Thursday, November 20, 2008

Richard Harries - Atheists' favorite Christian

Thought for the Day, Radio 4, 15 March 2002
Good morning. In 1860 there was a famous meeting in Oxford on the subject of evolution at which a predecessor of mine as Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley, the scientist, took opposing points of view. Wilberforce was a well-informed amateur scientist and did not think that the case for evolution had at that point been made out, so he opposed the idea.

However, it soon became clear to most thinking people that the earth was not, as it were, simply plonked down ready-made, but that it had evolved gradually over a very long period of time. Indeed historians of science note how quickly the late Victorian Christian public accepted evolution. It is therefore quite extraordinary that 140 years' later, after so much evidence has accumulated, that a school in Gateshead is opposing evolutionary theory on alleged biblical grounds. Do some people really think that the worldwide scientific community is engaged in a massive conspiracy to hoodwink the rest of us? I find what this school is doing sad for a number of reasons.

First, the theory of evolution, far from undermining faith, deepens it. This was quickly seen by Frederick Temple, later Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that God doesn't just make the world, he does something even more wonderful, he makes the world make itself. God has given creation a real independence and the miraculous fact is that working in relation to this independent life God has, as it were, woven creation from the bottom upwards: with matter giving rise to life and life giving rise to conscious reflective existence in the likes of you and me. The fact that the universe probably began about 12 billion years ago with life beginning to evolve about 3 billion years ago simply underlines the extraordinary detailed, persistent, patience of the divine creator spirit.

The second reason I feel sad about this attempt to see the Book of Genesis as a rival to scientific truth is that stops people taking the bible seriously. The bible is a collection of books made up of very different kinds of literature, poetry, history, ethics, law, myth, theology, wise sayings and so on. Through this variety of different kinds of writing God's loving purpose can come through to us. The bible brings us precious, essential truths about who we are and what we might become. But biblical literalism hinders people from seeing and responding to these truths.

Then there is science. Science is a God-given activity. Scientists are using their God-given minds and God-given creativity to explore and utilise God-given nature. Sadly, biblical literalism brings not only the bible but Christianity itself into disrepute.
The Rt Revd Richard Harries (Copyright 2002, BBC)

Harries (or Temple) says:-

God doesn't just make the world, he does something even more wonderful, he makes the world make itself.
The above view (and Christianity with it) collapses in the face of David Hume’s famous argument (“Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion”, 1779) published eighty years before Darwin’s “The Origin of Species”:-

How, therefore, shall we satisfy ourselves concerning the cause of that Being whom you suppose the Author of Nature, or, according to your system of Anthropomorphism, the ideal world, into which you trace the material? Have we not the same reason to trace that ideal world into another ideal world, or new intelligent principle? But if we stop, and go no further; why go so far? Why not stop at the material world? How can we satisfy ourselves without going on in infinitum? And, after all, what satisfaction is there in that infinite progression? …... If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other; and so on, without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world.

Hume’s point, without knowledge of Evolution, was that, if, to explain the complexity of life, we postulate a Creator, he must be no less complex than life. Therefore, to explain the complexity of that Creator, we must postulate a Creator of the Creator. Then, we must postulate a Creator of the Creator of the Creator and so on, ad infinitum. If, on the other hand, we accept the existence of the Creator as a brute fact without the need for further explanation, then we might as well accept the complexity of life as a brute fact without the need to postulate a Creator at all.

In light of Evolution, Hume’s argument can be applied in a new way. Harries’ statement: “he makes the world make itself” becomes the infinite progression: “he makes something that makes something … that makes something … that makes something that makes the world make itself”.

Evolution, unknown to Hume, provides the satisfaction, in that infinite progression, that he had no means to enjoy; it also allows us to stop at the material world, for every step in the progression, except the first, can be within it. Evolution explains how each step in the progression is more complex than its predecessor. Therefore, the “he”, in the first step, is precisely nothing!

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