The Royal Wedding, A Thoughtful Theologian and the Faith/Science Conundrum


On April 29, Prince William and Kate Middleton will exchange wedding vows with Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury presiding. More than two billion viewers are expected to witness the event with well wishes for this handsome couple, with Britain's future in mind. I wish them all the best, with opportunities and joy that they cannot even imagine today.

Archbishop Williams is a learned theologian but is not without controversy with his statements about the 9/11 attacks, Muslims and British law. My focus here, however, is to explore his thoughts about faith and science. I certainly do not agree with everything he has written or spoken on this topic, but I wanted to share some of his insights with ScienceBlogs readers, and let you decide on your own.

Is religious faith and science incompatible?

Archbishop of Canterbury Williams tackles this question in the thoughtful lecture below, suggesting that "we need a great deal of clarification of our terms in understanding the encounter between faith and science."

Consider this:

When I'm in mischievous mood I'm tempted to think that the extended Darwinism of current authors and creationist science deserve each other. Creationist science is a particular variety of questionable science pretending to defend theology. And I would be tempted to say that some current varieties of Darwinism are a questionable theology pretending to be science.

I have included excerpts below, prompted by my own questions:

What is science? is, after all, simply one of the things that human beings do. One of the things that human beings do: a set of practices which may exhibit values and morality but doesn't generate them: a set of practices which finds its weight and its meaning in relationship to many other human practices. It was said by a famous scholar of cultural history that, eros sexual love ceases to be a demon when you cease to regard it as a god. Something of the same nature, I shall suggest, might be said about science, that it ceases to be a demon when we cease to regard it as a god.

What is the relationship between the Church and science?

...most of the significant scientific advance in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries came from ordained clergy of one Church or another.

The third issue is perhaps the most tricky and corrosive here. It's the problem of self-refutation. If everything is a strategy for survival in the intellectual world, so is this thesis itself. And if any intellectual system may be regarded as a virus within the system of replication, so may any scientific account of the world. There are in fact no criteria for establishing a Darwinian view of the world as an ultimate or impregnable system which cannot be touched by the universal acid, as Dennett calls it, of this theory. What are the results of that for actual scientific practice and confidence in the scientific process? I quote here briefly from Conor Cunningham, a philosopher at Nottingham University who writes: if we do not resist the idea of Darwinism as a universal principle, biology literally eats itself as it becomes like a racing driver who, to avoid friction, chooses tyres that are so smooth they offer no resistance. In other words, a limitless extrapolation from genetics to a system for understanding all reality leaves scientific method itself stranded and without any grip on the real.

How does Archbishop Williams view Darwinism?

The truth is that both Darwinism and Christian theology are telling stories. They both work as narratives. Narratives assume drama, agency, and personality. But the paradox is that one of these stories knows what it's doing and confesses it is working in the categories of drama and agency and personality and the other apparently doesn't.

Scientific practice, what scientists do very often has about it an ethos, literally a morality, a set of assumptions about appropriate behaviour. How do you relate to the phenomena that confront you? With attention, with - and one can't avoid the word - humility. The scientific method has a very marked moral, even spiritual component, and that's one of the things which makes both popular scientism and anti- scientism inadequate. Within scientific practice there is a subtle balance of security and insecurity, discovery and fresh questioning which is in fact remarkably like the way in which human beings behave in their relationships with one another and the world at large. So, far from science being a small privileged area of absolute certainty in a wilderness of doubt and superstition, science in practice, gets to look surprisingly like human activity.

Can science reveal truths?

...religious faith can and ought to support and encourage science: science as a practice, with an impressive morality and spirituality, a commendation of attention and humility, the setting aside of self very frequently in the context of addressing the most painful vulnerabilities of the human world; a practice that trains selfless, even contemplative approaches to the world.
...there may also be a quarrel where science itself is in some sense corrupted, seduced into making exaggerated claims for its problem-solving possibilities.

So, is religious faith and science incompatible? In many ways, I believe that they are incompatible. I do agree with Archbishop Williams that "we need a great deal of clarification of our terms in understanding the encounter between faith and science."

The fierce dialogues I have seen between these two "sides" is all too often lacking a thoughtful analysis and seem to rely more on emotions and attempts to score points against each other and to tear down the other's position rather than building up their own. The public debate framed in this way has, frankly, become tiresome and uninspiring. Ultimately, science is constantly in pursuit of truth driven by data, free from dogmas, always open to revision.

What do you think?

To be fair, I have included his full speech here, followed some very interesting Q&A with his audience on this topic:

Holy Week: Faith and Science Questions & Answers Session

Monday 17 March 2008

Questions and Answers in response to a lecture given by The Archbishop of Canterbury in Westminster Abbey during Holy Week 2008 - the first in a series entitled 'A Question on Faith'
Archbishop Answering Questions at Westminster Abbey


I'm rather sorry that we don't have a couple of hours for this. I've picked out four clusters of questions and I will try to give the flavour of some of the different sorts of issues that have come up.


Here are some questions which are really about the ethics of science, and one very straight forward one is: In an overpopulated world, should so much effort be used in IVF procedures?


I think that focuses the very uncomfortable fact that it's not only an overpopulated world, it's a world; in which resources for scientific and specifically for medical research are finite. Having some sympathy with this question in a general way I would also want to say that one of the hardest decisions that faces many scientific communities is whether resources go on what you might call high profile and innovative work, or on the improvement and sophistication of routine work - the small incremental additions to the effectiveness of ordinary medicine. Most of the scientists, and particularly the medical scientists, I meet are quite acutely conscious of that dilemma and I think the answer, in so as there is an answer, is probably rather contextual - that is it depends a good deal where you are. In certain kinds of NHS Institutions you are almost bound to have a moral prejudice towards the improvement of routine service rather than groundbreaking research but I would be very, very reluctant to see a situation where people too readily took the high ground about the inadmissibility of innovation. So, I am as perplexed as anyone about this. I suspect that the relation between overpopulation and IVF is not as simple as it sounds in the question. Those societies where IVF is most common are not on the whole those suffering from overpopulation. That again is a reminder that science operates within a context of lots of different practices, economic and others.

Why should we assume that scientists should operate in a moral vacuum?

Well I don't, far from it. I'm simply saying that science in itself is not a morality generating thing. Many scientists are Christians and therefore will feel, and should, the duty to use their research wisely. Absolutely, and that's part of the embedded-ness of science within those other practices which do generate meaning and ethics.

What are the implications for society when we seem each to have our own definition of what it means to be human; particularly in regard to embryo research?

I think they are not very healthy implications. I wish we had some way of having a more focussed discussion about this, and the construction of a better framework.

Why not suggest a concrete system for a moral framework in which science can work? Are you afraid that you would end up with a vision of a church that is anarchic and post-Anglican?

I don't know why the words anarchic and post-Anglican should go together here - I am bound to say! I would like to see such a framework. I think that in pluralist modern democracy we are very unlikely to see it quickly and as I'll be arguing tomorrow night; the Church's role is persuasion, rather than imposition, in all of this. So it's a long task.

Has not much of scientific research or endeavour become infused with human greed, like the pharmaceutical industry?

Indeed it has. And that's an illustration, I think, of how research which in itself is value neutral, which produces goods which are morally substantive for the alleviation of suffering, can be caught up in those other practices of money making which corrupt what is being done.
Is a chemical or biological weapon evil in itself whether humanity chooses to use it or not?
The chemistry and biology are not evil. I would say the weapon is--whether we use it or not.

And the last in this cluster of ethical issues: In what way do family resemblances emerge in those who turn to religion to control, manipulate and dominate, and those who turn to science in a similar spirit?

Yes indeed, family resemblances do emerge and I think that just as there is scientism which approaches research in that spirit, sadly familiar in some of the 16th/17th century writers on this - a spirit of battering nature into submission - so there is a bad and corrupt kind of religion which does much the same thing. It assumes that nature is there to be wrestled to the ground and I think that both science and religious faith have had to do quite a lot of work in learning a more - well I think I would have to say - grateful or contemplative or appreciative understanding of our embedded-ness within the material world. The fact that we are part of it, not something else, that's a long story which takes us happily and constructively into some very important questions about the environment - religion, science and the environment - but I need I think to look at one or two other issues here. There are some about specific questions concerning theories.

All theories are overturned. Does that mean there is no certainty?

The history of science is not a history of absolute discontinuity. There are moments of, to use the familiar cliché, paradigm shift when the whole way in which scientific questions are conceived suddenly seems to move on. There are moments when practitioners of one kind of science find themselves overtaken by developments in theory and technique. There is a wonderful novel I read many years ago called 'Night thoughts of the Classical Physicist' which is about a classical physicist at the end of the 19th century suddenly seeing the beginning of quantum theory, and its all about the spiritual and mental desolation of someone who's life has been spent in one mode of research. And yet, looking back now on the history of that period and the whole history of physics, its not as if something is simply discarded as wrong. It becomes part of a cumulative and continuous interpretation.

You alluded to the problem science has with the origins of human awareness. Do you see this as a scientific problem or one intrinsically outside the scope of science?

No I don't think there are problems here that are outside the scope of scientific investigation. What I was I think trying to underline was that the most narrowly conceived forms of neo Darwinism that I mentioned really seemed very badly equipped indeed to deal with this; and, happily, lots of scientists take just the same line.

Should the Christian Church be doing more to counter the Big Bang theory advanced by science?

No - I don't think so. I'd say that the notion that the universe as we know it has a definable beginning - a primitive state if you like from which everything else comes - is by no means incompatible with Christian theology, very far from it! In the Middle Ages, St Thomas Aquinas said famously that in principle the doctrine of creation could cope with any number of histories of the universe. It didn't depend on this or that theory about how and when the universe began because the doctrine of creation simply said whatever is at any point, is because God is first - which takes me to a cluster of questions about God and the universe in a nice, simple subject matter for a short answer!

Is God bigger than the universe or is the universe bigger than God?' 'Is God limited by scientific laws?

If the universe exists because God exists, God isn't an object inside the universe. God isn't a thing amongst other things. So that this Abbey this evening doesn't contain a couple of hundred human persons and three divine ones. God doesn't fit inside the universe if what we say of God is that God's act or energy is the fundamental reality on which every other form of energy depends. I wouldn't say bigger than, because that takes into what are often rather unhelpful kind of metaphors. I used to sing with my Sunday school when I was a curate, 'My God is so big, so strong and so mighty and there is nothing my God cannot do', and that is okay when you are seven but I think you probably need to move on a little bit when you get older.

Is God bound by the laws of nature?

In a very obvious sense no. Richard Hooker, the great Anglican theologian of the seventeenth century, said that God's will was his nature and that the laws of his being were the laws of his freedom and I think that is helpful. God is what God is and nobody tells God what God can be. And the universe is there, Christians believe (and Jews and Muslims and many others too), because God is free and determined that there should be what was not God - that is the universe. And it is that conviction about the freedom of God, that God isn't inside the system, that brings me to:

Do you believe in miracles and if so, in what sense?

If in any situation in the universe there is always present the underlying action of God, then precisely in any one setting that action shows through, and what happens in the world is not going to be utterly and finally predictable - whatever we say about regularities. And so I am prepared to believe, I do believe, that there are circumstances where the act of God - the energy of God - is more perceptible/tangible (however you want to put it) than in others. So yes, I believe in miracles; not in the sense that God suddenly decides to step in and fiddle with the works. But the universe is such that in some circumstances, where Jesus is present in the New Testament, where prayer works in a certain way, it becomes possible for God's action to come through that much more directly. While I haven't got a theory of how that works, I do have a conviction that if God is what we believe God is, then that's a necessary consequence. And that does bear a little bit on attitudes to the Bible and the Creed.

This evening we've recited the Apostles Creed, how much of this creed in its existing form should a scientist be able to say with conviction?

Short answer to that - the lot! I don't see anything in the Creed to which the scientist as a scientist is bound to return a negative verdict. The Creed certainly does make some claims about miracles, specifically about the virgin birth and the resurrection, and if what I have been saying about miracles is correct then that's not something which the scientist can simply settle on general principle. Of course everyone knows, as everyone knew in the 1st century, that Virgins do not normally give birth and that bodies do not normally rise from tombs. Whatever people say about cultural and historical relativism, the people of the first century did observe what was going on in the world around them. Regularity is real and map able/chartable but as I said, if we live within the context of an infinite divine action then I can't rule that out. So I don't think the scientist as a scientist can simply say, 'Inadmissible'.

Which is why this question has a similar answer - Do scientific discoveries that contradict a literal interpretation of the Bible indicate that the Bible is to be interpreted differently in different time periods?' 'How do you approach scientists who point out contradictions in the Bible?

Oddly enough, I would say that the biggest problem for the Bible reader here is not with the scientist as with the literary critic. The literary critic may say, 'This bit of the Bible is this kind of story; its not a newspaper report, its not a scientific report, it's a tradition, it's a saga', or something like that. Or, 'It's a very potent metaphor which because we have lost some skills of reading the text we've forgotten how to read properly and think its literal.' And the absolute biblical literalist I think has more to fear or tangle with the literary critic than the scientist. The person who says, 'You do need to read the biblical text with an eye to what it is meant to say'. Let me just give you an example which might help. If I come in and you ask, 'What is the weather like outside?' and I say, 'It is raining cats and dogs'. And you go outside and are somewhat disappointed to find the sky empty of falling felines, are you going to tell me I am a liar? Probably not! You know how to read these things and it is one of the ways which we express absolutely clearly the material truth. Metaphor frequently works like that. And so it may be that lets take an example that worried some people in the seventeenth century quite a lot; when Joshua called the sun to stand still over the Valley of Ayalon so that he can defeat the Amalachites, are we to say that there is an unprecedented rearrangement of the mechanics of the solar system on that day, or are we to say that this is the equivalent of raining cats and dogs, the day seemed a lot longer - battles often do! Who knows...but that's an illustration of how we might have lost some of the skills to read properly. Back to the general question, I don't feel that it's the scientist who is the person we tussle with there. Its this whole business of reading texts as they are meant to be read. And I would, just for the record, say I think there is quite a difference between an ancient report of the battle of Ayalon in those highly emotive and pictorial terms and the reporting of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus within a couple of decades of the events in question in a literary form which is not that of an epic, or a saga, or metaphor. Some interesting questions here around determinism.

You have attacked neo-Darwinism partly for its determinism. Some much better scientists' science currently looks deterministic, such as the chaos theory. If such theories were true whence Christianity, does Christianity have a place to urge scientists to question apparently deterministic science, even when like neo Darwinism it looks good?

I think it probably does, partly because the point I touched on very briefly earlier was a sense that the causal context, or nexus of events, is a great deal more complex than just the one cause, the one effect, and chaos theory in its way rather contributes to that. There is an unpredictability about the relation of cause and event in many contexts. So I think we do have some work to do, not perhaps primarily as theologians, but as philosophers as well, to argue about some thoughts of determinism.

A very searching question about methods for verifying what is real and what is truth. Does religion have a methodology for finding answers or establishing what is real or truth?' 'If you agree that religion has a methodology would you mind sharing your own personal experience of how you find answers or truth?

There is I suppose no such thing as religion in general. People are educated and nourished in traditions of understanding and they, if you like, they receive these as proposed, and test them for truth. They may test them for truth at a number of levels. They may test the truth of historical assertions. I'll be back to that on Wednesday. They may test their adequacy to the human condition in its complexity. You may for example find that you don't want to stick with some kinds of religious belief because frankly they don't correspond with the kind of humanity you sense your humanity to be, and other peoples' humanity to be. People do, don't they, grow out of certain kinds of religion because they feel it is not talking about them; the kind of humanity they understand. So that testing for truth is never simply an objective - here's the language, there's the reality. It's that lengthy process by which, I suppose, we establish the truth or adequacy of certain things about our personal commitments, our loyalties, our love, our imagination; much more at that level than the simply scientific. I am running a little bit short of time alas, here's one point which perhaps is worth noting:

Your characterisation is just another story. A story implies something fictional whereas Darwinian evolutionary theory is based on an empirical observation, in what way can that be termed merely a story, or are you making a distinction between this a neo Darwinism?
Yes, I am. Darwin's theory is a theory; a very plausible, a very credible and resourceful way of making sense of the history of organisms.

Another questioner noted that it was a theory, not accepted universally in its classical form.
Absolutely, but it has lasted well. It has got a lot of resource in it. By all means test it in the ordinary scientific way. My objection was to what I call the neo Darwinist approach which made of Darwinism not simply a theory but a metaphysic. A complete, universally explanatory system which looked after every aspect of human life and I think that's trespassing over the boundaries of what science actually does.

I'm sorry to cut short but here are a few to round off. They are not entirely of light relief but they may be less earnest. You said the interesting debate between science and faith had moved on from genetic evolution to memetics. What was the outcome of the first debate?
Good question but I think because Christian theology has no position on genetics I would say that the result of that first debate was, if you like, a suspension of hostilities so that people can go back and redefine their terms and they found they were getting across to each other. Memetics is slightly different in that it is, I think, something which I said a moment ago trespasses on the territory which doesn't readily fall within the scientific gambit, because it can't define its terms and objects clearly enough.

Would it not be an alternative explanation to attribute Darwin's burial, and acceptance of sermons, to fogginess of thought among the theologians?

Well you never know, but I wouldn't too readily accuse some of those who preached memorial sermons for Darwin of fogginess of thought. I think they were genuinely wrestling with something slightly outside their traditional theological formation. The manifest fact is that a person of real conscience and intensely moral life had spent that life in the scientific labour of a kind which actually Christianity had always approved of - the selfless, scholarly labour - something which was thought to be a good thing. And he had come up with conclusions that were, you know, at least slightly challenging for some Christians and yet he himself had consistently refused - and it is a very marked feature of his biography - consistently refused to make his theory a kind of platform for anti-clerical polemic. He stood back from Huxley's belligerence on that subject and much regretted the way of some of what he said was thus used. And I think if I had been say Canon Liddon at St Paul's at that time, Liddon being a very traditional High Church man; I would have felt obliged to take a bit of a deep breath and say, 'I don't quite know what God was doing in the life of Charles Darwin but I am certainly not going to say it was nothing, and therefore we give him the benefit of the doubt'. I don't think that foggy, I think that is properly charitable which brings me finally to the irresistible question:

Is Richard Dawkins just a liberal Anglican in deep denial?

I look forward to asking him I think is the best way of answering that!

© Rowan Williams 2008


More like this

The truth is that both Darwinism and Christian theology are telling stories. They both work as narratives. Narratives assume drama, agency, and personality.

This is, quite simply, hogwash. Darwinian explanations of evolution need not assume any of these things. Perhaps the good doctor has mistaken the metaphors for the substance.

By Hercules Grytp… (not verified) on 13 Apr 2011 #permalink

I presume Rowan Atkinson wasn't available?

The Archbishop ranks as a true V.I.P.: Verbose, Ignorant, Pompous.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 13 Apr 2011 #permalink

Such criticism is destructive and smug - in part, what I was addressing in my post. Can you provide us with a constructive argument? I look forward to it.

The problem, Jeff, is that you're asking for Templeton style accomodationism. The good Archbishop presents a straw man argument of "Darwinism" (scare quotes intended) confalting it with creationism. It's utter bunk. Show me empirical data where science and faith merge (hint: it doesn't) and cut the non-overlapping magisteria crap. How ever much I admired Gould, this attempt at reconciling myth with empiricism got very tedious. I suggest you apply at the Templeton Foundation with Mooney. You want smug? Look in the mirror.

Sorry, I have to agree with the other posters. All I see there is "blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah science is just another belief system like religion, but the only examples I have are from a novel I read."

If he wants to elevate the discussion, he's going to have to stop mouthing vague eely platitudes couched in nearly impenetrable prose and start making some actual points. I mean, come on...

...most of the significant scientific advance in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries came from ordained clergy of one Church or another.

Seriously? That ranks about one semitone higher than Pascal's Wager on the scale of vapid arguments in favor of religion.

For the sake of argument, let's allow that Elohim/Yahweh/Adoni exists. So how does a Jew from Nazareth levitate/walk on water/raise the dead/spontaneously produce food/rise heavenward/etc. without leaving little more than a tiny localized splash of notoriety and no archaeological evidence? How can any scripture - the basis for Christianity, be taken seriously when logic and reason tell us this was not a man with actual supernatural powers and his death was a symbolic blood sacrifice but ultimately pointless? He can raise the dead but can't heal himself? He can and walk on fire but can Really?

I say it's spinach... and I say to hell with it.

(Oops it got sent during an edit. Erase He can and walk on fire but can Really?)
His powers are inconsistent. His philosophies are borrowed and his death was pure symbolic. All claims of supernatural miracles are bunk unless anyone can supply empirical data beyond gospel accounts.

I give up. I'm incapable of editing tonight.

Jeff @ # 4: Can you provide us with a constructive argument?

How can anyone provide a constructive argument against hot air?

If the man would ever use a concrete noun, rather than spewing abstractions interspersed with irony-meter-overloading bitches about undefined terms, maybe meaningful critiques and dialog could follow. "Darwinist" is about a close as he comes - and there, as Hercules Grytpype-Thynne observed in # 1, he's about as factual as Senator Kyl.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 13 Apr 2011 #permalink

Though the Archbishop was not discussing (so far as I can tell) trinitarianism, the following well-known quote is otherwise utterly apropos:

"Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus."

â Thomas Jefferson

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 13 Apr 2011 #permalink

"The truth is that both Darwinism and Christian theology are telling stories. They both work as narratives. Narratives assume drama, agency, and personality."

This is factually true but very misleading. They both tell stories, and both work as narratives - and people use them both in that way - but 'Evolution' is also a scientific theory. The scientific theory part is valuable and not comparable to Christian theology in that way.

Potentially he has already addressed this criticism by using "Darwinism" only to refer to the narratives people put on top of the theory of evolution and not the theory itself. If so this is logically valid, but a grave mistake - unless clearly defined as such it is misleading, and worse - 'Darwinism' is most often used by creationist types in a different way. So it is a poor choice of term.

"if we do not resist the idea of Darwinism as a universal principle, biology literally eats itself as it becomes like a racing driver who, to avoid friction, chooses tyres that are so smooth they offer no resistance. In other words, a limitless extrapolation from genetics to a system for understanding all reality leaves scientific method itself stranded and without any grip on the real."

This makes little sense. He's still using the tendentious term Darwinism, and he's suggesting that people are using it as a universal principle and extrapolating from genetics to a system for understanding all reality.
Who exactly is doing that? How exactly? - He doesn't explain, probably because no-one is.

You say: "The fierce dialogues I have seen between these two "sides" is all too often lacking a thoughtful analysis and seem to rely more on emotions and attempts to score points against each other and to tear down the other's position rather than building up their own. The public debate framed in this way has, frankly, become tiresome and uninspiring. Ultimately, science is constantly in pursuit of truth driven by data, free from dogmas, always open to revision".

This is very true. Except "[science is] free from dogmas". Science practiced correctly by perfectly logical beings is free from dogmas. The aim is to be free from dogmas, we are not there yet.

Overall I'm not that impressed with the quotes you have provided, though I agree "we need a great deal of clarification of our terms in understanding the encounter between faith and science." - but I think he needs this more than some.

All this wangling about science and religion I think at this point is just a bizarre capitulation to the current societal trend with perhaps an unspoken undercurrent of 'please keep funding me' or even the more basic 'I don't want to be a social pariah'. Because people who upset the religious are, it has to be said, often treated as pariahs, at least by the dumber religious folk, and the religious make up the majority.

Combine this with the general lack of empirical support from arguments from the religion side. They have not yet provided proof for any of their claims (let us not forget the burden of proof rests on the person making the positive claim).

The religion/science debate is a farce and, I think, is entirely antithetical to the demand for logic and evidence that science rightfully makes of those in science.

By Katharine (not verified) on 14 Apr 2011 #permalink

"Prince William and Kate Middleton will exchange wedding vows with Dr. Rowan Williams"

I rather suspect they will exchange vows with each other, with the Archbishop solemnizing the ceremony, but I could be wrong...!

Toney, if you need it spelled out to you why the Archbishop's wrong, then can I suggest you change your banner tagline from "Translating the endless wonderment of science" to "Clearly incapable of recognising patent idiocy when he sees it"?

By Ewan Macdonald (not verified) on 17 Apr 2011 #permalink