in psychological understanding of how the human mind operates. Much of the conflict between science and religion was about this breakup of the medieval world view, to which some fundamentalist sects still tenaciously cling, but which all mainstream churches have long abandoned. The churches rallied to the defence of the medieval view, as their theology had been closely tied to it, and it seemed to threaten their whole house of cards. Habgood is sensitive to what was lost, but accepts that the world view has been destroyed and nostalgia for it is now inappropriate.


Medieval men lived between earth and heaven at the centre of god’s universe. Above them were the stars and planets circling in their crystal spheres; this was the realm of perfection where there was neither change nor decay. The heavenly bodies moved in perfect circles, the only kind of motion proper to a changeless and incorruptible reality. Below men were the animals, made for man’s use and instruction; and below the animals were the various lower orders of creation, right down to inanimate earth. The earth was made of a lower kind of stuff than heaven. It was corruptible; it could be changed; it had been spoilt by sin. Nevertheless, it had been made by god to be the place where man should dwell; hence it all made sense; there was a plan behind it. Some bits of the plan, like the meaning of the rainbow as the sign of god’s faithfulness, had been revealed in scripture; other bits were obscure. But the important thing was that men felt themselves to be at home in a relatively small universe which had been created largely for their benefit. Such was the picture which science was to shatter. It was a picture which owed a great deal to Aristotle… Once Aristotle was seriously challenged it could only be a matter of time before the entire structure collapsed, and with it would go the sense that this is god’s world made by him for man. Those who feared the consequences of this collapse had every reason to be alarmed. Never again have men felt so at home in the universe as they felt in the Middle Ages; never again has god seemed so near or so intimately concerned with all the details of life. When we read about some of the extraordinarily silly things which Christians said and did in the early days of modern science, it is as well to remember this.” Much of his theme is about the problems of letting go of this mix of Aristotelian and medieval ideas but refuting the idea that because the medieval view has been abandoned, therefore religion is redundant.


With a reference to the novels of Franz Kafka, he then offers this view: The dominant themes today are of meaninglessness and despairIt is science which has had a major share in the transformation of man’s understanding of the universe, a transformation which has left man himself unsure of his own position or the meaning of his life.


As I see it, that is not really what science has done – it has just exposed some traditional ideas on the meaning of life as being facile, silly and wrong. Just because Aristotle’s views on the nature of the world, and the medieval view aligned with it, are no longer an acceptable basis for working out the meaning of the universe, does not imply that it now has no meaning at all. It is just a much less comfortable one for us humans, as we are no longer at the centre. Meaning in the universe is not really a choice between Aristotle’s and the medieval Catholic church’s idea, and having to accept that there is no meaning at all. It just becomes a lot more difficult to find a cosmic meaning for our lives if we can no longer see ourselves as the centre of it all.


The issues seemed to be then the smallness of the universe, its young age, its incorruptibility apart from the corruptible Earth, and its placing Earth at the centre of things, which seemed to confirm man’s self-importance as the species for whom the whole system had been prepared, and with whom the god had a special relationship entirely different from that with other species of animals, or with plants. Habgood sees this as, not abandoning the Christian view of the world, but only the medieval view, and that Christianity has purged itself of its ties to this discredited view and has survived the healthier for it. But he recognizes that the reaction to the loss was one of fear and anxiety.


Much of Habgood’s theme is the issue of the nature of reality, and whether science describes the fullness of it, or only part of it, that which is measurable, leaving another large realm for non-scientific, religious ideas to describe, so both sets of ideas can co-exist honestly There was an argument, between the times of Copernicus and of Galileo, that scientific views were about the appearances of things and did not describe the Truth. But Galileo challenged this with his discoveries in astronomy and in mechanics, and the battle was on. “However, if we carry over this assumption that science describes ‘reality’ into Galileo’s work on mechanics, and into other branches of science, and if in our science we concentrate exclusively on what can be weighed and measured, we end up with a very odd picture of ‘reality’ indeed. ‘Reality’ becomes the world investigated by science, the world of colourless, soundless, meaningless particles assumed by materialism. Galileo was right in the particular dispute about Copernicus. But was he right as a matter of general principle? Is it true that science shows us what is ‘really there’?


Habgood’s problem is essentially with the 17th century mechanistic view of the universe as just billiard ball atoms rushing about, bouncing off one another, with no spirit world. He sees the world of the mechanists as a meaningless one and cannot accept the meaninglessness. “The Newtonian universe is the one which most of us now feel fits best with the demands of common sense. Space and time are the stage on which the drama is played out by matter. Space, time and mass are the three fundamental realities. Space goes on infinitely in every direction; and where there is not matter there is nothing. For many Christians such a view of the universe seemed hard to reconcile with the loving care of god for man. The universe began to seem a cold, hard, empty place, with man occupying only a tiny speck in an infinite void. It was true that creation demanded an explanation. There must be a creator, but all that was needed was someone or something to start the process off, some controlling hand almost infinitely remote. God was pushed further and further into the background, while the great universal machine clanked on its way without him. There were other difficulties besides these rather emotional ones. If space was infinite, how could this be reconciled with the infiniteness of god? In the mediaeval picture of the universe, space was finite and god was ‘outside’ it. ‘Outside’ no doubt could be given a very sophisticated interpretation; but we are not to think naively of god living above the sky. But at least the belief that the universe had an ‘outside’ gave men’s imagination something to hold on to. In the new picture, there was no ‘outside’; indeed there was no room for god at all. How could there be two infinities?”


Habgood resolves this issue by appeal to the multiple uses of the word “infinite”: “It is difficult to avoid the impression that this is a philosophical muddle. When a theologian talks about the infinity of god, is it clear that means by ‘infinity’ what a physicist means when he talks about the infinity of space? One of the most dangerous snares in philosophy is in imagining that the same word always has the same meaning wherever it is used. Likewise one of the big temptations of Christian writers on science is to produce a spurious reconciliation by this sort of easy identification of things which are different.” Unfortunately he does not explain what a theologian might mean by infinity and how it is to be distinguished from the scientists’ use of the word. So this issue is left in limbo. Infinity as applied to gods seems to me just a way of claiming that the god is not limited in space, but is everywhere, and is not limited in time but is always there. The word seems to me to have much the same meaning in science.


One oddity struck me about the book, that he has a chapter on Life, which is mainly about vitalism, an aberration that took the fancy of some scientists and some popular non-scientist writers such as Bernard Shaw, for a few decades but proved arid. By 1964 when Habgood was writing, vitalism had long gone the way of the ether as an abandoned concept and biology had become established as based on organic chemistry, cells and organisms, populations and ecosystems, so the discussion of vitalism seems anachronistic, and involves avoiding facing real issues deriving from biology. Much to my surprise, the Catholic book dating from 1939, also has a paper on vitalism, by another physiologist, and is preoccupied with the same struggle between mechanists and vitalists, as though it was then still a live issue. The problem both agonized over is the more fundamental issue of materialism and whether the material world is the whole of reality, which would of course exclude any gods.


Nothing but apes

Habgood accepts evolution as the correct explanation of how the current suite of 30 million+ species came to be as they are, and dismisses the theological reaction to Darwin and Wallace as foolish. “More eminent Christians, at least in England, made fools of themselves than at any other time” The problem was much as in the time of Galileo – many church officials had a crude and primitive view of how the universe operates and clung to it in fear of the destruction of the basis for their religion. Many “adopted extreme and untenable positions” and Habgood obviously has no sympathy for them. So he does not defend everything the churches have said or every position they have taken in response to scientific developments and understands that many churchmen reacted with fear and this made them say foolish things and made the church look stupid.


Habgood had obviously followed the development of the New Synthesis put together by Julian Huxley and his followers, and the mathematical treatment of mutations and gene drift in populations – a most intelligent observer of the scientific scene. “The modern evolutionist, with the knowledge of the mechanism of heredity which was denied Darwin, can make an assessment of the probabilities of evolutionary change, and show that evolution is mathematically feasible according to the laws of statistics. To be able to do this is to put biology almost on a level with physics, and it is in this sense that Darwin paved the way for a new type of biological explanation.”


But he wrote that evolution “raised and still raises, theological problems. The most urgent of these concerned the notion of providence,” as it makes the Christian god seem remote and unnecessary. He dealt with the “god of the gaps” issue: “There is always a tendency among Christians to think of God’s activity in the world as being confined to the processes which are not understood. The origin of life is a puzzle…” “These gaps in our knowledge have provided tempting opportunities for religious people to say ‘Aha, here we must talk about a special act of god.’ When science then begins to close the gaps, the result has too often been religious bewilderment and alarm, the feeling that god has been shown to be unnecessary. Even if it is still claimed that he is necessary in some ultimate sense, the feeling remains that he has been pushed one step further away from any real concern with the affairs of the world.”


It was not long before theologians began to counter these feelings by talking about evolution as god’s way of creating. All science had done was to reveal the processes through which god was at work. God works through natural laws, not in spite of them; therefore no amount of explanation in terms of natural laws can make anything less truly the handiwork of god.”


I am sure it is true that this adjustment has been widely made, but it is a dishonest fudge, all the same. What does this say about diseases fatal or crippling to humans? And, as I heard David Attenborough reply to a question about the creator god once, by telling the story of a disease worm found in Africa, that lays its eggs on the skin of young children, then the larva burrows through into flesh and reaches its fulfillment by burrowing through the child’s eyes and brain, blinding and brain-damaging the child. Can this be seen as the action of a caring creator god, for whom human welfare is of primary importance, yet who must be said to have created this monstrous worm? Falling back on evolution as the work of a creator god necessarily, it seems to me, involves abandoning any idea that humans are a species of special importance to the god, as so many things that the same god must have created are adapted to killing, sickening, maiming and crippling humans – disease bacteria and viruses, parasites, fungal diseases, destructive mutations, etc. If all is created by the god which has a special interest in humans, it is a sick and destructive interest, that of a crazed violent lunatic.


Even the argument for god’s existence from the apparent design in nature was shown not to have been so fatally wounded as was feared at first. The real basis of the argument is not that this or that animal fits perfectly into its environment, but that nature is rational, that it makes some sort of sense. And this …is something which men must believe before they can even begin to be scientists, and therefore it is a belief which no amount of scientific discovery can possibly destroy. In fact, the more science makes sense of things, the more firmly we ought to believe that the reality behind nature is a mind not unlike our own.


This seems very glib to me. First, the several mass extinctions known to have occurred suggest a very capricious, ill-tempered mind, prone to scrunching the lot and starting again in fits of bad temper. And why he should write that scientific discovery cannot destroy the belief that the universe makes sense is a mystery – all scientific discovery reinforces that very belief.

The issue of whether the creator had a mind much like our own is an odd one, as within a universe currently accepted as being about 13.7 billion years old, minds somewhat like our own are believed to have evolved only within the last 0.5 million years, or 0.000036 of elapsed time before now, meaning there were probably no minds much like our own for 0.999964 of all the history of the universe up to now. The mind much like our own took a pretty long time to get around to experimenting with something much like itself and seems to have been quite happy to do without it for a very long time. As well as that, given the bell-curve distribution of human intelligence, with geniuses at one end and cretins at the other end, many humans do not themselves have minds “much like our own” – the “our own” of course referring to the more intelligent humans who can write books and think about such matters as are dealt with in this book – probably a small minority of all humans. It seems a very specious argument to me.


Habgood went on to write that, “important though they are, such arguments do not have the same direct appeal as the older ones; and even if they are accepted, there remain some awkward questions. A god who works through natural forces feels much more remote than a god whose special acts of creation and whose interventions are obvious for all to see. And there is a difficulty, too about the kind of laws through which evolution is said to operate. Is it fitting that god should create through an apparently blind process dependent on chance, - a process which demands a life and death struggle between his creatures. I do not believe these questions can yet be answered entirely satisfactorily…” This is a very refreshing contrast to the fundamentalists who have glib answers to everything and pretend to know all there is and to be able to answer all questions. Habgood admits theologians do not have all the answers. However, he does believe he has one of the answers, which I believe is a dishonest one. The move away from the small, young world of medieval cosmology involved abandoning the view that humans are at the centre of it all and one standard way of describing the universe these days puts us humans and other organisms on a minor planet of a very ordinary star 30,000 light years out from the centre of a galaxy with 100 billion other stars that rotates once in 200 million years and is just one of billions of galaxies each of which has billions of stars. So were insignificant. Yet the whole idea of a god with a special interest in humans, that Habgood still accepts, involves retaining this centrality of humans in the cosmos, refusing to accept how unimportant we are.


The role of consciousness cannot be irrelevant in evolution otherwise conscious creatures would never have evolved.” This makes consciousness into the paramount force in evolution. It is one characteristic of a handful of the 30m+ species now alive and, given that well over 99% of all species that have evolved are already extinct, it is one characteristic of the over 3000m+ species which have lived on the planet since it cooled enough to be home to living organisms  around 4.2 billion years ago. Why not say that the role of enzymes cannot be irrelevant in evolution otherwise organisms with enzymes would never have evolved? Or perhaps blood? Or DNA? Perhaps the god has DNA, and blood, and enzymes, and is really the Old Man in the Sky of popular religion. Consciousness seems very special to us, as some of us have it and treasure it and feel our lives become meaningless when we lose it. But that is just our self-centred view of things.


Habgood continued that “if consciousness plays a real part in the process, and if the end products are conscious creatures capable of understanding their own development, in what sense can the whole process be called blind?


There are several things to be said in response to this view.  First, we are not end products. We are one species among the 30m+ species, most of which have no consciousness, though responsive to their environments in many different ways – fungi, nematodes, crustaceans, influenza viruses etc are “end products” just as we are, as they all took the same billions of years to evolve from the first cyanobacteria or prokaryotes.


Second, we are not end-products because we are not at the end. It isn’t the end – this is just a phase of evolution on one planet, which will likely continue for several billion more years, with humans disappearing some time in the next few million years, if not in the next century if the global warming theorists are to be believed. This viewpoint assumes that the meaning and purpose of the whole universe of billions of galaxies is revealed in the consciousness of one mammal on one planet for a few hundred thousand years. Nothing else in the universe seems to be part of the meaning of it all, just the consciousness of a small percentage of us humans. This is unbelievably anthropocentric.


The other issue is that it is not claimed by evolutionary biologists that “the whole process is blind”. As Paul Davies explains, “although variations may be random, selection is far from random, so that it is not true to say, as is sometimes quipped, that Darwinism attributes the organized complexity of the biosphere to nothing more than random chance.”


Back to Habgood: “But what of the method of evolution? Animals and plants do not merely compete with and kill one another; they also depend on one another and co-operate with one another….We are not in a position to say whether god could or ought to have devised some different method of bringing us all into existence. All we know is that the universe seems to be a mixture between good and evil, beauty and pain, and that suffering is at least one of the instruments used in the process of creation. The only people who need be disturbed by this are those who believe our sole source of values and the sole basis for any sort of religion is nature itself.” This issue of the source of values is an interesting one, and it seems to me this is a very tendentious way of exploring the nature of values, as though they must be a gift of a god, or determined by nature and thus have a source. There was a movement early in the 20th century to derive values from evolution, a very arid movement which produced a lot of absurdity, such as that morality was about going with the flow of evolution, as though that is a meaningful statement.


In the theological view, values cannot be thought to arise out of the nature of a situation, as seems to be the case with the behaviour of other social animals, with extended families and long periods of parent-child dependency and training, and group defence behaviours. A pride of lions or a group of African hunting dogs or gorillas displays co-operative hunting behaviour, co-operative parenting and co-operative defence of the group against attack, by distributing sentry duty among males, as well as power structures and hierarchies, all of which have analogies with similar aspects of human behaviour. Why cannot these be seen as the origin of some basic “values” which just derive from the nature of social mammals? For example, the discovery by all observers of the anthropoid apes that they have ways of avoiding incestuous relationships between siblings or between parent-and-child, has an obvious biological value, paralleled in human societies. Our “values”, as exampled by the ban on murder, is really a ban on murder within our tribe, with no such ban on outsiders, who may be killed in war. The ban on coveting one’s neighbour’s wife  extends only within the tribe as capturing nubile women in raids or in war is permitted, even highly valued as a source of status, in many human societies, so is really not all that different from the behavior of the other apes. The same goes for the ban on theft, which applies inside the group but not to outsiders, who are fair game. These “values” we hold have obvious biological value in ensuring the continuity of the group within which the individual grows and develops, and within which the individual is protected from harm. Our far more sophisticated civilised urban value systems have almost certainly developed out of primitive beginnings which show our affinity to the other ape species. But religious groups seem to feel the need of a Law-giver.


Habgood continues: “Christians…have always believed in the love of god because he has revealed himself as love in Jesus Christ, not because they have found that on the whole the universe points to the value of love, rather than vice versa.” In the relations between species, love is not a value determining how individuals behave, which is usually exploitive or lethal, so Habgood is on strong ground there, but love is also a biological value, it is just an emotional bonding in a species that engages in long-term pair-bonding, which most humans do as do many other species, yielding mated couples showing signs of great devotion over long periods, but Habgood seems to miss this point. Much of the science of ethology, of the functioning of animal communities, developed after Habgood wrote his little book.


The thing that bothers me most about Habgood’s statement is the claim that god is love – it is found on bill-boards outside churches everywhere, but is a very recent idea, and cannot be said to be found in the New Testament or in the behaviour of the churches over its first millennium or so – when the church was engaged in vicious suppression of heresy and schismatic sects, and seemed to have a god more like the vindictive angry god of Moses than a god of love. Jesus did not bring a message of love, but of the imminent end of the world, and a warning to repent, much as did Muhammad. He was part of a messianic movement that seems to have derived from Persian influence and which was accepted in the early church as meaning that only a few select souls would go to some kind of heaven and the vast majority would end in hell and experience eternal fire. Hardly a god of love.


But my strongest objection to the concept of our values having a source is that people who write or speak like that have a very specific set of values in mind, selected from among the very large range of values that have guided human behaviour for thousands of years. The selected set of values are all the nice ones that most of us would approve as Right and Good, while we pass in silence over all the nastier ones which are just as powerful in driving behaviour. It is as though we all agree and all communities really have the same values. But what about tribal exclusiveness, torture, rape and enslavement of the vanquished, cannibalism, male dominance; vengefulness, head-hunting, intolerance, forced conversions, slavery, human sacrifice, ritual killings, blood feuds, nepotism, etc. Most human societies have a number of admirable values, all mixed together with some nasty and destructive ones, and these are not usually claimed to have come from the god.


Habgood goes on to consider how the doctrine of the Fall of Man has come to be re-examined since it has become accepted that the human species has a long evolutionary history and developed out of brutish beginnings, so may be seen to have risen from a low level rather than fallen from a high one. The problem is what happens if the doctrine of the Fall is abandoned, and Habgood is candid about it: “According to Darwin, man is one among the animals; according to theology, man is unique, fundamentally different from animals in possessing a soul. Even if we believe, as most theologians now do, that the stories of Adam and Eve are profound myths and not literal history, some difficulties remain. The doctrines of the Fall and of the uniqueness of man are not just forced upon Christians because they happen to be there in Genesis 1.3. They are essential pieces of Christian theology, interlocking with the whole of the rest of theology, which cannot be removed without putting the whole structure in jeopardy. It seems, at first sight, as if theology must here come into a head-on collision with the findings of science.


I believe, however, that a better description of what has happened is that theology has here learnt from science, and learnt to its great profit. To admit this is not to sell the theological pass to the scientists, or to allow that in theological matters science must always have the last word. It is simply to recognize that one of the important ways in which god leads us to the truth is through science; and although theologians claim to be able to say some true and valuable things about god and man, they cannot and should not claim to be able to say everything. [Isn’t this refreshing after reading arrogant fundamentalist defences of traditional beliefs?]


The doctrines of the Fall and of the uniqueness of man look as if they were statements about the origins and early history of man, as if they were saying that at some time in the dim, distant past god created a special kind of creature, new things called souls began to exist, and at some point in time the first of these went wrong. It is by no means certain that in the beginnings of Christian theology these doctrines were bound up with these particular historical claims. But by the nineteenth century, and for centuries before that, an overwhelming majority of theologians thought they were. What science did was to help them to think again.”


Abandoning the doctrine of the Fall is not possible without abandoning Christianity, which is probably correct. So it must be retained in some form, but not aggressively presented as eternal truth in the way it has been formulated in recent centuries, which inevitably involves denying the validity of the bulk of current science and makes the professor of these views look extremely foolish. Habgood is an intelligent and scientifically literate man, and wants to be an honest scientist as well as an honest Christian. How does he do it?


This rethinking has led many modern theologians to see that these doctrines are not speculative pieces of history at all, but statements about the nature of man as he is now. Man is unique because he alone of all creatures desires to enter into relationship with god. The story of how he came to be unique is for science to trace so far as it can; to understand the story cannot diminish the important of the fact. Man is fallen, theologians say, because although he desires to enter in relationship with god, he cannot do it. He is divided against himself. The psychological roots of this division are for science to trace, so far as it can; but again, to expose them cannot diminish the importance of fact. Theology is telling us about these present facts of experience from its own distinctive point of view, because it claims to have a decisive clue to the understanding of man, given to it in the unique man, Jesus Christ. That a scientific understanding of the same facts may also be possible, simply illustrates the truth that there are many different ways of understanding things.”


All this is far less objectionable than anything the fundamentalists have to offer – it breaks the nexus between theological explanation of the condition of man and the evolutionary history of the species, which is the cause of so much idiotic nonsense from creationists who believe they can maintain their belief in the Fall only by denying the evolutionary history and along with it the vast bulk of modern science. Habgood’s position is still nonsense, in my view, but much less objectionable nonsense – the claim that man wants a relationship with a god is just so much twaddle, just a more subtle expression of our hubris about being a unique species instead of just one species among 30 million currently living on our planet out of perhaps 3,000 million over the past 4 billion years, and perhaps more foolish than most in that we foul our own nests in ways other species don’t, and are in a fair way to destroy much of life on earth in the next century or so. But it has enabled theologians to move away from foolish arguments against evolutionary science and into a psychological appraisal of the human condition, which is potentially more fruitful, except that it begins with the conclusion already drawn, that man wants a relationship with a god but is incapable. So this is not a voyage of discovery, but a voyage to confirm an ancient belief system.


As an entertaining contrast to the intelligence and maturity of Habgood’s views on science and how it has interacted with religious dogmas, it is worth quoting from the final essay in Lattey’s anthology of papers from the 1939 Catholic summer school, on the fall and its surrounding dogmas. It is from an essay on The Bible, by Canon Arendzen, of Edmund’s College. He referred to the deliberations of the 1909 Biblical Commission set up by his church, which decided that “the literal historical sense of the first three chapters may not be called in doubt where the matter deals with facts which concern the very foundations of the Christian faith, as, for instance: (1) the creation of all things by god in time, (2) the special creation of man (3) the formation of the first woman from the first man”, and so on for a total of 9 points of doctrine. He then expands on each of his nine points. Here is what he had to say about the formation of the first woman:


The formation of the first woman from the first man. This no doubt rejected by many scientists, but it is difficult to see what ascertained fact of science could be adduced to prove that the first human female could not have received the origin of her body from the first male. The origins of the first human beings lies, according to scientists, in the very remote past, and the story of the evolution of animal forms in the past is not so well known that anyone, basing himself solely on the data of science, could on a priori grounds prove the impossibility of such an origin of the female from the male. Nor is any such proof likely to be produced in the future. It is possible that the account of the origin of woman in the Bible contains expressions which are metaphors and must not be taken quite literally, but the fact itself that the first woman came into being from man, is so universally regarded as bound up with the doctrine of original sin, of the parallelism of Christ the Second Adam with the first Adam who fell, of the doctrine of the subordination of woman to man in 1 Corinthians xi, 8-9 and 1 Timothy 11 13, that the decision of the Biblical Commission seems but an echo of an unbroken tradition. Moreover the creation of the first parents of the human race, destined to exaltation by sanctifying grace and the Beatific Vision, destined even after the Fall to be raised through god-incarnate, is the crowning event of god’s creation. Hence a directly miraculous production of the first mother of mankind without the intervention of the normal natural causes is to the believing mind no difficulty. If Eve’s formation was directly miraculous, it leaves the limits of natural science and even the field of ascertainable history, since there were no witnesses.”


I think I would prefer Habgood’s scientifically more honest resolution of the problem any day. The argument that “my story is one to which there were no witnesses, therefore you cannot prove it is not true” is just childish nonsense.


Another little curiosity is the famous incident of Joshua commanding the sun to stand still so he could finish a battle, in the book of Joshua, chapter 10. Five Canaanite kings had gathered to take vengeance on Gibeon which had made a treaty with the invading Israelites led by Joshua. Joshua’s forces routed the opposing armies, who were also pelted by large hailstones, but the slaughter that followed as the enemy fled was not over when the sun seemed about to set over Gibeon and Joshua issued his famous command.

Here is the King James version:

And it came to pass, as they fled from before Israel, and were in the going down to Beth-horon, that the Lord cast down great stones from heaven upon them unto Azekah, and they died: they were more which died with hailstones than they whom the children of Israel slew with the sword. Then spake Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of AjalonAnd the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day. And there was no day like that before it or after it, that the Lord hearkened unto the voice of a man: for the Lord fought for Israel.


Habgood briefly mentions this incident: “Though there were superficial points at which the new science seemed to conflict with scripture, as for example in the famous verse about the sun standing still, this did not greatly worry [Luther and Calvin] But for some brands of Christianity, Joshua’s command, the only situation in which their god took an order from a human, is still a big deal. In Lattey’s book Arendzen wrote in defence of the Biblical account “The sun standing still at the bidding of Joshua has often been regarded as a scientific absurdity, but many who rejected with scorn the biblical account have not studied it very carefully. They have imagined the brightly shining sun in the midst of the heavens standing still for hours to give the Israelites time to slay their enemies. But the text, carefully read, suggests something very different. A terrific hailstorm overtakes the enemy in the defile of Beth Horon. The sky is totally overcast, while the storm rages. Many more of the foe are killed by the fury of the cyclone than by the sword of the Israelites, as the text itself says. Joshua evidently wishes the sun not to appear but to remain hid, as for the storm to continue; it is heard by god, it lasted for twenty-four hours…When at last the storm cleared and the black clouds went, the sun apparently stood where it stood when the storm began. The event was certainly miraculous, but the miracle consisted not in a useless standing of sun and moon in the sky, but in the abnormal continuance of a storm which completely hid the sun during the day and the moon during the night, while Jahve’s storm tore the stones from the mountain-side and flung them at Israel’s foes below. Let no-one think that this explanation is invented to get rid of a miracle. A Catholic who believes in the Incarnation finds no difficulty in admitting a miracle, however great; it is but an attempt at the sober understanding of the sacred text.”

The attitude to miracles here shows far less understanding of the consequences to a scientific understanding of the world than in Habgood’s book. The part of the miracle even Arendzen does not seem to have noticed is that the hailstorm pelted the enemy but does not mention any damage to the Israelites. A very special storm indeed. The concept of a god, which creates all humans then intervenes to take sides in a petty squabble between a few warrior tribes is a very primitive concept of a tribal god, not really compatible with a god that creates the universe. This is one of the big problems with the idea of a god, that it shifts so easily between a little local god protecting its favourite tribe and a great spirit that creates the entire universe in a few days, and the shift goes unnoticed and unquestioned for the incompatibility of the concepts involved.


As a minor addendum to this story, the book of Joshua has a brief reference to the story of the sun being written in the book of Jasher, which has long been accepted as a lost book that disappeared thousands of years ago. But a forgery, mainly a rehash of the early books of the Old Testament, appeared in the 17th century, and of course has now been translated and published by the Mormons as a genuine ancient text. The story of Joshua and the sun is retold, much abbreviated, in chapter 88. The modern textual criticism of forged ancient texts entirely bypasses such millennial groups as the Mormons.



Habgood included a chapter on the modern textual criticism of the Bible, and accepts that the early theological horror at the implied rejection of the sacred character of the Bible by treating it as just another book was entirely wrong. “Perhaps the biggest achievement of the critical movement has been to enable scholars to see the Bible in historical perspective.” He ends a discussion of belief and scepticism about the Bible stories with a discussion of miracles. “At a certain stage in New Testament criticism it was assumed, for philosophical and scientific reasons that all accounts of miracles in ancient documents must be false. Miracles were felt to be so offensive to the scientific outlook that it seemed best to explain away all mention of them as caused by ignorance, credulity, misunderstanding or plain mystery-making. It was well known how stories of marvels collect around the names of great men, and it was felt that the miracles of Jesus fell into the same category. New Testament critics, therefore, who started from this assumption, found themselves forced to cut away great sections of the narrative in trying to recover the original simple message of Jesus as it was before pious embroiderers got to work on it.

So Habgood is strongly aware of the problem of the whole idea of miracles and their incompatibility with a scientific view of the world. But he does not join these critics in rejecting wholesale the miracle stories. In fact he proceeds to defend them, at some length.


When one actually studies the miracle stories in the New Testament, as opposed to rejecting them on principle, one finds them so closely woven into the story of Jesus, that it is impossible to say this or that was added afterwards as men tried to make his life appear more marvelous. In fact most of such stories in the New Testament are quite different in outlook and purpose from known examples of mystery-making. It has been discovered that the gospels are not artless tales, mere collections of stories thrown together with a few especially startling ones for good measure. They are very carefully constructed theological works, in which the miracles have a vital place as signs or pointers to the meaning of the coming of Christ. This Is why when John the Baptist sent to ask Jesus if he was ‘the one who should come’, the only answer he was given was ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed’… The gospel writers hint that there is a very close connection between the miracles which Jesus performed, and the meaning of his mission….And in St John’s gospel the connection is made completely clear by calling them signs’ and by surrounding each of them with a long discourse”, as for instance with his version of the loaves and fishes story, to which he devotes some space.


There are six accounts of this story, which occurs twice in Matthew and in Mark and once each in John and Luke. There seem to be two separate stories, much elaborated by John who follows it with a sermon about the parallels with Elijah who fed 100 men with a mere 20 loaves and had some left over. The stories are full of symbolic allusions and all the common interpretation is about the bread of life as an allegory for some kind of spiritual food that ensures eternal life for the believers, and also full of possibly magical numbers which involve references to Old Testament events. The Israelites of that time seem to have been very much preoccupied with the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and were apparently always seeking to interpret current events in relation to Old Testament events which they read over and over to extract the tiniest morsel of meaning, much as the millenarian sects do now, with the book of Daniel.


The amazing part of the story is that on both the reported distributions of food, the disciples were ordered to go about with baskets to collect the scraps, and filled many baskets with scraps from the small number of loaves and fishes used for feeding thousands – again, if one visualises the good housekeeping behaviour of a people apparently obsessed with collecting scraps for some reason, and carefully counting everything, the number of people, who obediently allowed themselves to be seated on the grass in 100 rows of 50 and patiently waited for their share of the bread and fish to be given out – it is difficult to imagine such an orderly event, such careful counting among a people with a very limited vocabulary of number-words, and that both groups, following the two seemingly miraculous events, should still clamour for a sign, as though they had not already been given one.


The four gospel writers, who wrote in succession, so later ones used earlier texts for distribution in different directions – north Africa, Turkey, Syria, Greece etc. as the young churches were established – stuck closely to the same account which is obviously copied from one to another, but it is really just a fragment, not a full account of whatever happened that day – there is nothing of what Jesus is supposed to have taught the people who followed him, there is no hint of their reaction to the food distribution, only that of the disciples, so it is an in-house story only related to Jesus’ message by John, whose gospel was not written down until about 100 years after the time when Jesus is believed to have died. There are obscure question-and-answer exchanges between Jesus and unnamed disciples, with Jesus expressing frustration that these disciples did not understand the meaning of it all, so it seems to have been a private meaning that Jesus neither explained nor helped them understand in any way. Upon this unpromising set of documents a host of interpretation has been based, much of it about magical meanings of numbers, of the parallels in the Old Testament for the 5 loaves and the 2 fishes, the 12 baskets and the later story’s 7 loaves and 7 baskets.


One cannot take such an obscure, incomplete and magical story seriously and still accept a scientific under-standing of the world. At its simplest, if anybody was watching Jesus as he blessed the loaves and fishes and started breaking them into edible portions, someone must have noticed a multiplication of what was in his hands, like a Magic Pudding, but there is no comment on this, just the repeated count of the amazing number of people amply fed and the even more amazing number of baskets filled with scraps by the very tidy disciples who didn’t want to leave a mess. I cannot see why Habgood is so sure that this very popular miracle story has a foundation in fact. It is just a relic of an age when people had a magical view of the world. But also their concept of what made gods different from humans was a very simple one – gods could perform magic tricks, such as making 5 loaves feed 5,000 people with many baskets of scraps left over. The other side of this is that the ordinary feeding of a reasonable number of people with loaves made of milled flour has nothing of any gods in it. The world is just as it is and it is only when a magical event happens that there is any sign of the god’s presence and activity. This is a very primitive view of the nature of the world.


As Paul Davies wrote in The Goldilocks Enigma, quoting Henry Drummond’s 1894 Ascent of Man lectures: “Those who yield to the temptation to reserve a point here and there for special divine interposition are apt to forget that this virtually excludes god from the rest of the process. If god appears periodically, he disappears periodically. If he comes upon the scene at special crises, he is absent from the scene in the intervals. Whether is all-god or occasional-god the nobler theory? Positively, the idea of an immanent god, which is the god of evolution, is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker, who is the god of an old theology.”


What puzzles me most is just where Habgood thought this left the issue of whether these miracles really happened and whether therefore miraculous intervention in the physics of the world by his god is really possible, as he doesn’t say. What he wanted to establish is that these stories are not later additions by pious embroiderers, but are integral to the original narrative. If this is so, we abandon the model of two sets of authors: the disciples who witnessed Jesus teaching and the later embroiderers who added miracle stories to impress the impressionable. Instead we have a model of the original gospel writers reporting the teachings and also the miracles. Where does this leave us? Either accepting that the disciples saw real miracles, or that they were so obsessed with fulfilling Old Testament portents and omens that they themselves embellished their stories with miracles-that-grew between the puzzling events they witnessed and the writing which commenced at earliest 40 years later, after the final defeat of the Jewish revolt in the year 68. Modern psychology has made us familiar with the phenomenon of people seeing things that conform to their expectations and memories that wander far from the original event


Habgood takes all these stories as “facts one cannot escape”, to which theologians and believers must respond without merely dismissing them as fables. In effect he is saying that we either accept the miracles or discredit the entire story. It cannot be purified by removing the fables. So the question for us is why the miracle stories are all such magic tricks that might impress people 2000 years ago but which instead elicit their dismissal as fables now. Habgood claims that theologians are no more credulous than scientists, but are intelligent, highly educated reasoners. No doubt true, and many of them do dismiss these miracle stories as fables. I am unsure what Habgood thought of the physics of this magical multiplication of loaves and fishes, materializing extra matter out of nothing. I cannot see how one can accept the story as literally true and still be both an honest Christian and an honest scientist, as Habgood wanted to be.

Minds and machines

One interesting theme Habgood takes up is the way human relationships develop in our communities. He contrasts this with our relationships to machines, in a chapter on Minds and machines, which seems to me a tendentious way of setting up the argument. He wrote the book at a time when some people were dazzled by new possibilities in machines, robots mimicking many human behaviours and even being programmed to display what looked like decision-making and learning, in computers playing chess and backgammon and the like.


After a lengthy discussion of the possible differences between human and machines, and our ability to dismiss machines as fundamentally unlike us, mainly because they have not been through the childhood process of development and socializing, he wrote: “We come to understand human beings in many different ways and on many different levels. For some purposes it is quite sufficient merely to analyse their mode of operation. But there are certain levels of understanding which are only possible to those who are prepared to approach other people with respect and sympathy, even with a touch of awe. There is a knowledge which comes, not by a rigidly objective analysis, but by opening up to another person and allowing oneself to be changed. This is not scientific knowledge…Why do we respect human beings, and learn things through our respect, while we refuse the same kind of respect to machines? I believe the answer is ultimately religious…There may be no way of proving that certain computers ought not to be called human, and vice versa, except by seeing that human beings, whether they work like computers or not, have a unique status given them by god. To act on this belief, and to treat others with this kind of godly respect, is…to open up new depths of personal knowledge which carry their own conviction of truth. But the initial step is an act of religious faith.”


This seems to me a very far-fetched claim, that the only difference between us and computers is that we accord fellow-humans a god-given respect. The difference, as I see it, is that we are social mammals, and like other social mammals, treat other members of our communities as being similar to ourselves, because that is what we learned about them as we were growing up from infancy through childhood, that other people interact with one another and with us as persons, while machines do not.


If, instead the contrast is made with anthropoid apes – chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, a much more interesting discovery is made, about the many ways in which we are similar to them and the other ways in which we are different, and that many of the differences are differences of degree, not of kind. It is why we have come to have such profound fellow-feeling with the other three apes as we have learned about them in the past half century. We are perhaps just another ape, gregarious communal animals with a need to make relations work so we can continue to live together in our communities. The same goes for many species of dogs and some cats, which live in clans, hunt together, and manage little social hierarchies, raise their young communally and sort out their little conflicts without threatening the survival of the community. It is then not plausible to see our relationships as based on acts of religious faith, but instead based on the practical needs of maintaining cohesive working communities. Much of the work with the social and family lives of the apes came after Habgood wrote his book – the work of Jane Goodall’s research centre at Gombe, of Dian Fossey with gorillas in the Virunga mountains, of Birute Galdikas with orangutans in Kalimantan and many others. This has made the nature of socialization, of family life, of community life and of inter-tribal conflicts, much more a matter of ethology and anthropology, so basing human relations on religious faith now seems implausible.


This is not the faith in a mysterious something inside the human brain, which an engineer can never manufacture to put inside one of his machines. It is faith in the rightness of an attitude to adopt towards human beings, based on the belief that god values these human beings in a certain way.” All this just denies that man is a social animal, and that all social mammals have similar relationships to ours. It also leaves unexplained how human communities managed to remain workable in the 150,000 years before the emergence of the Christian religion. On the other hand silly popular films like Edward Scissorhands or Star Wars, do tend to perpetuate the nonsense that there are no significant differences between social animals having an emotional and social life and computers which are just programmed machines, much lampooned by Douglas Adams with Marvin, the robot with the built-in depression circuits. It has become quite a large part of popular culture to present fictional stories in which robots are virtually indistinguishable from real persons, and work and live alongside them for long periods without anybody noticing they are just machines, then they are horribly surprised to learn when some evil plot develops that they have had a robot in their midst for years. It seems to be part of the modern fantasy about humans being really just machine-like with programmed behaviours.


My aim has been to show how by talking about minds and machines, and by investigating the roots of our uneasiness at extravagant claims made on behalf of the machine, we eventually find ourselves back at religion. But the religious questions which have emerged are genuinely religious ones: Why do we value human beings? And it is this kind of question which Christian language about the soul is trying to answer. This starts by assuming a need to explain adult relations with no reference to infant socialization and the slow process of a child growing to become an adult integrated into a human community, sharing its values and concerns. “Belief in the soul, in other words, expresses a Christian’s awareness that he can enter into relationship with god, and his intention to treat himself and all men as uniquely valued by god. It is an object of faith, not of scientific knowledge.” I think Habgood went off the rails here and missed the simple point that much of this is about infant socialisation into an adult community of social mammals, and as such, is subject to scientific investigation of how it happens, the subject of childhood development, which is part of sociology, and has nothing religious about it.


Habgood has a chapter on Freud and his psychoanalytic theories, and how they have led to more questioning of popular Christianity, in the pathology of father-figures and how they influence human behaviour. Responding to the Freudian interpretation of father figures in myth and legend, and its exposure of the psychological roots of father projections in divine pantheons, Habgood wrote: “If Christianity were based solely on private religious experiences, on personal intuitions and inspirations, the psychological study of its origins would be of great, perhaps decisive, importance, But Christianity is not simply a matter of private inspiration. Christians claim that their faith is an attempt to answer perfectly reasonable questions about the nature and purpose of the universe, the meaning of existence, and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”


One of the big movements in modern times has been the retreat of religion from a public acknowledgement that an entire society accepts a specific faith, and the shift of belief to being a private experience, not to be imposed on others in a pluralist society so the churches have a growing difficulty in persuading legislatures to enact their moral programs into law. It is true that, if religious belief is only a private matter, it becomes entirely a matter of psychology to explain the belief systems and the emotional drives underlying them. Habgood sensibly does not explain just what is the modern Christian view on the meaning of life, death, the universe and everything, which is unfortunate, because it is partly a scientific debate about whether it is possible to believe in a personal god, a heaven, a soul that inhabits only human bodies, miracles, and the myths surrounding Jesus’ life and death, in a world which we now understand may well extend over tens of billions of light years, so the Earth is utterly insignificant cosmically, and it is 13.7 billion years old, so the 150,000 years since Homo sapiens emerged from Homo erectus is 0.001% of the time since the Big Bang, and the entire purpose and meaning of the universe cannot be made to hang on such a tiny part of the entire experience. And the emergence of literate civilization around 5,000 years ago amounts to 0.00004% of that time span; with our galaxy containing around 100 billion stars, and being just one of perhaps hundreds of billions of galaxies so there may be 1022 stars in the visible universe, quite apart from all the ones that may be over the visible horizon if the multiverse theory is correct. Human hubris in clinging to the belief that we are central to the meaning of it all is essential to religious creeds, but current science seems, to me, to suggest that there is no foundation to this anthropocentric view of meaning. To that extent the medieval, and even older Bronze Age religions with their extremely limited and essentially wrong understanding of the size, age and nature of the universe, is still part of the underlying ideas of Christianity and all monotheisms, so they have not really liberated themselves from medieval, or Bronze Age thought at all.


In summing up his response to Freud, Habgood offers a defence of Christian belief: “the most that any believer ought to claim is that there is enough historical evidence to make faith reasonableHabgood is rightly rejecting of fundamentalist claims that they have access to Absolute Truth, which just becomes a prop to power plays within fundamentalist sects and has been horribly abused when powerful churches oppressed heretics and unbelievers. This very mild proposal that Christian belief has enough evidence in its favour to be reasonable is a big step down from the arrogance of millennia about the church having in its possession Absolute Truth, with a duty to root out heresy as something that contaminates souls of believers. The abandonment of any claim to omniscience and to personal revelation that gives him authority to pronounce on the Truth is one of the very attractive characteristics of his book.


But where does this idea of a perfect father come from, if it is not in some way derived from our ideas about the fatherhood of God?” He goes on to argue that “there is a two-way traffic between beliefs about human fatherhood and the fatherhood of God, and that we find the two related, not because one is a mere reflection of the other, but because they have developed side by side.” This is an anthropological statement, not really confirmed by investigations of primitive religion, as the perfect father concept seems to be restricted to Middle Eastern Bronze Age religions, and is not shared by east Asian, African or Nordic religions. The male-dominated patriarchy however is almost universal and does help to explain the Christian-Jewish-Muslim preoccupation with father-figures, although the widespread cult of Mary suggests that female deities have not really been eradicated by the spread of Christian churches. Habgood is aware of this, and acknowledges that the Old Testament does not refer to the Israelite god as a father.


Habgood has a chapter on modern particle physics and cosmology which has a description of the bewildering concepts of quantum physics, the multiplying variety of sub-atomic particles, the enormous distances and volumes of matter. “I have deliberately mentioned these modern developments of physics and astronomy only cursorily, because I think the use made of them by religious writers is very often wrong-headed, and gives the false impression that the sudden discovery of some new scientific facts has radically altered the religious situation. If this were so, then the discovery of a few more facts might alter the situation again.” This is exactly right – all knowledge is provisional, and what we believe must give way to new discoveries, and old beliefs allowed to be replaced by new ones as we learn more about the nature and structure of the universe. This goes for scientific beliefs – just about everything that was believed 100 years ago has now been modified more or less radically and many beliefs have been discarded as inadequate or false. And the same must happen to religious beliefs about meaning and purpose, which must derive from current knowledge and be accepted as provisional, just like all our knowledge. So there are no eternal truths, just provisional ones, as we struggle to make sense of the universe. The problem is that Habgood still wants to cling to the view that there is some safe eternal knowledge that underlies religious creeds. This is part of the medieval world view deriving from a static society in which knowledge barely changed in a century, much less daily. The idea that the content of theology should change and develop as we come to better understand the world means that the claim to Authority, to revealed truth, must be abandoned, and each generation will have a set of beliefs quite different from all previous generations. So the church as guardian of eternal truths can be no more.


One of the big issues in science is that we are not just observers, we are part of the scene. Several sciences study ourselves – psychology, anatomy, anthropology, medicine, etc. But we are not just things that are observed, and none of these sciences reveals all that is to be known about the experience of being a human, which may perhaps explain our preoccupation with imaginative fiction as an alternative way to deal with the issues of human minds and relationships. Habgood recognized this and wrote about it repeatedly through this book. He makes frequent reference to the idea that we know about living from the inside, not as outside observers, so we can study living things as observers, but know about what it is to be alive because we are. For example, in his chapter on Life, he wrote “The very phrase ‘the mystery of life’ is a good example of the confusions which have surrounded the subject. To scientists life is mysterious because it is an extremely complicated phenomenon whose physico-chemical basis has not yet been unraveled. But this is the kind of mystery which science progressively clears up. For Christians, and indeed for any human being not at that moment engaged in doing science, ‘the mystery of life’ refers to the strange and wonderful experience of being alive….It is something we know by direct awareness, and so cannot be affected one way or the other by scientific investigation.” The qualification is interesting – this is not just an approach from a religious point of view, but a natural human experience for all of us, religious or otherwise.


Habgood does it again in a chapter on modern textual criticism of the Bible: “Anybody who takes the trouble to read some of the first-rate critical work done recently on the New Testament will probably be surprised at the distance to which scepticism can go in theological writing. Where a Christian is likely to differ from a non-Christian in his study of the Bible is not in the depth of his scepticism or in the integrity of his scholarship, but in the fact that he knows from the inside a bit about what the Biblical writers are trying to convey; and that makes him much less ready to dismiss difficult ideas or unlikely claims out of hand.” I do not accept that Christians know this from the inside, as the world of 2,000 years ago, its complex belief system, superstitions, the maelstrom of ideas washing over Palestine from the Greeks, Romans, Persians, and many others, is mostly lost to us now, which is why the Dead Sea Scrolls were such a startling discovery as virtually nothing was known of the Essenes at Qumran and the similarity of their ideas to those of John the Baptist and of Jesus during the first 1900 years of the Christian era. Christians are outsiders along with everybody else of our times, as they too are of our times and not of the times of Jesus and his sectarian society with its mix of Messianism and adaptation to the cosmopolitan culture brought in by Romans, Greeks, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians over several hundreds of years. Almost nothing survives of those times except the heavily edited gospels, which were all written many years after the events they record.


The business of knowing by direct awareness is of great interest to scientists as, for the past 40 years or so, the problem of the suitability of the universe for the emergence of living organisms and eventually of organisms with well-developed brains has become a significant study in its own right, as evidenced by Paul Davies’ The Goldilocks Enigma. But the issue of there being a difference between knowing resulting from direct awareness and knowing resulting from scientific study of a phenomenon, is not so clear cut as Habgood presents it. He wanted to set up an area of experience not open to scientific investigation, and in a later chapter approaches it from another point of view, derived from Pollack’s Christian and Physicist, in which he explored an argument that scientists and members of a church both are initiated over many years into the life of a community and its standards of behaviour and its central ideas, and none of these make sense except to the initiated, so must be experienced from the inside, and are understood far more deeply by insiders than by outsiders who are not part of the life of that community. The problem with this interesting idea is it glosses over the profound difference between what religious communities do, which is try to find ways to preserve ancient belief systems, and what scientific communities do, which is to welcome new discoveries and the discrediting of older ideas as new material shows their inadequacy, and the expectation that the next generation of scientists will have beliefs and a corpus of knowledge into which to initiate the young which will differ profoundly from that of their parents’ generation. This is entirely unlike what happens in religious communities, in which people are initiated into traditional beliefs, which may be re-examined but may not be overturned, abandoned and entirely replaced with a new set of ideas.


In his penultimate chapter, on Types of knowledge, he explains why he believes this knowledge from direct experience is important, using Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge as his source of ideas: Polanyi distinguishes articulate from inarticulate knowledge, of which Habgood gives as examples, the learning of language with all its nuances, learning of manual skill, and inter-personal knowledge. Then of course he tosses in the theologians’ claim that although their god is not fully knowable, they do their best to articulate the inarticulate knowledge of this god that is within all of us. This is a very big leap, from three situations in which describing fully in language what we know we all experience is very difficult, to something we do not all agree even exists – knowledge of the god within.


the mystery of our involvement with persons” – this is fairly typical of modern Christianity, the claim that it has all the insights about personal relationships, which is why John Howard wanted to appoint ministers of religion as school counselors. And the parallel claim that the churches are the real authority on moral issues as though non-theologians have no real understanding of these issues. This is an enormous step back from the medieval dogmatism about the interpretation of the natural world and its history, but it is still, I believe, claiming too much for organised religion. The evidence in our times is that the claim of the churches to moral authority is largely bogus as they are such a mix of institutional power-seeking, pedophilia and corruption, and on the other hand wonderfully good works in supporting all the major charities that do such fine work in supporting the weak and disenfranchised. They are a very mixed lot, just as the rest of us are, and have no special claim to moral authority or expertise.


Over the past century there has been a very large withdrawal from the Christian view of what constitutes morality.  The churches’ attitudes to Sabbath-breaking, attempted suicide, to birth control, abortion, euthanasia, slavery, the status of women, homosexuality, corporal punishment, capital punishment, the treatment of other species of animals, has been abandoned in our modern world as the relics of a harsh and wrong view of the world and of human relationships, not based on any real knowledge, but only on punitive attitudes, Eurocentric attitudes, male-dominant attitudes and the right to treat other species as though they feel no pain and anything they do feel is of no account. The churches have been no better guide to morality than their times allowed them to be, and moral values have improved immensely with the shift to a secular society and the rise to dominance of the humanist view of life. Currently we see the outdated backward-looking nostalgia for Bronze Age prejudices in the claims of churches to exemption from the Equal Opportunity laws which express our current value that all people should be treated as equals, while the churches, which drew their inspiration from a former age in which human equality was not valued at all, want to cling to male dominance, homophobia and other relics of Bronze-Age/medieval attitudes


Habgood has an interesting discussion of the verb “to exist” in the context of the boundary between objects (which we can observe directly) and concepts (things we can infer from other experiences but cannot experience directly), and the problem of scientists working at the sub-atomic level where nothing of what they study can be directly observed. Is science a description of Reality or only a description of what is going on in our own heads as we try to make sense of the world? “Maps and scientific theories both have limitations because they are attempts to describe an immensely complicated reality in inadequate terms. They are both human constructions, in the sense that they express, in terms agreed among t human beings, the answers to questions which human beings have framed. Good maps and good theories may be perfectly adequate for the purposes for which they were designed. But if too much is claimed for them, then distortions and over-simplifications begin to appear….In the study of life, for example, we saw how there can be an awareness of living things which makes a purely physico-chemical description of them seem very thin and artificial. When we use the words ‘reality’, ‘objects’, ‘what ultimately exists’, etc. we tend to give them many different levels of meaning. We start,…from the world of ordinary experience; and then we use the words to apply to other realms of experience, extending them by analogy, without always realizing what we are doing. There is an analogy between the existence of chairs and the existence of electrons, but the word ‘existence’ does not mean precisely the same in both contexts. The same point is worth remembering when talking about the existence of god; when some modern theologians make startling remarks like ‘god doesn’t exist’ they are drawing attention to the dangers of a naive use of the word ‘exist’, in much the same way that conceptualism has done for science.”


This is an opportunity for Habgood to bring in the usual duality, of studying objects as externalities, and of our knowing from the inside: “We do not derive our notion of existence only from the existence of material objects around us; we know about existence directly by virtue of the fact that we exist. And we know ourselves neither as objects nor concepts. So it is not surprising that when we try to push the whole of reality into one or the other category, we find ourselves confronted with some apparently insoluble dilemmas.” Habgood’s main concern is to show that the scientific approach can only solve certain kinds of problems, and a religious approach, which seems to be involved with this direct experience from the inside, is needed to explain what science is incapable of explaining. The main problem is that he does not demonstrate just what it is that this religious approach has managed to elucidate, apart from the issue of respect for persons, which he believes comes from a god-given valuation for persons – his god values persons therefore we feel we ought to as well. I believe this is nonsense, that our valuation of persons has nothing to do with gods, but is a product of our being social mammals who live in communities. But the embedded issue of different meanings for the word ‘exist’ I find obscure. If “a chair exists’ and ‘a god exists’ don’t use the word ‘exist’ in the same way, then I would like an explanation of what meaning of ‘exist’ is being used in the god statement.


He discusses the differences between nature gods and the Christian god: “Paganism went wrong because it tried to come to terms with the world of objects through personal involvement; and it found gods in every bush… The god of Israel was the god who had revealed himself to a particular people through historical events, and who made moral demands upon them. He was not an object. He could not be known apart from his actions in relation to men.” This whole idea of a god who, after 13.7 billion years managing a mind-bogglingly huge universe, and after several million years of overseeing the gradual emergence of Homo sapiens from pre-human species such as Australopithecines, Homo habilis and Homo erectus, some 150,000 years after the emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens, suddenly chooses Galilee, a minor province of the Roman empire, to “reveal himself” by becoming a man, when supposedly nothing remotely like it has ever happened before, and apparently it never happened to the Australian aborigines, the Eskimos, the Patagonians, the Tahitians – but amazingly happens in a country preoccupied with a Messianic cult – this needs to be examined as to how well it fits into a scientific account of the development of our universe and our planet. The misfit seems to me total. Postulating such an event as one that is a fact and not just the result of a strong wish-fulfilment by a Messianically obsessed society, is beyond belief. This Habgood does not investigate and does not comment on, and I think that is a serious weakness in his account of the relationship between science and religion – the probability of the humans, obsessed with a Messiah, coming to a correct interpretation of events in Palestine around 30 to 33 CE, and recording it with strict objective accuracy in an age when standards of objective accuracy and examination of evidence were much less developed than they have become in the last few centuries, is about zero. So all the admirable text about types of knowledge do not assist in dealing with this fundamental problem.


He finishes with a chapter on Dorothy Sayers and her views on dogma, specifically in her essay “The dogma IS the drama”. Sayers claimed that dogma was the most exciting thing in Christianity; it was not just a source of pressure for conformity of belief, and refusal to be deterred by mere facts from rigid views, which Habgood finds arid and deadening. “She was excited by Christianity because she believed that it was not a matter of human opinion, but was given by god; it was dogmatic because it rested on quite concrete assertions about what god had done; it could be proclaimed without arrogance for the very reason that it was dogmatic, because it had been received, not manufactured by human wisdom.” This appears just before the end of the book and unfortunately he did not go into the issue of how one can tell whether a revelation is genuine or mistaken or delusion, whether given the nature of the world that our science makes known to us, the whole idea of a god revealing some esoteric knowledge to humans through some visionary experience makes any sense whatever, what the boundaries might be between knowledge revealed and knowledge learned by human effort, or whether it has ever been found that any revelations were involved with evidence that can be studied scientifically. The whole business of revelation from a god is just dropped into the argument without any examination. As, in our times, people who claim direct revelations from a god are usually treated as insane, this is an important issue.


In this same final chapter he at some length draws an analogy between a man and a woman falling in love, discovering their fulfillment in a relationship with another person, and the discovery of a relationship with a god by a believer who is a member of a community of believers. This is a common enough analogy, but it seems a very dangerous one to me – claiming that the development of a mating relationship between a male and a female mammal, which have evolved to fulfill their biological function via pair-bonding, with its associated emotions and self-discovery, is in some way similar to finding some relationship (whatever he means by that) between a mammal on Earth and some incorporeal spirit being which created and sustains the entire mind-boggling universe, as some sort of mutually satisfying event in which both parties grow attached and committed to one another and to a relationship in which both will mature and flourish. It seems to me the analogy fails at the most basic level – postulating a relationship between a living body and some undetectable disembodied spirit and accepting that this spirit can respond, feel emotions, relate to a mammal, in some meaningful way – it all seems a bizarre concept. It is possibly why the ancients so often imagined their gods to have human form, as this helped them make some sort of sense in that a mutual attraction and a physical and emotional relationship might possibly develop. But this business of relating to a spirit-being in some incorporeal way suggests to me that it is just a wild fantasy and people who propose it really have no idea what they are saying. They just get into verbal tangles and make them look as though some exploration of meaning is going on when it isn’t.

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