Our contributor, Brendan, recently brought the scientist, Brian Cox, into the discussion. I asked him to hold hard for the time being because an interesting letter on the subject was published in the Catholic Herald last week. I have the permission of the writer to post it here, so that we can comment on it.
“Dear Catholic Herald,
I’m sure many readers are watching and even enjoying the BBC2 series The Human Universe (Tues 9pm). Its potential challenge to christian belief and evangelism though will not be lost on most.
Prof Brian Cox, the presenter, is potentially a much more dangerous influence than, say Richard Dawkins. In promoting his New Atheist agenda, Dawkins abandoned science and adopted ill-informed ridicule as his weapon of choice. As such Dawkins was rejected even by many mainstream atheists. Even Stephen Hawking did not manage to make a coherent case for atheism, constantly confusing, as he did, mechanism with agency.
Cox is much more dangerous, whether he intends it or not (but I’m inclined to think he does intend it) firstly because he is telegenic and affable – not a fault of Dawkins! Secondly, Cox is careful to make constant reference to current scientific thinking. Therein lies the danger. Each point he makes starts with a scientific fact or hypothesis that most of us wouldn’t argue with. Then he switches to part of his own worldview, which is not, by any means, an obvious conclusion from the preceding piece of science.
The prefix to episode 2 was “Professor Brian Cox explores our place in the universe. He tackles the question that unites the seven billion people sharing this planet – why are we here?” His exploration was not very exploratory (apart from the nice scenic backdrops). Our “God hypothesis” was dealt with in a single sentence which was, to paraphrase:- “The ancients believed that the universe was created by the gods – it wasn’t”. As with every previous attempt by a scientist to explore the question “Why are we here” he ended up exploring the question “By what process did we come to be here” which is entirely different. There’s that confusion of mechanism with agency again.
In the most recent episode (4 Nov) he makes the following statement (again to paraphrase):- “Mankind lives on an insignificant speck within a vast uncaring universe. His survival (ie salvation?) is in his own hands” and “It’s vital that we abandon superstition” which I presume he intends to mean religion.
Please let us not be fooled into believing that these are simply one person’s opinions which he is entitled to, and so it really doesn’t matter. It does matter. This is first class telly and it’s influencing millions. I’m not hearing the Christian counter-argument, but please God, let’s hear it soon. There are plenty well-qualified to provide it, so hopefully they are suiting up right now!
I’m not hearing the Christian counter-argument, but please God, let’s hear it soon. We have certainly discussed similar matters on this Blog from time to time, so we may hope to put forward some coherent ideas about the relationship between science and faith.
Do we think that programmes like this push the general public away from religious belief, satisfied by the charismatic Cox that faith explanations are superfluous? “”I had no need of that hypothesis.” answered the scientist, Laplace, to Napoleon, who had queried the absence of God in his book.
Alasdair Brooks distinguishes between mechanism and agency. Thus for example, the concept of evolution merely shows us one way through which the different species were developed, but tells us nothing about who is responsible for this process and the creation in which this happens. Why is this distinction ignored by Cox – who is nothing if not intelligent?
Do we see the situation as likely to become more extreme as science delves deeper in its understanding. For instance many scientists in the field will tell us, as a matter of fact, that free will does not exist.
I am an admirer of the British Humanist Association. Admirer? Yes, they are energetic and competent in putting their secularist views in front of the public. They have been influential in many campaigns. Why are we less successful, and what should we be doing about it?