Religion, science and Brian Cox: How to have a conversation

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Prof Brian Cox is a physicist and TV presenter who has a huge following because of his ability to make complicated science – well, not exactly simple, but at least less complicated. Watch one of his programmes and you come away thinking the mysteries of the universe aren't quite as mysterious as they were.

He's also an atheist, but not an angry atheist like Richard Dawkins. In fact, he's taking part this week in a clergy conference in the Diocese of Leeds with Prof David Wilkinson; they're both presenting papers on "science, the cosmos and human meaning".

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph about his new TV series, Human Universe – which starts on BBC 2 tonight – Cox talks about some pretty ultimate questions. "There may have been more than one Big Bang and probably, in these theories, there are an infinite number of universes being created all the time. So what does that mean? What does it mean that our existence is inevitable, that the universe may have been around forever?"

And he calls for a wider debate. "These things have not been discussed widely; they need novelists and artists and philosophers and theologians and physicists to discuss them."

Theologians? Yes. He has no religion himself ("I honestly don't think about religion until someone asks me about it") but he doesn't dismiss it out of hand. "Philosophers would rightly point out that physicists making bland and sweeping statements is naive. There is naivety in just saying there's no God; it's b------s," he says. "People have thought about this. People like Leibniz and Kant. They're not idiots. So you've got to at least address that."

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What's welcome about Cox's approach is that he seems to understand – as Dawkins and other prominent atheist scientists don't – the limitations of science as well as its vast and wonderful explanatory power. And the limitations of science are paralleled by the limitations of religion: you can't use religion to account for the way the physical world works, as a sort of filler for the things you don't understand. You certainly shouldn't use it to provide alternative explanations for things that science can account for very well indeed, like fossils and the age of the earth. This is a view of science and religion that sees them as, following the scientist Stephen Jay Gould, Non-Overlapping Magisteria or NOMA: science and religion each do their things, and they get along just fine as long as neither encroaches on the other's territory.

But where does that leave the believer who wants to say that the universe belongs to God, that he is the ground of all being and the source of all life, and that the heavens tell out his glory?

Or to put it another way: how should a believer talk to someone who is fascinated by science, entranced by the wonders it reveals, awed by the natural world, but either dismissive of or indifferent to the idea that there's a God behind it all? And it's clear, just from the popularity of programmes like those Brian Cox makes, that there are very large numbers of people just like that. This world is quite enough; they don't see any reason to look for anything more.
So here are some suggestions.

1. Don't claim more than you ought

Science just does what it does. You can't disprove it by referring to the Bible, and you shouldn't try. Its aim is to provide a coherent account of how the universe works, from the spaces between atoms to the spaces between galaxies. God gave us minds capable of working out how things work, and that's a wonderful gift and privilege.

2. Rejoice in discovery

The wonders of the natural world aren't threatening to faith, they expand it. The more we know about the universe, the more our understanding of the greatness of God expands as well. It's like a child who loves her father because he's her father. As she grows up, she discovers he also has a career, that he's creative, influential, a friend, a husband, and her understanding and respect for him grows. The more we learn about the world, the more we honour God.

3. Look for connections

In his book Something More (SPCK), the former Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, writes of the sense of incompleteness and unanswered questions generated by, among other things, an ever-greater knowledge of the natural world. He says that a "reductionist, materialist view of our place in the universe leaves many human capacities without adequate explanation – above all, self-awareness and our capacity for love, creativity, wonder, evil, moral behaviour and transcendence".

None of the big questions require the existence of God to answer them, he says. "As ever, there's no compulsion. Nor would it serve God well if there were knock-down proofs of God's being, because that would remove our most fundamental freedom not to believe. But the questions that have teased serious thinkers for centuries might at least give us pause."

Identifying the big questions that science can't answer, and humbly suggesting that they are worth answering, is a way in to dialogue with people who might not have thought about them before.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods

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